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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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; 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.”
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.)