Building Cooking Confidence: Recipe Reading 101

Want to know our secret to avoiding headaches when trying a new recipe?

Reading the recipe!

Yes, it sounds obvious, but stay with us. We’re all for spontaneity when it comes to most adventures, but in the kitchen, we know that it truly benefits the cook to carefully read through a recipe before setting up their mise en place.

It’s quite common for newer cooks to see the title of a recipe, think to themselves, “This looks bomb,” and then dive right in. The result? You discover that there are a bunch of ingredients that aren’t in your pantry, or find a step halfway through that requires letting dough rest for an hour. And that foils the whole plan.

Recipe reading not only builds kitchen confidence, it also provides a moment to slow down, focus, and be present. In our hyper-fast culture of swiping and scrolling, there’s something therapeutic about reading a recipe from start to finish. It’s like a bonus moment of Zen before you even get into that meditative cooking zone.

Learning to decode and read through a recipe is no biggie once you learn how. Here are a few tips from ZENB on how to do just that:


The first place to start is by looking through the ingredients list. Every recipe, no matter where you find it, will have the ingredients grouped together, usually in a column. Commonly, ingredients are listed in the order that they’ll be used in the recipe. If a recipe has multiple parts, say for a sauce and a protein, the ingredients for each will be under those sub-headings.

Ticking off the ingredients lets you accomplish a few important things:

  • Making sure that you have all or most of what is needed. 
  • Deciding what you can substitute if you don’t have a few ingredients on hand. 
  • Figuring out if there are health or dietary swaps you want to make (almond milk for cow’s milk, or olive oil for butter, for example). 
  • Seeing how each ingredient must be prepared to set up your mise en place. Most recipes will show how the author wants the ingredients to be prepped. The ingredients list might read, “1 large red onion, chopped” or “1 egg, beaten,” and will not include that direction in the actual body of the recipe.

The ingredients list will also give you the quantity that you’ll need for each item. Some quantities are to be measured with cups and spoons, and others are for weighing out ingredients. These are often abbreviated:

  • Tablespoon: tbl, tbs, or tbsp, or occasionally an uppercase T
  • Teaspoon: tsp, or occasionally a lowercase t
  • Cup: cu, C
  • Ounce: oz
  • Pint: pt
  • Quart: qt
  • Gram: g
  • Pound: lb
  • Milliliter: ml, mL

Some recipes will also include an ingredient that must be already prepared. Many grain bowl recipes, for example, start with rice or quinoa that’s already cooked. Others may call for a condiment or sauce that has its own recipe that’s linked (or on another page, if you’re looking at an IRL cookbook). And sometimes, ingredients are listed as “divided,” which means you should separate the ingredient as directed, as it will be used in multiple steps.

Recipe Steps

The first instruction in a well-written recipe will include any actions that must be taken in advance, like preheating the oven or soaking beans overnight. It’s critical to pay attention to these instructions, because they might change the time frame of when you can make the recipe.

Then, look through the subsequent steps, noting when each ingredient is needed (so you can be even more efficient in setting up your mise). There will likely be steps that take place while other ingredients are cooking. For instance, the recipe may say, “While the squash is roasting, make the herb sauce.” This is the author’s way of helping you use your time wisely and to make sure all of the dish’s components are ready at the same time.

Finally, be sure to read the recipe’s last step. Some dishes will need to rest, chill, or come to room temperature. Or, it may include instructions for serving, such as portioning out each serving, or arranging everything on a platter. It may also instruct you to garnish the final dish with things that aren’t on the ingredients list like a drizzle of olive oil or a pinch of finishing salt. There may be tips or suggestions below the recipe or in a call out box — give that a look, too!

For more cooking advice and inspo, check out the ZENB blog, and then head over to our collection of 150+ plant-fueled recipes! Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for more info and tips on living a balanced life.  

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