Part of Issue #5 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
If you’re not a frequent cook, browsing through recipes can be an anxiety-riddled affair.
Search for a way to make sesame noodles and you’ll see results promising to be “quick and easy” or “the world’s best” from glossy food magazines, television personalities, and small-time bloggers alike. With so many options, it can be tempting to just quit, open your Seamless app, and order delivery. But learning to follow a recipe is a rewarding life skill. And, at the very least, you will have something to eat.
Written recipes came to prominence once it was no longer the norm to cook side by side with someone more experienced in the kitchen, says journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin, whose 2015 book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, dives deep into the history of recipe-sharing. “Traditionally, you would’ve been standing in the kitchen with your mom or your auntie, who would’ve shown you how to make [a dish],” she says.
Here’s some advice they might have shared: There is no one right way to make a dish; there is only the way that’s right for you. “Cooking is a creative art,” says Tipton-Martin. “There is an inherent science in there, but there’s always room for creativity.” She prefers to think of a recipe as a set of suggestions, rather than rigid rules, and compares different recipes to get a sense of how a dish ought to be made.
As for what to make, you may also find it helpful to take stock of what you have on hand, or let what you find in the produce aisle guide you. “I rarely go shopping with a list to make a certain recipe,” says cookbook author Amjaad Al-Hussain. “I usually just go shopping and see what looks good and then find a recipe from there.”
Once you have one in hand, here’s how to use it:
Consider a recipe’s source
“The newspaper style is to abbreviate and truncate a recipe as much as possible,” says Tipton-Martin. They often omit articles, and the instructions are brief. (Online versions may be more detailed than print, though.) Recipes in cookbooks can be longer, depending on the author; someone like Edna Lewis, who came from an oral, hands-on approach to cooking, can get “really lengthy” with recipes, adds Tipton-Martin. “A lot of words are helpful, but they can also be intimidating to the reader,” she says.
“Don’t be scared by baking recipes that look really, really long,” says cookbook author Genevieve Ko. The recipe writer wants you to succeed — it’s not a long recipe because it’s an intricate 50-layer cake, “it’s because they’re trying to teach you and put in all the detail they can.”
Brian Hogan Stewart, the creator and host of the cookbook podcast Salt + Spine, tends to get recipes from cookbooks rather than online. “Sourcing is important,” he says. “Not to say you can’t get good recipes from the internet,” but consider whether the outlet is likely to have tested it. “Major publications have resources and energy to make sure the recipe is going to work. Same for some bloggers.”
For online recipes, it’s a good idea to read the comments and see how other people have fared. This can be particularly helpful to flag a missing ingredient, omitted oven temperature, or when a recipe mistakenly calls for twice the necessary amount of molasses, turning cookies into sad, goopy puddles. But just because one person had a negative experience doesn’t mean you will; the best way to determine a recipe’s feasibility is to read that recipe for yourself.
Which brings us to the No. 1, clichéd-but-true rule for cooking from a recipe ...
Always read the recipe all the way through
Yes, from start to finish. “It’s important to do that before you start cooking but also before you commit to a recipe,” says Hogan Stewart. You might think a roasted chicken is doable on a Monday night, until you realize that the chicken needed to marinate for eight hours before going in the oven.
Reading the recipe in its entirety helps establish that you have everything that’s called for, adds Tipton-Martin, and prevents you from being surprised by a step. “You give yourself a mental picture of what is to come,” she says. “It also helps you visualize the completed dish, even if you’ve never done it before.” Take this time to make sure you have the necessary equipment, too. If you don’t have a stand mixer, maybe that chocolate chunk shortbread recipe isn’t for you.
Another reason to read the recipe closely: Many people don’t realize ingredients are typically listed in the order that they appear in the body of the recipe. It might seem strange — a recipe for whole roasted cauliflower lists a bunch of spices first and the cauliflower last.
Why doesn’t the recipe list the star front and center? “It’s helping you follow the recipe step by step,” says Hogan Stewart. You’ll first mix those spices, and then rub them over the cauliflower. This is also a good indicator of the quality of the recipe. “It shows that the author has thought the process through,” says Tipton-Martin.
Don’t skip the headnote (the paragraph or two before the ingredients list) or any notes on the side or at the end
These provide more context and clues to help you succeed. This is where the author might explain why they are using a particular spice or cut of meat, or tell you about an ingredient substitution you can make. A note might also point you to other recipes or types of dishes to pair with it, to make it a complete meal. “Sometimes it’s a personal thing, or an anecdote, which sort of brings the recipe to life,” says Hogan Stewart. “It might not affect the recipe’s outcome, but knowing its context helps you think about how it matters to the author.”
Technique can be hard to master. It’s okay to turn to YouTube.
“You can and should watch videos,” says Ko. If you’ve never whipped egg whites but a recipe says “whip until stiff peaks form,” how would you know what that means? A video, a GIF, or a few photos can go a long way to help fill in the gaps that a less precise recipe may leave, but try not to be intimidated by them. Some publications and cookbooks have food stylists and photographers to make that food look beautiful. “You shouldn’t expect that you can emulate a professionally styled photograph in your home kitchen,” says Hogan Stewart.
Common recipe terms and what they mean
Measure or chop your ingredients before you start cooking
Known as mise en place, French for “everything in its place,” this time-tested technique is a general truth that will help you make a recipe not only as directed but more efficiently. It’s an especially good rule to follow when you are just starting to cook, because you’re literally setting yourself up for success. Once you become more comfortable with chopping, measuring, and otherwise prepping ingredients, you’ll do so more quickly, even under the pressure of a skillet of sizzling onions that are thisclose to burning.
Employing the strategy of mise en place is particularly useful if you’re making multiple recipes. “When I cook, I make a lot of dishes at once,” says Al-Hussain. “I take everything that needs chopping and wash and chop it all at once. Depending on the recipe, I know I can prep some ingredients as I’m going, like chopping a tomato while something else is cooking.”
Ingredient prep can also be key when baking. Many recipes will call for eggs or butter to be at room temperature, for example, which takes time: Get those ingredients out and let them come to room temperature before you start.
Take note of a recipe’s cooking times but don’t be hampered by them
It’s important to pay attention to descriptors of when something is done or ready to go on to the next stage, says Ko. “Recipe writers are trying to appeal to all your senses — how it should look, taste, smell.” Plus, everyone’s appliances are different: “Medium-high” or “350 degrees” won’t be consistent across the board. “Don’t just set the timer for five minutes and walk away. Stay there with it and follow the visual cues,” says Ko. This also helps you know when to adjust the cooking time or temperature, adds Hogan Stewart. “If it says to sauté the garlic for two minutes or until golden brown, check to make sure it’s not golden brown in 30 seconds, or your [heat] might be too high.”
Most importantly, remember that the recipe is there to help guide you along, not to make you feel like a failure. Once you’re done, not only will you feel more confident but you may just learn something deeper.
Cooking from a recipe is “a way to break down barriers and show that many dishes cross cultures,” says Tipton-Martin. “Recipes have more value than the provision of sustenance.”
Kara Elder writes about food and cooking. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Eaten: The Food History Magazine, and more.