How to Read a Recipe: Start with Ingredients

If you’re like many cooks, you may struggle with reading recipes.  So today I will do my best to discuss this topic.  My plan is for this post to be Part 1: Ingredients, and a future post be Part 2: Technique. But we’ll see what happens.

Below are the points I will cover today:

1. I will define what are “important” and
what are “modifiable” ingredients.
2. I will show you examples of how to
the “modifiable ingredients” in a recipe.
3. I will list the functions of a few “important ingredients.”

Let’s get started . . .

#1. Important vs. Modifiable Ingredients.

Important ingredients are those that a recipe absolutely cannot do without. Some examples include: flours, fats, leavening agents, eggs and sugars. (I’ll discuss these more in detail later.)

When these ingredients are used in baked goods their proportions are just as important as their presence.  Thus, they need to be measured as precisely as possible because their chemistry really determines the outcome of the recipe.  Ever made cookies and didn’t add enough flour? Or cake and forgot the baking powder or baking soda?

Modifiable ingredients, however, are those that CAN be substituted by other ingredients in any way without really changing the recipe at all.

A few examples are: seasonings (dried spices or herbs), liquid extracts (vanilla, hazelnut, almond), flavorings (orange, lemon, apple), candies, nuts, dried fruit, coconut, and mashed fruits (bananas, pumpkin etc).

As you can see, the purpose of these ingredients is providing flavor to recipes.  Thus, omitting or replacing them won’t “ruin” the recipe at all.  In fact, exchanging these ingredients or combining them with others might greatly enhance the results!  (My favorite way to cook!) Ever tried mixing peanut butter chips with craisins in cookies?  Or dropping a bit of hazelnut flavoring in hot chocolate?  Or brushing some herb butter on rolls before serving them?  The possibilities are endless!!

#2. Determining Modifiable Ingredients

When identifying modifiable ingredients in a recipe, the first thing you want to do is look at the Title of the Recipe. Take a look at this one:

“Oatmeal Raisin Cookies”

What kind of ingredients can you see in this title?  I’ll give you a hint.  Oatmeal and  Raisins.  Believe it or not, these ARE your modifiable ingredients!  The rest of the ingredient list will be identical to any other cookie recipe.  Oatmeal Raisin Cookies have the same proportions of flour, sugar, butter and baking soda (remember I called these  “important ingredients”?).  So do Chocolate Chip Cookies, White Chocolate Raspberry Cookies, S’mores Cookies . . . you get the picture.  Indeed, the only difference between Oatmeal Raisin Cookie and the other cookie varieties are the oatmeal and raisins.

Don’t quite believe me yet? Let’s look at another example:

“Rosemary Lemon Chicken”

What ingredients can you find in the title of this recipe?  Yep – Rosemary.  Lemon.  Chicken.  As you probably guessed, these ingredients are also modifiable.  You can easily exchange the rosemary with another herb like basil or thyme, the lemon with another type of acidic fruit (orange, lime, pineapple), and even the chicken with a different kind of meat!

Now, let’s try something a little harder.  Let’s look at the title of a whole meal . . .

“Turkey Vegetable Soup
with a side of Garlic Bread and Honey Glazed Fruit”

Sounds kinda fancy does it?  ;)

Let’s break it down.

What are the modifiable ingredients?  Turkey.  Vegetables.  Garlic.  Honey.  (You’re good at this!)

What are some substitutions for these ingredients?  Here are my ideas:  Maybe you could swap out the turkey for another meat, the veggies for beans, the garlic for any kind of spice and the honey for sugar (or opt out on sweetener all together)!

#3. The Importance of Important Ingredients

Lastly, I’m going to further explain why important ingredients are so necessary to include in recipes.  Without getting into too much food science, I’m going to briefly summarize the roles that each of them play.  If you wish, you can print out this list and stick it on your fridge for future reference :)

The Basic “Important Ingredients” and their Functions:

FLOUR {wheat or alternative flours} – provides structure to baked goods.  The more protein in the flour the more structure.  Hence, bread flour has more protein in it than cake flour, giving bread a tougher, crunchier crust and a firmer inside texture.

Sometimes recipes boast “no flour!”  In that case, either another sort of structural ingredient has been used (oatmeal) or the batter mixture is so thick/sticky (like Nut Butter Cookies) that it doesn’t need flour to hold it together.

- – – – -

FAT {butter, margarine, shortening, oil} – usually creates the creamy, flaky, soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture of foods.  It’s what makes cookies and brownies so delectable! ;)

Sometimes part of the fat can be removed or replaced (such as with yogurt, applesauce, sour cream, or mashed fruit) but doing so will affect the flavor and texture of the recipe.  If you’re trying to reduce your fat intake, replacing 1/4 to 1/2 of the fat in recipes won’t affect the recipe too much but will cut your fat and calorie intake by much more than you think!

- – – – -

LEAVENING AGENTS {baking soda, baking powder, yeast} – causes dough recipes to expand, or rise.  Biscuits, bread, muffins, and cakes . . .all of these need a specific leavening agent in order for them to turn out correctly.  Without their corresponding leavening agents they will be flat instead of fluffy or spongy.  (Try omitting a leavening ingredient sometime and you’ll see what I mean.)

- – – – -

EGGS –  binds ingredients together, acts as a leavening agent and consequently provides color, nutritive value, and flavor.

A neat experiment to prove the importance of eggs in recipes is to make two batches of meatloaf.  In one batch add the eggs and in the other batch omit the eggs.  The result is that the loaf with the eggs will hold together and the one without eggs will be crumbly.

- – – – -

SUGARS {brown sugar, granulated/white sugar} – adds sweetness, creates the “golden brown” color of baked goods and holds in moisture in bread.  The difference?  Brown sugar has molasses in it, giving it a richer flavor.

(More about the functionality of ingredients here.)

So as you can see, modifying the important ingredients might consequently change the flavor, texture, color, or all of the above.

In Summary:
“Modifiable ingredients” are easily and happily replaced/exchanged
with other modifiable ingredients.
“Important ingredients” are more difficult to alter,
as doing so usually effects the outcome of the recipe.

- – – – -

I hope this post was helpful in some way.  If you found it just so, feel free to share it with your friends!  If, on the other hand, you don’t understand any of what I explained, let me know!  You can comment below or send me an email at  I’d love to hear your feedback!

- Hope :)

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