How to Be a Cook Who Reads Recipes Like a Professional Chef
Have you ever tried a new recipe for a food you loved, and it came out completely different than you were expecting? Have you ever eaten something transcendent at a restaurant and wished you could have the recipe — if there even was one? Perhaps you looked at two recipes for the exact same dish, and were startled to find how much they varied. What’s going on? What role does the recipe play in cooking, and why are they sometimes so easy, and other times so mysterious?
When chefs and professional cooks read recipes, they look at them much differently than most home cooks do. And they use them differently too. Today, the insider secrets of how pros use recipes, and how understanding them can make you a radically better cook who feels more in control of your food in every way.
Wait. A Whole Lesson on Reading Recipes?
- Today’s Lesson: Reading recipes
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It may seem strange after three weeks of lessons on cooking techniques to suddenly start talking about recipes. Perhaps you think professional chefs don’t really even use recipes. After all, on cooking shows, people concoct incredible-looking meals from scratch without once cracking a book, and plenty of people will brag about going off-recipe on this dish, or that. But the truth is that chefs and cooks use recipes all the time, especially when making something new. They just don’t use them the way most home cooks do, by starting at the top and simply following instructions until the dish is finished. Or, at least that’s not the only thing they do. We think this is important enough to devote an entire Cooking School lesson to — to look at the way professional cooks read recipes, and the steps they take when cooking a new dish.
What Smart Cooks Do Before Ever Breaking Out a Pan
Before you make a new dish, it pays to get to know the recipe that will be teaching you. Not all recipes are written the same way, and they’re also not always perfect — even Kitchn recipes, although we do our best. So to start, assess how trustworthy a recipe is. If it (or others in the book or on the site where it lives) has a lot of unclear directions, missing ingredients, or unnecessary steps, that’s a sign that it might not turn out well, and it may be worth looking for a better source. But even trustworthy recipes can differ markedly in the information they focus on.
They Read Carefully
As we discussed a couple of days ago, when encountering a new recipe, start by reading it through a couple times. When our News & Culture editor, Ariel Knutson, attended cooking school, her instructors required students to write out new recipes in their own words, to better understand them. That’s because going carefully through a recipe can give you the opportunity to do the following things:
- Highlight ingredients that need advanced work, such as sitting in a marinade or getting thawed, chilled, or softened.
- Double check that every ingredient is used — and that the amounts match up (if a recipe calls for a pound of sliced mushrooms, does it use a pound of sliced mushrooms? Know before you slice them up.).
- Note what prep needs to happen at the beginning, and what might be saved for later while something is cooking (those times that, yesterday, we called “meanwhiles”).
- Look up unfamiliar or rare ingredients, and figure out where you can get them, or find a good substitute if they’re too difficult/expensive to easily get.
They Look for Doneness Indicators
A good recipe tells you not just how long to cook something, but also offers some doneness indicators — ways to assess by sight, smell, sound, texture, or temperature whether something is cooked correctly. (As an example, here are five classic doneness indicators for cake.) Cooking times are never more than estimates, so you should pay special attention to these, and use them. Times can vary depending on everything from the season to the humidity in the air, to the heat your particular stove puts out, to even things like elevation. Looking for the indicators, and trusting your own sense of smell, sight, and taste, will help give you much better results.
They Work Backwards
When cooks need to figure out if they have time to make a recipe, they start by deciding when it needs to be served, and then work backwards to calculate when they will need to start. If a recipe for a lasagna or other casserole calls for it to rest for 15 minutes, bake for a total of 40 minutes, and they estimate needing 30 to 40 minutes to boil the noodles, brown the meat, and prep the other ingredients, then they can plan to start cooking about an hour-and-a-half before the dish will be ready to serve. When cooking multiple dishes for an elaborate meal (like Thanksgiving), they may write out a full minute-by-minute agenda, including exactly when things need to be prepped, cooked, and even washed — to make sure there’s time.
They (Sometimes) Change the Ingredient Order
As we discussed in our lesson on efficiency, it’s much more convenient to prep ingredients in order from least to most messy. In a very good recipe the ingredients are listed this way (chopped herbs may be at the end because they impart their scent on a cutting board; oil that needs to be measured in a tablespoon may be listed before a sticky substance, like molasses, as the oil is easier to clean out). If this isn’t the case, you can always make notes and re-order the ingredients.
And They Make Adjustments — But Not at First
Just as most pro chefs will read the recipe all the way through at least once before cooking from it, most will also cook all the way through a recipe at least once before making substitutions. You don’t always know what an ingredient is doing in a recipe. If you make several substitutions and something goes wrong, it becomes much harder to tell what happened or why. You should make adjustments, and we’ll talk more about that below, but at first it pays to follow as closely as possible.
4 Things a Recipe Might Not Say
Here are a few things pros tend to know or do, that might not be evident.
- Unless a specific size is called for, “eggs” in a recipe are large (as opposed to medium, or extra-large).
- In the same vein, “brown sugar” is light brown sugar, “flour” is all-purpose flour, and “sugar” is granulated.
- Recipes sometimes call for specific equipment — but not always. If you need a stand mixer, blender, food processor, or something else, make a note, and make sure you have one (and it’s clean) before starting.
- When a recipe lists ingredients by both weight (3 ounces) and volume (1/3 cup), measure your ingredients by weight if possible. It’s more accurate.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
If you can only take one thing away from today’s lesson, let it be this: Times stated in every recipe are guidelines, not rules. It’s impossible for a recipe to be able to say exactly how long something will cook on your stove or in your oven. So, when following a recipe, rely on the sights, sounds, smells, temperatures, and other doneness indicators, and begin checking on food a little early, in case it’s cooking faster than expected.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
You don’t need to learn how to write and develop recipes from scratch in order to be a pro recipe reader. That’s what we’re here for! But it can be helpful to begin to understand why recipes call for certain ingredients or methods, and to unpack what certain directions or ingredients are intended for — why they’re there (which is largely what learning all the techniques we’ve covered in Cooking School has been about). Knowing this, you can better make adjustments to your liking.
What the Pros Do When Reading Recipes
Write Notes on the Recipe
Open up a professional cook’s dog-eared copy of their favorite cookbook, and you’re likely to find dozens, if not hundreds, of pencil markings — notes on cooking times, ingredient additions or subtractions, or even corrections. This is a habit worth adopting yourself for significant recipes. (If the recipe is digital, consider printing it off and putting it in a binder or writing it into a recipe journal.) These notes will help you remember any adjustments you made to this dish, and decide how (or whether) to make adjustments in the future. You can even make notes of the results, and the date, to track how often you make a dish, and how it turned out.
Then Make Adjustments — With Care
If a recipe isn’t seasoned well, then you can simply adjust to taste and perhaps make a note. But sometimes you may want to switch up ingredients in a recipe to make it easier, to change the flavor, or to use up what you have on hand. The best way to do this is to think about what purpose the ingredient serves and what it’s adding to the dish, so you have a better understanding of whether you can leave it out, or what you can replace it with. Most ingredients add flavor, but some also serve another function — mustard may be an emulsifier in a vinaigrette, for instance, or flour may be a thickener in a sauce.
Some ingredients, of course, are foundational. These can’t be removed. You cannot have a marinara sauce without tomatoes. Remove them and it would be a different sauce. The rest of the ingredients may be important, but aren’t so fundamental. Marinara doesn’t have to have garlic, basil, oregano, or sugar — at least one famous version has none of those. One way to sort out which ingredients are foundational to a dish is to read through multiple recipes from different sources, looking for what changes and what doesn’t.
Another way to find substitutes is to think of ingredients in groups: One root vegetable might replace another in a dish. The same holds for cruciferous veggies (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), and leafy greens. There are tender herbs like basil and chives, which will cook similarly but add different flavors. And there are woody herbs like rosemary or thyme that will do the same.
You can also group ingredients by taste. Olives are briny and salty — so are capers. If a recipe calls for Aleppo pepper, another spicy ingredient such as red pepper flakes might work instead. In all these cases, thinking about an ingredient’s qualities, and its function will help you assess whether a substitute is likely to work or not.
The Process Is Different with Baked Goods
For most savory recipes, you can safely assume you can make minor tweaks to fit your taste. For baked goods, it’s best to stick to the recipe as written. Baking ingredients often provide more function (such as leavening) than flavor, so you don’t want to change things too much without knowing a lot more about what the ingredient is doing.
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Write
Pick a recipe you want to cook, and write it out. You can choose a recipe you love, or one that you are simply interested in making. Write it out in your own words and style. Arrange the ingredients in the order you would prep them, and write the steps so that a future you would know how to make it. Think about what information you need to include, and what you can leave out. Think about where the recipe is detailed, and where it is unclear. Next, watch the video, and pay attention to the swaps that were made. Think about why those swaps were suggested. On the recipe you’ve just written out, what could you swap out? What would make a good substitution?
30-Minute Assignment: Compare!
Compare three recipes. Read through this recipe from Martha Stewart for scalloped potatoes. Now read through this one from Chrissy Tiegen and this one from Tyler Florence. (If they seem familiar, we’ve recently reviewed all three on our site — but try to avoid reading our reviews, at first. If you already know them, you can pick a different recipe, and find three trusted sources.) Look at the ingredient lists. What ingredients overlap, and what ingredients are different? Compare the steps. Where are steps the same, and where do they differ? Where is an instruction more broad, and where is it more specific? What are the doneness indicators? How do they compare to each other? Now, using the three as a guide, write down your own “basic” scalloped potato recipe. Think about the ingredients that need to be included, and the ones that are optional. Think about the steps that are required, and the ones that feel less important.
60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Read and make a recipe. Choose one of the recipes from the 30-minute exercise (If you have less time, use Tyler Florence’s, which is fastest). Print off the recipe if possible, and make notes. Work backwards to confirm the prep and cook times, look for doneness indicators and mark them, consider your prep order, and make changes, if necessary. Then gather your ingredients and make the recipe, making notes.
Check your work: What were your expectations going in about what would be difficult, or easy? What seemed unclear, and what seemed detailed? Review your notes: Was your actual experience the same as your expected experience? What would you change about the recipe? If you like, compare your experience and notes to the experience our recipe reviewer had. What was similar? What was different?
What It Takes to Be an Recipe-Reading Expert
As you continue paying close attention to how recipes are written — how they convey information, and what they leave out, you will begin to notice patterns. Certain types of recipes will tend to call for adding certain ingredients around the same time. Other recipes will call for cooking times or temperatures that are roughly the same. You’ll find, after a while, that you can tell just by reading whether a method is likely to work based on this knowledge, and will be able to scan recipes more quickly for notable or novel information.
Meet Your Classmates
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.