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How to Read a Recipe

The saying "if you can read, you can cook" is not necessarily true - recipes can be difficult to read, especially if you don't already have an understanding of cooking terms, measurements, and substitutions.

The saying "if you can read, you can cook" is not necessarily true - recipes can be difficult to read, especially if you don't already have an understanding of cooking terms, measurements, and substitutions.

Like any skill, reading recipes is something you have to learn and practice. Once you learn the basics of reading and following a recipe, you'll be able to cook just about anything.

Breaking down the basic terms step-by-step, let's look at a simple recipe that anyone can master.

The terms in bold are explained below.

Quick N' Easy Chicken Penne 

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ pound ground chicken
  • 2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce
  • 1-½ cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • 4 oz. dried penne


Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over medium heat and add onion and garlic. Cook and stir until translucent. Add ground chicken and cook and stir until chicken is browned and vegetables are tender. Stir in remaining ingredients except for penne. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes.

Add penne to the simmering sauce a little at a time, stirring to keep it separated. Cover tightly and simmer for 20-25 minutes over low heat or until pasta is tender, stirring frequently. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 3-4.

Step One: Get Reading!

Read the recipe all the way through, from beginning to end. Make note of what ingredients and tools you have and which ones you need. Also, underline or record the recipe terms that you don't understand so that you can look them up before you start cooking.

Most good recipes start with the ingredient list. Ingredients are usually listed in the order that they should be used. In this recipe, olive oil goes in the pan first, followed by the onions and the garlic.

The recipe will also indicate the measurements of the ingredients. Be careful: when a recipe calls for a teaspoon or tablespoon, it means that ingredients should be measured with proper measuring spoons, not the ones that you use for stirring your tea or eating your morning cereal. Ingredients that are measured by weight should be measured with a kitchen scale.

You should also be aware of the standard abbreviations:

  • Tbsp = tablespoon
  • tsp = teaspoon
  • oz = ounce

The order of words in the recipe's ingredient list is also important. For example, this recipe calls for "1 cup chopped onion". This means you should chop the onion first, and then measure out one cup. But if the recipe called for "1 cup of onions, chopped", it means you should measure out one cup of whole onions, and then chop them. So pay attention to where the comma is before you get out your measuring utensils!

Step Two: Get Ready!

Now that you know what you need to start cooking, go get it! Gather all the ingredients, pots, measuring utensils and preparation utensils you will need in one accessible place. Then go back to the recipe and double-check that you've got everything.

Step Three: Get Cooking!

You've got your ingredients, now you need to combine and cook them. This info is in the body of the recipe, which is usually broken down in numbered steps. First, you'll need to get a handle on the cooking terms that are contained in this section. The terms will vary from recipe to recipe, so trying recipes with different cooking techniques is a good way to build your recipe-reading skills.

In This Recipe:

  • Heating the olive oil, like heating any kind of cooking fat, means warming it in a skillet set to medium heat for 1-2 minutes,or until you can feel warmth coming from the pan when you hold your hand 3-4" above it.
  • Cooking the onions until translucent means that the onions will change in colour from pure white to a more transparent, softer white.
  • Browning the ground chicken means to cook until the pinkish colour of the meat has disappeared. As you are browning, stir the meat with a fork so the chunks of ground chicken breaks up as they cook into small, uniform pieces. Try taking a little meat out of the pan and breaking it apart with a fork to check the internal colour. Don't forget to wash the fork before using it again!
  • Cooking the vegetables until tender means that when you poke or pierce them with a fork, there is little resistance - the fork goes in smoothly. Make sure you don't overcook them, either. If they get mushy, you've cooked them too long.
  • Ingredients are simmering when small bubbles are rising to the surface slowly.
  • Ingredients are boiling when large bubbles are rising to the surface quickly. Boiling sounds noisy - like a babbling brook and probably splashes a little, too.
  • Pasta is tender when it is cooked all the way through. To test that, remove one piece of pasta from the sauce, rinse it with cool water and cut it in half. The pasta should have no white areas or only a thin white line if you like your noodles more "al dente", or firm. When you taste it, it shouldn't taste like flour, and it should feel tender to the touch.
  • Stirring frequently means to stir the ingredients with a spoon every 2-3 minutes.

More recipe-reading tips: 

  • All recipes have a cooking time range. These times are tested using tolerance techniques in test kitchens. Start checking if it's done at the beginning of the time range. In the recipe above, start checking the tenderness of the spaghetti at 20 minutes.
  • Keep an eye on your oven temperature! If you're not sure that your oven is really heated to 375°F (190°C), buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to check. You may have to adjust your oven settings to reach the right temperature.
  • Ingredients that are added to the dish right before serving, such as the parmesan cheese, are not measured because you are supposed to add them "according to taste". That means exactly what it sounds like: add as much as pleases your palate.
  • As you get better at reading recipes, you'll start wanting to personalize them. Small amounts of ingredients - such as the dried herbs - can be omitted without affecting the dish too much. Making substitutions is more complicated: for example, swapping the tomatoes with, say, spinach would be a disaster! Visit www.foodsubs.com to find out how to successfully customize a recipe.

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