7 More Most Common Recipe Writing Errors

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© photo courtesy of Ruhlman.com.

People get worked up about recipe writing on this blog, me included. It used to be that my posts on taking freebies got the most responses, but now my “Most Popular” list (on the right) is mostly about recipes.

So excuse me for pandering to the crowd, but I spent all last week editing recipes written by bloggers, and I’ve got another seven nits to add to my original list of 7 Common Recipe Writing Errors. Here they are:

1. Vague titles. “The Ultimate Cookie” doesn’t tell the reader anything other that, in your opinion, this is a darn good cookie. And so it should be. Why else would you blog about it?

The other issue is SEO. Let’s say your recipe is for Snickerdoodles. If potential readers type “Snickerdoodle recipe” into a search engine, you’re making it more difficult for them to find your post.

2. Incomplete directions. “Toast cumin seeds and grind them.” Unless your readership comprises Indian cooks, they’re probably going to need a few more clues. Remember that your readership is probably less sophisticated in the kitchen than you are, and they don’t want to feel intimidated.

3. Action takes place without vessels or tools. “Beat butter with sugar until creamy.” Where does this action take place? On your countertop? With your hands? Or “Bring cream to a boil.” Missing are: in a bowl, in what size saucepan, over what kind of heat. It’s also useful to mention a stand mixer, electric mixer, or a wooden spoon to help your reader along.

4. Duplicate approximations of timing. If you say it takes “about 3-5 minutes,” you have two approximations. “About” is the first, and the range of time is the second. Use either “3-5 minutes,” or “about 5 minutes.”

5. Too many exclamation points in the headnote and method! OMG! I deleted exclamation points last week until my fingers were sore! Please, by all means, be funny, be exhilarated! Convey your emotions through words, rather than through this one symbol! It gets a little tiring, and you might look like an ditz after a while!

6. Making every step a separate number.

  1. “Keep warm” does not appear on a numbered line by itself in the method.
  2. It goes at the end of a paragraph.
  3. Group your actions based on how to make and complete a particular part of the recipe.
  4. Otherwise you might end up with 25 numbered actions.
  5. The recipe will look daunting when it isn’t.

7. Taking too long to get to the point. If your title is “Strawberry Jam,” and the first five paragraphs of your post are about your father’s time in the Navy, the reader’s going to get a little confused.  Work in the strawberry jam early on, and then make the connection to the Navy.

© photo courtesy of Ruhlman.com.


    • diannejacob says

      Hey Steph,

      No. 4 is pretty minor. No. 5 takes some work, but you have done it.

      I was hired by a publisher to do so. Probably can’t be more specific than that.

  1. says

    If you were’t beating butter in a bowl. then where would you beat it? I’m all for giving the reader clues, at the same time, liberating them of every particular. Isn’t your example one of editor Judith Jone’s pet peeves?

    Many, many, cookbooks–many from Europe too–omit these steps and I say the better for it, most of the time. Do we really need to know that it’s a small pot if there is 1 cup of milk to heat? Can’t we expect some common sense? Perhaps they need to know, if there is something else going to be added in after, but frankly-recipes are becoming more and more wordy and banal.

    Just picked up British writer Diana Henry’s book Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons (wonderful, by the way), and I was struck by the lack of these kind of instructions–and loved it for that reason too. Here she writes for instructions on a chocolate hazelnut cake: “Whisk the egg yoks with the sugar until glossy.” Pretty straightforward.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Nani,

      I don’t think it’s one of her pet peeves.

      As for common sense, what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to a reader. It is typical of skilled writers to make assumptions — that whatever they know, the reader must know as well. Definitely not true.

  2. says

    I cook as a creative outlet, as well as to feed my family, my friends and myself. I very rarely follow a recipe exactly and mostly skim read directions, as long as I get the gist of it. I’m not going to fiddle around finding a quart size saucepan just because the recipe specifies it, I’ll use the saucepan I have. Of course there are times when size should be specified, eg for getting the baking time right you must have the right size cake tin. Most of the time though, I think this kind of information is superfluous, especially in blog recipes which tend to be more home style recipes and do not need to be exactly replicated over and over again as something might need to be in a restaurant. Perhaps this is the difference between reading as an editor, rather than as a home cook.

    • diannejacob says

      Again, it depends on the reader. If you think your readers are just like you — they don’t really follow recipes, they cook a lot, and they don’t worry about using the right pot or baking dish, then no problem. But I bet they are not as experienced as you.

      I can often judge, for example, what size skillet I need for a recipe, because I cook all the time. But most recipe readers do not.

      • says

        As a recipe writer, I want my readers to be successful and equipment tips can make the difference. Stove top pan size affects cook time (#4) because of the surface area in relationship to evaporation. ie: reductions (eek – scary cooking term) such as caramel, syrups, gastriques, jam. And, for the safety of the cook in preventing boil-overs, not to mention cleaning the stove!

        • diannejacob says

          Absolutely. I have learned that reductions require a wide skillet — otherwise it takes too long. And how did I learn this? The hard way, when the size of the pan was not identified and, half an hour later, the rest of the meal was ready and my reduction was not reduced because I used a saucepan instead of a skillet.

          I think what people are saying is why specify the pan when it’s not critical to the recipe? My answer is: because it helps the reader, even if it’s obvious to you.

  3. says

    I’ve been working on a recipe for a contest at work that will land winners in a book that’s being put together for employees. I’ve been over and over it countless times and your first piece on common recipe writing mistakes was timed perfectly for this project. Now, as I get ready to submit my entry I have a little more help thanks to this post and will edit one more time before handing in my recipe.

    The prize isn’t huge, but I’m bound and determined to get my entry into fighting form so that I can be a winner.

    Thanks for the help.

  4. says

    Sorry to say I would flag a few on your ‘DON’TS’ list…still, little by little. Great info on here. Thanks :)

  5. says

    As a blogger, I am very very guilty of #3, and I noticed I just did #4 in my last post! And there I go, committing #5 in this very comment. I am sure many would say I commit #7 too, though I try to use a pic as a lead in and you can always scroll to the bottom of the post for the recipe… Oh I have a lot I need to improve on….

    As for the pan thing, if the size of the vessel matters I will say “small” or “large” etc., but I only list an exact size when it’s critical to the success of the dish. As a reader, I tend to assume it doesn’t matter unless it’s specified. If I say to use a 12″ skillet and someone else only has a 13″, I don’t want someone thinking that he/she shouldn’t be attempting my dish without purchasing a potentially pricey new item of cookware first. If we shouldn’t assume that someone has the sense to figure out what size pan is suitable to sauté a few chicken breasts, then shouldn’t we also assume that he/she doesn’t know when a specification is or isn’t crucial to the recipe?

  6. says

    Thanks for the reminders. Can’t tell you how many times my non-cooking best friend has sent me back to my recipe trying to figure out she could have misinterpreted my instructions so badly.

  7. says

    Agree with most of your points, especially vague titles and exclamation marks.
    But I must say I do not see the need to spell out detailed instructions in every recipe about things like what sized bowl to beat sugar and butter in for example, unless the details are very critical to the recipe.

    I think if you have to beat 100gms of butter with a cup of sugar, most people would have an idea what size bowl to use.

    • diannejacob says

      Not sure about your last point. If readers will add the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar, they need to think ahead and realize they need a bowl large enough to accommodate both.

      Why make it harder for them?As we know (because we do it too), people aren’t good about reading the whole recipe through first. Just inserting the word “large” before bowl helps them when they get to that stage, vs. getting annoyed when they realize their bowl is too small.

  8. says

    I’m trying to suck everything in and learn. While I was recently exposed to SEO and just started using it, I’m not sure what you mean in the second part of #1. If the recipe was Snickerdoodles, in SEO you would list snickerdoole and recipe separated by a comma, yes? Other ways you think make it easier for the reader? Thanks much.

    • diannejacob says

      If you don’t call the cookie Snickerdoodle in the title, or say the word “cinnamon,” you are making it harder for the search engine to find your post when a reader types in “snickerdoodle recipe.”

  9. says

    My pet peeve is recipes where the ingredients aren’t listed in the order they’re used. I’m not proud of it, but to me, It makes the writer look like such an amateur.

  10. Gabrielle Clove and Cinnamon says

    Regarding tip number 3:

    A lot of what experienced cooks think of as common sense is actually acquired knowledge. If a recipe says to heat milk with out specifying pot size, why wouldn’t a beginner cook grab the first pot within reach? Any pot set on a lit burner will accomplish the goal. The milk will be heated. An experienced cook does a subconscious calculation, realizing that a larger pot means a larger surface area exposed to cooling and evaporation.

    When I cook with people who don’t spend much time in the kitchen, I try to be as detailed as possible in my explanations – and no matter what, I still find that I’ve made assumptions about what is common sense. How packed should a firmly packed cup of brown sugar be? Because of this, when writing recipes, I try to answer any questions that might come up. A beginner cook will appreciate as much help as possible with the ‘hows’ of cooking. An experienced cook will understand the ‘whys’ and can use that knowledge to interpret the recipe to their liking.

    • diannejacob says

      Finally, a recipe writer who agrees with me. Jeez.

      Continuing the milk example, does the beginning cook know:
      – Which heat (ex. low, medium or high) is best?
      – How to not scorch the milk, and if it’s scorched, whether it is okay to use?
      – How to keep it from boiling over?
      – Whether it needs stirring?
      – Whether “heat” means to warm it or bring to a boil?

      I’m not saying you need to discuss all this. My point is to show that the actual act of heating the milk can be complicated, and less experienced cooks do not know the answers to all these questions if all they read is “heat the milk.”

      • says

        You sound frustrated that people have a different opinion to you. Nowhere in your post does it say when writing recipes for beginner cooks. Some of us are just trying to express a point of view that not all cooks are beginners, non-beginner cooks read recipes too, and some of us would prefer not to have every recipe cluttered with explanations.
        But by all means, feel free to get cranky with people about exclamation marks!

        • diannejacob says

          Yeah, I was a little frustrated. Maybe about people not agreeing with me, but also because I was having trouble getting my point across.

          Re whom to write for, the default is beginning cooks, just as newspapers write for an 8th grade education level. The assumption is that more experienced people can filter out what they don’t want to read. Of course there are publications written for a more sophisticated audience, but they are considered non-mainstream. I guess there can be blogs like that too. Why not.

  11. says

    I agree with you too. My niche is freezer cooking and I’m constantly amazed at how many bloggers and authors in my niche end the recipe with “Freeze up to three months.”

    But the reader doesn’t know a lot:
    1) Do they cool it first?
    2) How should it be packaged?
    3) Does it have to be thawed?
    4) How do they thaw it, under running water, on the counter, in the fridge, in the microwave?
    5) Can they cook or reheat it from frozen if they’re short on time?
    6) Do they have to throw it away if its more than 3 months old?

    And all that is assuming they managed to assemble or cook the dish alright. It’s a lot for one recipe but at the least the writer can refer to where than information is provided.

    My recipe writing is far from perfect but I try to err of the side of caution with the freezing instruction and give too much instead of too little.

  12. says

    Hi Dianne, I was in the middle of writing my morning post, I’d already written the recipe, took a little breather and I clicked on your post, I was so guilty on point #3. Thank you for the heads up, I am new to blogging and tips like this are so very important.

  13. says

    My friend Carrie (Deliciously Organic) has told me several times to come and check out your blog. I am so glad I finally made it over here. You share so many awesome bits of information with us. Each day I love to open my eyes to the lessons of food writing, styling, recipe development and photography. There is a lot to learn. Just bought your book too.

  14. says

    I tend to write my recipes for people like me: when I find a recipe for something I have never done before I want to know exactly what things should look like, feel like, etc – how many years did I end up with hard as rock bread because I had no idea that yeast should proof for 15 minutes and actually have a huge head of froth on the top? Or the first time one beats egg whites! What should they look like (people ask me this now)? I am always learning and don’t want to waste time or throw ruined food away because of having to guess. I also know that many people who try my recipes are novices – friends of my sons, for example, who have never baked before. I try and give enough detail (without writing a novel) that everything is clear.

    I have to say, too, that I have a lot of French cookbooks and buy French cooking magazines and it seems the French simply feel no need to indicate pan type or pan size! Put in a baking dish or scrape batter into a cake pan… impossible! Always indicate the type and size of pan or baking dish! Please!

  15. Linda says

    To all these errors I would add (please allow separate numbers):
    1. not listing ingredients in the order they are used
    2. not listing a seemingly unimportant ingredient (2 tablespoons water, for instance, to mix with some sugar or flour)
    3. not mentioning that a certain ingredient is divided (the list of ingredients specifies 12 oz flour, only to discover later that you use 4 and 8 oz in different stages).

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Linda, I covered the first one in my first post about recipe writing, so yep, with you there. Re the second, that’s controversial. See my first post. And to the third, that’s controversial too. Some people really don’t like that term.

  16. Linda says

    Thank you, you are right, of course. I followed a link to and had not read the other posts. Maybe I shouldn’t have called them ‘errors’, but my personal peeves.

  17. says

    Reading my recipes back is far more entertaining the the funnies sometimes. One trick that helps me pinpoint my mistakes is to read them out loud while I am doing the step or adding the ingredient. If I want to go back and add how long it takes to do an action like whip eggs for a frittata, I’ll take out the bowl and whisk then pretend I’m doing it with one eye on a timer. Thanks for your help!

    • diannejacob says

      Those are terrific tips! I always benefit from reading my work out loud, but I hadn’t thought about the other one.