Knowing how to follow a recipe is the first step to knowing how to cook! Here’s what you need to know to nail making a recipe at home—and some hints and tips to help you make it your own.
Pin this recipe now to save it for laterPin Recipe
Learning how to cook is a right of passage. I mean, when it comes to adulting, making your own meals is pretty important—and microwaving a frozen burrito doesn’t count!
However, if you’re not sure where to begin, this is the place to start. I’ll share my tips on how to follow a recipe, which will start you on the road to delicious homemade dinners, desserts, and everything in between!
1. Read the Recipe
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people try to wing it when trying to follow a recipe. I’m not saying you have to memorize all of the step-by-step instructions, but it is a good idea to look over the recipe card before you begin!
Carefully read the ingredients, instructions, and notes before you add a recipe to your meal plan. That way you know exactly what to expect, how many servings it makes, the serving size, and what you need (more on that next!).
Reading the recipe in advance will also help you spot questions you need to answer before you start. That way you aren’t flustered in the kitchen!
2. Make Sure You Have The Right Equipment
One of the worst things that can happen while you’re cooking is realizing you don’t have the right kitchen gadget, pot, or pan for the job. So before you start, take a look at the recipe, and make sure you have everything you need—including measuring cups, baking dishes, a mixer, etc.
If not, see if there’s another item you can use instead. For example, you might not have a zester, but you can still make homemade lemon bars by cutting off a piece of peel with a paring knife and slicing it finely.
3. Get The Ingredients You Need
After checking for the equipment you’ll need, make sure you have all the ingredients on hand before you start cooking. Again, this might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to forget an ingredient or two when you’re in the middle of making a recipe.
So, when you want to follow a recipe, take a quick inventory of what you have and what you need from the ingredient list. Then, make a shopping list, and head to your local grocery store.
4. Plan The Time You Need
Does your recipe need refrigeration time to cool? Is there a component you’ll need to prepare in advance that adds extra cooking time? If you’re making homemade bread or dinner rolls, is there one rise or two?
All of these are important to know before you start cooking so you can plan the rest of your day (or night) accordingly.
Also note that if you’re a newbie in the kitchen, you may need more prep time than indicated on the recipe. Dicing a few onions might take 5 minutes for a seasoned pro, but it could be 10 minutes or more if you’re still learning how to use a knife!
You’ll also want to make sure you time everything right if you’re making more than one recipe for the same meal. You don’t want your mashed potatoes to be ready if your turkey breast needs another 40 minutes in the crockpot!
5. Prep Before You Start
There’s a French term called mise en place, which means “everything in its place,” and it’s a great rule of thumb to follow when learning how to follow a recipe, especially if you’re new to cooking.
Before you start, take a few minutes to measure out all your ingredients, chop any veggies, and organize everything according to when you’ll add it to the recipe. That way, when it comes time to cook, you can just focus on cooking and don’t have to worry about dicing zucchini while stirring a skillet of ground beef at the same time.
6. Get Cooking!
Now, it’s go time! Read the recipe through once again, and get out the pots and pans you need after all of the ingredients are ready. Then, simply work through the recipe step-by-step.
Since you’ve already read the recipe through, there won’t be any snags or surprises. Your recipe will turn out perfectly with a hitch!
Terms and Phrases to Know for How to Follow a Recipe
Here are some terms and phrases everyone should know when following a recipe:
- Preheat – Turn on the oven or stovetop to the temperature specified in the recipe. Do this before you start cooking so the cooking appliance is hot when you’re ready to use it.
- Simmer – Cook food gently in liquid on the stovetop. The key word here is gentle. You should see small bubbles forming on the surface of the liquid, but it shouldn’t be at a rolling boil.
- Rolling boil – Boiling liquid rapidly with big bubbles.
- Sear – Quickly cook meat or fish over high heat so the outside is browned or crisp but the inside is still raw.
- Chiffonade – Cut food, like herbs or lettuce, into thin strips. To do this, stack the leaves, roll them up tightly. Then, slice across the roll to create ribbons.
- Dice – Cut food into small, even cubes.
- Chop or roughly chop – Cut food into pieces. They should be roughly the same size, but precision isn’t as important here.
- Mince – Chop food into very small, even pieces. Garlic is often minced.
- Beat – Mix ingredients together quickly, usually with a handheld mixer, to make them light and airy.
- Fold – Gently mix ingredients together. When folding, be careful not to overmix, or you’ll end up with tough results.
- Whisk – Quickly mix ingredients together with a wire whisk. Whisking is common for sauces and combining dry ingredients.
- Soft, medium, and stiff peaks – These terms are used when beating egg whites. Soft peaks mean the beaten whites will form gentle peaks that fall over when the beaters are lifted. Medium peaks mean the whites will hold their shape, but the peaks will curl over a bit. Stiff peaks mean the whites will hold their shape, and the peak will stand up straight when the beaters are lifted.
Reading the comments section of a recipe featured on a website or blog will give you a great idea of how easy the recipe was for other readers. You may even discover some helpful tips, tricks, and suggestions that the recipe post doesn’t mention!
Another key to knowing how to follow a recipe is measuring the ingredients correctly. It’s a good idea to invest in a kitchen scale, because many baking recipes use weight measurements like ounces and grams, rather than cups and spoons.
When it comes to measuring by volume (that is, with those cups and spoons!), you should always lightly spoon in dry ingredients like all-purpose flour rather than scooping them with the measuring cup.
This is the spoon and level method. It allows you to get the most accurate measurement and avoid using too much flour, which results in dry baked goods. If a recipe says to pack the measuring cup (as is often the case with brown sugar), use the back of a spoon to press the ingredients into the cup.
A heaping cup means the ingredients can be over the edge of the measuring cup or spoon, while scant means a little bit less. If the recipe doesn’t specify scant or heaping, the ingredient should be level with the edge of the cup—you can use a butter knife or leveler to scrape off any excess.
Many new cooks are also confused about whether to measure items before or after cutting, mincing, or chopping when following a recipe. Read the wording carefully: if it says, “1 cup basil leaves, chopped,” the recipe author wants you to measure out one cup of basil leaves, then chop them. In contrast, “1 cup chopped basil leaves” means you’ll chop the leaves, then measure out 1 cup. Details matter!
Making Substitutions and Changes
Now that you know how to follow a recipe, what if you don’t want to follow a recipe?
Generally speaking, you have much more leeway to make changes and substitutions when you’re cooking versus when you’re baking. There’s a lot of science in baking, and making significant changes can mean that your recipe won’t turn out. Mix-ins and toppings can usually be switched up as long as you keep the proportions the same, but the ingredients for the base of the recipe—the dough or batter—shouldn’t be changed until you’re more familiar with the science behind how different ingredients work.
With cooking, you can always feel free to switch up herbs, spices, vegetables, grains, etc. Most food blogs and cookbooks will list potential substitutes. Or, if you’re not sure, you can do a quick internet search to see if you can swap, say, the ground beef with turkey when you’re making beef enchiladas.
The more you cook from actual recipes, the more you’ll get a feel for what ingredients work well together and how you can make substitutes that taste great. You might even want to invest in a copy of The Flavor Bible, which is a guide to flavors and ingredients that complement each other.
This depends on your level of cooking experience. If you are a beginner cook, following a recipe closely is essential for a successful result whereas more experienced cooks can often make adaptions without it affecting the recipe.
The steps and tips provided in this post apply to all kinds of cooking, including baking. That said, baking recipes often require strict adherence to the recipe whereas cooking usually leaves room for experimentation. You may also come across a few baking terms that haven’t been explained above, but a simple Google search will help you out!
If, after cooking, you end up with something that doesn’t look or taste like the recipe you’ve followed, it could be for one or many reasons. Check to see whether your measurements of the ingredients were correct, whether the oven was preheated at the correct temperature, and whether you followed any tips recommended by the recipe developer.
You can always reach out directly to the recipe developer with questions – I love it when my readers reach out!