Cooking Tips: How to Read a Recipe

Quote002I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where most of our food was home cooked, & so I learned early on how to make my own food. When I got older I was baffled when I discovered that a large percentage of the people I talked to rarely cooked anything! Our society has largely become one that is reliant on restaurants & pre-packaged processed foods. I myself discovered pretty early on, however, that eating this way is not cheap (despite the convenience factor), so I have always cooked the majority of my own food. Over the years it’s become not only about saving money, but also about saving my health! Whenever I have gone through periods of time where I have eaten more foods that I didn’t make myself I have gained weight rapidly, so I try to keep it to a minimum.

I have learned that a lot of people just plain don’t know how to make their own food (popping something in the microwave doesn’t count!), and/or they are afraid of cooking. They think they will screw it up, that it is a complicated skill to learn. While watching shows on the Food Network can make cooking seem incredibly intimidating at times, it does NOT have to be that complicated! And it is TOTALLY worth learning how to do, even if it’s only the basics. So I’m going to help you guys out & give you guys some help getting started :)

One of the MOST important things that you can do for your health is to start cooking at least some of your own food! Don’t let it intimidate you. Start small and work your way up as you become more confident in your skills. You will probably burn some things & create some things that are inedible. I STILL do this sometimes, and I’ve been cooking my own food for years! (I still remember the time I made what looked like delicious enchiladas only to taste them & discover they were absolutely disgusting & immediately deposited the remainder in the trash!) It’s OKAY if this happens – you just learned what not to do next time, and that’s part of the process (& sometimes certain recipes are just no good). You will also learn your own personal preferences. Myself, I am not a huge onion fan – the flavor overwhelms me easily, so I often will cut the amount of onion in a recipe in half to match my own taste preferences. For someone who is a beginner, I recommend starting with recipes & modifying from there. Find something with a short ingredients list to keep it simple. You will also slowly build up your spices collection and discover which ones you like & which you don’t.

If there are specific cooking topics you would like me to cover, please leave me a comment below! I’d love your input on what would be most useful for you :)

How-to-Read-a-RecipeI’m going to start with how to read a recipe! If this is unfamiliar territory for you, looking at a recipe may feel like looking at a knitting pattern. It seems like it’s written in code, and I’m going to help you crack it. Don’t worry, it’s going to be a piece of cake ;)

Recipes are usually broken up into two parts: the ingredients & the cooking instructions. A well-written recipe will list the ingredients in the order that they will be used within the recipe. Sometimes they even break the ingredients up if they will be used as a group of ingredients at a time (such as for cooking the meat & sauce separately). You will also often find additional information, such as the number of servings a recipe makes (or the number of people it will feed), the time it will take to prepare the ingredients & the time it will take to cook, as well as total time (which is the first two combined).

The ingredients list should have all of the things which you will need to create the recipe. This will include things like cooking oil, spices, meats, vegetables, etc. Each item will also have an amount associated with it. (If you don’t already own a set of measuring spoons & cups you will need to get some – they’re cheap, and they are definitely necessary!)

Meats are usually given either a weight measurement (ex: 1 lb, with lb being the shorthand for pound) or they are listed as a specific cut (ex: 4 boneless chicken breasts). When you buy meats at the grocery store they will have the weight listed on the packaging (16 oz/ounces = 1 pound of meat). Other items will usually be measured in cups, teaspoons or tablespoons. This is why it is important to have both a set of measuring spoons & a set of measuring cups. Sometimes these will be written in a shorthand format: c = cup, lowercase t or tsp = teaspoon, & uppercase T or Tbsp = tablespoon. When you measure these ingredients you want them to be level with the top of the cup or spoon – it can be helpful to use a knife sometimes to even out the top, although this precision is only really necessary if you are baking, and that’s a whole different topic. (A note on measuring flour: spoon the flour into the cup & use a knife to level off the top. If you simply scoop flour directly out of the bag you will end up with too much, and whatever you are making will most likely come out dry.)

The cooking instructions are often separated into parts to make them easier to follow. Make sure you read through the entire recipe before starting! Preferably when you first decide you are going to make it. This way you are prepared & there are no surprises halfway through, so you don’t end up burning something because you didn’t know you had to have an ingredient ready at a certain time. Or so you don’t discover that you were supposed to marinate your meat before cooking, but you only have 30 minutes until you want to eat. I try to prep as much as I can BEFORE I start cooking so that I just have to grab the ingredients as I need them. This is ESPECIALLY important if you have to cut up any vegetables or meats. I also always get out the measuring spoons & cups I will need & place them next to their respective ingredients. These kinds of preparations will make your cooking go much more smoothly & you will be less likely to feel frustrated & frazzled halfway through (believe me, I’ve learned this from experience!!)

If a recipe requires you to use the oven, cooking instructions will usually start with what temperature you should set your oven to. Your oven will need time to preheat, and this will vary depending on what kind of oven you have; I have a gas oven that takes about ten minutes to heat up. I also know that my oven runs a bit on the hot side, so I often will set it 25-50 degrees lower than the recipe says, or I will reduce the cooking time. You will have to figure out your own oven – you can buy an oven thermometer to test the temperature of your oven if you like. Until you know your oven you will want to keep a closer eye on things while they cook (though try to keep opening the oven to a minimum while cooking, since this lowers the oven temperature each time you do it).

Quote001The best recipes will be very specific about what you should do when. They will tell you to first melt the butter or heat up the oil in your skillet before adding in the ingredients, for example. (Make sure you don’t overheat your oil; again, you will have to learn your own stovetop, but I wouldn’t heat a pan above medium starting out until you know for sure how hot your stove can get.) Your instructions should list things like how long to cook different ingredients as you add them, when to add the different ingredients to the pan or pot, etc. An oven timer is an extremely useful thing to have. I normally use my oven’s timer, but if yours doesn’t have one built in I’d suggest buying one. Nowadays you can even use your smart phone as a timer! A timer is important because it allows you to walk away while something is cooking & make sure you get back to the stove or oven when you need to. I’ve had many times where I walked away to do something really quick only to realize that more time had passed than I realized & I had burnt something.

As I experiment with recipes I will often make my own notes to the side to remind myself to do something different in the future. Feel free to substitute out ingredients – I’ve done this for ingredients I just plain don’t like, or if something is harder to find/expensive, or if I just don’t happen to have it at the moment & I have something else that will work in it’s place. You will get more comfortable with swapping items as you practice cooking more. However, don’t be afraid to try new things! That’s often the fun part of this whole process :)

A few other terms you might come across:

Bake = cook in an oven Beat = use a fork or whisk to mix the ingredients until fully blended

Boil = this means that you are bringing whatever is in your pot/pan to a heat where it is bubbling vigorously

Drain = pour the liquid off of the food; for pasta it is easiest to pour into a colander (a bowl with lots of holes in it to allow the water to drain off the food)

Saute = to fry small pieces of food quickly while stirring them in a small amount of hot oil or fat (also known as stir-frying)

Simmer = this means that you want the temperature of what you’re cooking to be just below boiling, usually for an extended amount of time; small bubbles will form, but you don’t want to let it reach full boiling

Toss = to mix lightly & gently Whip = to vigorously mix either with a whisk or a blender until air has been incorporated into the mixture

(Google is a fantastic resource if you come across a term that you don’t recognize!)

I hope you have found this useful! I want to know if this has inspired you to cook something :) Remember, do NOT be afraid of cooking!

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