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Kitchen Literacy: How to Read a Recipe

by Megan Fenton on 2019-05-10T15:52:11-04:00 | Comments

Megan Fenton is an Adult Services Librarian at the Greenburgh Public Library. She enjoys contemporary fiction, audio memoirs, and most of all exploring the library's cookbook collection. She is a self-taught home cook and hopes that Kitchen Literacy will help other aspiring cooks explore the basics of cooking and getting to know their way around the kitchen. 


I started experimenting with cooking and baking in the kitchen of my childhood home when I was probably 10. As the daughter and granddaughter of old school home economics teachers, it wasn't a total surprise that I developed a curiosity for the delicious things that came out of our kitchen. While I was an enthusiastic reader at that time I wasn't a very good one, which was an unfortunate combination with my budding independence in the kitchen. One particularly memorable (and hilarious) consequence of my new hobby was my accidental omission of the sugar from a batch of lemon bars I decided to bake one evening. My father, who had a star-crossed midnight sweet tooth, was the unsuspecting taste-tester of my confection that night. He greeted me in the morning, exclaiming in horror "What's wrong with those bars you made?!" 

Fortunately my reading skills improved and consequently my kitchen creations did too, evidence that even learning to cook can be a gateway to better reading skills! Just like reading a book, preparing to properly execute a recipe also requires some basic literacy skills that even seasoned readers sometimes forget. If you're thinking of learning to cook, here are some basic tips on how to read a recipe (your friends and taste buds will thank you!): 

1. Read the entire recipe through at least once before you begin! You don't want to get to the final steps only to realize that you don't have an essential ingredient or tool, or that you forgot to set the oven and your concoction needs to go in immediately. Bonus Tip: This may also be a good time to consider what the French refer to as "mise en place"- preparing all of your tools and ingredients before you get started. Everything will go more smoothly, and it will be easier to follow the steps if you have everything out of the cupboards and at your finger tips. 

2. Pay attention to the measurement notations. It's very important to understand the difference between "1 T. of garlic powder" vs. "1 t. of garlic powder" (the upper case T refers to Tablespoon and the lowercase t refers to teaspoon). Some recipes also call for ingredients that are measured by weight (grams) rather than volume (cups)... If you don't have a kitchen scale you'll want to be able to convert weight to volume using a handy conversion tool like this one. You'll also want to double check the cooking temperature scales; if your recipe comes from outside the US you may find it is noted in degrees Celsius and you might need to convert to Fahrenheit

3. Have a dictionary/Google handy. If you come across a word, ingredient, tool or technique you are unfamiliar with you'll want to be able to look it up! Google is also a helpful tool when you haven't done the best job with tip number one, and you don't have an ingredient and need to see if you have something you can substitute instead (try this for appropriate substitution suggestions). chef wearing red scarf sniffing a small bunch of green herbs

4. Senses are the final say. The recipe says "sauté for 15 minutes until tender." It's been 15 minutes and those carrots are still looking pretty crunchy. If you find yourself feeling like things just aren't quite right even after you've followed the recipe exactly, then let your eyes, nose and tongue be the decider. If it doesn't seem ready, there's a good chance it's not. Ovens, stoves and microwaves can all vary depending on their fuel source and wattage, so it's not unheard of that cooking times will vary somewhat. 

While great cooking also (eventually) involves some improvisation, following recipes while you're learning to cook gives you the experience to understand how flavor profiles are built as well as how different ingredients combine. Learning how to read and follow a recipe is a great strategy to develop your cooking skills. Not only will your confidence in the kitchen begin improving, so will your reading skills! 

Stay tuned for the next installment of Kitchen Literacy- 10 Essential Cookbooks to Start Your Kitchen Library. 

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