Learn to decipher everything from ingredients to cooking instructions.
Lady reading pizza recipe in culinary book at home with kitchenware on table
Credit: Motortion / Getty Images

Finding an enticing new recipe to try is always exciting. But sometimes, even the best recipes can leave a few key details up to the imagination.

From specifics like which size of eggs is used to whether or not you should sift the flour, there are certain key tidbits your recipes might leave open to interpretation — or leave out entirely.

“While as a rule I don’t like to make assumptions, an educated guess is required when interpreting so many recipes,” says Chef Brian Riggenbach, executive chef and partner at The Mockingbird in Nashville, TN, and the winner of season 24 of “Chopped” on the Food Network.“My grandmother’s recipes, for instance, are a list of ingredients and, if you are lucky, a condensed, one-sentence note!”

And while the recipes you find online most likely include pretty comprehensive instructions, there are a few specific details they might leave up for debate. Here are 10 way to decipher things your recipe might not state clearly.

1. "Eggs"

“For ‘eggs’, I always use large eggs, organic if possible,” says Riggenbach. Eggs provide liquid and structure to recipes, especially when baking. Large eggs are often the go-to size, so start with that for recipes that don't specify.

2. "Brown Sugar"

Pack brown sugar into your measuring cups or spoons to ensure an accurate measurement. “As for light or dark [brown sugar], the difference is subtle, but will affect the flavor and little more," explains Riggenbach. "Dark brown sugar has a higher ratio of molasses to sugar and will have deeper caramelized notes, most often associated with rich baked goods and winter spices. But both are interchangeable without compromising the integrity of the dish.”

3. "Butter"

Always go with unsalted butter. This allows you to control the level of salt in your final dish and avoids a sodium-laden meal. Riggenbach says that using salted butter in baked goods leans more towards a savory recipe, which can be undesirable in something like cake or brownies.

4. "Flour"

“Flour is tricky, but I would say as a very broad and general rule that all-purpose flour is the little black dress of the pantry,” says Riggenbach. “While there are a myriad of choices from whole wheat to rice flour, it should be a good base point to use the tried and true all-purpose.” And even when your recipe doesn’t say it, you should always sift your flour. “Always sift, as this will produce a finer structure, whether you are baking cookies or breading fried chicken,” he says.

5. "Salt"

“Always use kosher Diamond Crystal salt; it has a larger flake and lower sodium content. This allows for a better distribution and increased control over the final result,” Riggenbach explains. “Common alternatives are Morton salt, which is significantly finer and thus much faster to deliver the punch of salt desired. The Morton kosher salt is acceptable as well, although it should be noted that this is a far denser crystal and will take slightly more time and attention to properly distribute.”

6. A "Dash" or "Pinch"

Admittedly, this is a bit up to creative interpretation, but Riggenbach says, “I gravitate towards a pinch translating as 1/16 tsp, and ‘a dash’ as 1/8 tsp.”

7. "Bake in the Oven"

Even though your recipe lists the baking time and temperature, it rarely tells you which rack to put it on or if it should be rotated half-way through baking. As a rule of thumb, “If you are baking something straight-forward, such as a casserole or pasta, consider the middle rack as a perfect starting point,” says Riggenbach. “If you are baking something like cookies, however, note that you may have more than one tray, and you might have to rotate each pan halfway through the process for the best and most even results.”

8. "Grease the Pan"

While you might think of using butter, oil, or lard to grease your pan, Riggenbach says that’s not necessary. “When it comes to greasing a pan, I have found that a spray is ideal for the most efficient and consistent coating,” he says. “If you are baking something such as a cake or brownies, flouring the pan will assist in removal of the baked good.”

9. "Combine" or "Mix Together Ingredients"

In baking, “When mixing dry and wet together, always mix your dry ingredients together first to allow for an equal distribution of the smallest amounts of ingredients, such as your baking powder or salt,” he explains. Add your liquid ingredients next, after your dry ingredients are fully combined.

10. "In Boiling Water"

Allow your water to reach a rolling boil, not a simmer, for recipes that ask you to cook "in boiling water." Riggenbach also cautions, “Remember that once you add ingredients to the mixture, they can alter the temperature of the pot. So, if you are blanching vegetables, do this in steps. If you are pickling or preserving foods, wait for the water to return to a roiling boil before starting your timer.”

Related Content: