10 Tips For Great Recipe Writing

January 13, 2011

As the editor of a food and cooking website I find a good deal of well-written recipes and, sadly, a great number of poorly written ones. Perhaps we're pressed for time? Assume our readers know what our abbreviations mean? Or, maybe we just need to brush up on some basics of writing out a good recipe. Below are 10 easy tips on how you can improve your recipe writing and make your recipes stand out among the many:

  1. Make your recipe title appetizing! All too often I see bland and generic titles. Add some of those flavor-packing ingredients you list to your title. Not good: "Turkey Meatloaf" Great!: "Honey Mustard-Glazed Turkey Meatloaf"
  2. Avoid using broad ranges. There's a big difference between a 4 and a 6 pound chicken and the cooking time will also be effected. Not good: "One 4-6 pound chicken." Great!: "One 3 - 3 1/2 pound chicken."
  3. Be consistent with units of measure and abbreviations. Choose a standard abbreviation and stick with it. Tablespoon, T, tbsp, Tbs are all considered standard; pick one to use in your ingredient list. Also, avoid using both metric and Imperial for weight (e.g. 2 pounds flour, 300 grams cheese). Avoid using uncommon abbreviations like "whl" for whole and "slc" for slice.
  4. Be specific with cook time. Everyone's kitchen is different as are stoves and ranges. Each can run at different temperatures, so be more specific (e.g. what should it look like?). Not good: "Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes." Great!: "Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes, or until lightly golden."
  5. List ingredients in the order they are used!
  6. Don't forget an ingredient! I commonly see an ingredient listed but find no mention of it in the steps, or see it in the steps but it's not to be found in the ingredient list.
  7. Don't bother with unnecessary substitutions. It's your recipe so there's no need to call for "butter or margarine." Which do you use? (I say go with butter!). All other substitutions should be included in a separate "Cook's Notes" section. This keeps your recipe more clean.
  8. Keep it simple. Keep your ingredient list and instructions clear and concise. People like to print out ingredient lists to use as their shopping list, so it's helpful to keep it looking clean.
  9. If possible, avoid using brand names. Sometimes using a brand is okay, but generally it's best to keep your recipe generic. Not all brands are available everywhere so it's best, for example, to simply call for "mayonnaise" rather than "Best Foods mayonnaise."
  10. Include headnotes! What are headnotes? It's the "About" part of your recipe. Even if it's only 1 or 2 sentences, readers like to hear a bit about what they are about to cook. Use this as an opportunity to "sell" your recipe! Example: My grandmother always made her famous Crab Cioppino on Christmas Eve, a tomato-based soup full of Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, halibut and scallops.  We'd tie flour sack towels around our necks to wipe up the juices that ran down our arms and chins as we cracked the crab, and cleaned our soupy fingers in individual bowls of lemon water. The big bowl of crisp garlicky bread always seemed to make its way around the table just in time to sop up the flavorful broth.

Want to bone up even more on recipe writing? Will Write For Food by Dianne Jacob is my favorite!



Camille's picture

Okay, now I'm craving Cioppino! A point well made. I've noticed that the Nordstrom cookbooks also make their recipes sound delicious and wonderfully nostalgic. A winning combo especially for holiday recipes.

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Chaya's picture

Thanks for these tips. They are all clear and make sense.

Potato Chops and Boneless Chicken's picture

Great round-up Sheri. Definitely a help for amateur recipe writers like myself.

Ellie's picture

I totally agree with "Simple is the best" rule. Sometimes a good article make us confused, and it does occur with our readers.

Love your post.

Johanna GGG's picture

amen to more well written recipes (though I know mine aren't always up to scratch which is the problem of being writer and editor of a blog). I wanted to add one thing that really annoys me:

Please do not say 1 packet of x. It is especially frustrating when I read an overseas recipe and I just don't know what size the standard packet is - though I even get unsure when I read a local recipe. Instead use the weight or volume which is usually written on the pacakging!

re 2, 4 I agree that specific is best - I often assume others will change it to suit them but I do give some latitude in some of the recipes on my blog, especially when it doesn't matter.

re 1. I agree an appetising recipe title is good but some seem to list every flavour and get too long or others get too obscure just for the sake of entertainment!

re 7 and 8 - that is advice I need to heed - sometimes I am not sure though there are times I specify brands because there can be a range of difference between brands - but generally I prefer recipes that don't rely on processed food for that same reason.

One further comment is that as an Australian writing and aware of an American audience that doesn't understand some of our terms, it is hard to know how to get the concept across - I have even written kitchen notes but questions seem to show that people don't use that - will continue to ponder this!

Jim's picture

I love the theme you took to get these tips to us. Very creative.