Culture

Recipe Introductions Matter. Here's Why.

When food is more than just cooking.

February 22, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

A recipe is full of quantities, measurements, and instructions, but it’s not just a formula. Often, it’s a memory—of that week you were in Florence, or of your mom baking cookies, or of your homeland across the world. Which is to say: Often, it’s personal.

A headnote—that blurb at the top before the ingredient list—shows this better than anything. "The best headnotes not only give you a sense of the recipe and why this particular recipe is noteworthy or challenging or different from all the rest," Food52 Co-Founder Amanda Hesser said. "Great headnotes also give you a sense of the author and why you should trust them. I don’t want to spend time in my kitchen with a voiceless formula telling me what to do." Whether it’s two sentences or six paragraphs, this introduction is where you can meet the person behind the recipe.

But it hasn’t always been this way. If you scan classic cookbooks, a lot of them have microscopic headnotes, or none at all.

“Before World War II, the most-read American cookbooks were compendiums: practical cooking bibles, like Fannie Farmer and The Joy of Cooking, which offered hundreds of recipes without headnotes,” food writer John Birdsall told me. “In the 1940s there was a small but growing appetite for more literary recipe books, in which recipe headnotes established context and even included snippets of memoir.”

Since then, that appetite has only continued to grow. In her 2010 food publishing manual, Will Write for Food, Dianne Jacob writes: “These days, headnotes in books and often on websites contain narratives and read like novels.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I love long headnotes. Nigella has a couple in her book <em>Feast</em> that run for a whole page! Sometimes you need the room to say everything. As for this piece—thanks for writing it, Emma. Loved hearing from all these players. I think there's often a gap for users of recipe websites: It isn't always clear that there's a distinction between articles and recipes. Food sites have both templates, and Google registers each very differently. A recipe, for instance, has ratings, a headnote, and structured data, i.e. ingredients and directions. An article is a story that links to the recipe (the recipe, likewise, often links back to the story). What I take issue with is people who treat one like the other, when in reality they both serve very different purposes.”
— Eric K.
Comment

And I do read cookbooks like novels—cover to cover, standing on the subway, lying in bed. To me, the headnote has become the most thought-provoking, medium-pushing part of a recipe. But I’m a recipe developer and write headnotes for a living, so I’m biased.

Other people just want to get to the cooking part. For example, Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse tweeted this last week:

It didn’t take long for his message to make its way to the people he was critiquing, and many of them took issue with what he said.

Smitten Kitchen blogger and cookbook author Deb Perelman wrote:

Her six-message thread went on to say: “It's mostly women telling these stories. Congratulations, you've found a new, not particularly original, way to say ‘shut up and cook.’”

She wasn’t the only one to point out the problematic implications of Kruse’s tweet. That same day, A Brown Table blogger and cookbook author Nik Sharma posted:

Sharma, who grew up in India and now lives in the United States, writes recipes that celebrate those two countries. In Season, he talks about how he hopes “to erase labels like ‘ethnic’ and ‘exotic’ in the West by shedding more light on some of these ingredients.” And his headnotes are the place to do it.

I touched base with Sharma over the phone and asked why this tweet in particular felt frustrating. For him, it was a matter of framing. “It didn’t offer a lot of constructive criticism,” he said. “I feel like when people say something negative, it’s better to reframe the whole thing into something positive—to say, 'Hey, this is what I like about cooking websites,' and to leave it at that, versus saying, ‘This is what I hate.’” He paused. “But, I mean, I know it’s Twitter.”

In the spirit of something positive, I asked Sharma what he likes about headnotes. A lot, apparently: how they offer background, provide useful information on ingredients and techniques, tell personal stories, and make the experience of reading recipes more enjoyable.

“Old cookbooks didn’t have a lot of headnotes, some didn’t have any,” he pointed out. “A lot of them are just recipes with instructions, and they do feel a little cold sometimes. But you get a sense that the time was different.”

Indeed, cookbooks—just like magazines and newspapers—generally have shorter headnotes. They also have space constraints. And websites don’t. For David Tamarkin, digital director of Epicurious—one of the oldest and most respected recipe-focused websites around—this shift from analog to digital is huge.

“In food magazines, you’re constantly cutting text to fit the page, and headnotes are a natural page to cut from,” he told me. “I just came out with a book in December. Whenever I had to cut from a page, I cut from the headnote first.” Meanwhile, on a website, there’s “an infinite amount of space. There is no page.”

What’s more, accessing a recipe in a cookbook is different from accessing a recipe on a website. With the former, you open the cookbook and flip to the index. With the latter, you might go to a specific website, but it’s likely you go to Google first.

“You can’t talk about this without talking about SEO,” Tamarkin said. “You can’t talk about this without talking about Google.”

SEO is industry speak for search engine optimization—or, how to maximize one’s online visibility. In other words, if you publish a recipe for chicken soup, how do you make sure that when people search for chicken soup recipe, yours ends up as close to the top of those 397,000,000 results as possible? It’s complicated. And it’s always changing.

“Google recently made the decision to surface recipes with long headnotes,” Tamarkin said. Which means, these days, the world’s most popular search engine is “favoring more and more blogs with long stories over recipe websites with short headnotes.”

To give you an idea of this, Tamarkin and I Googled chocolate chip cookie recipe while we were on the phone. The top results: a couple of expected big names (Toll House, Allrecipes), but mostly small blogs with lengthy narratives leading up to the recipe itself.

In this sense, a headnote isn’t just about the recipe. It’s about how we find recipes in the first place, how the publishing industry is changing, and how readers and writers and editors aren’t the only factors in play.

“I understand the frustration,” Tamarkin said. “Because when you’re putting in chocolate chip cookie recipe, you’re looking for a recipe—you’re not looking for a story. If you were looking for an article or a story, you would put in chocolate chip cookie essay.

Of course, Tamarkin runs a recipe website, and it’s his job to think about stuff like this. For people like Kruse, who teaches history, it’s not.

“The response to the tweet was a real education for me and I’ve learned a lot about the issue,” Kruse wrote to me over email. “I can see now that these narratives provide a purpose beyond the business needs of such sites, in that they let creators—especially ones from marginalized communities—provide their perspective and lay claim to their experience. I certainly didn’t mean to cause anyone any offense and I sincerely regret that my ignorance of the form (and the larger debate around it) came off as dismissive in any way.”

It goes without saying: Kruse wasn’t the first to tweet this complaint. There’s Chelsea Peretti, Jennifer Ashley Wright, Farran Nehme, and on, and on.

Even The New Yorker parodied the long recipe intro last year: "I sense that you’re trying to scroll down to find the recipe without reading this preamble I was kind enough to write for you. Yes, I dabble in creative writing and must insist that you enjoy this incredibly detailed tangential anecdote about the muffins before I tell you how to make them."

Complaining about recipes—and the way they’re written—isn’t anything new. Twitter has just made it a lot easier. So has the fact that countless recipes are now available at zero cost. As Genius Recipes columnist Kristen Miglore pointed out: "We’ve forgotten that being able to find recipes (and stories and other content) for free is a relatively new way of life. What we all do have is a choice in where we get our recipes—bookstores, direct recipe searches on sites like Food52, relying on whatever Google surfaces and getting mad about it (and, with that choice, how directly we pay for them)."

The getting mad part seems to be something every recipe developer is familiar with.

“I've heard every complaint under the stars,” Dining In author and New York Times columnist Alison Roman told me. “And I've definitely seen comments and tweets like this before.” But, she continued, that’s just part of the job. “One thing I've learned writing recipes and cookbooks is: You're not going to please everybody. You're either going to be too long-winded or not informative enough or too personal or not personal enough.”

So what’s a recipe writer to do? For Roman, it’s about writing the kind of recipes she would want to find in a newspaper or magazine or cookbook. “Now I almost treat a headnote like I'm the only one who's reading it,” she said.

The irony, of course, is that Roman is one of the most-read people around. Which is probably why she believes that, like everything else, online feedback should be taken with a grain of salt. Preferably flaky.

“I would never let a comment like that impact my work,” she said. “And I hope other people don't either.”

Do you prefer short or long headnotes? Why? Discuss in the comments.

45 Comments

tinarina March 11, 2019
I have no problem with long headnotes, but I do have a problem with bad writing. Few bloggers are as engaging and clever as Deb Perelman, so the headnotes end up being a slog--and often completely irrelevant.
 
julia J. March 11, 2019
I love headnotes — when I have time to read them I love the history and context they provide. For those who don’t, I suggest an innovative solution — when pressed for time, scroll down!!!
 
Pat March 11, 2019
I LOVE headnotes and read them frequently. They add insight, tips and maybe some history about the recipe. Sometimes, however, I just want the recipe. No problem. I just scroll down and get to the recipe. I can’t imagine complaining about it. It was nice to hear that the original twitterer changed his mind after being informed of the reasons for the headnotes which in this day seems to be uncommon. Thanks for the article.
 
taash March 11, 2019
TBH, I'm not a fan of extensive headnotes. I understand and appreciate the points made re: how the cook came to this recipe, the life story, etc., but I'd appreciate it if the writer(s) put themselves in the reader's shoes: sometimes I want to read headnotes, but I just don't always have time, or don't feel inclined; some-times the headnotes are dull. Bottom line: "brevity is the soul of wit". Just because it's a website instead of a physically limited page is no reason to drone on. Long headnotes are a definite turnoff for me.
 
Erin March 11, 2019
I LOVE well-written, relevant head notes. I have both of Deb at Smitten Kitchen's cookbooks and I enjoy reading her head notes (on both blog and in her books) as much as I enjoy reading and making the recipes themselves. They provide context and connection to the food. The caveat being, IF and only IF they're well-written and relevant to the recipe itself. I don't care for a million photos of the recipe - give me 1-2 so I know what it should look like. If I have to scroll down for 30 seconds to actually find the recipe, then to me it's cluttered and I will skip the head note completely because the fun and enjoyment of the head notes is gone. I agree with another commenter than balance is key and too many recipe blogs err on the sides of too many photos of the completed recipe.
 
Lori W. March 11, 2019
It's funny that Deb Perelman responded to his tweet because her blog is one of the few where I do read the headnote, mainly because it has to do with the recipe and doesn't go on and on about her son's diarrhea that day or some other completely unrelated topic. Hers are interesting and also, her recipes are reliable and delicious.
Not all bloggers are good writers, it's a rare person who can write well AND give you a great recipe.
 
Maggie S. February 26, 2019
Thank you for this compelling reminder Emma—you are such a gracious, yet unflinching writer. Proud to work with you.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 27, 2019
Thank you so much, Maggie! Proud to work with you :)
 
DocSharc February 26, 2019
I think the author of this piece is missing an important point. There is a difference between a headnote and a multiple page essay with dozens of high resolution photos. Most of us LOVE headnotes! We love to set the mood for what we're about to cook. So many good things can be found in headnotes. Most of us also hate having to scroll for days to even see the recipe, though. A good blog finds that balance and is better for it. But there are a lot of blogs out there that do not find that balance and it's not fun to read. That's all.
 
Joy Y. March 11, 2019
OMG This^^^. I am a creative, but hells yes, make it relevant! ATK headnotes - yes - explain how they came to this version and why it works. SK uses humor. But to drone on and on about that bespoke wooden spoon or the fact that your grandmother's aunt's best friend's cousin smuggled the recipe out of Eastern Cookmaina, sown into a inner silk pocket that was dyed magenta by beets that were grown by the local medicine person...that's not a headnote. That's someone that didn't get a book deal and found another outlet. It comes down to be be relevant to the recipe and to the audience.
 
Suzanne B. February 26, 2019
I do read the headnote. I find they are usually interesting and informative. If you dan't want to read it don't. I'm sure the recipe writer doesn't mind if you don't--------it's your loss.
 
HalfPint February 25, 2019
As usual I'm late to this,

In a sea of recipes, how does one select the best recipe? I'm referring to the "best" recipe for YOU, which might not be the best recipe for me. This is where I find headnotes to be so important. I don't care about the length. I want some sort of insight as to whether I'm going to like what I would eventually make. I can't get that from the list of ingredients, so I need to rely on the recipe author to tell me something, anything, that might make my decision a little easier. A good headnote is indicative of the recipe. If you have taken the time to craft a nice introduction/marketing (because that's really what headnotes are), I'll know that you took the same care with the recipe and instructions. And on the days I don't feel like slogging through a lengthy headnote, I just skip to the recipe ;)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 25, 2019
Love this: "I'm referring to the 'best' recipe for YOU, which might not be the best recipe for me."
 
Courtney R. February 25, 2019
Here's a radical idea... if you don't want to read headnotes why don't you skip to the recipe? A lot of blogs I follow actually have buttons that give this option but it's really not difficult to scroll down by yourself. I get it - I don't always want to or have time to read what the author has to say - but who am I to say they shouldn't be allowed to weave in their own narratives?
 
Flippy February 25, 2019
I personally love long, interesting headnotes. I love culinary history. I love the inspiration behind a recipe. I especially love details that explain the why of certain steps in a recipe.

It’s all interesting.

With that said, not every food blogger and recipe developer is a good writer. Many seem to barely try and improve. Many are also clearly padding their content for both SEO and maximum ad-space while we scroll — it’s lazy, annoying, and worthy of criticism. It doesn’t matter the intention, none of us is above receiving criticism. And if you’re a bad and lazy writer, you will receive it.

The tweet in question that has prompted this “controversy” was also fairly banal. He could have expressed what’s now become a rather boring, typical opinion a lot better. Instead he comes across rude. But I sympathize with both sides.

If you’re a food blogger telling stories — accept (constructive and helpful) criticism and use it as a tool to improve and excel. You’ll be better off for it.
 
Nora J. February 25, 2019
I too wish Mr. Kruse hadn't felt he needed to apologize. I get frustrated, too, because waaaay too many headnotes don't tell me one. single. useful thing about the recipe.

The only thing I need to know the first time I come across an author is, is he/she serious enough about food, does he/she care enough about the readers to present a good recipe clearly and with the necessary information? That includes information that can be found in the headnotes, but not four paragraphs on your junior year in Provence and how magical it was dancing through the streets of Nice in the rain and how it tangentially relates to this dish, sort of, because of the lemons.

Once I trust the author, I may be interested in hearing more personal information. But now, when I end up somewhere and see I have a bunch of text and ads to wade through to get to the recipe, the answer is ctrl+x, go to trusted cooking website and search there.

And although space is unlimited online, readers' time and attention spans are note. Food bloggers ignore that at their peril.
 
Annada R. February 25, 2019
When is food just about food? Or when is a recipe just about a recipe? That's the best part of food according to me, it's at the cusp of history, geography, sociology and tells so much more that what is visible to the eye. I love headnotes but assuming that the author/recipe developer has taken care to include thoughtful context in the headnotes. And most often I have not been disappointed. Lovely article, Emma. Spawned so many meaningful comments!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 25, 2019
Thanks, Annada!
 
Delaney G. February 24, 2019
I agree with other commenters here, headnotes are a wonderful addition to a recipe *if* they contribute to the story of the recipe in any way. I’m tired of vanity project cookbooks where the writer feels compelled to invent content for every headnote even when the recipe doesn’t need it. I just got super annoyed reading a cookbook where every single headnote was basically, “My husband likes this soup.” “My husband likes this smoothie.” Headnotes shouldn’t be required when there isn’t an anecdote or tasting thoughts to share. My complaint is specific to cookbooks, too, where, as you mentioned, space is (or should be!) at a premium.
 
mcs3000 February 23, 2019
Excellent, thoughtful piece.
 
Gammy February 23, 2019
Thanks Emma for this thoughtful article. I enjoy the headnotes and agree with the majority who like a couple paragraphs on flavor profiles, any tricks that the author discovered that make the recipe stand out, maybe substitutions for uncommon ingredients. I have an extremely slow internet and totally agree with PJ who is irritated when the recipe is provided as a video, with no written recipe. Serious Eats seems to manage everything quite well... shorter headnotes at the beginning of each individual recipe, and their longer stories /articles have gobs of in-process photos, but always links to the actual recipe if I want to skip all that.
 
Nancy February 24, 2019
Agree with you Grammy and Amanda Hesser in the article...I want a sense of the person writing the recipe, a context, maybe a headline (start this 2 days in advance) or warning (there is a dispute about an ingredient, a method, an origin) that is helpful, interesting.
If you have more to say than 2-3 paragraphs, give us a link to an essay, a website, a book.
Last, yes, I hate it when a recipe is posted only as a video...unless it's something that's intended as a tutorial on method, where visuals help us understand a process.
 
EmilyC February 23, 2019
Thanks for addressing this topic so well, Emma.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 24, 2019
Thank you, Emily!
 
Beckie February 23, 2019
When the headnote discusses the history of the recipe, flavor palette, ingredient options, even how it makes you feel, I think it can be helpful. However many that I read are about a random event that happened to occur the day they made or thought of the recipe. Interesting to them or their family but not helpful to someone trying a new recipe. That being said, I check the headnote to see if it's helpful. If not, I quietly roll my eyes and scroll down to the free recipe. Many times I actually find the comment sections of the recipe to be more helpful than some of the headnotes. Especially if the writer has responded to good questions or others that have tried the recipe give helpful suggestions or alternative ingredients.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 24, 2019
Interesting note about the worth of comment sections! I think these are so valuable on a recipe page...and obviously a resource that can't exist with cookbooks and magazines!
 
Elaine February 22, 2019
I agree with Kruse's original comments and wish he hadn't been compelled to apologize for it. A few lines of personal thought before the recipe are fine. The multiple paragraphs-long novelettes that are becoming de riguer -- pure self absorption.
 
Smaug February 23, 2019
Missed that comment, which seems to be gone now. I suppose that writers still get paid by the word- not so sure what editors do nowadays, but it doesn't seem to involve a lot of editing.