How to Read a Recipe and Not Want to Punch a Hole in the Wall

This is a recipe from NF Rebel Chef Noel.

I don’t know about you, but I have never liked reading the instructions for board games. The tutorials at the beginnings of video games bore me to death. When I play a game, I go basic. No fancy moves, no secret codes, and no strategy guides. I figure it out as I go.

I suppose you could say that this is why I’m also not very good at games.

But something has recently begun to change my mind. I attended a game night at a friend’s house, and they told me to go read the instructions for the game we were about to play. They wouldn’t tell me the rules, no, they made me read (the horror!). And when we played, I still didn’t win, but I was far better than I usually was. I could even see how I would be a force to be reckoned with if we played again.

I imagine a lot of you are like me and games when it comes to cooking. It’s not fun. You don’t enjoy it. You tried it once or twice, but you’ve lost interest.

The instructions for a game feel tedious to me, and I wouldn’t blame you if recipes feel tedious for you.

The recipe for a dish is not only the basic instructions, but it’s also a sheet of cheat codes for the cook. So today, we’re going to learn how to use a recipe to your advantage.

Basic knowledge


1. Follow the order. When setting up your workspace and prepping ingredients, make sure you pay attention to the order. Keeping your ingredients in order will make following each step in the moment super easy!

When I was a kid, my cousin taught me how to make chocolate chip cookies. He also taught me that the order of the ingredients list is the order in which you add your ingredients. Until then, I thought the ingredients list was just a jumbled mess… or ordered alphabetically… or by size or type of ingredient. I honestly couldn’t make sense of the order.

Just knowing that the ingredients are written in a specific order made cooking way less intimidating for middle-school aged me. (At the grocery store? Try following our ingredient organizing tips here.)

2. Grab a pen (and paper). Write down your list of ingredients (in order!) and check them off as you’re cooking. This is especially helpful if you’re making something new or if it has an extensive list of ingredients. This will keep you from forgetting an ingredient, adding a wrong ingredient, or adding something twice – especially if you like to watch tv or have dance parties while cooking. Plus, you get the good feels for having “done” stuff. Trust me, it can help motivate you.

3. Respect the comma. With the exception of you grammar nerds out there, most of us feel like commas are a pain in the butt. But in recipes. commas have a very specific meaning. Generally, commas in recipes are important when written after an ingredient. For example:

“1/4 cup cashews, chopped”

Means you put your whole cashews in a measuring cup, dump them onto your cutting board, then chop them up. This is different than:

“1/4 cup chopped cashews”

No comma means you chop those suckers BEFORE measuring them.

Why does this matter? Whole nuts (or similar ingredients) take up more space in a measuring cup. This means you’re actually putting less of these ingredients into your dish. Sometimes, this can make a big difference.

You know how ice takes up a lot more space than water? Same thing.

4. Measure the ingredients correctly.

There are a million reasons why we might measure something incorrectly. Today I’m going to cover two: equipment and technique.

Sometimes recipes have measurements in weights and volume instead of cups and spoons. Some folks prefer cooking by weight so that they don’t have to wash all the measuring cups and spoons. BUT if you don’t have a food scale, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go get a scale before you make that recipe (especially if you’re baking). I know you probably learned how to convert measurements in high school science classes, but people make mistakes and recipes don’t always convert perfectly.

For non-scale recipes, dry ingredients are measured in nesting measuring cups or measuring spoons.

When measuring dry ingredients, scoop your ingredient into the cup (or spoon) either by dipping the measuring cup into the dry ingredient and scooping with the cup itself or by using a spoon and filling the cup – if you’re using a larger measuring cup, often the cup won’t fit into the package. Fill the cup until it is slightly OVER full. Then scrape a straight edge (like the back side of a butter knife) across the top of the cup to take off the excess. This ensures that your dry measurements are accurate.

Stuff like peanut butter, almond butter, and quicksand is measured in these cups too. Spoon the ingredient into the cup and push it down into the cup to get any air bubbles out. Then spoon in some more until over full and again, scrape the top so that the ingredient is even with the edge of the cup.

Liquids can be measured in those dry nesting cups too (the measurement doesn’t change), but that can get messy. You’ll need to fill that dry measuring cup all the way to the top to get an accurate measurement, which means that you’ll probably also spill it all over the counter. This is where liquid measuring cups come in. Liquid measuring cups have enough space at the top of the cup for you to accurately measure something without spilling it everywhere, and they’re usually made of clear plastic, glass, or pyrex so you can actually see the measuring lines and therefore measure accurately.

5. Read the frickin’ recipe. Seriously. READ IT. That’s right. This is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t do this. I’ve even been guilty of this myself.

You might be missing a piece of equipment or food. You might have an idea for an additional ingredient to make the meal even better before you go to the store. There might be some unexpected steps and long prep times that mean you need to start a little earlier than you thought to eat when you want.

Don’t just read the title. Read the whole dang recipe BEFORE you cook the thing. 

Bonus tip: Know the recipe author. Once you know how an author writes and what their food tastes like, you’ll know if they make their recipes too spicy, salty, sweet, etc. for your tastes (not to mention you’ll learn about the accuracy of their measurements). Trust YOUR taste buds, not theirs. Sure, you may not be publishing recipes – but you have your own preferences and allowing yourself to be in charge will help you grow in the kitchen. 

The more you know

Mike_fleming monopoly

Using a recipe is a super basic, super easy skill that every cook can learn and should master. Remember that there are “standard” recipe rules (many of the things discussed above). If you’re ever not sure, it’s a safe bet to follow the standard rules.

You regular readers of NF recipes may notice that many of our recipes aren’t in the “standard” format, and that’s okay. We’ve put them in NF format with tons of pictures and (sometimes overly) detailed instructions to make things easier for folks who are completely new to the kitchen. But knowing what these standards are will help you follow recipes outside of Nerd Fitness.

This article is part of a series to help arm you with the basic tools and knowledge you need to dominate in the kitchen.

  • What are some things you’d like to learn to do in the kitchen?
  • What are some basic skills you think every cook should know how to do?

Newbies, chime in with what you’d like to see. Experienced cooks, what are the first few things you would teach someone new?



Photos: iluvgadgets: Board Game, Sela Yair: Books for Cooks, Mike_fleming, Monopoly

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  • Don Chapman

    Get the best chef knife you can afford. Keep it sharp,

  • KC

    The best piece of advice I ever received as a new cook was that if you wanted to add something to a recipe but didn’t know how it would work (especially with spices and herbs), if you taste your in-process food you are making and while it is in your mouth (and on your taste buds) smell the ingredient and you can taste how it will go together (or not).

  • Hinermad

    Several things I learned when I was thrust into doing the cooking for my kids and I:

    1) Don’t trust all the recipes you find online. Read through it and see if it makes sense. For example, if it calls for a cup of salt it better be for homemade Play-Doh, or serves twenty people. Recipes from reputable food websites are generally tested and are fine, but there are other sites where anybody can upload anything they want whether it works or not.

    2) Until you’ve got some experience, prepare a new-to-you recipe as written the first time you make it. Then decide what you’d like to change based on the result. Eventually you’ll get a feel for how much of various spices and flavorings you like, and can start tweaking recipes right from the start.

    3) A handy way to keep a recipe card or printed page where you can see it while you’re cooking and keep it out of the mess you’re making on the counter is by sliding it inside a plastic picture frame – the kind that’s made from a single sheet of acrylic folded over. Like this:It can stand back out of the way but still be visible, or if you’re lucky like me and have a shelf above your counter you can hang it upside down so it’s closer to eye level.

  • Leo Notenboom

    BY FAR the most frustrating item is the difference between oz and oz. Meaning liquid ounces and ounces of weight, knowing which is being specified, and knowing how to convert (since it depends on the density of the item being measured). This is mostly for calorie measurement, but applies equally well to cooking.

  • Angela

    Honestly, cooking should be fun. Just simple fun. Baking is a science but cooking is an art. Savory recipes are guidelines, they aren’t set in stone. Make substitutions or additions as you see fit. Taste everything as you go and you’ll find that “mistakes” can sometimes be delicious. Or otherwise they are easily fixable.

    I am a professional pastry chef. I live for percentages and formulas. I geek out over new methods and procedures. I love the science and it took years of working alongside some incredible chefs before I felt brave enough to try savory cooking on my own. (I’m such a pastry geek that every time I type “cooking”, it autocorrects to “cookies”) I’ve been on that side of the fence, afraid of cooking and I can tell you that it’s much easier and much more fun than you realize.

  • Ky

    Just a note: when you’re measuring out dry ingredients, sometimes it’s recommended not to use your measuring cup to scoop out the ingredients. Like, for flour, if you do it that way, the flour gets packed down and you accidentally put in too much.

    I would say an important tip is to always have the right tools for the job. If you’re constantly trying to use a bowl that’s too small, debone chicken without kitchen shears, or cut veggies with a steak knife, cooking is going to be REALLY frustrating for you. Spending ten bucks to get the tools you need will make everything SO much easier.

  • bonilloa

    The chopped vs ,chopped advice just blew my mind. I had no idea

  • maharetnin

    Something I struggle with hardcore is timing. If want to make Grilled Chicken, Rice Pelaf (?) and steamed broccoli, how do I know when to start what?

    Do I guess? Because that usually means overcooked broccoli and cold rice. 🙁

    Any suggestions?

  • Jimmy Jam

    +1! Do not bother with a set, you will not use most of them. The chef’s knife recomended in the Cooking 101: Your Essential Kitchen Tools post is a fantastic knife. Get it and look no further.

  • johnmarek

    In keeping with the know your tip to know the recipe author, check your Internet source. A good way to do this is to read the comments. If there are no comments, either the recipe hasn’t been up long or it may not be a site with a good reputation. OTOH, comments may offer variations or suggestions if it’s too salty, etc.
    Generally speaking, I find to be a reliable source. Most of the recipes have been vetted in the Food Network kitchens or shows, and if they haven’t, it will be clearly stated on the recipe page. And if you’re a food nerd as well as a fitness nerd, you can watch the Alton Brown videos.

  • Songbird

    I would love to see a masterclass on how to cut food the right way. Also, your take on mise en place, and the best tools for it. I would also love to see a masterclass on breadmaking (preferably with healthy recipes?).

  • rhiannion

    So true about on-line recipes. The recipe called for 3 TBSP salt AND that this recipe had been kitchen-tested and approved by their cooks. Excuse me, the recipe was so salty to be inedible, and when I looked at comparative recipes (after the fiasco, DUH) the salt on the other recipes stated 3 tsp.
    GREAT idea for the recipe cover – I use a magnet on my range hood to hold the recipe.

  • Hinermad

    I love watching Good Eats! That’s where I finally learned to make gravy. Mom was even impressed, and she didn’t impress easily.

    Up above, Ky said “Spending ten bucks to get the tools you need will make everything SO much easier.” I can’t agree more. Decent kitchen tools don’t have to be expensive, but it’s a safe bet they weren’t included in that $30 twelve-piece cookware set you got for Christmas. The best knife in my kitchen is a $30 Victorinox santoku that was stamped out of sheet metal. It wouldn’t hold up in a commercial kitchen, but it also didn’t cost $300.

  • john

    I simply couldn’t leave your web site before bookmarking it because I actually loved it. It’s so well created and very informative. I will also try to make my site good looking as I learned it from yours. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  • emodb

    Without knowing the portion sizes or the recipes (which might call for some things to be done earlier than others), I would say the order would be: Meat, Rice (shortly after meat starts) and broccoli very much last. It’s all to do with physics of heat (which I don’t understand so I can’t explain properly.) If the meat is ready before the other items it will keep warm for quite a long time while you finish up. A pile of rice would keep warm slightly less long but still for about 15 mins after it’s cooked. Broccoli will be cold or tepid quite quickly after cooking so it would be the last thing to start as it will have a shorter cooking time than the other things and won’t wait around for the other things to finish.

    One thing I would say is that once cooked (grilled, roasted, casseroled, whatever), meat keeps hot for quite a long time.

    In fact, if you are roasting meat it is recommended that at the end of the cooking time the meat should be left in the roasting pan for half an hour to relax. That way the juices flow back into the meat and out into the pan. (Think of if you have ever burned yourself by accident, or sunburn. The skin tightens up in response to the heat. As it cools it relaxes and blood flows more easily around the area.)

    The larger the cut of meat, the longer it will keep hot (especially if it is left in a grill that is still warm after the heat has been turned off.) It’s all to do with the physics of heat (which I don’t understand so I can’t explain).

  • Sarah

    So. Newbie, I guess. No advice, just awkward questions. 🙂 I can’t not burn things to the pan when I cook on the stove. Eggs especially, it seems I always leave a layer of egg on the pan that won’t come off, which means the only kind of egg I can manage to cook is scrambled, & not even all of it at that…lol. Pancakes, pasta…et al. I probably over correct as I go, but not knowing where to start seems to doom things from the beginning.

  • Iriae

    As an experienced cook, I would recommend physically putting all your ingredients on the counter before you start chopping/measuring etc. This way if you are short something, you don’t have to stop with a half-made thing to run out and get something.

  • Jason

    I would guess there are three main things to look at here: Your Pan, your tool (spatula, turner, spoon, etc.), and grease/oil/liquid levels. If you are using a rough pan like cast iron or something old and scratched up, you need a lot more grease to keep the bottom of the pan separated from your food (for example for fried eggs). If you have a non-stick surface, you still need some but not as much. I’m not going to try to provide all of the relevant information for picking a pan here. I know nerd fitness has a kitchen gear post.

    For your tool, if you can find a spatula with a really thin leading edge, it makes it a lot easier to get under the food. There is a trade-off here, however. Thin plastic tools are flimsy and not very good for shoving down under your food but metal tools will wreck most non-stick pans.

    Putting those two ideas together I would say either get a non-stick pan or a thin metal spatula. Use more grease the rougher the bottom of your pan. Finally, I do a lot of cooking in cast iron, and its nearly impossible to not leave a thin layer of eggs in the bottom when scrambling. Frying eggs is accomplished with a small puddle of grease/oil. So also have reasonable expectations for your tools.

    Try to cook a little lower heat and a little slower. This reduces the stakes of getting it just right. It also will help your food cook more evenly instead of burnt to the pan on the bottom and under-cooked in the middle.

    Pancakes: more grease, let them set up pretty well before touching them and they won’t tear so easily.

    Pasta is usually prepared by boiling first. I’m not sure why you are getting it burnt to the pan. If you are trying to saute it into another dish, make sure you have plenty of liquids in the pan and keep it moving.

  • Amber

    My biggest thing is this: Clean as you go. It is the one thing that stuck with me through the military. It’s the most awesome thing I was ever taught. While you’re food is cooking, It keeps you moving so you’re not just standing around waiting and it’s so much easier afterwards. I mean, Who wants to do dishes after they’ve had a nice filling meal?

  • Alys Persson

    OMG #3!!! I seriously did not know this! I use chopped cashews pretty often too…. darn it. It all makes sense now!

    Second rant: I recently made some pasta and didn’t read the directions for the sauce and it was amazing. The next time I made it I followed the directions and didn’t like it as much. But that’s rare that indiscretion turns out better.

  • Joshua Tenpenny

    “Baking is a science but cooking is an art. Savory recipes are guidelines, they aren’t set in stone. ”

    This is exactly what I was going to say. In baking cakes, breads, pie crusts, cookies, candy, etc the ratio of certain ingredients is vital to getting the desired results. They rely on the specific chemical and physical properties of certain ingredients, and how those ingredients react depends on temperature, how they are mixed together, etc. Randomly swapping flours or leaveners or sweeteners when baking is going to have a much more dramatic effect than if you are making a stir fry or a tomato sauce.

    The Serious Eats website is a good place to get a detailed look at some of these factors, for instance, pancakes:

  • Hinermad

    I find that things stick terribly if the pan is too hot. For frying eggs I keep the heat low and put a lid on the pan.

    The choice of oil or shortening is important too. If it scorches easily, it’ll allow food to stick if it’s too hot. I like canola oil for frying; it seems to have a higher smoke temperature than most other common cooking oils. Butter works well too. Olive oil is so-so for frying; I’d save it for marinades and salad dressings.

  • Jason

    I’m there with you on lower heat. I haven’t tried using the lid. I usually go over easy, anyway so it isn’t that important.

    I use grapeseed oil or sunflower oil for high heat. I will use coconut oil and salvaged bacon grease for medium-high. I don’t like to fry with olive oil as it’ll almost always go over the smoke point which ruins the flavor and nutritional value.

  • Kyle

    A few things I would add:
    1. Always quadruple (or at least triple) the amount of garlic asked for.
    2. With online recipes found on many blogs, skip the heartwarming stories and go right to the recipe.
    3 (and most important): Know what you like and what you don’t like – if I see a recipe call for red peppers, I don’t feel too bad replacing them with green peppers. If something asks for leeks but I can’t find them, onions work just fine.
    4. It can be helpful to be exact, but with cooking (as opposed to baking) if things aren’t exact, it’s going to be okay.
    5. Always check to make sure the oven or stove is on. I’ve made this mistake way too many times.
    6. You will get faster. It used to take me two hours to just finish chopping all of the vegetables that I needed for certain recipes. Now it is nowhere near as long.
    7. Bulk spices are your friend. Spices are expensive, and some are hard to find. You can buy all the spices you need for some recipes and spend less than a dollar (there have been times where I’ve had to pay for the weight of the bag because what I needed was so little).
    Other than that, turn on music or TV and have fun.

  • Peter Schott

    A lot of great comments here with good advice. I found a couple of resources that helped me:

    1. Joy of Cooking – yes, there are a bunch of recipes, but a lot of “why” and “how to” in that book as well. (Personally prefer the slightly older edition over the newer one – less dependence on Microwaves and such, but good either way.)
    2. Good Eats – the books or the show, though the show is much more entertaining and would probably appeal to most people on this site. Alton Brown describes his inspiration as Julia Child + Mr. Science + Monty Python. He gives a lot of good tips along the way, even for things you may not personally be interested in.
    3. Cooking for Geeks – a mix of science + cooking with a lot more focus on what’s happening as you cook. There are recipes, but a lot of the book really covers why things happen when you cook and that then leads to some cool applications for that knowledge. 🙂

    I learned about following a recipe from an early age so nothing really new here, but still a good reminder that not everyone has that knowledge (or can always put it to good use right away).

  • Sara Cooper

    To me, cooking is easy…just put some olive oil on the pan then put some onion and garlic…salt…wait for a while…then put some spices may be…then wait….then put all the gradients whatever you want to cook….done! I goes for everything ..blv me 🙂 Haha
    my blog

  • Julianna Abdon

    It’s summer time, so if you don’t know how to grill a piece of meat…learn how immediately! Grill up those veggies too! But don’t forget to marinade and season it up first. I just started grilling last summer and it is definitely an art that takes some time to learn how to perfect….or just not burn or undercook. Always looking for good marinades/seasoning ideas tho!

  • Moose g

    We have it easier in the UK where we measure dry ingredients by weight rather than using volumes.

    Also no guarantee that ingredients are listed in the correct order.

    I use Paprika for recipe management and once I’ve made a recipe I’ll re write the method for future use.

  • Kristin

    I am a relatively new cook (my husband normally takes care of the cooking – yes, I know how lucky I am). I’d love to have a better understanding of potential substitutions – for example if I want to make a traditional recipe dairy free what could I use instead? And how much? and when is that appropriate and when is it not?

  • Hinermad

    Substitutions can be tricky because many ingredients can do double or triple duty depending on the recipe. For example, eggs. For an omelet it may be fine substituting egg whites for whole eggs because you’re mostly after the protein, which sets when you cook it and gives the omelet its shape and texture, But in a salad dressing using egg white instead of a whole egg would be a mistake because there are compounds in the yolk that bind oil and water together and prevent the dressing from separating.

    When you’re thinking of substituting an ingredient, try to figure out what it does in the recipe. Flavors can be swapped out to taste, so that’s pretty straightforward. But does the ingredient add protein, which adds body or binds other things together (like egg in meatloaf)? Does it add fat? Egg yolks and cream are often used for their fat content. How about acid? Baking soda needs an acid (buttermilk, vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) in the mix to activate it so it’ll bubble and cause the product to rise.

    When I’m considering a substitution I search the Web to see if anyone has done it before. Sometimes I’ll find that it worked; other times I’ll find that it didn’t, and sometimes I’ll find something that works better that I didn’t think of.

  • emodb

    Ideas for other posts (if anybody’s still following this comments thread): One of my bugbears is wasted food. I am horrified watching TV and seeing the amount of stuff people chuck out when it could have been reused (in time) or frozen, or is actually still okay to eat but technically beyond its ‘Best Before’ date.

    The recipes on the blog are great but as a reasonably experienced home cook I find it really useful to make stuff ahead of time and use it during the week (or freeze and use later) because there’s only one of me and many recipes call for 4 people. There may well be other Nerds out there who are cooking just for themselves (or for one other) and making everything from scratch EVERY night can be a pain.

    Breakdown of the concept (in no particular order):

    Difference between ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ dates (I presume you have these in the US like we do in the UK?)

    How long, roughly, will different things keep in the fridge (uncooked and then cooked). Especially for ingredients which may be used in meals time and again (eg rice for those who eat it). How to store it safely – what packaging to use, leaving cooked food to chill before putting in the fridge?

    What needs to be stored in the fridge and what can be kept in cupboards

    Possibly, how to stack a fridge so that food items are safe to avoid spoilage (eg cooked meats above raw meat/fish)

    Possibly some ideas for leftovers eg using mince on different days of the week?

    How to do basic freezing safely? What packaging to use, how long (roughly) will things keep, possibly what essential ingredients can be usefully kept in the freezer eg chopped onions, herbs and spices, crumbs.


    Thanks For this post. Now I know How To create my recipes properly.

  • JB

    My advice: read the entire recipe top to bottom before you do anything. especially online recipes, which I find often are missing steps, missing ingredients or are otherwise not perfect.

    Second, prepare all your ingredients before you turn on the heat. Chop all your veggies, salt all your meat, portion all your liquids, all before you turn on a burner. I use the 1 pint take-out containers that I’ve accumulated for this purpose. Since nothing cooked goes in them, I’m not concerned that they’re likely not BPA free

    Finally, if a recipe says “olive oil” and “high heat” together, it’s wrong. Use canola oil instead