recipe writing cheat sheet


As you may know if you read this, I have been helping out with the editing for the cool Peko Peko cookbook. It’s an interesting project for me because I usually edit books written by just one person, so I find the same errors come up repeatedly, and I can often give the author a little coaching to fix them and save me some editing time. But with a compilation cookbook, there is no consistency. Every recipe is written in a different style.

You probably know how much I love food bloggers. Even though I work in book publishing, I blog for fun myself, so I say this with only the best of intentions.  I think some of you need a few more recipe writing pointers. Wait, fix that — I think you just need a cheat sheet. I’ve written about common recipe writing errors before, but maybe that was too wordy. Here is a power list, straight to the point. Copy it. Print it out. Tape it next to your computer screen for when you’re writing recipes. And follow it until it becomes second nature. I know you can do it. No touchy-feely stuff here, just the nuts and bolts.

  1. List all of the ingredients together at the top of the recipe, rather than interspersing them through the directions.
  2. List every ingredient in the ingredients list that is used in the directions.
  3. List the ingredients to match the exact order they are used in the directions.
  4. Pro Tip: If you add multiple ingredients at once, list them from biggest to smallest measure.
  5. Offer substitutions for unusual ingredients or else people might just omit them completely.
  6. Explain unusual ingredients in the headnote, if possible.
  7. It’s better to explain things like toasting nuts in the directions or a tip, rather than say “1 cup toasted walnuts”.
  8. Directions like “chopped” come right after the measure if you are measuring them chopped, like “1 cup chopped mushrooms”. EVERYBODY does this wrong.
  9. If you measure something whole and then chop it, you say “1 cup walnuts, chopped”.
  10. It’s helpful to give multiple measurements like butter stick measures along with the weight or tablespoons, or grated cheese in cups and ounces.
  11. Weight measures are great, especially in baking recipes, but it’s nice to include volume measures too, for people with no scale.
  12. Try to be really clear about things like light or dark brown sugar, regular or low-fat milk, dried or fresh herbs, etc.
  13. Buy The New Food Lover’s Companion and make it your Bible.
  14. Try to avoid misunderstood cooking terms like “saute” or “sweat”.
  15. If people should be stirring or tossing or mixing while cooking on the stovetop, say so.
  16. Always say what to look for when cooking on the stovetop (“until golden and softened”), and give cooking times.
  17. Always say what heat to use.
  18. Always say to preheat the oven in the first step unless there is chilling or marinating time in the directions.
  19. Always say how to check for doneness when food is cooked in the oven.
  20. And never say something like “Serve with hot white rice” in the last step of the directions without mentioning it in the headnote or ingredients list too.

158 thoughts on “recipe writing cheat sheet

  1. This is incredibly helpful. I – ahem – wish I had had this before I sumbitted my Peko Peko recipe, however, I know my recipe is in good hands. Sorry, am pretty sure I am guilty of a couple of these :( Printing this off and pinning it on my board where I can see it at all times!

  2. Justin, as a recently new foodblogger, I truly appreciate recipe writing tips to enhance the quality of my posts.
    Thank you for sharing your recipe writing cheat sheet.

    The Souper

  3. These are great tips, Justin. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about terms such as “saute” (though I agree the word ‘sweat’ should never appear in a recipe–just because it sounds so unappetizing!). On the one hand I know those terms can be confusing, but on the other I feel like cooks ought to familiarize themselves with common cooking terms. I think I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to outdated cooking terms (the ones I grew up with, such as “cream the butter” or “until the mixture resembles coarse meal”–I really never knew firsthand what that last one meant, but just sort of went by intuition).
    I’m curious what you think of the way someone like Alice Waters writes recipes, which assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the cook.

    Cheers & looking forward to meeting you at Eat Write Retreat.

    1. Right, I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers want to stick to their terms like “saute.” I mentioned that at a blogger convention, and some people got really annoyed by it. The thing is, when I edit, I’m doing it with the average person in mind. My mom doesn’t know what “saute” means, so should she be left confused, or could you rewrite your recipe to be a little more clear? My goal is to get more people into the kitchen to cook. That sometimes means spelling things out a little more clearly. Add to that, I see people misuse terms like saute all the time, so you can’t assume anyone understands what it means.

      1. You mean saute isn’t a generic term for cooking on a stovetop in a saute pan/skillet in a small amount of oil over medium to high heat? I do this all the time, so I use saute frequently. Is there a different word/short phrase that means the same thing?

        If I’d gone through and followed these rules from the start, it would probably be much easier to convert to the google recipe format, too.

        Were I to ever want to go the cookbook route, I’d definitely need to recruit someone to stand over my shoulder and time things. I can remember all of the ingredients and the process, but I have no sense at all of how long things have taken.

        1. I definitely don’t think the average person knows what it means. I’d love to put it to the test, go to a supermarket in suburban Ohio, and ask people what saute means. I bet the responses would be interesting.

  4. An excellent guide! Thanks for taking the time to write this, Justin. Definitely printing this out for reference. I just ordered The New Food Lover’s Companion too, as recommended. (See? I’m trying to be a good student. :))

  5. I always try to write my recipes the way I like to read them, ie, listing all the ingredients together and in order, but I am so guilty of the “chopped” thing…oops! Thanks so much for the advice. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind when typing up future recipes!

  6. Great article! Over the last few months, I’ve been going back through all my recipes trying to make them more ‘reader-friendly’ – no doubt I’ll be going back and reviewing them again in light of this list!

    When I first started to write them, I fell foul of your first point, by simply interspersing the ingredients through the directions. This was back when I was less exact about my recipes in general away and wanted to just give a rough idea for people to play with! That’s changed alot now as I took up more baking, as you definitely can’t give a sloppy recipe for that!

    Thanks for the tips

    Hungry Jenny x

  7. Awesome clarification, Justin. Thanks for breaking it down and giving us such a great cheat sheet! I know I’ll be referring to this post over, and over, and over…

  8. I love this! I just wing it in the kitchen and cringe when someone asks if they can have the recipe…thank you for such a helpful tool! Loving it as well for understanding recipes I use daily…I did not know about the “chopped mushrooms vs. nuts, chopped”. THANK YOU!

  9. And I thought I was doing just fine, compared to my grandmother’s recipes: “Make the batter thicker than for pancakes, but denser than for bread.” Or, “Add as much flour as necessary.”
    I understand that we now write for strangers, and not for a handful of our equally skilled neighbors who need reminders, more than exact directions.
    Thanks for the “cheat sheet”. It makes it much less confusing and mysterious. I always appreciate such handy tools, even though I am enamored with the word “saute”:)

  10. This is just another example of why I enjoy this community so much – what a generous and helpful list of suggestions. I don’t create/write that many recipes but when I have, I always realize how much work it is to do it well. I think I’ve done many of the things you suggested unconsciously (probably from reading so many recipes over the years) but I’m sure I’ve made mistakes too. I think I naturally write to be clear to the average, untrained cook – perhaps because I have kids old enough to learn to cook and they ask a lot of basic questions. I am printing this out to use for a chocolate matzo post I’m putting together and also will order the New Food Lover’s Companion as well. Thanks so much! (and also thanks for your suggestion of where to eat donuts in NYC – I’ll be in town soon with the family eating our way through Manhattan!)

  11. Helpful tips for me since I blog often about food! Glad I found your site and your Vegetarian cookbook, which I will look into purchasing immediately.

  12. I am so grateful that you post this!
    Even the last time when you posted something similar to this effect, it has helped me tremendously!
    You’re awesome.

  13. Great list of tips. I wish I had this when I started out six years ago. There was a lot of trial and error to learn these lessons.

    And OMG yes on the listing the ingredients at the top. The Joy of Cooking style of recipe writing (though I love that book) has always driven me bonkers.

  14. Thank you for this post! It is an incredibly helpful cheat sheet – I shan’t ever write “serve with white rice” in the last step again. Guilty as charged.

    1. it’s okay — i see that a lot in recipes. but imagine you just spend an hour in the kitchen making dinner, and then you get to the end, just before the family is sitting down to eat, and realize you were supposed to make rice too! uh-oh.

  15. Terrific cheat sheet! Over the years, I’ve learned most of this stuff so I already incorporate, but terrific refresher as I’m sure I’m not as careful as I should be sometimes! No saute though, huh? People don’t know what saute means? I use that one quite frequently. Guess I’ll have to begin working around it.

    1. as i said above, try going to a suburban supermarket in the middle of the country and ask 10 people what “saute” means. then i think you’ll start to question it.

  16. Excellent list!
    Having something I can print and keep beside my laptop when I’m writing things out is invaluble. Thanks for taking the time to post this for all us inconsistents! :P


  17. You pretty much got ’em all. So, now everybody will turn in perfect manuscripts, right? One thing you might want to go back and add to the one about suggesting substitutions–the recipe has to be tested WITH the substitute ingredient or you shouldn’t mention it at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, oh that will work just fine, why bother to test it, only to discover that the suggested substitute messed up the recipe completely. It’s a pain to do that extra test, but it’s a must.

  18. Great advice. I’m sure plenty of readers get confused about my written recipes. Cooking is intuitive, and I barely follow recipes. The thought process of cooking is similar to the creative process of painting. It’s abstract and thoughtful. Explaining and writing the steps to a recipe is difficult. I’m trying a new technique of writing notes as I cook. Thank you for sharing your advice on writing recipes, for it’s an insightful list to definitely post next to my computer.

  19. Justin,
    Thank you so much for this post. I’m a food photographer who is just starting to post my stash of recipes that I’ve developed over the years to a new blog, so this is incredibly helpful. The food photography was really the motivation for the blog, and it’s the part I feel most comfortable with, so I’m actually going to go back and re-edit the recipes I’ve posted according to your cheat-sheet.

  20. So helpful! Thank you for sharing these great tips.

    I had never realized that there was a difference between “1 cup chopped mushrooms” and “1 cup mushrooms, chopped.” Now I feel stupid because it seems so obvious!

  21. Thank you for putting this list out. I knew most of it, but the thing about putting the “chopping” after the ingredient is helpful! My husband and I are working on a gf cookbook so I THANK YOU!!

  22. Great tips–thanks. Re: numbers 8 and 9, this is where paying attention in those high school English classes would have come in handy. Anyone who knows their grammar would never make a mistake with that one (adjective before noun describes that noun–so “CHOPPED mushrooms” means the mushrooms must already be chopped for this word order). ;)

  23. Awesome list, Justin. Thanks for posting this – I can imagine the frustration of editing so many different voices and styles! Thanks especially for numbers 8 & 9 – big pet peeves of mine, which thanks to you we will hopefully be seeing less of!

  24. Useful list. I usually list by weight (so not an issue about chopped or not), but find it so annoying when you’re not sure if the weight is before or after doing something to one of the ingredients. That said…spotting quite a few things I could be doing better. Thanks for sharing!

  25. I’m a beginner at this whole food blog thing (actually, I haven’t got it quite up and running yet…) and this was very helpful. Thanks!

  26. What a great post, Justin! Straight-to-the-point tips that anyone should follow. The only people I’ve seen who follow these guides are veteran cookbook authors (10+). I can’t agree more with listing ingredients in order of use.

    Also, for baking, I think people should be more clear on how butter is listed. Melted? Room temperature? Cold? Good to know so that midway into the recipe, I’m not caught off guard if I’ve been substituting with oil and it calls to cream butter with sugar.

    Hope there’s a Pt. II!

    1. you know what this makes me think? i should write a separate post about baking recipes. some of this post applies to baking, but it really is a different set of considerations. thanks!

  27. Great list – I like how concise and to the point you are. I do my best to describe what to look out for in my recipes (because that’s just the way I cook), but #8 and #9 are new to me and good to know.

    However, part of me wonders if some pointers in the list (like #3 or #20) are really a matter of stylistic preferences on the part of the editor rather than a must-do? Not trying to be facetious here, just curious.

  28. That’s a great list, which I’ve bookmarked as I occasionally post recipes. I love reading food blogs, but I think the conversational nature of blogging can sometimes get in the way of clarity. It’s not just with instructions, either. I’d love to see a post about the most misused words in the food blogging world – palette for palate comes to mind.

  29. Just found your blog and this wonderful list via Kalyn’s Kitchen. I love reading food blogs but am often confused by how the directions/ingredients are written, now I know why! This is such a help. Every now and then I share an old recipe on my blog and it’s nice to have a guide so that it’s clear to anyone reading it. Thanks so very much!

  30. Thank you so much for this post. I’m sure I’m guilty of a few of these recipe infractions, so your cheat sheet will definitely come in handy. I was able to help Rachel and Marc last week with prepping food for the Peko Peko Cookbook photos. It was a great experience.

  31. Thank you for this post, I think I have a lot of editing to do. I’ve always cooked from memory, so learning to write them down in directions the average person can understand has be a challenge. I’ve messed up with the chopped thing. Thanks again.

  32. Thanks so much for this post! I’m working on our first real food/traditional food cookbook and while I was surprised at how much of these I do (probably from reading so many recipes!!) there are definitely some improvements to make. Really appreciate this list! :-)

  33. Great tips! I strive to make my recipes consistent on my own site, but I can see the value in some of your recommendations (that I have not followed). I’ll definitely keep this in mind. The ultimate goal is that the fabulous meal that came together in my kitchen can be recreated in someone else’s kitchen without confusion or error.

  34. My confession is that I have dyslexia and while taking on the responsibility to blog about food, I know crazy as it may sound, helps me get better at overcoming this often annoying disability, I think!

    Having this list alone is, well, almost a good as sliced bread! Thank you for this most helpful list which is now printed, laying strategically next to my keyboards and teaching me gently good writing manners. Also for all the other wonderful stories and recipes you share here!

  35. I might be the last person on the food blogging planet to come across this list. It’s GREAT! Better late than never. I bought a copy of The Recipe Writers Handbook by Barbara Ostmann when I first started this. It’s a lovely little book, but your tips are what will be printed and taped up in my office! Thanks, Justin. You are truly a fountain of useful knowledge. XO, Ms. “Serve with hot white rice”

  36. Great tips. Sometimes I rush and take too much for granted, but I’m happy I do most of these things. Now, I’ll be a lot more conscious because my friends who never comment on my blog are always telling me they made my dishes. I think “yikes” I hope it turned out.

  37. I wished I had read this before. Just want to comment about using ‘sauté’. To us, French, it is something we use all the time and I can’t see myself using another world to replace ‘sauté’. It’s part of our culture to use that world. I would not be natural for me to use something else. Thanks, will be printing it.

  38. There’s only one point I disagree with. You say to give measurements in ounces. That’s fine if your circulation is limited to the USA. For the rest of the world, give measurements in grams please, I don’t have any kitchen scales that measure ounces.

  39. Hi Justin: I’d like to add your terrific post to my class materials for How to Write a Recipe at ICE and Food Writing at NYU. I will, of course, do so only with your permission and with full attribution.

  40. Hi Justin: I’d like to add this terrific post to my class materials for How to Write a Recipe at ICE and Food Writing at NYU– with full attribution and your permission, of course.

  41. Generally, you have good points. My issue though is…every oven and stove is different. If I say 180°C for 20 min and your oven is hotter than mine, it will burn. Same with stove top. Though we like to think that baking and cooking is a science, it’s much more intuitive than most people thing.
    Btw, I never thought of chopped walnuts or walnuts, chopped before because as European, I go by weight, mostly.
    I bake with both, weights and volumes, depending on what type of recipe I have. If I am ever able to publish a cook book I would do the same thing. Converting 500g of flour into a volume is a nightmare and won’t be as accurate as it should be. (Btw, that’s 4 cups plus 2 tbsp. and you are still missing 5g, unless you go well sifted, that would be 4 1/2 cups.) My solution would be to separate into North American recipes with volume and European recipes with weight. Check out and the different recipe lists I have.

  42. Justin, you made me laugh out loud and almost choke! At the same time that I was reading your article I was also enjoying BBQ pork ribs sent to me in the mail for an article I’m working on. They were packed in dry ice and from the BBQ of The Month Club. My fear level did not rise since I knew where the package came from. The timing was perfect.

    Not that it’s needed but I can vouch to other readers for the accuracy of your insight. I have multiple titles, several genres, three traditional publishers, won a contest on TV and everything you said comes into play.

    I’m an instant fan – enjoyed several of your posts over the course of the day.

    Thanks – Kent Whitaker

      1. I have so many questions for you but don’t want to be “that girl” :) If and when you have a chance to respond it will be appreciated!
        If you have a publisher jump at publishing your series of book’s because they believe in your complete business plan with all the extensive products to boot which venture out beyond just the world of cooking (because you are creating a brand) how do you decide if they are the right publisher? If they are a small publisher verses a main stream publishing company can they can get the same results or would you work on that proposal and getting it out there to explore all options?

        1. complicated question, and if you’re struggling with it, i’d urge you to check out some conferences where experts (agents, editors) speak about this kind of thing. i’ve spoken on panels about it before. it’s tough to encapsulate otherwise. my advice is don’t rush into it, because it really matters.

          i cover some of these issues (but definitely not all) in this other post:

          but this is the one which might help you more:

  43. Thanks Justin! That “chopped” tip is especially useful. I’ve thought about that while reading other people’s recipes but never while writing my own. It’s the simple things we usually forget….

  44. Quick question, when a recipe calls for six 8 ounce fillets of fish do you want it as:
    6 – 8 ounce fillets of fish
    six 8 ounce fillets of fish
    6, 8 ounce fillets of fish

    i can’t seem to find any documentation on this. any help would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Haha, I would go with “Six 8-ounce fish fillets” and of course I would specify the type of fish. Note the hyphen before ounce. Another option is “6 (8-ounce) fish fillets”. The main idea is to make sure people don’t get confused as they would with your first and third options.

      1. I am a big fan of the 6 (8-ounce) options; I think it is the easiest to read without misinterpreting. In most recipes, numbers are not spelled out, so using “six” , while not confusing, might look odd.

  45. Justin,
    Thank you for your post. Im obviously late to the game here, and I have not read all 153 comments.
    So if my question has been asked forgive, if you will.
    When you need to add a little water to the recipe, where do you list that? Im writing a granola recipe and sometimes I add between a tablespoon and a 1/4 cup of water depending on the moisture of the oats. Where in the recipe would you insert that?

  46. found this article 6 months ago or more when I tried and still trying to write some recipes and found it very guiding… hope your website lasts… hope you don’t mind…i made you my reference on my footnotes…

  47. If it helps any, I checked my go-to book on food writing (How to Write about Food: How to Become a Published Restaurant Critic, Food Journalist, Cookbook Author, and Food Blogger by S.J. Sebellin-Ross) and it says not to list water in the ingredient list. We all have access to water, so need to make note of it at the top of the recipe. Hope that (belated) reply helps!

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