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Decode that Old Family Recipe with These Steps

Cinnamon sticks, two bowls of ground herbs, and an old photograph sitting on a handwritten recipe.
Karin Hildebrand Lau/Shutterstock

Occasionally, home chefs get the opportunity to make an antique family recipe. These fragile mementos, however, are often unclear and easily misconstrued. All the translating, deciphering, or interpretation can all take the fun out of it. However, with these tips in mind, you’ll enjoy every second!

Any recipe written in cursive scribbles on yellowed paper is a marvelous heirloom to be preserved and cherished by following generations. However, if you’re attempting to recreate a timeworn, delicious recipe from your (or a parent’s) childhood, it can quickly become quite a task.

I’ve been there myself, translating French to English, learning ancient cooking terms, and working through a recipe card with no instructions whatsoever. So, here’s how I did it.

Why Old Recipes Often Seem Incomplete

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching my grandmother’s wrinkled hands work flawlessly to craft pies or turn dough into warm loaves of bread. I learned tricks that might seem unfathomable, like how heat or humidity would impact the number of eggs or milk she’d add to a crepe batter.

Antique recipes are sometimes vague, with minimal directions, or even none at all. That’s usually because, back in the day, folks learned how to cook by watching.

The recipes themselves were a mere reminder for the cook, who already knew techniques and didn’t need much direction. Consider old recipes little guides with delicious results.

Unfortunately, without proper instruction or passed-down secrets, a recipe card alone doesn’t quite cut it. Luckily, there are some ways around this tricky situation.

Vintage Cooking Terms

A woman trying to decipher a family recipe.

Sometimes, old recipes feature measurements like a “cupful” of flour or “a scant teaspoon” of salt. These terms aren’t used as often today, so the following old-school descriptions might help:

  • Cupful: About 1/5 less than the 8-ounce measuring cup used today.
  • Teacup: Approximately 1/2 a cup.
  • Wine glass: About 1/4 a cup.
  • Glassful: Equal to about 1 standard 8-ounce cup.
  • Dessert spoon: About 2 teaspoons.
  • Salt spoon: Approximately 1/4 teaspoon.
  • Castor sugar: Similar to confectioner’s sugar.
  • Lard: Semi-solid, white pork fat. You can use butter or Crisco as a substitute.
  • Oleo: Another word for margarine.
  • Scant: Not quite a full measure or just barely a measure. For example, a “scant tablespoon” means not quite 1 full tablespoon.
  • Quick oven: About 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Cool oven: 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Saleratus: A coarse-grained baking soda. It’s less effective than today’s stronger baking soda.
  • Soda: Short for baking soda.
  • Soured milk: Buttermilk.

Keep in mind that some recipes will also use brand names rather than the actual ingredient. So, if you see something like “a packet of Fleischmann’s,” it means a packet of active dry yeast. A quick web search will usually help in those cases. Here’s a complete list you can bookmark for future reference.

Now that you’re familiar with some of the terminology, let’s go through some tips for deciphering the rest of a puzzling recipe.

Read and Reread

This step is important, whether you’re skimming a recipe on a Toll House chocolate chip bag or anxiously trying to interpret the faded text on an index card. Read the ingredients and method from top to bottom, and continue to go over any words you might not understand at first.

Then, reread the recipe a bit more closely and note any words you don’t fully comprehend. You might even have to do a bit of language translation here. If so, be sure to check out Google Translate or ask a family member for help.

After you’ve read the recipe at least three times, you’ll still have little bits and pieces you have to look at again. However, you’ll have grasped as much as possible before you go on the hunt for ingredients and get down to work. From there, just pull out your tablet or phone and do a little research.

Look Up Any Terms You Don’t Understand

A recipe for "Anzac Biscuits" typed on an index card next to a rack full of them.
Robyn Mackenzie/Shutterstock

You can print out the list we shared above to help with any unfamiliar terms or do a little online research. Again, you might want to start with this full glossary of vintage cooking terms.

From “quick ovens” to “scant” measurements, it’s hard to predict which obstacles you might run into. Use a separate piece of paper to jot down words and meanings.

Then, rewrite the entire recipe in language you’ll understand to avoid any confusion halfway through measuring your ingredients. Before you try making the recipe, be sure to reread the original and your new version to make sure you didn’t miss any important ingredients or steps.

Find a Similar Recipe Online to Compare

Comparing a vintage recipe to a modern one is another helpful trick in this process. Making an old recipe for dinner rolls but missing the crucial instructions for the basics, like yeast, kneading, punching, and so on? Find a recipe online and compare it to yours.

If the ingredients are fairly similar, then the instructions should be similar, too. However, if the measurements and ingredients differ greatly, move on until you find a comparable recipe.

From there, just write down the instructions and incorporate the ingredients from your family recipe.

Reach Out to Family for Help

A man talking on the phone while holding a piece of paper.
Just Life/Shutterstock

If you have an aunt, uncle, or parent who might be familiar with the recipe, reach out for some help. Even if they’ve never attempted to make that strawberry pie themselves, they might remember eating it or watching someone make it.

Small bits of information can go a long way, so it’s always worth a quick phone call or text. After all, the nostalgia that comes with each memorable plate of food is why you’re doing this in the first place. You don’t want to miss those little details that likely never even made it onto the recipe card.

If you love cooking or baking, you might one day be honored with a food treasure from the past, like that recipe for dinner rolls your mother loved to eat as a child. So, throw on that apron and get to work figuring out what the heck it says!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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