How to Read a Recipe and Know If It’s Right For You

Recipes are everywhere. We dog-ear our cookbooks, keep a box of family “secrets,” like recipes on Facebook, pin them on Pinterest and favorite them on Twitter. What once was limited to a small repertoire of mains, sides and desserts has grown into a boundless opportunity for new and exciting flavors.

With so many recipes out there (and still so little time), it’s important to know how to read a recipe, decide whether it is a good fit for you (your taste preferences, time, on-hand ingredients), and modify it as needed.

Start by scanning the recipe for the time required, the ingredients list, and the tools if given.

Time Required
The prep time is how long you will spend chopping, slicing and doing other hands-on activities. The cooking time is where the dish is solely cooking — for example simmering on the stove or baking in the oven. Total time takes into account both preparation and cooking. You need to assess whether you want a more labor-intensive dish with 30-plus minutes of prep, or a quick, simple dish with 15 minutes or less of prep work. Also, if you’re hoping to get a meal on the table within the hour, you will need a recipe that has a total time that fits your schedule.

Make sure you have all the key ingredients. If you’re making curry and don’t have coconut milk, you’re either running to the store or you’ll be looking for another meal idea. Especially when making ethnic dishes and going for that authentic taste, it’s essential to have the right spices and herbs. The list can sure look long and daunting sometimes, but having a well-stocked pantry and spice rack can make you ready for anything. Know that many ingredients can be easily substituted. Out of lemon juice? Sub vinegar. Don’t know where to get a shallot? Use onion instead.

If you have basic cooking and baking tools, you should be able to modify any recipe to what you have. If you don’t have the size pot or pan called for, I usually default to one the next size up. With baking or special recipes (say a soufflé), the time, rise and the overall final product will be more significantly affected by any changes, so be sure to have the called-for equipment or be ready to make adjustments.

Next, consider these other factors in deciding if a recipe is right for you.

Number of Servings
This will help you determine whether to make the recipe with the amounts given, to halve the recipe, or to double, triple or multiply it in some way. If you’re cooking for one, do you want leftovers? Most recipes serve four, so if you’re making a dish for the first time or don’t have a lot of fridge or freezer space, you might want to halve the recipe. If this dish is destined for a potluck or gathering, it takes only a little more effort to get double the yum.

Read the Directions Thoroughly
I know you want to just jump in and start, but doing a once-over will save you trouble partway through. I have more than once started a recipe without realizing that my dish needed to marinate or rest overnight between steps 3 and 4. Good to know.

Make Modifications
Remember that recipes are suggestions. Plan now for any changes you want to make to the recipe now that you’re familiar with everything that it involves. Need to make the cookies vegan? Decide how you’re going to replace the eggs. Want to use less sodium and fat? Make a note to cut down on the oil, salt and sauces (and expect a slightly different outcome). Write all substitutions and alterations in the margin of your cookbook and also note how the dish came out and any changes you would make the next time.

Get Your Mise en Place
Make like the Food Network and have all your ingredients and tools out and handy. Some steps move really quickly and you want to be ready. You also want to use your time efficiently, which means having everything within reach.

Cook. Bake.
There’s no better time to get cooking! Follow the recipe along with any planned tweaking.

Eat and enjoy!

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Michaela Ballmann
Michaela Ballmann, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and graduate of Loma Linda University. She has clinical experience from Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. In addition, she is a Certified LEAP Therapist assisting those with food sensitivities. Read Michaela's blog and listen to her podcast at, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.