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How to write a cookbook

G etting on for a decade ago, while working as a recipe tester for a food magazine, the truth was laid out to me. While making dumplings with a colleague, talk had turned to my career hopes: writing cookbooks. “Alice, you do realise there’s no money in cookbooks?” I was told. That can’t be right, I thought cheerfully. She’s clearly doing something wrong.

Initially, I just enjoyed cooking. After A-levels, I begged my way into a restaurant kitchen, but still trooped off to read neuroscience (I like to think a good knowledge of anatomy and dissection has helped me out in the kitchen). At university, I began cooking for local events companies and had to be bribed to complete the degree by my concerned parents who thought it would be better to have a “qualification” to fall back on if the food phase fell through. And the bribe? A helping hand with the deposit for Leith’s school of food and wine. For the rest, and it felt like a fortune, I took out a career development loan, paying it back through catering and restaurant jobs. Going to Leith’s was one of the better decisions I’ve made, especially for the in-depth knowledge of how and why a recipe works.

After working as food editor on magazines, I managed to get an agent and wrote my first cookbook in 2010. I’ve written two more since and, though I love the work, the unglamorous truth is the hours are appalling. I’m constantly surprised at how little time there is. Food shopping, prepping, writing and testing on into the small hours are an all-too-familiar occurrence. It’s not something that particularly bothers me; I love the work, but the notion of cookery books being a money-spinner is only true for the big names.

I’ve also found that food styling (cooking food for photographs) combines beautifully with writing recipes, allowing control freaks like me to be fully involved in a feature or book. We always eat the grub, by the way, and the ice cream is the real thing, not mashed potato as it might have been in the 70s.

Knowledge is power

If you want to write and understand good recipes, first you’ll need to work with food, but concentrating on what you do, or love, best. You might be a born pastry chef with a delicate touch, a specialist in Malaysian cuisine, or creative with canapés. Be honest about where your talents lie and be able to prove them, but first equip yourself: you must know what you’re doing in the kitchen, starting with how to use a knife properly. Only once you have a solid cooking identity, can you start to build on it.

If you want to write cookbooks, you must read cookbooks

Read all the cookery books you can and develop your own writing style. It will take time and practice; I’m not sure I’ve perfected my own style just yet. Consider writing a blog: it’s a good practice and a way to advertise yourself. These days, a publisher will want to know how they can sell, not just the food, but you the writer. By showing what you’re about and who your target audience is, you’ve just made their lives easier and yourself more hireable.

Test, test and test again

Test your recipes. Twice at the very least. Use proper scales, spoon measures and an oven thermometer. Rake your finished recipe for typos, paying close attention to weights and measures. An editor can mop up errors, but they won’t know if that three was meant to be a one (I speak from experience here, having once signed off a magazine recipe with a vastly reduced cooking time; suffice to say there were complaints!). Many publishers don’t have book recipes tested; there simply isn’t the money to do that with everyone, unless the author is a famous name. It is up to you to make sure they work or you will soon gain a reputation; our climate of instant information, via blogs and Twitter, means news of a badly tested recipe will travel faster than a good one. The trust between you and the reader is easily lost.

Talent borrows, thieves steal

Try not to copy and if you have “borrowed” or faithfully reported, quote your source. It’s hard not to take inspiration from other sources, even unwittingly, but have respect for your fellow writers. Of course, recipes are stories and, rightly so, are recorded down through the generations and across continents, just be careful where you are claiming an “original” and always namecheck your sources. Travel. Make notes, eat street food, be nosy; this is where the inspiration lies.

Keep it simple

Think of your intended readers and their kitchens. Are they going to be able to get hold of the ingredients? Will they have the ability, equipment and time to cook the recipe? Will they want to buy your book? Set snobbery aside.

The thin-skinned need not apply

Don’t be knocked back by rejection. Perhaps the publisher just couldn’t place you or market you because they have a similar book idea or even a similar author already? Go elsewhere and try again, refining your idea if need be. I was turned down first time around. A different proposal was then accepted by the publisher a couple of months later.

Don’t expect to get rich

Unless you’re already a big name chef or on television, there isn’t much cash to be made as a cookery book writer. You will certainly need to add more strings to that culinary bow to pay the bills. But at least there’ll be good food in the fridge.

Alice Hart is author of Alice’s Cookbook, Vegetarian, and Friends at My Table, all published by Quadrille

Many Americans are spending more time at home than ever thought possible and cooking with more frequency, intention, and creativity. Perhaps that’s why we’ve fielded more inquiries these past few months from friends asking: should I gather my recipes into a cookbook ?

Matt and Ted Lee

Our answer is always yes. But whether your aim is to create a photo-laden hardcover on blurb.com to share with a large community of friends and neighbors or a twelve-recipe laser-printed booklet for children and grandchildren, creating an enduring cookbook takes heroic amounts of time. Since 2013, we’ve been helping chefs, food historians, pastry chefs, and beverage professionals begin the journey to publishing their own cookbooks, in a curriculum we developed called Cookbook Boot Camp. But much of our advice is the same whether you’re a professional or a passionate home cook, and mostly it boils down to this: bring consistency and quality to your recipes! There is no other way to ensure that your book is beloved, cooked from, talked about and treasured.

Cookbook Boot Camp Class of 2016

Here are the top three questions that would-be cookbook authors ask us, and our answers:

How long does it take to write a cookbook ?

The time it takes depends on a number of factors, principally your ambitions for the book, but also: what state are your recipes currently in? Are they all kept in your head? Or written down on neatly typed cards in a recipe box? One way to gauge how much time the project will take is to choose several recipes you consider your “signatures”—the ones friends and family most enjoy—and render them on the page in the format you envision (whether borrowing elements from cookbooks you admire, or taken wholesale from a cookbook template you find online). Laying out a sample recipe will answer a lot of ancillary questions regarding content, as well: do you plan to write headnotes? Ideas for leftovers and notes on perishability? The more of your cooking consciousness you can add to each recipe, the better!

What if I’m not such a great writer ?

The most effective cookbooks aren’t simply collections of formulas; they include well-crafted headnotes that bring to life for your reader the “world” of the recipe: how will this fit into my life? On what kind of occasion would I make this? The more compellingly you can convey in words how each recipe fits into your own kitchen repertoire, what it’s meant to you over the course of your cooking life, the more likely it is your college roommate in Honolulu or your granddaughter in Iowa City will be inspired to cook it. If writing doesn’t come easily to you, rest assured that many award-winning cookbooks have been made by chefs working with a co-writer. Perhaps there’s someone in your life who might consider being your collaborator on this project? Finding someone who can take what you say about your recipes and transform it into words on a page may make all the difference and propel you forward.

Do I need to test my own recipes ?

Yes, you do. Because the recipes need to work. And it’s a great exercise, carving out blissfully uninterrupted time to cook through a recipe, taking care with measurements and volumes, jotting down the time processes take, and noting how the recipes looks, feels, smells like (even sounds ) at every point in the process. You’ll have a wealth of information to draw from when you go to write the recipe’s steps. And the more of the sensual cues (as opposed to purely temporal ones) that you provide your cousin in Detroit, the more likely it is he’ll achieve the result you intended. Consider the following recipe step.

Sweat onions in butter 2 minutes. Add broth.

Now consider this description of the exact same process:

Add the butter to a large saute pan over medium-high heat, and when it melts and becomes frothy, scatter the onions in the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and fragrant, but not brown, about 2 minutes. Pour in the broth.

The reason to bring as much sensual texture as you can to even a simple recipe step is to remove all doubt in the mind of the recipe reader. Remember that not every one of your readers may be experienced cooks, and you want your recipes to work for everyone who picks up your book. The more you can dramatize what’s happening in your recipes as every moment, the more you can eliminate any doubt that a novice cook may bring to the task. Being a generous recipe writer is essential to making a book last !

Behind the Scenes
with the Lee Brothers

If you do plan to use photography, it helps to create a visual storyboard or recipes, chapter-by-chapter as seen in this behind-the-scenes shot of The Lee. Bros. Charleston Kitchen photo shoot.

Another behind-the-scenes shot of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen photo shoot. It takes a small village to produce the photo shoot for a 125-recipe book in a week’s time, but if you don’t have the emporal (not to mention financial!) pressure of producing “food-porn” for a hardcover cookbook, you can create and style the photos yourself—or forego them altogether. Plenty of wonderful, useful cookbooks have!

Cookbooks need not be lavish productions to be valuable and lasting. One of our most beloved “cookbooklets” is Hominy Grill Recipes, a compendium of a couple dozen of the restaurant’s signature dishes. The two-color, text-only design is simple, but the spot-on recipe writing and tight testing (in home-cookable quantities of course) makes this book a treasure—especially now that the restaurant is closed.

Document as much of the recipe-testing process as possible—not only on paper, but photos and videos, too. This image, from an early test of Flounder in Parchment with Shaved Vegetables included in The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (2013) shows us thinking about ingredient substitutions, eg. what other fish might work well with this recipe? The more information “around” the recipe you can give readers, the more likely they are to cook it!

To read TLP’s special digital edition filled with a collection of our favorite summer recipes from chefs, mixologists, and more across the South, click

The best selling cookbooks aren't just books of recipes — they're expressions of the author's culinary viewpoint. Whether comprehensive books of instruction like Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or a highly personal collection of your great-grandmother's hand-me-down recipes, if you intend to publish a cookbook for public sale, make sure you, the author, have "mise en place" — and are set up with:

Good Cookbook Organization and Balance

You probably already know that the chapters of a cookbook need to be organized — maybe according to a course (appetizer, entrée, dessert, etc.) or maybe according to seasonal menus.

You need to organize your recipes and chapters in a way that makes sense in terms of the theme of the book and, more importantly, to the reader who will be cooking from it. A reader should be able to skim the table of contents and/or the index and pretty quickly find a recipe that suits his or her cooking or baking needs.
Also, the chapters should be somewhat balanced in terms of length, and consistent within as to recipe order. Are you going organize according to ingredient (for example, main dish recipes according to their proteins — poultry, meat, vegetarian, etc., then dessert recipes according to type or main ingredient — cake, pie, pudding; or chocolate, fruit-based, etc.)
There are options, and you should see what order makes sense for your book. For example, if it's a "Quick Weekday Meals," you might order the recipes in terms of timing (make ahead, 15-minutes, 30 minutes, etc.) Again, think about how it might make sense to the cookbook user.

Meaningful Recipe Titles

Ideally, recipe titles should be both descriptive and evocative, so a reader glancing at the page understands what's the dish is all about. While we all like occasional whimsy, too many recipes like "Sunday Surprise Hash," or "Uncle Bill's Favorite Casserole" don't make your recipes very "discoverable" (to use an online term) to the unfamiliar cook or baker.

Engaging Recipe Headnotes

Headnotes are the little bit of copy before the actual recipe instructions in a cookbook (or in any publication where a recipe appears). While it's expected that the recipe might be straightforward, most cookbook editors want to see personality in the headnote.
In the best case, recipe headnotes will reflect the unique voice of the writer and the tone of the cookbook, and engage the reader with a bit of the recipe's history or lore; a bit more about a particular ingredient or an additional recipe tip or variation; or even a personal anecdote that relates to the recipe in some way shape or form.

Recipes That "Work" for Everyone

This seems obvious, but many aspiring cookbook authors don't understand that the handed-down, often-improvised recipes need to be strictly codified for the general cookbook reader.
Writing a professional level recipe means diligent recipe testing and tasting, not only by the author, but often by an unbiased party or parties, as well in order to see if the recipe makes sense to a cook or baker who has not used the recipe before, or who might have a different skill level than the recipe developer. In order for them to "work," the recipes must also be diligently proofread.

Original Recipes — Never "Borrowed" from Other Sources

Further, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) has a code of ethics and standards for properly crediting recipes.

A Vision for the Finished Cookbook

How do you envision the finished cookbook? How many recipes? How many photographs? Will you be planning the cookbook food photography yourself? Will they be technique or plated dishes or both? Budget constraints may affect your food photography plan, but it's good to have an idea of what you want the finished book package to look like.

Of course, there’s more to publishing a cookbook — a platform, a book proposal, a literary agent, a publisher. but having professional-level cookbook content is a fantastic way to start.

A recipe book is deceptive. It looks so simple: you put together all the recipes you’ve created, add a cover with a delicious photo, and voila! Move over Nigela Lawson! Yes, it’s undeniable that recipe books take less to put together than some other genres, but they still need structure, consistency, and pace.

To achieve this, it’s important to look at what will tie your recipes together, and once you’ve created that framework, focus on the detail of how each recipe is written. Readers have subconscious expectations on how the material in each genre is put together; how it flows, and along which route.

Like a vital ingredient, putting your finger on exactly what is creating the right mix can be difficult, but you will know quickly if it is missing. It’s the same with recipes. They have an unspoken order that allows the reader to flow along, enjoying the creativity, rather than searching frantically through the cupboard for extra ingredients halfway through the flambé.

Knowing these eight little tricks can help you look at your recipes through your reader’s eyes, and fill in the hard-to-spot holes that might be lurking.

1. Table of Contents: How Will You Break Up Your Recipe Groups?

  • Meal types, such as breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack
  • Ingredient types, such as meat, fish, salad, or something more quirky maybe
  • Seasons, such as winter warmers, summer salads
  • Dietary requirements, such as vegan, gluten free, or diary free

2. Cook Your Recipes

I know, this seems a bit obvious. Of course you know how to cook the recipes, that’s why you wrote a book of them! Please humour me though with a little role play and cook the recipes as if you were the reader. For some people this idea will invoke eye rolling and groaning, but it’s the best way to check the recipes are correct. The point of this step is to NOT cook your recipes from memory. As the author, you know the recipe so well, it’s easy to make assumptions about what is written there and what your reader knows. Little omissions, like adding salt and pepper, or turning the food midway through cooking, can slip through without you noticing.

Cook exactly what you have written. Go about it systematically and check each recipe. Measure out only the ingredients that are written down. If you missed out including an ingredient, or wrote tspn instead of tbspn, you’ll soon pick it up. Likewise, check that the method actually tells you every single step. The trick is to do only what the written version says, not what you, as the creator, ‘know’. You could always ask someone else to cook your recipes too – that can work even better!

3. Check You Haven’t Missed an Ingredient

Going through each recipe, read the method first. Then as you are reading the method, check off each ingredient. That way you can be sure you haven’t missed any ingredients.

4. Put the Ingredients in Order

List your ingredients in the same order you will use them. If the reader has got the frozen mangoes out, he/she doesn’t want them to defrost before putting them into the sorbet.

5. Choose a Language

Will your recipes be Australian, British, American? Each has their own systems of measurement. A cup is 250ml in Australia, 240ml in the USA and 284ml in Britain. A teaspoon is also different in all three! Then there are the names of foods. Will you be using snow peas, mange tout, or sugar peas? Once you’ve chosen the language that best suits your market, stick to it. And make sure you change your computer settings so it will spellcheck in the correct language – even the spellings are different!

6. Standardise Your Measurements

Standardise the way you write your measurements, and stick to it. Will you use 1tbspn, 1 tbspn, one tbspn, or one tablespoon? My pick is the second one, it’s easiest to read, but whichever you choose, the important thing is that you maintain consistency. Create a set of ‘rules’ for yourself to follow. This list of rules will be invaluable as part of your style guide for your editor or proofreader, who will need to check your work.

7. Pick Great Photos

Great photos make your book extra special, b ut you have to be careful about what appears in the photos. Showing ingredients with a company name or branding on them gets very complicated from a legal point of view. I suggest you follow the lead of cooking shows. If you need one cup of coconut flour for the recipe, viewers shouldn’t see the packet. What they should see is the flour pre-measured in a little bowl, which is then tipped into the mix. This avoids the legal issues, but also allows your reader to see how much of each ingredient you are putting on. For instance, for one cup of coconut flour and one teaspoon of cinnamon get yourself a set of matching bowls in a solid colour. Pre-measure your ingredients into the bowls, then take your photos.

8. Add Extras

Decide what else you want to include with each recipe. Do you want a little guide to say if each recipe is gluten/vegetarian/egg free etc? How about ratings of difficulty or time taken to prepare? Maybe some tips for serving? Work out what suits your style of cooking, and create a system that you can apply to each recipe.

Ever wondered how a cookbook evolves from a loose collection of recipes to the polished final product? Author Brooke Dojny shares her notes on the process as she works on her book Chowderland.

“Where do you get your recipes?”

This is the question most often asked of any food writer, and it’s a good one, because it gets at the fundamental rules that all professional cookbook authors live by. First off, all book contracts stipulate that every recipe must be original to that book and never before published. So, while an author cannot use a previously published recipe verbatim, he or she can definitely repurpose a concept by changing titles, yields, and tweaking the dish with ingredient changes and substitutions, testing the recipe and rewording the method so that it doesn’t read exactly like the original. Since I’ve been doing food writing for over two decades, this serves as a primary source for ideas. For example, a recipe for Cranberry-Orange Upside-Down Cake that appears in Lobster! was too good to use only once, so a similar cake will appear in my upcoming book Chowderland, with a reworked topping and a cake batter made with ground walnuts instead of the original pecans.

Other sources for recipes? Magazines (usually just concepts to get the juices flowing), other cookbooks (which I use primarily as references to check my own work), and the Internet, which can be very hit or miss in terms of reliability and which I also use mainly as a reference. I always loved the apple custard tart in Julia Child’s first book and wished to try to adapt it for Dishing Up® Maine. Upon testing and retesting, the recipe evolved away from the original substantially, using less cream, more sugar and apples. I still called it Julia’s Apple Cream Tart and wrote a headnote about the original source.

I also absorb inspiration from restaurant meals and from markets — especially the farmers’ markets, which drive a lot of my work.

Though I think about a given project for weeks or months before signing a contract with a publisher, jotting down notes and collecting recipe ideas, it’s not until I sign the contract (more about that in another blog post) that I set to work in earnest. Following my own basic outline — on paper because it’s been part of my original book proposal — I create file folders for each chapter, plus a folder for sidebar ideas, the introduction, and an acknowledgments page. I stick recipe ideas into each folder, gradually building up the number of recipes (more or less) that the contract specifies.

Folders for Chowderland

When I’ve got everything fairly well balanced — not too many recipes with any one ingredient, etc. — I pick a chapter and start in testing. First, I type up the recipe the way I think it should work, and, as I cook (for example) a Lemon Pudding Cake that will be in Chowderland, I edit, making notes on the printed-out recipe, changing the amount of milk, or the quantity of lemon zest, double-checking the baking dish size, and paying close attention to baking time. I then try to retype while the cooking is still fresh, making refinements and adding a headnote at the top of the recipe.

I put myself on a schedule in order to meet the agreed-upon deadline and forge ahead, testing recipe after recipe, chapter after chapter, often going back to tweak recipes based on knowledge gained while I’m testing other recipes (this was frequently the case with Chowderland, which had to be internally consistent) until I’ve built a book. At this point I usually print out what I have, proofread, make corrections, and add accompaniment suggestions to the headnotes. (“Serve this creamy chowder with Crusty Skillet Cornbread, page 00, and Brussels Sprout Slaw, page 00”). Then I add the sidebar material I’ve collected — historical tidbits, literary quotes, amusing anecdotes — scattering them throughout the appropriate chapters.

Lastly, the introduction, which is, for me, the hardest part of any book. Even though some readers skip right over it, an introduction has to read as though it’s being judged by your peers — and it often is — so it needs to be an authoritative, informative, and hopefully well-written summing up of the book’s subject matter. I then add a book dedication and an acknowledgments page.

Finally, I print out the manuscript one more time, proof again, input changes, and hit Send.