From Kitchen to Keyboard

Great recipes please the senses, come together with ease and yield consistent results. But a good dish always begins with good recipe writing.

Most recipes are written in one of three forms: standard, narrative or action. The standard form (shown on the next page) first lists ingredients, then directions. The narrative form puts ingredients and their amounts within the directions, and is often used on packaging or on short recipes with few ingredients. The action form is a cross between the two, as used in the classic cookbook, Joy of Cooking (most recent edition published by Scribner in 2006).

A well-written recipe is more than the sum of its parts. First and foremost, it is accurate, complete and straightforward.

  • Short sentences with clear, concise directions reduce ambiguity and make recipes easier to follow and less daunting at first glance.
  • Successful recipes match a cook’s culinary literacy and skills. For the less kitchen savvy, simpler terms are often better: Consider writing “simmer, covered” instead of “braise” or “cut into 1⁄8- to 1/4-inch cubes” instead of “dice.”
  • A good recipe also follows a logical work flow for efficiency, avoids food waste and uses handling methods that ensure food safety.
  • Consistency adds clarity. A publisher or food company may have a recipe stylebook that dictates its wording or punctuation. If not, creating your own stylebook standardizes your recipes and helps give voice to your culinary creativity.

Whether it’s new or a makeover, a written recipe anticipates a cook’s questions, and it’s only finished when tested, retested and carefully proofread. Remember the ultimate goals: a confident cook and successful dish.

1. Title: Clearly identify the recipe and make the title enticing without overstating or being too clever.

2. Head note: Offer a tantalizing description, the recipe’s story or origin, any uncommon ingredients, menu tips, health benefits or other compelling reasons to try it.

3. Ingredients: List each ingredient and its amount separately with a precise description and in exact order of use. For more complex recipes, break the ingredient list into subheads (for example, a list for the pizza topping and a list for the crust). If several ingredients are used together, consider listing the largest volume first, dry before liquid and light before dark color. Include garnishes, even if optional.

4. Measures: Spell out measurements (no abbreviations) and specify size, weight, volume or number of units. When it helps to clarify, offer multiple measures — for example, “3 cups loosely-packed spinach leaves (about 8 ounces).” Or use common market units, such as “1 (10-ounce) bag baby spinach.” When an ingredient is used several times, indicate with “divided” after the total amount, e.g., “6 tablespoons olive oil, divided.” Or state as “4 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons.”

5. Specific ingredients: Be specific about the ingredient, e.g. fresh, dried or ground herbs; light or dark brown sugar; red or yellow onion. Consider the availability and alternatives for uncommon ingredients.

6. Pre-preparation: Simple pre-prep or do-ahead directions can be included in the ingredients, but make sure you write the measurements correctly: “1/2 cup grated carrot” not “1/2 cup carrot, grated” if carrots should be grated before measuring or “2 carrots, grated” if grated after measuring.

7. Packaged ingredients: Unless you’re developing recipes for a specific product or brand, use generic ingredient names and state the quantity, size and type of container, e.g., “2 (6 ounces each) cartons low-fat fruit yogurt.”

8. Directions: Give directions in their tested and logical order of preparation, noting every ingredient by name as used. For each major step, start a new paragraph or bulleted or numbered step. For divided ingredients, state the amounts at the time they’re used. For efficiency, list advance steps early in the recipe, such as “Preheat the oven.”

9. Equipment: Specify the type and size of bowls, saucepans, pots, baking pans and other standard equipment, e.g. “10-inch non-stick skillet.” For baking pans, note “greased,” “coated with cooking spray” or “ungreased.”

10. Time and temperature: Always give marinating, chilling, freezing, cooking, standing or baking times. Always say stovetop, grill and oven heat. For baking, include preheat directions at the start of the recipe. Indicate other preparation essentials, e.g., “reduce heat,” “cover,” “remove from heat and set aside.”

11. Terms: Use standard, understandable cooking terms. Pick the most descriptive verb, e.g., “combine,” “toss” or “beat” instead of “add;” or “coarsely chop,” “mince,” “slice” instead of “cut.”

12. Doneness: Indicate doneness by cooking or mixing time, followed by a visual description and for meat and poultry, a safe internal temperature.

13. Food safety: Besides cooking temperatures, include food safety techniques, e.g., for raw meat, poultry and seafood, “marinate in the refrigerator,” “discard marinade” or “use clean tongs to transfer grilled chops onto a clean plate.”

14. Helpful comments: To reassure the cook, offer reasons, e.g., “reduce the cooking juices to concentrate the flavor;” give descriptions at different recipe steps, e.g., “the consistency should be thick, not runny.”

15. Yield: On a separate line, specify serving number and, if possible, serving size, e.g., “4 (1/2 cup) servings.” Sometimes total volume is more useful, perhaps for a sauce or salad dressing.

16. Nutrition information: If called for, provide a nutrition analysis per serving to match the recipe purpose, audience needs and publication stylebook, e.g., calories, specific nutrients or exchanges. Use a professional database for recipe analysis.

17. Variations or substitutions: At the end, suggest options, especially for unusual ingredients or alternatives for dietary management.

18. Notes: Share tips, techniques, alternate ingredients or equipment, meal accompaniments, ingredient sources, storage, leftovers or other advice in a sidebar or end note.

19. Contributor’s name: State any attribution after the title or at the end.

Roberta Larson Duyff
Roberta Larson Duyff, MS, RD, FADA, CFCS, is an award-winning author, national speaker, media writer, and food industry/government consultant, focusing on practical, science-based food and nutrition guidance -- and promoting "the power of positive nutrition” and the great tastes of good health to consumers of all ages.