Ten Things to Check When Reading A Recipe

This post is based on several reader requests. A number of folks have told me that they, or their partners or roommates, have trouble with reading recipes and end up with kitchen disasters, bizarre results, or taking an extremely long time to make something.

I should begin by noting that this is not their fault. To begin, many recipes are badly written. Even the good ones can have problems though. Most recipes are written with lots of assumptions around knowledge, that you can reorder steps in your head, and that you have a given amount of cooking experience. They also assume the same set of sensory and bodily characteristics of everyone, and ways of thinking. (Recipes, as traditionally written, are horribly inaccessible.)

Kitchen with an open window
Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

I’m working on a longer-term project to address some of these issues from a neurodivergent lens (more coming soon!). That said, I want to share a checklist on what to check before you make a recipe, so that you are prepared for the recipe and what it entails, and make the recipe in a way that works for you. (Or not! Sometimes you might realize that a recipe isn’t for you. I’ve been cooking since I was six, and even I have that realization sometimes.)

This list has ten questions that I ask myself when I read a recipe. The answers to this question inform not just whether I make a recipe, but what I do before I make it, and how I make sure that I do all the steps to make it. I hope that this helps you, too.

Bags of frozen vegetables
(Photo public domain)

Before I begin: whenever I make a new recipe, I always read over the entire recipe at least twice (and usually many more times. Recipes are often complicated little beasts, and you should have a general idea of the shape of the recipe, even before you start asking these questions, and certainly before cooking.

Now, the checklist itself.

  1. How much time do I have to cook? This is important to know. If you have 45 minutes, for example, you probably do not want to do a very complicated recipe. If you have a whole afternoon, then obviously you have more options. I ask myself this question, especially given that recipe preparation times in cookbooks are often wildly off (and vary from person to person which is why I do not give them). To be safe, I tend to multiply any prep time by 1 ½.
  2. What ingredients do I need, and in what forms do I need them? The first reason I ask this of myself is to know what I need to buy, if I am going shopping, and to make sure I did not miss anything. Pay special attention to the forms of the ingredients since oftentimes, they are not interchangeable (for example, tomato paste versus fresh tomatoes). When you do substitute them, you will need to take special care – which brings me to my next question.
  3. What substitutions do I need to make? You might not have an ingredient, you might have an allergy or aversion, or you might have another reason you need to swap something out. Always start with any substitute the author suggests, and then go to the internet and do some searches if there are no suggestions. Only trust your guess with a substitution if you have done it before – for example, I can usually substitute eggs in baked goods because I have done so dozens of times. I have a common substitutions list.
  4. Do I have to prepare ingredients first or is that in the recipe? Most recipes are written with some directions as to how an ingredient should be prepared – a chopped onion, a drained can of beans, and so on. Often this makes sense, because the recipe itself quickly assembles and changes these prepared items. That said, preparation takes time (and is never properly reflected in time estimates). Check to see what things you need to do there – such as chopping vegetables. Account for that in your time if you can. If you’re new at cooking, or haven’t cooked for a while, I recommend observing and noting how much time it takes for you to do things like chopping, and how much energy. Factor these things in when reading a recipe – you may want to avoid a recipe for which the preparation is particularly intense. (Confession: my knife skills are still slower than average even though I’ve cooked for over 20 years now. I sometimes skip recipes that require tons of chopping as a result.)
  5. What equipment do I need? Always good to check – not just to make sure you have it in your kitchen. Chopping and prepping your ingredients only to find that your pot needs washing is a frustrating experience.
  6. What are the steps? I read this in advance to know how much energy it will take to make a recipe, and also how much I will need to concentrate, or if I can cook other things during parts or take it a bit easy. For example: a stew that cooks for an hour with only some stirring leaves a lot more room than, say, a stir-fry with lots of quick motions.
  7. What steps might I need time or help with? Some things can be tricky – it is good to know if, say, a long kneading process is involved. If you live with someone else who can help you, you can also check if you can get their help with a particularly tricky step – for example, draining pasta from a large pot.
  8. Have I made recipes like this before? What did I learn then that can help me now? This is always good to ask yourself, so that you can both apply new skills and remember from past mistakes. For example, I remembered from making a miso eggplant that extra miso burns in the oven really easily, so I made extra sure to make sure not too much miso dripped off when making miso-glazed salmon.
  9. What do I need to do before I start cooking? For example, do you need to go shopping – or wash a lot of things you’re bringing out from the closet? Or are you ready to go? This process takes energy and time.
  10. Do I have the time, energy, and things I need to cook this recipe? Consider the answers to questions 1-9. No shame if the answer to number 10 is no.

I hope this helps you as you go forth, explore recipes, and make great and delicious things in your kitchen.

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