Crash Course Cooking: How to Read a Recipe

Photo Credit: Eliot Gentiluomo

When just starting out in the kitchen, recipes can seem quite daunting. There are all kinds of new terms to understand and the process of cooking itself can be scary to someone new to cooking. But never fear: I am here to help! Here you can find easy substitutions, definitions for key terms, and other important tips to understanding a recipe and cooking.

For starters, ALWAYS read the recipe completely before cooking, especially when it is a new or complicated dish. Reading a recipe thoroughly before starting the cooking process will ensure that you have everything you need and understand how to make the dish.

Things to Keep an Eye out for:

Prep time: This is an estimated amount of time you will spend doing prep work. This includes anything done before food is put into an oven, broiler, on to a stove or grill, etc.

Cook time: The amount of time the item takes to cook once on a stove, grill, oven, broiler etc.

Number of servings/quantity: Most recipes will say how many servings the dish is supposed to yield and/or the quantity of the item. Often it is seen as SERVES: 4 or YIELDS: 2 dozen cupcakes.

Tips: Always look out for any tips that the chef gives in their recipe. They are there to ensure the understanding of specific steps, ingredients, as well as possible pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Ingredients list: This will tell you exactly how much of each ingredient is needed for the recipe. Always read this before cooking to ensure you have all the ingredients along with their substitutions if necessary. Keep an eye out for the measurements because some recipes use cups to measure vs. weight in grams to measure. This is where you might need to do a little math. Especially if you are either halving or multiplying a recipe.

Halving or multiplying: This does not affect anything other than the quantity of food you will be making. Make sure to do the same calculations to each ingredient to ensure the right quantities in the end.

Allergens: Always look out for any allergies and substitute accordingly. Look below to substitutions.

Missing ingredients from your kitchen: Again, always read your recipe beforehand to see if you have anything missing. If you do, you can either go to the grocery store to get it or use a substitution, see below.


Meat: This is an easy substitution for most meals. Oftentimes meat can be substituted out for any other meat or vegetarian/vegan substitute. When doing this, keep an eye on the cook time because each meat does cook at a slightly different time. You do not want to under or overcook the meat.

Nuts: These are actually pretty easy to work around. Most of the time they are a minor ingredient in the dish and can easily be left out without changing the taste or texture of the dish.

Gluten: This is another easy substitute. Most gluten free flours are meant to be a one to one substitution ratio. There will not be any noticeable difference in the quantity needed for gluten free to normal gluten flour. However, many alternative flours have very different properties when used in recipes where the flour is a main ingredient. If you’re making a baked good or similar, try to find a recipe already using your chosen flour.

Dairy: Just like gluten, dairy is also quite easy to substitute. It is also a one to one ratio of dairy-to-dairy substitute. It is important to use a mild flavored dairy substitute such as soy milk and to use unsweetened and/or unflavored variety to ensure it does not affect the end flavor of the dish.

Sugar: Sugar can be substituted but it can be a bit tricky. You will have to look up what the substitution ratio is for sugar-to-sugar substitutes. If you are substituting with a liquid sugar, make sure to adjust other liquid items to ensure the right texture and consistency. Likely, you will lessen the amount of dairy needed in the recipe, but the amount can vary between substitutes.

Eggs: This is another complicated item to substitute. There are a lot of options out there. Most of the substitutes pertain to baking because they are meant to be a binder. Again, you will have to look up the ratio needed for an egg to egg substitute. For many dishes like Pad Thai, it is often easier to simply omit the eggs.

Butter: This is a pretty easy substitution because there are a lot of dairy free butter substitutes. You can also use other mild flavored oils as well. Personally, I like to use coconut oil to substitute.

Key Cooking Methods Defined:

Roast: Cooking an item at high heat in an oven or over open flame where heat is even on all sides, generally at 400° F and above.

Bake: This is when someone cooks an item, most often in an oven, at medium heat where heat is even on all sides. The temperature should be around 300-400° F.

Broil: Cooking an item using high heat and the heat is directed at one side of the item at a time. Most commonly on a grill or in an oven, with the door left somewhat open to prevent the interior from heating to an undesirable level.

Sauté: Cooking food in a pan over high heat with a small amount of fat and/or oil.

Sear: This method is most common with meat. Cooking an item using high heat one side at a time. This allows the Maillard reaction to occur, giving food a browned exterior and a distinctive flavor.

Brown: This is the same as searing, see above.

Braise: The simmering of meats and/or vegetables in a small amount of liquid. This is meant to reduce, thicken, and concentrate flavor.

Boil: Water heated to its boiling point and food is often cooked submerged in it for a certain period of time.

Simmer: Foods are cooked in hot liquids kept just below the boiling point of water. This allows the ability for a more consistent temperature throughout the dish and is often used for dishes with sauces or longer cook times to avoid burning.

Steam: Where the food is placed above a small amount of boiling water using a steamer basket. The food is then covered and heated/cooked by the steam.