How to Understand and Approach a Recipe
- Baking Fundamentals Lesson #4: How to Understand and Properly Approach a Recipe
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How to Understand a Recipe Lesson Overview:
Today’s lesson is all about a skill you maybe didn’t realize even existed. The process of reading, understanding, and properly approaching a recipe truly is a skill! And one that took me some time to master. I would love to save you the time in figuring this out on your own.
In order to review this lesson, we are going to look at my recipe for the best chocolate chip cookies. This recipe has a lot of moving parts and will help illustrate a lot of the points. I should also note that a few of these points are similar to our mise en place lesson, but it never hurts to reiterate something so important! Let’s dive in!
Watch the Video Lesson
How to Understand and Approach a Recipe
#1: Read the Recipe Through from Start to Finish
It might seem like a no-brainer that the first step in understanding a recipe is to actually read the recipe. But I cannot tell you how many people actually don’t do this before they get started! I fully admit that I didn’t used to do this!
Start at the beginning of the recipe and read it all the way through. Then, read it again! Make notes if that helps you! The more you do this, the more you will truly start to understand the processes involved in baking. Eventually, you will be able to start reading a recipe and can say to yourself, “This cake is made using the creaming method” and the confidence you gain from that understanding is invaluable!
#2: Gain an Understanding of Any Terminology and Techniques you Aren’t Familiar With
It is very common for baking recipes to assume you already know a variety of techniques before starting the recipe. For instance, you can see in my cookie recipe above that you will be browning butter and toasting pecans. Now, I do tend to walk through techniques in my recipes, but not all recipes do this. So if you don’t know what some of the terminology and techniques are in the recipe find a YouTube tutorial and familiarize yourself with them.
I also really encourage you to not just understand how to properly execute a technique in a recipe, but to try to really understand why the technique works. This will only build your baking confidence and successes.
#3: Note the Total Timeline
As you are reading the recipe through, make note of the total timeline. A recipe may take only 10 minutes to mix together and 30 minutes to bake but needs an hour of chilling time before baking. This is important to plan ahead for.
If a recipe is written properly, resting and chilling times should be included in the stated total time, but it is common for recipes to leave this out. I like to make note of my timeline in this way: pre-prep time (allowing ingredients to come to temp) + mixing time + resting time (if any) + baking time= total recipe time.
#4: Plan Ahead for Ingredient Temperatures
Ingredient temperatures are incredibly important in baking, so planning ahead for this is also important! Commonly, butter, eggs, and other ingredients that are kept refrigerated need time to come to room temperature. And while there are some shortcuts to quickly bring ingredients to room temperature, you often risk getting the ingredients too warm. It is definitely best if you can allow time for them to come to room temperature naturally.
#5: Take Note of Punctuation
One of the things that took me some time to understand in reading a recipe is that the commas in the ingredient list are incredibly important! “1 cup of flour, sifted” is a much different thing than “1 cup of sifted flour.” In the first example, “1 cup of flour, sifted,” you would measure out a cup of flour and then sift it. In the second example, “1 cup of sifted flour,” you would sift your flour and then measure out 1 cup of it.
When you look at the recipe picture above, you want to make sure you measure out your butter before browning it and not after, due to the way the ingredient is written. Butter loses some weight when it is browned and this recipe is specifically written for it to be measured before it is browned. And for the pecans you would chop the them before measuring. You will end up with less pecans than intended if you measure them before you have chopped them because whole pecans take up more space by volume. These may seem like small differences but they can be significant in a baking recipe.
All of this really only applies when you are measuring by volume. A cup of flour that has not been sifted will weigh significantly more than a cup of sifted flour will weigh, and pecans measured before they are chopped will yield less than pecans measured before they are chopped. And this is an excellent example of how getting in the habit of weighing your ingredients can help to avoid issues like this. When weighing ingredients, 100 grams of flour will always weigh 100 grams whether you weigh it before or after it has been sifted.
#6: Gather Your Mise en Place
Okay, you know the drill with mise en place by now, but I’m going to keep bringing it up! Get out everything you need for the recipe, equipment and ingredients, and measure everything out. Remember, all of this is done BEFORE you start combining anything!
#7: Take Note of the Ingredient Order & Group by Processes
If a recipe is written properly, the ingredients should be listed in the order that they will be used in the recipe. I like to line my ingredients up in that order and then group them by how they will be combined in the recipe.
In the recipe example above, the first two ingredients have some prep work that needs to be done. The butter will be browned and the nuts will be toasted, which is why they are listed first in the recipe. After that, the rest of the ingredients are listed in the order they will come into use in the recipe. The nuts are only listed higher in the list because it is essential that they are toasted in advance of making the recipe so they can cool. You can see that I have labeled the ingredients in groupings by how they will be combined in the recipe. This is how I set my ingredients up as I am measuring them out so the whole process feels seamless.
#8: Execute the Recipe
Now that you have done your homework, you are ready to start baking the recipe. I promise you will have many more successes once you begin approaching recipes this way.
#9: Assess & Document Your Results
Once your baked good is finished, assess your results. Is your final product what you were going for? If not, note what you didn’t like about it and research what may have been the cause. Learning from your mistakes in the kitchen is more valuable than having successes!
I love to keep a notebook with my recipes along with notes about how it went and any changes I may want to make the next time I approach it.
Homework for this Lesson
As always, the homework is optional but is a good way to practice. Your homework for this lesson is to pick a new recipe and approach it in this way. It can be something simple or something more complex. But sometime in the next few days, bake something new utilizing this approach. Did it turn out the way you wanted? Did you have any issues? What were they? And what did you discover about how to fix it next time?