How to Read a Recipe

Starting your Journey on How to Read a Recipe

Learning how to read a recipe is the same as traveling to someplace new. Usually, the first thing we do is to look at a map.  This map can help us get to where we need to go, it can help plan activities along the way, and once we get to our destination, the map can help us get around our new surroundings.  Yes, we now have GPS to help us with all this stuff, but what fun is in that.

The first step in your cooking journey is to learn how to read a recipe.  This will help you with the basics of cooking so you won’t be intimidated to get into the kitchen to cook for yourself, your family and your friends.

Just like when you travel, you might make a wrong turn.  But eventually, you get back on the right road and off you go to your destination.  Well, the same is true for cooking, you’re going to make mistakes and that’s ok,  reading a recipe will help you get back on the right road and onto the final result.  But for the times you don’t, there is always pizza.

A recipe is your map to help you on your journey to cooking.  It plots out various roads to take in order to get to your destination.  I will break down each part of the recipe so you understand why you take certain “roads”.

I’m so glad you have decided to learn how to cook.  I am so excited to ride along with you on your journey.

Recipe Breakdown

How to Read a Recipe breakdown


1.    Recipe Picture

Pictures in the recipes show you what the dish should look like.  Take this with a grain of salt, (see the pun).  Especially, when you are looking at a recipe in a magazine.   If you worry that your dish doesn’t look as perfect as the picture you will never step foot in the kitchen again.   The more you cook a recipe, eventually it will look exactly the way you want it to be.  Most recipes that I’ve done, don’t even look close to what the picture looks like because I don’t have a food stylist on hand to make the cheese drip exactly in a certain spot.  But, I can tell you, I can make my recipe picture worthy the way I want it to look and it usually tastes damn good.   So bottom line, use the picture as a guide.

2.   Recipe Title

I know what you’re going to say, that’s obvious.  Is it really?  If I said the recipe title says “Chicken Tangine”?  Ok, it’s a chicken dish.  But what the heck is Tangine? Ah…  now you’re getting the message.  You will need to do a little further reading.   To make sure you like all the ingredients, you need read them.

Also, you will need to read the directions to see if there is any special equipment that you would need to cook this type of dish.  To make the recipe for Chicken Tangine you need a special pottery dish called a Tangine.  Now you have to decide if you want to purchase a special piece of cookware that you will only use once or does the recipe give you an alternative method of cooking.  If not, you might want to reconsider this recipe.  Bottom line, the title of the recipe is your indication to read through the recipe.

3.   Prep and Cook Times

This is important to look at.  You don’t want to find out it’s going to take 3 hours for a stew to cook when your friends are coming in a half hour.  Some recipes will give you a breakdown of the time it will take to Prep the ingredients, the time it will take cook and the total amount of time for the entire recipe.  Some will only give you the total cook time.  Again, this is the time that you need to read through the recipe to determine how long it will take for you to prep and cook your ingredients.

4.  Ingredient List

Ok, this is shall we say the “meat” of your recipe. You were going say, “well I thought the directions were”? Ah no.  No ingredients, no recipe.  Got it.  You need to read the list (do you see a theme here?) to see first if you like the ingredients if you have the ingredients on hand and if you don’t can you get them at the local supermarket or do you have to special order them.   I don’t recommend making any substitutions until you make the recipe the way it is a few times.  We will talk more about road detours for your recipes on another post.  If for some reason you really want to try a recipe but need to delete an ingredient, do so unless it’s necessary for the recipe.    You need to understand different flavor profiles before you start taking detours on recipes.

5.   Ingredient Preparation

This section will tell you how the ingredients need to be prepared, for example, are the onions diced or sliced? Are the potatoes in large or small dice, with or without skin.  Preparation takes time.  So if your recipe does not include how long it will take, you need to read the preparation (yes I said read again) to determine how long it will take YOU to do it.  The time on the recipe is only an estimate. The amount of time it takes for you to do the preparation may be different.  You must prepare the ingredients before any cooking starts.  THAT’S THE LAW! This will make the cooking process and your life so much easier.

6.   Ingredient Measurements

This is where you really need to pay attention.  You don’t want to add 3 tablespoons of salt to something that only calls for 1/3 of a teaspoon.  Big difference.  This is where we are going to talk about proper measuring.  If an ingredient calls for a level measurement, that means you scoop the ingredient with the measuring utensil and take the back of a butter knife and swipe over to make the ingredient level. You are just starting to cook, for now, follow the recipe exactly until you have gained enough confidence to use your judgment. You will eventually learn how to measure by “eyeing” the ingredient.

Also, once you have made the recipe at least twice and have decided you would like a change in the measurement of an ingredient, only at the point should you make any necessary adjustments.  Prepare the recipe according to the measurements in the recipe so you can taste it.  After you have cooked the recipe you can decide what you liked and didn’t like about it.

Both the measurements and the preparation of your ingredients are important in setting up your “Mise en place”.   Mise en place is the process of gathering all your ingredients together, prepared and measured before you start cooking.

7.   Cooking Directions/Instructions

Many of recipes go awry at this point.  I’m going to repeat myself yet again.  You should have already read this section of the recipe when you decided if you want to use it.  Now, that you have all your ingredients together.  Sit down and yes….. read the directions again carefully so you understand what steps you are to follow.  The instructions will give you a step by step process.  The instructions should not list cooking the steak before seasoning it.  This is now the moment of truth, you are going to take that first step and do the first set of instructions.  Don’t jump ahead of yourself.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Take your time and go step by step.

8.   Special Instructions

Sometimes a recipe may include additional instructions.  If it is a crockpot recipe, the writer of the recipe may include an alternative method of cooking, like stove top or in the oven.  The website, 365 Days of Slow Cooking, provides Instapot recipes but also gives the alternative method of using a traditional Slow Cooker/Crockpot.

9.  Substitutions

Some recipe developers recognize that there are people who would love to prepare their recipe but due to dietary restrictions, they would be unable to.  So in order to help these cooks and make it easier for them to use the recipe according to their diet, substitutions will be provided.  I make a great Lentil Soup, but I use Chicken Stock and sausage.  In order to make it vegetarian, a substitution would be to leave out the sausage and use Vegetable stock.   If the recipe provides this information, go ahead and use them.  But if it doesn’t, put the recipe aside until you are ready to make the substitutions on your own.

10.   Nutritional Information

Nowadays, most people are being conscious of what they are eating and how much.  The basic nutritional information will list the calorie count, the fat content in grams as well as the sugar content in grams, sometimes it will list Fiber and protein count as well.  If there is no information and you would like to get it there are a few websites that can help with that.  I have listed and linked a few below.


One area of the recipe not included in the graphic was serving size.  The number of servings can show in two areas of the recipe.  On top by the title or at the very end of the directions.  The serving size shows the approximate number of people the recipe will serve.  Ex:  “Serving size 4”.

Some healthy recipes might give you the portion size for each person. Other recipes may not tell you this information. It would be up to you to decide the serving size based on who you are serving.  My husband can easily eat two portions, but I can only eat one.    The number of servings will help you determine if you need to double the recipe, based on if you are making extra to freeze, for lunches, serving more people or you have a large eater.

So, now a few things to remember……

  • Read, read and re-read your recipes
  • Make sure you have all your ingredients and the proper tools
  • Gather, prep and measure your ingredients – Mise en place
  • Read the directions/instructions again
  • The first step first, take it slow
  • “Rome was not built in a day”, so be patient.
  • Get a glass of wine and start cooking.

Enjoy, don’t worry about the clean up that’s what the kids and partners are for!

Now you have an assignment, pick out a recipe (keep it simple).  Make a copy, read it,  label it and make notes on it.  Do you like the ingredients?  What are your questions on?   Email me your questions.

Oh, Next time you go on a road trip, pick up a map and see if you can map out your route and see where it takes you.