Rules for Good Recipe Writing
Are you interested in learning how to write a recipe? This skill is an art. That’s why I’m providing my best tips for good recipe writing.
Today, many people are interested in adding a number of skills to their resumes, and recipe writing may be a valuable one. Whether you’re a blogger, book author, newsletter editor, foodservice director, or community nutritionist, there are many reasons why becoming a good recipe writer can further your success. “Writing recipes that are clear, easy to follow, tailored to a specific audience, and well tested and work as promised really matters. Bringing them to life visually is the icing on the cake,” says Liz Weiss, MS, RD, book author, blogger, and recipe developer.
Writing your own recipes can be a tool for providing your own unique perspective on cooking, meal planning, and healthy eating. However, recipe writing is an art, though one that you can easily learn with a bit of education.
Recipe Writing Basics
The rules for recipe writing are pretty intuitive and straightforward. Yet, if you don’t practice them, you can leave a cook confused, hopeless, and with a batch of inedible food. Likely, you’ve tried to follow a poorly written recipe, and you know just how frustrating it can be. Try my steps for recipes worthy of a best-selling cookbook author.
1. Know your audience. Is the recipe for a children’s cooking class, or for a group of chefs? Is it a 5-minute recipe or a masterpiece? Understand your audience before you sit down to write the recipe.
2. Use descriptive recipe titles. Just the title of a recipe can invite you in…or out. What would you rather make: Mushroom Bomb Lentil Pasta or Pasta with Mushrooms? Use descriptive words, without creating an excessively long title—it’s not necessary to list every ingredient in the title.
3. Add a recipe description. Just one or two sentences with your personal take on the recipe can go a long way to encouraging someone to try it. Descriptions can include background or personal history of the recipe (was it your grandmother’s recipe?), the flavor and aroma qualities (does it have spice, zest, or umami, for example?), suggestions for serving (does it pair well with a crisp coleslaw or hearty soup?), and cooking tips (can you substitute one ingredient for another?).
4. List the preparation and cooking time. The addition of preparation times can be invaluable to cooks who are rushing to get dinner on the table. Total preparation time refers to how much time it takes to do everything from start to finish, including cooking time. Active cooking time refers to how much time is actively needed to prepare the recipe, not including waiting around time when a recipe is baking or chilling. If you plan on including preparation times in a recipe time yourself while testing it.
5. Provide the number of servings and serving size. In order to determine serving size and number of servings, measure your recipe when it is finished—using tablespoons, cups, ounces, or grams—and determine your desired serving size and total number of servings per recipe. For example, if a soup recipe makes 1 quart of finished product, you may decide that the recipe makes 4 1-cup servings.
6. List ingredients in chronological order. The ingredients list is one of the most important parts of a recipe, and it should be listed in the order that it will appear in the directions list. Make sure to be specific and list exact amounts needed; include the state of ingredients (i.e., frozen, fresh, thawed, canned), size of cans or packages, and complete name of the ingredient. For example, “4 fish fillets” isn’t specific; a better listing might be “4 4-ounce frozen salmon fillets”.
7. Spell out measurements and amounts. While some recipe formats allow for uniform abbreviations for units of measurement, you are better off spelling them out. This applies to teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, quarts, gallons, ounces, pounds, grams, and liters. And if the ingredient is used more than once be sure to indicate “divided” on the ingredients list, so that the cook knows that it will be used at least twice. Try to avoid unnecessary ingredients and keep them simple and accessible.
8. Separate ingredients for major steps in a recipe. If the recipe is a salad with a dressing, for example, it will be easier to follow if you indicate a subhead for “salad” and “salad dressing” with the respective ingredients grouped in the categories. This should follow through to the instructions list, too.
9. List the utensils needed, if unique. Consider including a list of utensils needed, especially if they are unique, such as cheesecloth, an immersion blender, or food processor.
10. List steps in order, keeping instructions short and to the point. The instructions should match the same order as the ingredients list. And they should be as short and simple as possible. Try to describe the easiest way possible to accomplish the steps in the recipe.
11. Indicate size of bowls and cookware. Don’t assume the cook will know what size a “baking dish” or “casserole dish” is. List common sizes, such as 9 x 13-inch, or 9 x 9-inch.
12. Give specifics about doneness. Avoid using terms like “cook until done”; how does one know when it is done? Provide a cooking length and indicator for doneness, such as “tender when pierced with a fork”.
13. Test your recipe. A recipe must be thoroughly tested (some suggest two to four times) before it is written.
14. Include storage suggestions. Include directions on how to store leftovers, such as temperature and containers.
15. Offer extras. For extra credit, offer additional information, such as gluten-free and vegetarian methods or substitution ideas for ingredients.
16. Include nutritional information. It’s always a good idea to include nutritional analysis using the USDA database based on the serving size of your recipe. Many nutrition software programs can perform this function.
17. Add a quality photo. In the social media era, people really do eat with their eyes. It’s essential to provide a good quality photo, which can be accomplished with your smart phone with practice.
Tips from RD Recipe Writers
There is much more to writing a good recipe beyond the basic rules. I asked several recipe writers to weigh in on their best advice.
- Keep a journal. Abbey Sharp, RD, blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, suggests keeping a journal in the kitchen to keep track of “accidental creations”. “Sometimes a recipe I whip up without any intention of it going on the blog becomes a huge hit, and if I haven’t tracked the exact ingredients I then have to start from scratch. After that initial idea of a recipe works out, I take my notes, think about what may work better and then re-write and test it,” says Sharp.
- Test, test, test. Elizabeth Shaw, RD, blogger at Shaw’s Simple Swaps, suggests, “I recommend testing a recipe at least twice before publishing it, and re-reading your recipe instructions. I’ve definitely messed up on this and then am notified by a reader, which is totally embarrassing.”
- Be prepared when testing. Amy Gorin, RD, writer and blogger, says, “I typically buy double or triple ingredients for a recipe so that I have everything on hand to re-test a few times. The other thing I’ve learned is to have a good camera on hand in the kitchen, and extra lighting if you need it. I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve created that I haven’t posted because the pictures aren’t good enough.”
- Enlist taste testers. Kim Melton, RDN, nutrition consultant, says, “I always ask several people to taste a recipe after I make it. There are some things I love the taste of but someone else might not like it. I love really spicy, hot food and most others wouldn’t like how hot I make something. Also, I have found other people can sometimes detect subtle flavors that I may not.”
- Keep it simple. “Don’t assume that people have the same cooking skills that you, someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, has. Try to explain what to do in the directions as explicitly as possible and write like you’re talking to a friend. Beginner cooks want, and need clarity, so don’t be vague,” says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, nutrition consultant.
Check out some of Sharon’s most popular recipes:
Image: Classic Tomato Soup, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN