5 Tips for the Right Way to Read a Recipe: Or How Not to Start an Overnight Recipe 30 Minutes Before the Party

published Mar 19, 2014
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(Image credit: Gina Eykemans)

I’ve been known to play things a little fast and loose in the kitchen. There is very rarely a measuring cup by my side when I’m cooking for pleasure. A dash of this, a pinch of that, a glug of wine for the sauce (and a glug for the chef); these are all acceptable measurements in my cooking language. This method totally works when you’re freestyling dinner, but it doesn’t always work out when you’re trying to bake a batch of cupcakes.

I am now a reformed recipe hater turned recipe developer, but it’s taken me a long time to get here. Along the way, I’ve stumbled onto a few tricks for reading recipes that makes for better, less frustrating cooking and baking.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always disliked being told what to do. So when I’m presented with a set of written instructions it feels like confrontation. This piece of paper is totally trying to tell me what to do and I don’t like it. I cannot tell you the number of things I’ve tried to assemble or create just by looking at a picture, a method which does not bode well for putting together IKEA furniture or trying to make a birthday cake.

Once I started creating my own recipes, I began to respect the process more and more. A lot of work and testing goes into making something just right. Someone has already done the legwork for you and baked ten batches of cookies in order to deliver you the winning recipe! Awesome, right? So, let’s stop skimming, and start really reading. We’re going to make friends with our recipes!

Here are a few of my recipe reading tips.

My 5 Recipe Reading Tips For Success

  1. Read the WHOLE recipe twice. This might seem like overkill to some, but I assure you it’s the safest way to go. You might pick up on things you didn’t see the first time. It’s like that saying from construction: “Measure twice, cut once.” Except in this case we’re most likely measuring a whole bunch of butter and cutting it into a whole mess of flour. No hardhats required. Still, it’s a good rule.
  2. Make a checklist of all your ingredients. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve started a recipe and then had to run to the store halfway through. Make a checklist, go into your pantry and your fridge to double check you have everything and cross off items as you have them. This step is very satisfying to me — I really like crossing things off lists. This also prevents that weird batch of chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips in them.
  3. Note the time the recipe is going to take. Do you have time to make what you want to make? More often than not, your recipe is going to be straight with you and tell you exactly how long you’re going to need to complete it.This might be broken into “prep time,” “cooking time” and “inactive time.” As someone who once tried to make an icebox cake with 16 hours of “inactive time” for a party I was supposed to attend in 30 minutes, I can’t stress this point enough.
  4. Respect the order of things. It might seem obnoxious that you have to separate your wet and your dry ingredients before mixing everything together. Ugh…I have to whip those egg whites before folding them in? It can all seem like a bunch of pomp and circumstance. However, I assure you that the person who created this recipe has created these steps to aid in your success. Follow along for the best results.
  5. Get familiar before getting fancy. You might be a substitution queen like me, and love to sub in things like coconut oil for butter or applesauce for oil. I always suggest making the recipe as it is written first to get familiar with it. Once you see how it cooks up, you will have a better idea of what you can swap out. Also, I always like to point out that substitutions are risky, so sub in at your own risk. Only go off book when you have the time for the recipe to potentially flop.

Do you have any other tips for recipe-reading success?