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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)