How to Write a Recipe

writing recipes
I don’t write perfect recipes on the first draft (or the second, for that matter). Like any kind of writing, there’s the inevitable moment when you go back and read what you have written only to find that it makes no sense at all. So you revise.

But writing recipes is, in one sense, easier than writing an essay because there is a formula to follow. Kind of like writing earnings reports in financial journalism. There are specifics that you need to include every single time in an order that makes sense. (Shares are up by a penny compared with the year prior, etc.)

Unlike an earnings report, however, you may be asked by a friend or relative to write a recipe, you know, the one for those glazed ribs or ginger salad dressing. Or you might want to write a cookbook. Or include a recipe on your blog. Or make a cookbook for your kids—or your parents. And that’s when I get friendly requests for advice.

making pastry
Recipe writing varies quite a bit depending on the publication (take a look at Food & Wine and compare it to your favorite cookbook, for instance). Publications that run recipes have style guides, and I have yet to see one that is identical to another. Yet some things stay the same. Unless you are famous. Jamie Oliver could probably write recipes using all emoticons and his books would still sell briskly.

For us mortals, here are a few pointers to get started. I’ll add to this list as I think of more.

Give the recipe a descriptive title so we know what it is. It’s fine to say “Sally’s best-ever casserole” if you know Sally and know exactly what is in the casserole. It is far more useful for the rest of us to say “Sally’s best ever tuna-wasabi casserole.” A note about who Sally is and why this ingredient combo was ever a good idea would be helpful, too.

Provide a yield. You can chose your own style, just use it consistently if you are writing other recipes. Here are a few options:
yield: 2 dozen
makes 24 cookies
serves 6-8

List ingredients in order of use

Only list the ingredients once, even if they are used several times, like oil, salt, or pepper

If a recipe uses 2 teaspoons of salt but requires the cook to add it in intervals, just write:
2 teaspoons kosher salt

Then, in the instructions, make sure you include the quantity of salt to use at the different stages. Like this:
Stir in the tomatoes, then season with 1 teaspoon salt. … Mix in the greens, then season with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. (The key word is “remaining.”)

Unless you’re writing a recipe for a chef, write the quantity, then the ingredient:
1 medium yellow onion

If said onion needs to be diced, write:
1 medium yellow onion, diced

But since sizes vary quite dramatically with onions, if you want to list an exact amount of diced onion, write “diced” before “onion,” like this:
2 cups diced yellow onion

Be consistent with measurements. Use Tbsp. or tsp. OR tablespoons or teaspoons; ounces OR grams; fluid ounces OR cups. If you don’t know what style fits you best, just take a look at a magazine or cookbook you like to use and see how they do it.

If you are so inclined, include volume (cups) and weight (ounces or grams)—it will make your recipes more versatile.

If your recipe requires a sub recipe (for instance, if you are making a salad and have a separate recipe for a vinaigrette), in the primary ingredient list, give the name of the vinaigrette (in caps, since it’s a recipe tile), followed by “recipe follows.” Then make sure that the recipe does follow.

1 head Little Gem lettuce, shredded
1 apple (preferably gala), sliced
1 teaspoon minced shallot
1 cup Sherry Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Make sure you clue readers into preheating the oven at least 20 minutes before they need to put something in the oven.

When writing instructions, mention the tool being used unless it’s obvious, like a knife or a vegetable peeler. So:
Using a mallet, pound the cutlets until they are about 1/4-inch thick

When writing instructions, list the pot or cooking vessel you’re using, then the level of heat (low, medium-low, high, etc.), then the ingredient. So:
In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the oil. In batches, sear the short ribs until evenly browned on all sides, about 1 minute per side.

Or you could say:
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Sear the short ribs until evenly browned on all sides, about 1 minute per side.

That brings me to this point: provide times. If you need to caramelize the onion, let us know if you need to caramelize it briefly, say 5 minutes, or very slowly until the onions are melted, maybe 20 minutes.

When providing times, it’s either “about 5 minutes” or “4-6 minutes” but never “about 4-6 minutes.”

Visuals help, too.
Simmer the gravy until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.

And whenever possible, avoid “add.” It’s better to be more descriptive, like “mix in,” “pour” or “swirl in” than it is to say “add.”

This is only a start–there are so many instances with newer recipes (sous vide and the like) that make the process more complicated. I sometimes flip through cookbooks to see how others approached the dilemma.

For more on recipe writing, review these Recipe Writing Tutorials.

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