How to Read a Recipe
In the past few weeks we have talked about cooking without a recipe, making vegetable soup and developing your palate. Think of all this as basic training for cooking. When learning how to cook on your own, the first step is often adapting a favourite recipe or looking at different kinds for inspiration.
But do you know how to read a recipe and judge whether it is written well? Recipe blogs are a dime a dozen and many are poorly written. Say you stumble on one for pork chops, follow the instructions perfectly, and the food tastes bland or doesn’t turn out how it should. Today we are talking about the necessary components of a recipe, common problems with hard to follow recipes, and how to judge whether a recipe explains the ingredients and directions clearly. I’m giving you some examples of trusted recipe sites I turn to whenever I need inspiration or am trying a new dish for the first time.
Read the recipe components
Well written recipes are simple to understand and have two major components which you will be familiar with: ingredients and directions. The ingredients should be listed in the order they are used, as well as have explicit instructions next to them when needed. The ingredient amount comes before the ingredient and the method of preparation immediately follows. The recipe should be organized enough to follow it without reading the directions. Salt is typically listed at the end, although salt should be added when starting the recipe. For example, if you are making a vegetable soup, the recipe should be written like so:
Good Potato Soup Recipe
2 tbsp butter
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 white potatoes, chopped
4 cups vegetable broth
1 tbsp lemon juice
The directions should be spelled out and numbered in the order they are needed. The ingredients should be listed again, but with preparation instructions and how to tell when to move onto the next step.
Step 1: Melt 2 tbsp butter in a pot on medium heat.
Step 2: Add diced onion and cook until translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add salt. Add minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add chopped potatoes, vegetable broth, and lemon juice. Turn heat to medium high.
Step 3: Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes on low. Soup is done when the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork. Blend with an immersion stick or blender until smooth.
Within the directions, tips should be given for how to tell the meal is done. In the soup example, you will see tips like “cook until translucent” and “potatoes can be pierced with a fork”. Cooking times vary depending on the temperature of heating elements, whether you are using electric or gas, and whether your elements or oven run hot or cold. By giving tips for how to tell when the food is done, the writer is ensuring a better experience for the reader.
Identify common problems
Poorly written recipes will not list the ingredients in the order they are used, not show how to prepare the ingredients immediately after listing them, and give no sensory indication besides time of when the elements in a dish are ready. You can’t properly season a meal if you are leaving the seasoning until the last step. Salt needs time to meld with the ingredients. Let’s take the same potato soup recipe and make it a poorly written one.
Bad Potato Soup Recipe
4 cups Vegetable Stock
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 tbsp lemon juice
Step 1: Melt butter in a pot. Add diced onion and cook for 4 minutes.
Step 2: Add minced garlic cloves, chopped potatoes, lemon juice and vegetable stock.
Step 3: Add salt.
Step 4: Simmer for 30 minutes and serve.
Because this is an extreme case of a poorly written recipe, you will no doubt have been confused. The ingredients list doesn’t explain how to prepare them, so you jump down to the directions and then learn how and when to add the other ingredients. But how high should you have the heat? What if you get distracted while the onions are cooking and have no idea whether 4 minutes have passed? How can you tell whether they are done if the recipe doesn’t give you proper instructions? If the soup doesn’t come to a boil first, it will take much longer to reach a simmer if you are guessing the temperature should be on medium, which affects how quickly the potatoes cook. Without these sensory indicators, you won’t be able to accurately judge whether your food is done.
Evaluate the recipe
Before committing to cooking a recipe, scan for the problems listed above. If the ingredients don’t match the order in the directions, following along may not be worth your time. If the steps are unclear and don’t give instructions for how the food should look, taste, and feel, it isn’t a good recipe. Read the comments and see whether others have had problems with it. If multiple readers say it didn’t turn out like it was supposed to, even though they followed the instructions exactly, then that is an indicator it may not be a well written recipe.
If you are trying to transition to cooking without a recipe, learning how to read and evaluate them will help you understand techniques and processes for when you are trying it out on your own. When you are looking for inspiration or guidance, make sure you are using well written recipes. I hope these tips have helped you learn how to read a recipe, identify problems within it, and given you the confidence to choose the right ones to follow.
My favourite, trusted recipe sites
Serious Eats is a website full of rich recipes, how-tos, and scientific background behind why specific ingredients in recipes work. With Damn Delicious and The Kitchn, you will have clear recipes and directions that are focused on getting dinner on the table quickly. Epicurious delivers succinct recipes that take a bit longer to prepare, but it is good for when you want a nuanced, deeply developed meal that hits all the tastebuds.
What are some of your favourite recipe sites? Have you used one of the sites I recommended? Let me know in the comments below or message me on Instagram @finnyfromscratch. Want to save this article to come back to? Pin it for later.