Recipe Writing 101


By Marcy Claman, Callawind Book Publishing

A recipe is nothing more than “a formula or written set of instructions for preparing food,” as the cookbook writing guide Recipes into Type explains. Like math formulas, recipes can range from easy to complex; however, most recipes contain seven basic elements. Following is a list of these elements along with brief writing guidelines for each.

Title

  • Make your title as inviting and descriptive as possible to entice your readers to investigate the recipe further.
  • Avoid too many cute words, superfluous adjectives, and titles such as “Aunt Mary’s Favorite Dessert.”
  • When naming your recipe, think about how the title will be indexed, which will help your readers easily find what they’re looking for.


Headnote

Cookbooks can be as much fun to read as they are to cook from. In fact, according to Publisher’s Weekly, there are growing numbers of people who are buying cookbooks simply to read them, not to cook from them. The headnote, or recipe introduction, is where you can:

  • thank Aunt Mary for her delicious Peach-Blueberry Cobbler recipe
  • talk about your inspiration for the recipe
  • recount an anecdote surrounding it
  • discuss ingredients or cooking techniques
  • offer serving suggestions
  • describe the finished dish


Ingredients list

Think of the ingredients list as the cook’s shopping list.

  • First and foremost, list ingredients in the order that they are used — this is “one of the cardinal rules in modern recipe writing,” according to Recipes into Type.
  • If space permits, avoid abbreviations (such as “Tbsp” or “tsp”) in favor of spelling everything out
  • Describe ingredients as they are purchased or measured, as in “3 medium potatoes, diced (about 3½ cups)” instead of “3½ cups diced potato”
  • Be as specific as possible when listing ingredients
  • Don’t forget preparation instructions such as “chopped,” “sliced,” “peeled,” or “cooked.”


Instructions

  • Judge your readers about how explicit your instructions need to be. If you ’re writing recipes for experienced cooks, you may be able to shorten your instructions. However, it’s safest to err on the side of being more explicit rather than less explicit. For example, the instruction “Cook until done”doesn’t explain how to know when the preparation is done or give an approximate cooking time. On the other hand, an instruction such as “Cook for about 5 to 7 minutes on medium heat, until the onion is translucent” is very clear.
  • Don’t surprise the reader midway through the recipe with something that should’ve been done at the beginning of the recipe, such as oven preheating or pan greasing.


Note

This area can be used for supplemental information not contained in the headnote. Whatever information you decide to include in the note section of your recipes, make this consistent throughout all your recipes.

  •  If the recipe calls for an ingredient that you need to prepare separately, such as clarified butter, you may want to explain how to make the preparation
  • Suggest alternate ways of cooking the dish; e.g., “Instead of barbecuing the chicken, you can broil the chicken on a broiler pan . . .”
  • Give storage or reheating instructions.
  • Explain an unusual ingredient.
  • Give a helpful tip.


Servings (Yield)

  • Recipes in cookbooks should yield 4 to 6 servings, which can then be easily doubled if necessary by the home cook.
  • The word “servings” is preferred over “serves.” Recipes into Type explains this subtle phrasing difference:
    • Serves 4: This implies that the amount is enough to feed any four persons the cook invites to dinner.
    • 4 servings: This means that the recipe will produce four average portions. It does not mean that there is enough for seconds for four hearty eaters.

While there is no right or wrong place to insert the yield line within a recipe, the rule is to be consistent in your placement of this information.


Variation

Here’s where you can give suggestions to vary the recipe; e.g., “For blueberry muffins, substitute 2 cups blueberries for the peaches.”

Now, don’t you wish you learned “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic — and recipe writing — at school! Fortunately, there are several resource books that will help you write clear and consistent recipes that home cooks will have no trouble following in their kitchens (see Callawind’s book list at

What’s more, cookbook authors can rely on the talent of experienced food editors. Your editor will ensure that your recipes are professional, clearly explained, well written, and free of errors like missing ingredients or instructions. As writer Janelle Gates remarks in her article “Why Every Writer Needs an Editor:” “If an author’s greatest fear of ‘being edited’ is appearing less than brilliant, an editor’s greatest insight is to see that without revision the author’s genius will be obscured.”


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Recipes into Type, by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon (New York : HarperCollins, 1993). *Note: this book is currently out of print and may be hard to find.


For more information, head over to our Books about Cookbook Self-Publishing section.