September 12, 2011 in Tips
As part of the #Irishfoodpix day at Bord Bia last week, where the 40+ bloggers in attendance learned how to hone our food photography and styling skills, I gave a short talk on recipe writing. You might know me as one half of the IFBA along with Caroline or through my Edible Ireland or Dinner du Jour blogs, but in my day job I’m a freelance editor specialising in cookery and food books and have worked with many of Ireland’s best chefs and food writers. These are my top five tips for how to write a recipe like a pro.
1. List ingredients in the order they’ll be used.
Many people think they should list the most important or the biggest ingredient first, especially if it’s meat, but this isn’t best practice. Listing ingredients in the order in which they’ll be used in the method is not only more logical, but it makes it easier for cooks to follow along. Or if a cook loses their place in the method, a quick glance at the ingredients list will show them what comes next. If you’ve been cooking for awhile, you can probably figure out how to cook most recipes just by looking at the ingredient list – first this, then that.
2. If it doesn’t matter what order ingredients are used in, list them in descending order of weight, volume or number.
If you’re making a dish that calls for onions, carrots, celery and courgettes to all be added at the same time, it looks more elegant and orderly on the page to list them as 3 courgettes, 2 carrots, 1 onion, 1 stalk of celery. The same is true of liquid measurements and tablespoons/teaspoons. It’s a small thing, but it will make your recipe look more polished and professional and will show that you’ve taken care with it and have thought everything through.
3. Be specific.
A cookbook is really just a glorified instruction manual, so it’s important to be as clear as possible by being specific and spelling out everything. For example, say what type of heat you need to cook over (low, medium or high), give sizes of fruit and veg (e.g. large potatoes, small leeks), specify sizes of frying pans, bowls and baking tins and always give cooking times for individual steps. It’s important to specify cooking times to give readers an idea of how long certain steps or the whole recipe will take. Even a little detail like the size of a bowl or pan matters – if you’re using a bowl that other ingredients will need to be added to, make sure to specify a large bowl, or if you’re making, say, a pasta sauce in a pan that all the drained, cooked pasta will need to be added to eventually, make sure to specify a large pan. Here’s an example of what it means to be specific: don’t say ‘saute the onions, then add the carrots’, but rather, say ‘saute the onions in a large frying pan for 10 minutes on a medium heat, until softened but not browned, then add the carrots’.
4. Don’t assume anything.
Most writers cater for all levels of cook, and that includes beginners. Always explain things fully in a recipe and don’t assume readers will be able to fill in any blanks. Read through your recipe as if you’re a beginner cook – is everything clear? In The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, the authors say, ‘A recipe should appear simple and easy to prepare. It should not confuse the reader, require guesswork or offer inadequate guidance. Consumers want to be told what not to do, as well as what to do.’ If you follow tip 3 to be specific, this will go a long way towards making sure any reader, no matter what their skill level, can successfully make your recipe. And this leads us to tip 5.
5. Take advantage of chances to educate your readers.
By now, you’ve probably learned a lot of tips in the kitchen, whether it’s through your own trial and error, taking cookery classes, reading cookbooks or watching cookery programmes on TV. Why not share your knowledge with your readers? It can often be done by just adding a little bit more text onto the end of an instruction in the method. For example:
- Instead of saying ‘brown the chicken in batches’, say ‘brown the chicken in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan so that the meat sears instead of braises’.
- Instead of saying ‘cook the garlic on a low heat’, say ‘cook the garlic on a low heat so it won’t burn and become bitter’.
- Instead of saying ‘sift the icing sugar’, say ‘sift the icing sugar to make sure your icing won’t have any lumps’.
- Instead of saying ‘place the tart tin on a baking tray and pour in the filling’, say ‘place the tart tin on a baking tray before you pour in the filling to make it easier to transfer to the oven and to catch any drips’.
It might seem repetitive to say these things in every recipe, but remember that people won’t be reading the recipes on your blog or in your book straight through, like they would a novel, but rather will pick and choose them and so might miss some valuable information if you only say it once.
Another part of educating your readers is trying to anticipate questions or worries they might have as they make the recipe. For example, a short note like ‘don’t worry if the mixture looks curdled’ or ‘the cake should still have a slight wobble in the middle’ is all it takes to reassure your reader that they’re doing things right.
Julia Child was a pioneer in educating home cooks through her books. In an interview, she said, ‘I found that the recipes in most – in all – the books I had were really not adequate. They didn’t tell you enough. … I won’t do anything unless I’m told why I’m doing it. So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right. My feeling is that once you know everything and have digested it, then it becomes part of you.’
Think of it this way – the best recipes are ones where the writer is like a friend in the kitchen with you, there to help out or reassure you if needed.
If you would like to learn more about recipe writing, I recommend Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More by Dianne Jacobs and The Recipe Writer’s Handbook by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane L. Baker (though if you were only going to buy one, go for Will Write for Food).