Before I became a test cook, recipes were primarily a source of inspiration. But now that I’ve spent more than a decade crafting them, I’ve learned just how much info is jammed into a well-tested, thoughtfully written recipe. So, here’s my advice on how to actually follow a recipe.
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The vast majority of published recipes have a basic anatomy—headnote, ingredient list, and steps—and publishers follow style guides to ensure that the work is consistent and clear. Here are some helpful tips to help you better understand each section.
The headnote is the short paragraph above the steps (and sometimes the ingredients). It’s the section cooks are most tempted to skip. Don’t. It provides vital information that isn’t found elsewhere in the recipe, such as what to look for in an ingredient, any substitutions that can be made, when it’s really worth it to seek out the real deal, and tips on how to carry out a particular step. Headnotes are well worth reading.
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The Ingredient List
With a few exceptions, the ingredient list is both a shopping list and a prep list. At a glance, you should be able to figure out what to buy and what you need to do before you start cooking.
While you prep your ingredients (mise en place), look for commas and keywords.
Comma placement is really important. For example, “1 teaspoon peppercorns, ground coarse” means you should measure the peppercorns and then grind them. Don’t use “1 teaspoon ground peppercorns” or “1 teaspoon finely ground peppercorns” or your dish will be far too peppery.
Commas also allow recipe writers to slide prep into an ingredient list.
- How to cut chicken: “1½ pounds chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into ½-inch cubes”
- Prep chiles: “10-15 arbol chiles, halved lengthwise and seeded”
- Which parts of the scallion to use and how to cut them: “5 scallions, white and light green parts only, cut into ½-inch pieces”
A common keyword is “divided.” It indicates that a portion of the ingredient is used at different points—possibly in different ways—more than once in the recipe.
Other keywords to look out for are “plus,” “drained,” “reserved,” “discarded,” and words related to temperature, such as “room temperature,” “chilled,” or “defrosted.”
What about words that aren’t present? A single clove of garlic can be as small as a peanut or as big as a walnut. An America’s Test Kitchen recipe will be specific when necessary. Sometimes we call for “3 garlic cloves, minced”; other times, we call for “1 tablespoon minced garlic.” In the latter example, the amount of garlic really changes the flavor of the dish, so we specify a volume to ensure that you’re adding the right amount. In the former example, the exact amount of garlic doesn’t make a big difference.
The steps of a recipe explain the tasks you need to do and the order you need to do them in.
As you review the recipe steps, ask yourself if you have all the equipment that you’ll need. It’s always a good idea to gather all of the equipment in advance, rather than scrambling in the moment.
Are there places where a lot of stuff happens in a short period of time? If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to line up your ingredients in the order that you’ll need them.
Finally, one keyword to look for in the steps is “remaining.” If, for example, step 2 calls for the “remaining 1 tablespoon of oil” it means that you should have used some oil in step 1. Did you divide the oil up properly?
Recipes will often have something that you look, listen, smell or taste for that tells you it’s time to move on to the next step. There are a lot of reasons that sensory cues are a better guide than times. Your cooktop is just one factor. Induction, gas, and electric ranges all heat your cookware in very different ways and that can really mess with the timing. The time will give you an idea of how long the step will likely take, but rely on the cues to guide you.
If your cook time is outside the window that the recipe provides, it means that moving forward, you should adjust your heat accordingly.
Print and Highlight the Recipe
Where possible, print out the recipe and highlight key instructions with a marker. This means you won’t have to hunt for those directions as you cook, which not only makes things go more quickly but also avoids mishaps if you need to react fast.
KEY INFO TO HIGHLIGHT
- Cookware details (e.g., baking pan with sharp corners)
- Headnote tips that aren’t covered elsewhere (e.g., shopping tips)
- Prep details in the ingredient list, particularly those that take time and can hold you up (e.g., softened butter)
- Reserved items in the ingredient list that you might otherwise throw away (e.g., liquid in a can)
- Divided ingredients (e.g., salt)
- Cooking cues or target temperatures
- Changes in heat
As a recipe writer, I’m really invested in your success. I want to give you all the information you need to make the dish that my recipe promises. So be sure to be an active reader and look for the information I’ve left for you to get the most from any recipe.