top-5 recipe writing mistakes

herbs

I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for a while, but I wondered if anyone would read it? I mean, I’m no Dianne Jacob.  Then again, I do spend a lot of my time editing recipes, and I see the same mistakes over and over again.  Recipes are kind of my thing. But not everyone wants to be told how to make their recipes better. I’ve met with some prominent bloggers who said to me, “My recipes don’t need editing. They work great just the way they’re written.” And when I spoke on the cookbook writing panel at Blogher Food ’10, in response to my comment about avoiding fancy-shmancy cooking terms like “braise” and “saute,” many people said they refuse to dumb down their recipes for the lowest common denominator. Well, that’s fine if you write cookbooks for professionals, but my advice is always the same for my authors… if your mom followed your recipe, would she understand it? Okay, so maybe your mom is a great cook. Then how about your husband? Or your weird Uncle Ned? What if Ned wanted to make one of your recipes? Would he be able to follow it?

I edit recipes for kitchen newbies, with Uncle Ned in mind. The fact is, these days a lot of people have no idea how to cook. Their parents didn’t teach them, they get married or move into their first home or apartment, and they have no clue how to make dinner. Those are the people we should be writing for, because cooking is important.  So here are five recipe-writing tips based on mistakes I see every day in cookbook manuscripts — and blogs. (P.S. The list was really about 12 items long, but I’m going with the biggies.)

onions, mayo, capers

1. List the ingredients in the order they’re used in the directions. I don’t care if it’s a roasted chicken recipe and you want to highlight that ingredient at the top of the list. If you make a spice blend and an herb butter first, then put those ingredients at the top, and add the chicken in the right place on the list. It might be last, and that’s okay. The chicken won’t mind.

pecans

2. Be careful about your wording. “2 cups chopped white mushrooms” and “2 cups white mushrooms, chopped” may sound the same, but they are very different. The first tells the reader to chop up mushrooms and then measure 2 cups of them. The second tells the reader to measure 2 cups of whole mushrooms, which isn’t going to be all that much because they can be large, and then to chop those up — I estimate you’d have about 1 cup of chopped mushrooms in the second example. That’s a big difference. Even cookbook-writing veterans don’t get this right.

chocolate

3. With ingredients, be specific and tell readers what they need to know. You may have used a pricey organic chicken, but does it change the recipe to specify organic, or does it just intimidate some people? Brown sugar — light or dark? Milk — if you don’t specify “whole” milk, then don’t be surprised if someone uses 1% low-fat and emails you to say the recipe sucks. Lemon zest — if you mean “grated zest,” then say so. Speaking of grated, if you want people to use “freshly grated” Parmesan cheese, that’s fine, but you’d better say so, or else they may just shake some of that scary stuff out of a can. On that subject, will grated Asiago work decently too, and save people a lot of money? For herbs, specify fresh or dried, and let us know if you can substitute dried for fresh in something like a sauce with lots of liquid. Uncle Ned isn’t likely to pay $3 for a tiny pack of fresh tarragon at the supermarket, but Aunt Bunny probably has some dried in the cupboard. I could write a book of these things to look out for.

batter

4. Avoid those fancy cooking terms. Here’s where people get mad at me, but please don’t use terms like saute or braise or poach. If you absolutely must use terms like those to show off what you learned in cooking school, then please give the reader as much information as you possibly can (see Step 5).

cooking meat

5. The more information, the better. You could just say “Saute the onions in the oil.” Or you can say “In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the onions in the oil, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.” I don’t know why so many recipe writers hate to give cooking times, or don’t think to tell readers what to look out for, or think we don’t need to be told to stir or toss the ingredients while cooking, but it all helps… a lot. Uncle Ned isn’t psychic. Maybe the reader should look out for a smell, like when the nuts are “toasty.” Should the pan be so hot that the beef will sizzle when you add it?  Can you poke a knife into the cake to see if it’s cooked through? These sensory clues may help make Uncle Ned a better cook. Then, if maybe his oven isn’t calibrated properly, he won’t pull the brownies out of the oven after 20 minutes (because you said so), even though they’re still practically liquid in the middle. (Ooh wait, I love under-done brownies. I’m going to Ned’s house for dessert.)

About justcooknyc

cook bake write photograph eat
This entry was posted in Cookbooks, Cooking, Recipes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to top-5 recipe writing mistakes

  1. Monique says:

    Its so simple… yet I am guilty of committing all of these crimes.
    Thanks for pointing that out. Sometimes in my hurry to post something I just assume people know what im talking about and leave out small details that novice cooks wouldnt know…
    Really going to keep these in mind when i post another recipe in the future. :-) thanks!

  2. great tips! now i realize how many cardinal sins i’ve committed in posting recipes on my blog, but meh, i’ll live with them. it’s great to have your experienced perspective, though!

  3. christina says:

    these are really great tips! i will keep them in mind for sure! :)

  4. Jen Kim says:

    excellent list! very informative and amusing ;-) i want to come to ned’s for dinner too.

  5. Eliana says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself if I tried. Awesome tips Justin :)

  6. vanillasugar says:

    oh i am so guilty of it all. i am very bad about even writing the recipe, I just created minutes ago, down on paper. i need to get better….
    wonderful tips Justin.
    :::scared you’ll be judging me now::: LOL!

    • justcooknyc says:

      ha, i never pick on my blogger friends except for when the adapt a recipe from one of my books and don’t post a link to Amazon or something. that’s my real pet peeve. i mean, c’mon…

  7. Sharlene says:

    Definitely useful tips! If you have any more I’m sure we’d love to hear them. And, please pass my name and number to Uncle Ned. I’d enjoy his brownies.

  8. leaannbrown says:

    Good information. I have my “can’t cook” husband edit my blog posts. He is always asking the right questions when he’s confused about the instructions/ingredients. Very good point you make about the chopped mushrooms, I’ll have to be careful with that one.

  9. The Souper says:

    Thank you Justin for this important post on recipe writing. It is helpful for a new foodblogger like myself. My recipes tend to be wordy because I present a recipe with step-by-step instructions to not intimidate an inexperienced homecook. Few pictures, more text for them to follow.
    Prep2eat is my foodblog aimed at organization before the actual cooking begins. Yes, there are fancy terms for this process, but I am not using them on purpose so as not to overwhelm a novice cook. I am guilty, though, of using the term sautee and will be careful of that term in future recipes :)
    My goal is to inspire more homecooking to save money as well as enjoying the process of preparing healthy, tasty food. More food for your bucks :)

    The Souper

    • justcooknyc says:

      it sounds like you have the right attitude, so I applaud that. About “saute,” I often find people who use that term but don’t understand it. For example, when someone writes “saute over low heat,” it’s a red flag for me. That would be as strange as someone telling you to “simmer over high heat.” Anyway, sounds like you have a good goal, so keep it up.

  10. I am not just saying this to suck up–I agree with everything you said! I want all those folks who never had the good fortune to learn to cook to be able to take my recipes and work straight through and have them turn out just right. The cooks gets to test the ultimate worth of the recipe info provided–if he/she succeeds, then I did my job. (This is assuming the cook doesn’t get too creative and unwittingly make changes that screw up the chemistry–which can pretty easily happen with baking and confectionary recipes.)

  11. theUngourmet says:

    You have some wonderful and informative tips here. A few things of the topics you touched on definitely made me think about the way I have been posting my recipes. Thanks for the info.

  12. Sasha says:

    Thanks for writing this post. It is very helpful indeed : )

  13. Dan Kohler says:

    Justin, you hit it on the head. Great post, well thought out and succinct. Rock on.

  14. Joanne says:

    Justin these are awesome and they definitely outline a lot of my pet peeves as well! I hate it when I’m cooking a recipe and I end up skipping an ingredient because they are all out of order. And I always love time and adjective descriptors. I like knowing what I should look for and when I should start looking for it!

  15. Roxan says:

    Justin, thanks for stopping my blog.. it brought me here to yours! Wonderful photos and tips. I never really thought about the difference between “2 cups mushrooms chopped” and “2 cups chopped mushrooms”. I’m SO bad at writing recipes. You should hear the way I give directions…

  16. Lynn says:

    Great post. You hit two of my pet-peeves a) the ingredients in the order they are needed for the recipe and b) be descriptive in your instructions (time, color change, what is being mixed and what’s the desired consistency). Thanks!

  17. Joy Zhang says:

    Great post — I really enjoyed these tips, tips that I should definitely follow when writing my recipes. I notice as embarassing as it sounds, that yes some of my recipes can be in fact daunting and as a result scares away a lot of people into even trying it out.

    With these simple points in mind, I think I can definitely improve my recipe writing — all thanks to YOU! :)

  18. GREAT post. I’ve bumbled my way through so many of these mistakes in the past, especially this one:

    “Milk — if you don’t specify “whole” milk, then don’t be surprised if someone uses 1% low-fat and emails you to say the recipe sucks.”

    You said you could write a whole book on things to look out for – please DO IT!! ;) Or at least write another blog post! It’s fascinating get these details from someone who’s submerged in cookbook writing every day.

  19. Fantastic post, Justin! I always wonder why some recipe-writers insist on being vague. If you want the recipe to turn out the way it’s intended, then put some work into flushing out the instructions. Now I want to go back through every recipe on my blog and do some serious editing.

  20. Loved the comment about the 2 cups mushrooms chopped, and the 2 cups chopped mushrooms. You are so right, they are so different! Thanks for mentioning that, I need to step up my game, I am sometimes unclear in my descriptions.

  21. jackhonky says:

    I love this list, I know I occasionally get lazy when I write out my recipes, and this just reminds me that I need to be a little bit sharper when I compose my recipes on my blog.

    That said, you mentioned there were at least 12 on the list of recipe writing mistakes. I’d love to see a follow up to this post on the other seven!

    • justcooknyc says:

      ha, okay. i had a list of 12 at one point, and then i trashed it because i thought it was too much. then i waited a few weeks and wrote those 5. maybe i’ll take another stab at the extended list sometime, because this one got a nice response.

  22. Hanaa says:

    What a great post!!! I ***AM*** one of those people who didn’t know how to cook until I got married and then had to learn, and learn fast. I would love to hear about the other “7 recipe writing mistakes” (you said your original list was 12 long). Thanks!!! (I just read some of the comments on this post and it looks like I’m not the only one who’d like to see the other 7, haha).

  23. Ninette says:

    Great post, Justin. I’m sure my recipes are not that great for the non-cook, because my measurements are not that specific.

    • justcooknyc says:

      well, i think measures can be non-specific when it’s not crucial to the recipe. Like if you just need roughly a handful of chopped onions, but it doesn’t matter if you use a small onion or a medium onion, that’s fine. But sometimes it really does matter, and then you need to specify.

  24. These are definitely good tips to know. I tend to do a couple of them every now and then whenever I post a recipe. I do try to be as specific as possible, sometimes I just dont take them into account.

    Thanks.

  25. lyndsay says:

    hi justin! great new site… clean and efficient!

    i like this post. it’s true, i’ve followed a lot of recipes and even written out a few myself (on my ice cream blog) but now i think i will be even more careful in writing them. being specific yet simple to follow is good.

    thanks for the post! ^_^

  26. Pingback: recipe writing cheat sheet | Justcook NYC

  27. FoodPhotoNYC says:

    Justin,

    Late to the party, but having fun nonetheless. I saw the most recent post on the recipe writing ‘cheat sheet’ and came here from there. Your writing is clear and concise, your sense of humor is refreshing and your information is crucial. Your are now bookmarked…I will be back!

    Richard Haber

  28. Lee says:

    I too clicked through from your other recipe writing post and am glad I did. As someone new to writing recipes this information is extremely helpful. Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s