Cooking,  How To

Three Rules to Successfully Read and Follow a Recipe

More food to come!

For a blog titled Just On Food, there really isn’t much food happening yet, is there? That will change. I have ideas that need planning and executing, but it is happening. I have recipes and reviews and how to’s and all kinds of stuff in mind coming up. First, though, I’d like to briefly lay a bit of ground work, starting with how to read and follow a recipe.

Sounds simple, right? Read ingredients. Gather ingredients. Read method. Follow instructions. Et voila!

The fact is that everyone – I repeat, everyone – has screwed up a recipe. Why? Most likely because the instructions weren’t read properly. Hence, this post.

Does anyone remember that very first quiz in high school about following directions? It was that sheet of paper with a bunch of instructions on it, and a lengthy paragraph at the top of the page saying something about something that takes too long to read about. The numbered directions were simple, though: draw six squares next to numbers two to seven, put an “x” in each square, underline the title of this document, etcetera and so forth. This, I can handle.

You make your way through the directions, doing everything exactly as prescribed, and reach the last instruction on that page. “29. Turn to page 2,” it commands.

You turn the page over.

“30. Disregard directions 1-28.”


You turn the page over and frantically review your work before, for the first time, reading that paragraph at the top of the page.

Yada yada yada, “… clearly write your name in the top right hand corner of the page …” yada yada yada, “… carefully read all of the directions before you begin.”


You and your friends have a good laugh after class but, really, you all just failed the easiest test of all time. Now who’s really laughing? Hint: they’re facing you at the front of the class.

This brings us to,

Rule Number One: Read the entire recipe twice before doing anything else.

You will have a better understanding of how to proceed with the steps when you already have an idea of what’s to come.

Furthermore, double, triple and quadruple check the oven temperatures, cooking times and doneness indicators: these are all of the signs the food gives you that tell you when it’s done. Cookies turning golden brown, for example. The butter is smelling nutty. The dough feels smooth and elastic. These are doneness indicators.

Always double check those specifics! Nothing is worse than putting all your heart and soul into something only to have it burn in the oven because you threw it in at 375 degrees F instead of 325 degrees F or for 40 minutes instead of 20, or you didn’t cook out the spices until they became aromatic.

Ok, so we’ve sat down and read, re-read and read the recipe yet again. We’ve taken note of the cooking times and temperatures and doneness indicators. Now what?

Rule Number Two: Gather and prepare all of your ingredients before cooking anything.

In the food service industry, this is called mise en place which translates to everything in it’s place. This means ensuring that you have butter at room temperature if the recipe calls for it. This means having beans soaked if the recipe calls for it. This means having your ground beef thawed in advance. This also means having everything completely processed from garlic to tomatoes to chicken to dates to potatoes to everything the recipe calls for. Finally, this also means your equipment. Take note of every piece of equipment the recipe requires and make sure it is readily available when you need it. You don’t want to be fumbling around for the colander while you’re pasta is overcooking by the second, or reaching to the back of your utensil drawer for the wooden spoon while your shallots are turning black in the pan.

Now, because every rule has its exceptions, there are things you can start cooking while you’re preparing the rest of your mise en place. If the first step of the recipe is something that takes a significant amount of time, and you don’t have to babysit it every 30 seconds, by all means, get that going first. Rice, for example, takes time; get it going.

And finally, the last practice is something I, personally, live by but it is subject to your preference.

Rule Number Three: Always make the recipe as it is written for the first time.

I do this for a few reasons. One: the recipe you are following was put together, tested and written with purpose. I believe you should at least find out what that purpose was for yourself before you give it your own purpose.

Two: if something goes wrong, you’ll never know if it was a flaw in the recipe, a flaw in your execution or a flaw in the modification you made. Try it out as is so you know what changes may or may not work.

Three: you might learn something new! Even if you think you have a better ingredient to use or a different method that works better, you might learn something from the way they have it written. Think of it like working with a new coworker. Are you going to completely disregard their suggestion without even trying it? In the professional culinary world, this is a big no-no. Keep an open mind and give it a shot. If you still think you can do better or a different ingredient would be better, then go for it.

That’s it! Those are the how-to-read-and-follow-a-recipe rules that I follow, or usually deeply regret not following on the occasion that I don’t.

Let me know in the comments if there are any other cardinal rules you follow when you’re reading a recipe or any fun experiences trying and failing to follow recipes! Just like the following directions test, it’s always a good laugh when you look back on it.

Happy cooking!

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