How to Write a Recipe

Advice on how to write better, more legible recipes and make them more accessible to cooks of all skill levels.

I recently received a book called The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Janet Baker, as a gift, and I was interested in reading it, with the hopes of learning how to write better, more legible recipes here on this site. The book offers a lot of good advice that I thought I’d highlight some of the recommendations I’ve learned so far, which are things all foodie bloggers could benefit from, and things I’ll try to implement from here on.

  • Use straight-forward recipe titles.
  • When listing ingredients, group them according to the recipe part — like crust, filling, topping, etc.
  • Number or bullet the recipe steps, to make it easier to follow along.
  • List alternatives and substitutions when possible, especially for hard-to-get items.
  • Offer multiple measurements of items where possible. As in, “1 small onion, diced (about half a cup).”
  • Spell out the ingredient measurements. Novice cooks may not necessarily know that “T” is for tablespoon and “t” means teaspoon.
  • If the oven needs to be preheated, list that before everything else. There’s nothing worse than having to put the process on hold for 20 or 30 minutes while you wait for the oven to preheat.

Here’s one they don’t list, but one I’ve decided to adopt based on a review I read for a cookbook…

  • Make each ingredient bold so it stands out in the list. I figure it makes it easier to scan the ingredient list and figure out what you need to buy.

Please don’t feel insulted by some of the assumptions of these style tips. The authors of the book say that these style rules are based on studies done by the food industry, and the assumption that most home cooks are what they call “culinary illiterates.” That is, they haven’t spent years and years learning the basic cooking terminologies and skills at the elbows of their mothers or grandmothers. According to one study done in the 90’s, researchers found that while 90% of respondents classified themselves as “good to excellent” cooks, when they were quizzed on the basic cooking terms, 75% failed, and only one out of the 735 respondants got a perfect score. (The quiz included questions like “how many ounces are in one measuring cup?” and “one stick of butter or margerine is equal to “(a) one cup, (b) ½ cup, (c) ¼ cup, (d) don’t know.”)

Nevertheless, in this same study, 50 percent of the respondents claimed to try a new recipe at least once a month, and 30 percent claimed to try two or three new recipes a month. So clearly, the desire to express one’s self in the kitchen is attractive to a lot of people, even if they aren’t completely clear on the finer details. So it’s our job as recipe writers to help them where they need it the most.

I can tell you from personal experience that the most popular posts I’ve made here are some of the most simple recipes I’ve published. According to the site logs, the one thing people want to know the most is how to cook corn on the cob. That entry is twice as popular as any other entry.

I’ve also learned from other sites I frequent that most people aren’t interested in recipes that take more than half an hour to prepare. Recently, a recipe for 5-minute chocolate cake made the rounds on some of the popular link sites. Even though I personally would barely classify it as food, I read many excited comments by people who don’t have the time or inclination to cook something more involved. Clearly, recipes like my Ultimate Fried Chicken, which involves several steps, and requires enough prior planning to start marinating the chicken at least 24 hours in advance, will only appeal to the fanatical, like myself. And while I’m not going to avoid posting recipes like that here in the future, I’m going to remain mindful that most of you just won’t go to some of the extremes I sometimes find myself going to.

So tell me — have you ever been burned by a bad recipe? (Hopefully not one from here!) What happened, and did you ever try to make the recipe again? Please leave a comment and let me know!