How to Read a Recipe the Right Way

Not following your recipe exactly could lead to a kitchen disaster. We're clearing up any confusion on how to read a recipe the right way.

Young woman reading cookbook in the kitchen, looking for recipePhoto: Shutterstock / sheff

You followed your recipe to a T, but it still didn’t turn out just right. The reason your pancakes fell flat or your souffle went down south can often be chalked up to a misinterpretation of the directions. Recipes speak a language of their own. Subtle nuances in directions like “softened” versus “cooled” can make a big difference when it comes to your finished dish—especially when it come to baking. And baking powder versus baking soda? There’s a huge difference. We’re breaking down how to read a recipe the right way for the best results ever.

1. Read it All at Once

Instead of reading as you go, take a seat before you start and read the entire recipe through. “It’s a bummer when you do all the recipe planning, shopping and prepping only to make a critical error that causes a recipe fail. It’s well worth the time to slow down and read the recipe carefully—twice!” says Sarah Farmer, Taste of Home‘s Culinary Director.

Note anything that could add to your prep time before you start cooking, like having butter at room temperature or grabbing anything last minute that may have slipped your mind. “During the first read, I find out what I can get started sautéeing or simmering or baking while I finish prepping the rest of the ingredients,” says Peggy Woodward, RDN, Taste of Home‘s Food Editor.

2. Measuring vs. Freestyling

With general cooking, you have a little more leeway when it comes to substituting ingredients or adding a little more or less. This is not the case for baking, where measurements need to be more exact for the perfect batch of brownies, but building off of a ‘base recipe,’ is a great way to freestyle in baking.

“I love ‘freestyling’ with cookies! I have a few recipes that I really love the taste and texture, so I use those “base” recipes all the time and add different mix-ins, which change up the flavor and look of the cookie a bit,” says Woodward.

3. Seasoning

You have some flexibility with seasoning, but should generally start off most dishes with salt and pepper. Be sure to add herbs and spices at the beginning of cooking so there’s ample time for flavors to get to know each other. “My cooking goal is always to present a finished dish that doesn’t require anyone to reach for the salt at the table– I strive to get it just right!” says Farmer.

4. Mise en place

This roughly translates from French as “everything in its place,” meaning that everything is chopped, minced or diced before you start assembling. This will make your overall cooking process much smoother instead of stopping to chop every few minutes, eliminating the risk of overcooking something while you chop. If you have a recipe that calls for more than a few measured ingredients, like these elegant chicken breasts or this Italian soup supper, mise en place could serve you well.

5. Notice These Subtle Differences

You might think you know the differences between these words, but do you really? Here are a few basic terms you’ll see in your recipes.

  • Simmering vs. Boiling: Simmering means small bubbles are slowly rising to the surface of the liquid, without making much noise. Boiling means large bubbles are rising to the surface of the liquid quickly and can be loud.
  • Melted vs. Room Temperature: If your recipe calls for melted butter, melt it in the microwave or on the stove top, but it should not be in solid form. Softened butter at room temperature should be firm enough to retain its shape but still easily pliable.
  • Chopped vs. Diced vs. Minced: Large, non-uniform pieces are chopped. Medium, uniform pieces are diced. Small, very fine pieces are minced.
  • Chocolate, Chopped vs. Chopped Chocolate: Pay attention to the use of commas in recipes! Any cut, mince, or chop instruction after a comma in an ingredient list means to do it after the ingredient is measured. “6 oz. chocolate, chopped” means take a 6 oz. bar of chocolate, chop it up and add it into your cake. “1/2 cup chopped chocolate” means measure out 1/2 cup of already-chopped chocolate into the appropriate measuring cup. Similarly, 1 cup of sifted flour is different from 1 cup of flour that has not yet been sifted. This could make a big difference in your favorite cookies.

6. Reading Isn’t Everything

Sometimes, your eyes, ears and nose can be a better indicator of whether or not your recipe is done better than a timer. If your scones say they should be golden brown after 15 minutes but they’re not quite there yet, don’t be afraid to leave them in a bit longer.

“I encourage a look-see-smell-and-taste approach. How better to know if something is ready to come out of the oven or off the stove than to rely on how it smells or to evaluate how it looks? Learn and achieve success in the kitchen by paying attention to the foodnot just the timer,” says Farmer.

Same goes for leaving things in the oven for less time than is written down, if your casserole is getting a little too crispy but it’s under the written cook time, take it out early. Every oven and stove top is different, and as you expand your skills and learn how your appliances work, learning your timing will come more naturally.

Cooking is a journey, not a marathon, and is something that should be enjoyed in your home. Find what works for you with cooking and baking and everything else will come with ease.

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Jacqueline Weiss
Jacqueline is a blogger and writer, passionate about sharing the latest in helpful tips and trends in food and cooking. In her spare time, you’ll find her trying new restaurants and experimenting in the kitchen.