Decoding Recipes

Tricia was preparing for her daughter’s 6th birthday party. Though she didn’t cook often, she decided to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. The sauce was important to her family; it was her late mother’s recipe and a childhood favorite.

While at the grocery store struggling to figure out where to locate the correct ingredients, she was reminded why she doesn’t cook. Was a stalk of celery just one piece, or the whole thing? And the oregano—was it dried and ground or fresh?

March is National Nutrition Month, the perfect time to remember that many clients aren’t as familiar with recipe reading, cooking, and shopping as dietitians are and often won’t speak up to let you know. Cooking at home can challenge the patience of all cooks, novice to advanced.

Make sure clients understand standard information found on recipes, some of which include the following:

  • Eggs, unspecified, mean large eggs.
  • Sugar, not specified, means white sugar.
  • Herbs are generally called for in dried form.
  • Flour, not specified, means all-purpose white flour.
  • The word divided, listed after an ingredient, means that ingredient is used in two or more parts of the recipe.

Besides these standards of recipe reading, there are other ways to help save your clients time in the kitchen. Offer these 10 tips to help their next meal come together with ease. 

  1. Read the full recipe. Before starting, always read through the entire recipe at least twice. It saves time in the end.
  2. Watch punctuation. Punctuation in a recipe gives direction. Follow the guidance of the comma. For example, “1 cup chopped nuts” isn’t the same as “1 cup nuts, chopped.” In the first instance, prechopped nuts are measured. In the second, whole nuts are measured and then chopped.
  3. Note differences in measurements. Ounces and fluid ounces are not the same—one measures weight, the other volume. For example, 3/4 cup of flour isn’t the same as 6 oz of flour. If a recipe calls for ounces, be sure to weigh the ingredient.
  4. Get out supplies before starting. Gather measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, baking pans, and any other needed equipment in the beginning; this saves time and enables the process to go more smoothly.
  5. Gather ingredients. In addition to the equipment, get out all of the ingredients called for in a recipe before starting. It’s best to know right away if you don’t have enough flour for the recipe. This also helps the recipe come together more quickly.
  6. Know the difference between simmer and boil. Simmering means that a bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two. Boiling means more vigorous bubbling. Knowing the difference between the two is very important for the quality of a recipe.
  7. Ensure the pan is hot enough. Food will stick to the pan if it isn’t hot enough. Clients can test this by flicking a few drops of water onto the pan; if the water sizzles, the pan is hot.
  8. Leave food alone. While food is cooking, don’t turn, poke, or flip. For example, breaded chicken won’t develop a nice crust until it’s allowed to cook, undisturbed, according to the directions.
  9. Use a meat thermometer. When cooking meat, the quickest way to improve cooking skills is to use a thermometer. This ensures meat is cooked to the correct temperature and isn’t over- or undercooked.
  10. Pay attention to cooking instructions. Many times, cooking instructions will include phrases such as to cook until “golden brown,” “a knife inserted comes out clean,” or “spices are fragrant.” Make sure to use these clues along with the cook time. These can be more valuable than a timer alone.

These cooking basics can make a huge different to those who are timid in the kitchen. While Tricia was frustrated about her cooking experience, her sauce turned out great, even with her addition of the entire head of celery. She learned if you don’t get them exactly right, some recipes turn out all right anyway.

How do I know? Tricia is my sister-in-law, and I got to celebrate with her that day! What would you add to this list to be more efficient in the kitchen?

— Jodi Danen, RDN, is a family nutrition blogger at Create Kids Club. She’s creator of Lunch Bites lunch box note cards. Her passion and focus is on getting families back into the kitchen.

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