Anneka’s BakeClub: How To Read A Recipe

Words by Anneka Manning

This may seem like a pretty silly thing to talk about, but I don’t completely agree with the old saying that goes, “If you can read, you can read a recipe”. There are many elements that make up a recipe and a little insight into the way a recipe is structured and the terms that may be used can go a long way towards success when you are in the kitchen – particularly when you are baking.

A recipe is simply the description of a process, a guide to a procedure. A well-written one should give you all the information you need to make something successfully – it should leave nothing unclear or in doubt.

Recipes are generally divided into four parts:

1. The Prelims

Recipe Title  A good recipe title will always be a clear representation of what the end result will be and won’t leave you disappointed at the end of your baking experience purely because it wasn’t what you expected. However, it won’t include everything about the recipe – this would just mean a ridiculously long (and boring) title.

Makes or Serves  This is a good thing to check when you are choosing a recipe so that it is going to make a suitable quantity. It is also a good guide when making biscuits as to how big they should be – make them too big and you won’t get as many, too small and you’ll end up with an extra batch to bake.

Preparation and Baking or Cooking Times  These are the estimated times it will take you to prepare the mixture and then bake/cook it. Some recipes don’t state preparation or cooking times at all. I like to include them in all my recipes so it gives you a better understanding of the time it will take to complete different stages of the recipe. I also include what I call “diversions” – standing, soaking, cooling, chilling or freezing times. These are additional periods of time that need to be factored into the preparation but are actually “down times” when you aren’t actually required to do anything.

How To Read A Recipe

Make note of how you need to prepare the ingredients before you begin the method

2. The Ingredients List

Logical Ordering  Ingredients in a well-written recipe will be listed in order of use, and this will show you in what sequence you need to add ingredients, and to keep track of what has been added.

Preparation Instructions  You will notice words like softened, sifted, chopped, lightly whisked and melted attached to certain ingredients. Do these things before you get into following the actual “method” of the recipe. Take note if there is a particular way of preparing an ingredient. For example, if something is to be chopped you need to know if it is to be “finely” chopped, “coarsely” chopped or just chopped (which means that it is chopped into medium-sized pieces).

Measurement Options  Sometimes in a recipe you are given both weight measurements along with cup measurements, if there is an equivalent. This is giving you an option with the way you measure, so choose a method and stick with it for the whole recipe for consistency. Again, take note of any “special” instructions linked with the quantity and the measuring of it. You also need to keep in mind the relationship between the preparation instructions and the amount required in cups. For instance, “¾ cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts” means the hazelnuts need to be chopped before measuring with a cup measure. If, however, the recipe said “¾ cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped” then you would measure the whole hazelnuts before chopping. The overall difference in quantity may not be big in some cases, but it can be, so this needs to be kept in mind.

Ingredient Preferences  Also note whether a particular variety of an ingredient is needed to give you the best results. For example, a recipe may call for unsalted butter, navel oranges, dried dates or desiccated coconut to ensure the best outcome. Obviously the choice is yours and these specifics are here to guide you to the best results possible.

3. The Method

This is where you find out how all your ingredients are combined and baked. A well-written recipe will divide the method part into logical steps that signify different stages in the recipe. It is important to follow this sequence when making the recipe.

Follow the Sequence  Preheating your oven and preparing any tins or trays is often the first thing a baking recipe will ask you to do. However, in some recipes you need to first prepare or cook some of the ingredients. The reason for this may be that the mixture needs to be chilled or proved, for example.

Equipment and Technique Instructions  The method will tell you how to combine the ingredients (the technique to use) and the equipment and utensils you will need. For example, in this recipe you need to “Use an electric mixer to beat the butter and sugar in a medium bowl, scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary”. It will also tell you what to look out for once this step is finished – in this case, “until just combined”.

Adding Some Now, Some Later  Also take note if you need to use only part of the total amount of an ingredient at different stages of the recipe. The part of the dark chocolate (300g of it) in this recipe is melted and the remaining 150g is stirred through in chunks later on. It is extremely frustrating to get halfway through a recipe and realise you have already used the total amount of an ingredient when you need to add a portion of it later.

A Suggested Range  Often baking times will be given as a range in recipes to accommodate for variations between ovens. I recommend always setting your timer for the lowest time. If the baking time is different because of your oven, make sure you note it on the recipe for next time.

What To Look For  Along with the time, a good recipe will always give you an indication of what you need to look for once a process is completed. Cookies might be “still slightly soft to the touch”, in muffin recipes you are often asked to cook them until “a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean”, and with scones “until they are lightly golden and sound hollow when tapped on the base”. Use these descriptions to help judge whether something is cooked or not.

Follow the Cooling Advice  There are a number of ways to cool things you have baked, all suited to different types of recipes. For example, a butter cake is best left in the pan for a few minutes to cool a little before being turned onto a wire rack – this will give the cake time to “settle” so it is less likely to fall apart when it is turned out, but the crust may go soggy if the cake is left in the pan for too long or even cooled completely in the pan. Always follow what is recommend in the recipe for the best results.

Don’t Guess, Look It Up  And remember, always refer to a reliable food glossary if you are unfamiliar with any words or terms used in the method.

4. Tips and Hints

Most, but not all recipes, will finish with helpful hints and tips related to ingredients, shortcuts, storage and the like. Always check them out as they can be very useful bits of information that will allow you to make the most of the recipe.

Remember, good recipes are far more than well-written words – they are a thoughtful combination of ingredients and techniques. In a great recipe, the unique flavours and textures of individual ingredients are brought together in a way that results in balance and harmony, to create something utterly delicious that is pleasurable and memorable. Without this balance, even if the recipe is clear, concise and easy to follow, the results won’t be good, no matter what you do. As you become a confident baker, your instinct for knowing a well-thought out, well-written and well-balanced recipe will develop as well.

Until next week… happy baking!

x Anneka

For more posts by Anneka Manning, click here.

Anneka Manning is a food author and the founder of exciting new Sydney-based cooking school, BakeClub. Visit her website at www.bakeclub.com.au to join the club, book into a BakeClass, download delicious no-fail recipes and be inspired by baking videos. You can also find BakeClub on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest. To find out more or ask about private BakeClub classes, call (02) 9399 7645 or email info@bakeclub.com.au.