Recipe Testing

How to Write a Headnote

June 26, 2012

There's no one way to write a recipe headnote. Especially at FOOD52, we take all kinds.

But we also believe a headnote -- that usually brief blurb at the top of the recipe -- is one of the first and best ways to lure readers in (along with a snappy title and a gorgeous photo), so it's worth putting some love into it.

Shop the Story

There are lots of ways to do it. You might want to engage readers with a personal story or a funny anecdote. Or you may jump straight to the point, informing cooks of variations and warning them of potential slip-ups.

Below are what we consider the four hallmarks of a great headnote, along with some of our favorite examples from FOOD52.

cream cheese cookies  roast pork shoulder

Tell a story: Where does the recipe come from? What inspired it? If we know where a recipe's been, we can better see where it's going (Isn't that how the saying goes?).

merrill on Cream Cheese Cookies: "My favorite part, though? My mother got the recipe at a Tupperware party in the 70s. One of the women brought a batch of the cookies with her, and at the end of the party, she dictated the ingredients and instructions to all of the other guests. Who knows how many subtle variations of this recipe exist today, legendary among countless other families?"

Make it funny: In most situations in life, there is no better (or more memorable) way to win people over than to make them laugh -- recipes are no different. Witness:

ENunn on Matilda, Maple & Garlic Pork Shoulder with Crispy Skin: "My grandmother (yes, I'm mentioning my grandmother again) used to cook her ever-present, giant ham by sticking it in the oven and pouring ginger ale over it every once in a while, as if it had won the Superbowl ... The ponderously long cooking time was inspired by The River Cottage Meat Book, a book that I find charmingly revolting."

cucumber melon salad  dandelion greens salad

Offer variations: Know a smart substitution for a hard-to-find ingredient? Preemptively answer their questions. And how about giving gluten-allergic or vegetarian cooks a hand (as in the recipe below)? They'll thank you!

MeghanVK on Quick-Pickled Cucumber-Melon Salad: "But why not cut the vegetables a bit thicker, and bring that highly addictive flavor to a salad? With sweet melon and a touch of salty, pliant prosciutto? (Vegetarians can substitute a handful of feta -- one extra salty item is necessary, in my opinion)."

Shout out a warning: Is there a time-consuming step the cook should know about? Is the dish spicier than some may like? Is it critical that you use a certain type of pan? Now's your chance.

aargersi on Dandelion Greens Salad: "When I walked over to get them she asked me, 'Are you ready for these?' and so -- fair warning -- they are an intense green. Strong and bitter, but I think balanced with some sweet and salt and richness they are absolutely delicious."

What are some of your favorite headnotes? Feel free to quote or link to them in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • patricia gadsby
    patricia gadsby
  • Kristin
  • Tara Mataraza Desmond
    Tara Mataraza Desmond
  • Sheilad2000
  • K_Squared
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.


patricia G. October 7, 2013
Good lord. River Cottage Meat was written in 2007 and is referred to as a "grandmotherly" book by ENunn or was that headnote a bit hastily written?
Kristin June 28, 2012
My favourite headnote is from Nigella Lawson's chocolate fudge cake: "Serves 10. Or 1 with a broken heart." Says it all!
Sonja November 27, 2013
Haha, that's a good one! :-D
Tara M. June 28, 2012
This one was fun to read as I'm knee-deep in the cookbook recipe writing hoopla. 120 recipes and the headnote genre varies from page to page! They're fun to write, but laced with a little bit of pressure to stuff good info in just a few sentences. Thanks for the checklist.
Sheilad2000 June 27, 2012
From Peg Braken's classic, The I Hate to Cook Book:

"This is for those days when you're en negligee, en bed, with a murder story or possibly a good case of flu."
creamtea June 27, 2012
love this!
K_Squared June 26, 2012
Alanna & Alex Small write some of the most practical headnotes in their debut cookbook The Frugal Foodie. Headnotes frequently offer the authors' thoughts on what has worked for them in the past for that particular dish. For example, pointing out that something makes great leftovers for weeknights, or an app that has gone over quite well at parties/gatherings, as well as ideas for utilizing odds & ends side products like broth, shavings, and extra dough.
The link to their cookbook:
aargersi June 26, 2012
Helenthenanny on corn dog-occoli - she cracks me up:

I am so sorry. About the name. Not about the dish. The dish is delicious. But that name. What was I supposed to call it?
arielleclementine June 27, 2012
hah! love that one too! all of your headnotes are gold, Abbie- you've got a way with words! and food!
aargersi June 26, 2012
I thought CAPS and EMOTICONS were the key :-)

har har