Recipe Writing Cheat Sheet – (Read this First)

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.

About Justin Schwartz

Justin Schwartz is an experienced editor and food blogger based in New York. He focuses on healthy eating and living. When he’s not acquiring and publishing cookbooks, you can find Justin sampling food in New York’s restaurants or trying new recipes in his kitchen.

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