My recipe development notebook.

I like to write everything down the old-school way.

When I was a food editor at Food & Wine magazine, people would often ask me, “What’s there to edit in a recipe?” My response was something to the effect of, “More than you’ve probably ever thought about.” Here’s the thing: A well-written recipe is usually an unassuming thing. When properly crafted, cooks should be able to follow it effortlessly without questioning it or themselves. Getting to that place, however, takes time and requires a zillion little judgement calls. It also entails copious note taking during the development and testing phases and extra thought while writing and editing.

I learned almost everything I know about crafting a well-written recipe from my mentor, Food & Wine Executive Food Editor Tina Ujlaki, so I was thrilled to interview her about the process for the latest issue of Cherry Bombe. I narrowed down our 90-minute long conversation into 10 digestible tips. You’ll have to read the article to get her thoughts, but here are some of my own tips for crafting recipes.

My article in Cherry Bombe.

My article in Cherry Bombe.

  1. Record as much info as possible about your ingredients: Write down both the weights and volume measurements of ingredients, including produce, nuts, and dried fruit. (Usually, you’ll want to get the volume measurements after the ingredients are prepped.) As you write up the recipe, you can decide whether all of that information is useful, or just some of it. But at least you have the choice.
  2. Use your senses: Many people get hung up on the cooking times included in recipes, but these can vary widely depending on stoves, pots and pans and even atmospheric conditions. To help these nervous cooks, record how food should look, smell and (sometimes) taste before moving on to the next step.
  3. Offer substitutions when possible: It’s helpful to cooks without access to specialty and international food stores to know they can substitute a mixture of lemon juice and honey for pomegranate molasses or basil for cilantro (in some recipes, anyway). You can list these substitutes in the ingredients or suggest them in the headnotes.
  4. Consider your audience: Tina and I talked a lot about how certain knowledge among cooks is no longer common. For example, she no longer calls for egg wash; order modafinil no prescription instead, a recipe will list 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water or some such. If your readers are beginners, you have to assume they know very little, and write explicitly about how to break down a bulb of fennel, for example. If you’re writing for people who cook regularly, you can often use more shorthand; it’s enough to write “1 bulb fennel, halved, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise.”
  5. Reread your recipes: After you write out a recipe, reread it several times and ask yourself these questions: Are all ingredients listed in the order in which they are used? Are all ingredients used in the procedure (and when the ingredients are divided, do they add up to the amount listed)? Does the order of the steps make sense or is there a better, more logical way? Is this the clearest way to write the instructions for the cooks I’m trying to reach?
  6. Don’t forget salt: If you season your food throughout the cooking process (and you probably should!), note that. Unless I’m seasoning a raw meat mixture or something else that’s dangerous to taste raw, I prefer not to include an exact amount of salt in the recipe. But I always list salt as an ingredient and tell people when to add a pinch or season to their taste in the method.
  7. Don’t let cuteness trump clarity: Tina and I also discussed writing with voice and when it’s appropriate in recipes. We both agreed that we love a strong voice as long as the instructions are still absolutely clear. I see a lot of cute, chatty recipes online that are hard to follow; the voice is more distracting than it is useful. If you like to write recipes with a distinct style, be sure what you’re saying is crystal clear. Better yet, ask a friend to read it before you publish.

To learn more about recipe writing, check out these great posts:

How to Write a Recipe Like a Professional (The nitty gritty on crafting all the parts of the recipe.)

10 Ways to Write Clear Recipes (This includes some wonderful tips on line editing and trimming out the wordy fat.)

7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors (Another great post from Dianne Jacob of Will Write for Food)

 

 

Photos for The Modern Potluck.

It’s a wrap!

It's so fun to see how this...

It’s so fun to see how this…

...becomes this.

…becomes this.

Some of my favorite cookbooks include no photos or just very few in the centerfold. Of course, cookbooks like this haven’t been published in the last 10 years. With the rise of access to free recipes online, cookbooks have become more like precious objects. They’re expected to be beautiful, with plenty of lush photography, and perhaps, multi-textured covers you just want to hold.

Originally, I was jealous of all of the bloggers who have the skills to style and shoot their own books. Photo shoots are expensive, and in my case (and in many authors’ cases), I was paying for the photos from my advance.

Of course, the shoot ended up being the most fun part of the process for me. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and it was an incredible experience to collaborate with people who are so good at what they do. By the end, I viewed the shoot as an investment in the book that I hope pays off!

If you’ve never been to a food-related photo shoot and wonder why there are so many people, here is a little summary of all of the jobs.

It takes a village to shoot a cookbook, especially when you're working outside of a studio.

It takes a village to shoot a cookbook, especially when you’re working outside of a studio.

Photographer: Pretty self explanatory. This is the person who takes the pictures and is often the person who assembles the team.

Photo assistant: Does a wide range of jobs to help the photographer, like setting up lighting and props and breaking down scenes after the shot. When we did a day of shooting at my house, there were two assistants plus an intern to help with all of the moving parts.

Art director: In the case of my book, the art director cheap generic modafinil came from the publisher. This person gives general direction in the beginning about the types of colors and textures to include and creates mood boards to help guide the rest of the team. On the shoot, the art director often comes to watch how the shoot progresses and gives feedback on the shots as they happen.

Food stylist: The stylist does so much more than just add a few sprigs of cilantro to a cooked dish! He or she figures out the best order to cook and shoot the food; shops for all of the ingredients; cooks the food and finally styles it. Most stylists spend time working in restaurants and then years assisting before taking on their own high-profile jobs. And while they have a few tricks for keeping food looking photogenic (for example, they often spritz food with water or brush with oil if it starts to lose its sheen), editorial food photos these days show completely edible dishes.

Food styling assistant: The assistant helps the stylist in any way possible, including shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning.

Prop stylist: You know all of those plates, utensils and napkins in a photo? Prop stylists source all of the non-food items necessary for a shoot, including the background surfaces. Oftentimes, the stylist stays on set to choose the items for each shot. In my case, the photographer, the photographer’s assistant and food stylist all chipped in on this task.  Prop styling sounds glamorous but often involves a lot of wrapping, unwrapping and schlepping. (For larger budget jobs, the prop stylist often has an assistant or two).

Props for The Modern Potluck.

This looks like a ton of props but we used all of them!

Food styling essentials.

The food styling essentials.

Fish escabeche for The Modern Potluck

My intern, Amelia, took this photo as she tested a fish escabeche.

After enlisting many, many volunteers to help test about half of the recipes in The Modern Potluck, I found myself backlogged with more testing and retesting. Recipe testing is a fun gig but cleaning up is less so. Plus, to be honest, I started to get tired of making the same dishes over and over.

Throughout the book writing process, people told me to hire an intern. The problem is, I like developing recipes by myself, with no one looking over my shoulder. Sometimes, my process involves a bit of puttering around; I don’t always come to the kitchen with a clear-cut plan so I wasn’t always sure what an intern could do.

Testing and re-testing written up recipes, well, that is something someone else could do. I didn’t have any budget left to hire a tester, but I remembered that one of my best early experiences post culinary school was helping a cookbook author organize her ideas and doing some testing. For free. Yep.

I decided to get over my anxiety about having someone work in my home kitchen and ask my alma mater, the Institute of Culinary Education, if they knew of a recent graduate who might like some experience testing recipes. Within a few weeks, buy modafinil 100mg they sent me the perfect person—a career changer and mom of two girls who had some serious grit and a great attitude. She was working full time at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York and looking to transition away from the restaurant gig to a job with saner hours.

I couldn’t pay her in dollars, but I promised her tons of food, recipe testing experience and all the contacts she could ask for. She came to my house once a week and cooked through three or four recipes each time. The best part about having in her my own kitchen was that I was able to check in and taste throughout the process. I could immediately see where instructions needed to be better or where we needed to add more of less of an ingredient. And yes, she cleaned up the kitchen when she was done.

Best of all, she found a job as a test kitchen assistant almost immediately after she stopped working at the restaurant and with me. I’m thrilled I could be part of her journey, and I know she’ll continue to do awesome things.

If I ever write another cookbook, I will definitely hire another intern. It was an incredible experience for me, and one that has only made the book better.

Recipe testing for Modern Potluck.

Cranberry jam bars from Modern Potluck tested by one of my volunteers.

 

I love a loose recipe, one that’s written more to inspire you to try a certain flavor combination or method for cooking cauliflower than give you an exact road map for making a perfect dish. For my forthcoming cookbook, however, I wrote very specific recipes, often detailing exactly how root vegetables should be cut and how to plate the dish.

When crafting a recipe, there are a zillion factors to consider. For example, calling for 1 garlic clove might suffice if you’re cooking it until it mellows, releasing its flavors into the oil. But if you’re grating it raw for a salad, a volume measurement will likely serve you better, as garlic cloves can range from the size of a large shelled peanut to that of an in-the-shell walnut.

After I developed my recipes, taking copious handwritten notes, and then wrote them up as well as I could, I dispatched them to a bunch of volunteer recipe testers. I learned a ton, A TON from this process, including that it’s basically impossible to write a recipe that’s perfect for every person. Here are a few tips to consider if you want to enlist volunteer recipe testers:  continue reading

 
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