Recipe writing technique

Anyone know of a book or web site on techniques for recipe writing? I know that looking at the cookbooks of the Greats (Julia Child, etc.) is a good starting point, but am interested in any other tools. Thanks.

  • Posted by: Pegeen
  • February 17, 2015


Melanie H. February 21, 2015
I would also recommend Diane Jacobs' 'Will Write for Food' and her website - her advice is really sound, and she constantly updates in order to reflect the changing nature of food writing to include such topics as writing for blogs and websites. Also, I agree with the comments that reading such time-honoured writers as Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David are always informative and interesting. If writing about baking is your thing, Rose Levy Beranbaum's work is always inspirational...
AntoniaJames February 21, 2015
Pegeen, every recipe I write starts with repeated testing of it. I usually spend a lot of time thinking about the recipe (a wonderful way to pass the time when swimming laps or hiking in the redwood forest); even if the dish, bread, etc. is one I've made many times, I write out the steps in a fair bit of detail before I do my first test. I often do that a day or so beforehand because my right brain likes to work on "problems" like getting all the details in correctly, so I find myself annotating my first written notes before I begin the first test. Then I test, adding more notes, if necessary. After that, I take those notes and revise in digital form, print out and test again. Then I revise, print, read in hard copy, etc. Only then do I load up to Food52. After that, I read through on the screen and then print yet again and read through in hard copy. Yes, I use a fair bit of paper to do this, but I use "draft" paper (the clean side of a sheet already used for something else). Alas, hard copy editing seems to be a dying practice, but to my mind it's essential for making writing - of any kind and for any purpose - clear and accurate. ;o)
Pegeen February 18, 2015
I’m enthralled by these posts. I sincerely thank all of you for taking the time to share your experience, advice and insights: they have truly helped me focus my thinking.

But I’m not full yet so please don’t stop responding. I could read these posts for months and hope to comment in more depth soon.

In the meantime, in case you haven’t had the treat of reading her work, I wanted to mention the writer Laurie Colwin, fiction author, but also a food writer: “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking”
Maedl February 18, 2015
Laurie Colwn reminds me of some of the other writers at Gourmet like Joseph Wechsberg and Lillian Langseth-Christiansen. Many years later, I still remember how much I looked forward to reading their articles in each month's new issue of Gourmet.
AntoniaJames February 21, 2015
Maedl, Wechsberg also wrote many articles for The New Yorker and other magazines over the years. There are several anthologies of excellent pieces he wrote, not just on food, but other topics of interest. He's one of my all-time favorite writers in any genre!
I was first introduced to him when I was a teenager, when he wrote "Letter from Warsaw," "Letter from Prague," "Letter from Moscow", etc. in The New Yorker (during the Cold War). ;o)
Maedl February 21, 2015
I have one or two of Wechsberg's books on my bookshelves. Ever so often I find one in the 'for sale' room at the public library and snap it up quickly. Then I feel like I have found a great treasure!
petitbleu February 18, 2015
I don't know of a good book for researching recipe writing other than doing as you said--looking at other cookbooks. But I will say that there is no real formula for doing it. There are as many styles as there are authors. Some are Hemingway-esque; some are Kafka-esque. Some are precious and others are matter-of-fact. You should write a recipe just as you would write a letter or a story--in your voice. But it pays to keep in mind what you are trying to do by writing a recipe down.

You are trying to enable another cook to recreate something that gives you pleasure. Recipes should be to-the-point within reason. I had an English teacher who was all about editing--never say in 20 words what you can say in 10, and so forth. I agree with this ideology, especially when it comes to recipes. If you can get the point across in less space, do it. But don't sacrifice clarity or important notes (for instance, when I read a recipe for making brown butter many years ago, it was very helpful to me as a new cook to know that the butter foams dramatically and spits and makes crackling sounds, then those sounds subside and the smell of toasty butter bits start to permeate the kitchen--you could write that as "cook butter over medium heat until brown" but then you would be missing something fundamental to understanding the process).

On that note, though, you have to know your audience as well. Are you writing a recipe for seasoned cooks and chefs, home cooks, or beginners? You cannot write a recipe for everyone. Lengthy, painfully detailed recipes will annoy or bore experienced cooks, and recipes that assume a lot of knowledge will alienate inexperienced cooks. You generally have to choose a tactic, although for a modern audience it pays to be a little more detailed--experienced cooks will be able to skim over the recipe and ignore or overlook any details that they are already familiar with, but most of us these days didn't learn to cook from our mothers or grandmothers, and so a little more detail is good.

These are just general suggestions that you have probably already thought of, but I hope it's at least a little helpful. Writing good recipes is not easy, but it's worth doing! Also, we have an Evernote recipe archive as well--it's the perfect tool for keeping track of recipes! Love it.

Through all that, though, it's always good if you can let your voice come through in the recipe. A lot of the older recipe writers had a lovely voice--Jane Grigson, MFK, and now I think the most of Nigel Slater, although he verges on the precious. You also have to think of recipe styles that you like. For instance, while I adore Julia Child, I despise her recipe format. It follows, then, that I will not write recipes the way she does. Take notes about what you like in certain cookbook authors or recipe writers.
cookinginvictoria February 18, 2015
Here are some other Food52 links about recipe writing. I especially like Merrill's post on how to write an original recipe. Agree that in addition to writing a good recipe, capturing an authentic voice is difficult. I am really drawn to the ones, both on food52 and elsewhere, that are able to do this, whether they are funny, authoratative or just genuinely warm.
Maedl February 18, 2015
Diane Jacobs wrote "Will Write for Food" and has a blog as well. She has some excellent suggestions for writing recipes.

You can start easily by creating a style sheet, which will improve consistency within and between recipes. As part of your sheet, include a list of banned words. To start the list, I will even give you a few words which, I think when applied to food, are either infantile, inappropriate or overused--perhaps all at the same time: yummy, veggie, genius, awesome.

You might also read some of M. F. K. Fisher's books--her style is enviable.
luvcookbooks February 18, 2015
Have to say I don't so much like MFK Fisher's recipes. Many duds among them, although she writes beautiful, sensuous prose.
Maedl February 18, 2015
In this case, it is the style that is important.
ChefJune February 18, 2015
MFK is not so much a recipe writer. Writing ABOUT recipes is not the same as writing a lucid recipe. The Ostmann book is a primer for that.
Maedl February 18, 2015
I fully agree that M. F. K. Fisher was not a recipe writer, but reading her and other good food writers provides a good background for writing headnotes and using creative vocabulary. I think that is an art that is not often seen in recipe writing today.
luvcookbooks February 18, 2015
Here is one link!! I have a few others on a Pinterest board, message me if you have trouble finding them. Like them because they are directed towards our community.
luvcookbooks February 18, 2015
If you look in articles, there are some tips on writing on Food52. I am learning so much from testing recipes and cooking w my daughter. Recipes that look clear on the page can be difficult in the kitchen and a direction that is clear to me might be hard for my daughter. I am growing to appreciate a longer, more evocative style of writing and also love when qriter's personalities shine through the writing. Jennifer steinhauer's recipes come to mind. Also, btw, I love your recipes and your voice.
Nancy February 18, 2015
Pegeen, at the risk of being obvious, let me suggest thinking about intent or voice. Intent & audience:, range from Julia child et al in Mastering (encyclopedic on ingredients, equipment & techniques for those who have not cooked Fr food) to larousse gastronomique (where recipes are oftern only ingredient lists, intended for knowledgeable cooks). Voice - to convey the experience, personality, special interest of the writer (e.g RL Beranbaum cake book, eliz David on anything). Also, maybe take a leaf from the British psychologist who coined the term "the good enough mother." Could you live with a "good enough recipe"?
LeBec F. February 18, 2015
peg, i have a feeling that if you read the book june suggested, you will probably gain a template or two that would be a good fit for you. After that, you might want to look through some of 52's 1,000's of categorized recipes: read the whole recipe from intro to ingredients to instructions; it shouldn't take long to find a very well written one that you admire and that fits one of your templates. Then you can try to use that recipe as a guide in writing one yourself.
But you probably figured that out already :)
ChefJune February 18, 2015
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann's book "The Recipe Writers Handbook" is considered the standard for recipe writing. If you're interested in that, you should own that book.
Pegeen February 18, 2015
Thank you, June!
Pegeen February 17, 2015
I feel like an idiot. May I begin by answering my own question: writing recipes down is hard to separate from testing them. I remember a great interview by J.J. Goode on The Splendid Table radio show, on this subject:

I have difficulty posting recipes because I am too finicky about how my grandmothers' recipes are written down. I feel like if it's not done well, I'm doing them wrong. (One was a professional chef; the other could have been.) I'm trying to get it right but also lighten up.
Pegeen February 17, 2015
p.s. Of course I cook many other things in addition to my grandmothers' recipes! But I find it hard to bother to write them down, when they've been covered so well by hundreds of other people already. Just a personality quirk. I would much rather spend time fiddling with my Evernote recipe archive. :-)
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