How to Follow and Understand a Recipe
This post is part of our Cooking With Recipes Series
Cooking With Recipes Series
Being able to follow and understand a recipe is a skill that most people think we are born with. But, this is simply not the case. It is highly dependant on a couple of key things:
- how well a recipe is written by the author, and
- the cook knowing what to look for in every section.
At first glance, a recipe can appear to be incredibly complex and confusing or suprisingly simple. Ironically, more complex recipes can result in a fabulous meal, while the simplest recipe can leave us scratching our heads.
Luckily, there are some common conventions that allow us, as cooks, to easily follow and understand what is expected of us. Once we understand the anatomy of a recipe, it is much easier to find good recipes that are a pleasure to use.
Keep in mind that some recipe authors do not follow these conventions. Our best advice is that if a recipe seems chaotic and disorganized, it may be a good idea to just move on to a different one.
The graphic above, shows the various parts of a recipe. Each section should be easy to locate in any recipe you are thinking of using.
Since each section is important, they should never be skimmed over. Let’s have a look at them in a bit more detail:
- TITLE: The title is your first introduction to the recipe. It may be very catchy and have you intrigued.
- DESCRIPTION: The description goes into more detail about the end product, and may include information about the cooking methods used or what makes the recipe unique.
- DETAILS: This information (course, skill level, dietary considerations) is your next stop when deciding whether a recipe is for you.
The skill level and dietary considerations can be the clinchers.
- If you are a novice cook, you probably want to avoid Advanced Level recipes, for now.
- If you have dietary restrictions, this area will list any dietary grouping (gluten-free, nut-free, vegan). Caution: Those with allergies and the like need to further scrutinize the ingredients to make sure a mistake was not made regarding dietary groupings.
- TIMING: The timings listed are very important. These tell you how long both the ingredient preparation and the cooking will take. When trying a new recipe, take these timings with a grain of salt. They are really just an estimate of how long it takes the recipe author to complete.
The actual cooking time doesn’t change. But, since you are not accustomed to the recipe, you may end up having to read and reread the recipe. In many cases, recipe authors may not include the time it takes to pre-measure all of the ingredients (mise-en-place) – a practice we highly recommend.
No matter how experienced you are, the first time you cook a recipe will always take longer than you expect.
- NOTES: This is usually the place for tips and additional information that don’t really fit in the other recipe sections, but are important nonetheless. Do not ignore these notes because they can determine the success of a recipe.
Notes may include ingredient substitutions or cooking method tips. A good recipe will include these notes above the Ingredients or Directions and not force you to go to the very end of the recipe.
Some cookbooks or blogs will include narratives before the actual “Recipe Card” that will incorporate additional notes. Be sure to look for these notes.
- INGREDIENTS: The ingredient list is more than just what goes into a recipe. A well constructed recipe will list the ingredients in the order that they are used, and will have clear measurements. The way the ingredients are listed also follow rules that make a recipe easy to follow. But, these rules are very much under the discretion of the author.
To truly understand a recipe, we need to know the rules that a recipe author uses. Whether it is the size of eggs they cook with or the measuring tools they use.
How the ingredient list is written will give you some insight into what their rules are:
- 1 Large Egg (this shows the size they use)
- 50 grams All Purpose Flour (this shows they use a scale to weigh the flour instead of using measuring cups, and they include the type of flour used)
- 1/2 Cup Packed Brown Sugar (this shows they use measuring cups instead of a scale, and they pack down their brown sugar when they measure it)
- 1/2 Cup Chopped Red Peppers (the word Chopped before the ingredient name usually means: chop the peppers and then measure them with a cup)
- 1/2 Cup Red Peppers, Chopped (this usually means that you measure the ingredient first and then chop them)
These are good examples of recipe authors who want their rules incorporated with every recipe.
If a recipe is more vague (ie. 1 egg, 50 g flour, and 1/2 cup brown sugar), hopefully they provide clarification somewhere. Look for their rules in the Introduction pages of a cookbook, the About page, or the FAQ page on a recipe site. They will usually say something like:
“Unless otherwise stated, flour is All Purpose flour. When we measure brown sugar in a measuring cup, we always pack it down. The eggs we use for all our recipes are Large.”
- SERVINGS: This will give you an estimate of how many servings will be made with the ingredient amounts provided.
Servings are a funny thing though – what does 4 servings look like? Is it for adults and kids? In my experience, 4 servings will usually feed two adults and 2 children, or 3 adults. Looking at the ingredient amounts will give you more clues.
- INSTRUCTIONS: This is where you find the step-by-step method of using the ingredients.
A well constructed recipe will take great care laying out these steps.
When first reading through a recipe, it is helpful to ask yourself some questions as you go. If you answer no to any of them, perhaps the author is including too many assumptions within the recipe. Some authors assume that everyone understands certain cooking terminology or techniques. These recipes can be very difficult to follow and understand, unless you are a more experienced cook. Perhaps a different recipe should be considered:
- Do I know what this or that means? (ie. braise, saute, bain marie)
- Do I know how to do this or that? (ie. cream butter and sugar, caramelize, blanch)
- Do I have a good idea of how the dish will look or taste just by reading the directions?
- Are there enough pictures or illustrations?
- IMAGES: The presence of images is very important. They show what will be made. But, and this is a big but, do not expect your finished dish to look exactly like the recipe author’s finished dish. To achieve this, you would need beautiful lighting, a great angle, and the patience to make it look just so.
The best kind of images a recipe can include are the in progress images. Recipes that have images taken during the actual cooking or preparation are great helpers when following along.
Understanding the anatomy of a recipe provides information and insight into all aspects of a recipe. It ultimately helps us determine whether a recipe is a good fit for things like our skill level, dietary considerations, and time available.
Each section is important for us to make this decision and should not be ignored. A fabulous, luscious picture is wonderful, but a well crafted recipe is the heart of the matter.
The next time you see a recipe, or if you decide to construct your own recipes, keep the anatomy of a recipe in mind.