7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors

May 172010
 

In the last week I’ve been editing recipes for two books by food bloggers. Both have short deadlines, and I’ve been working long hours.

That’s okay. It’s so much fun to see such creativity and invention, to fantasize about which recipes I’m going to try, and –yes– to nitpick. Such is the job of an editor. For one book, I make comments in pen and add little colored stickies to the paper copy. For the other, I make comments using Track Changes within the Word document.

And here’s what I’m finding: errors and inelegant phrasings. I thought you might want to know about  the most common mistakes. First though, let’s review the terminology: The list of ingredients is called (funnily enough) the “ingredients list,” and the directions are called the “method:”

1. Ingredients out of order. This is by far the biggest error. List ingredients in the order of use. If the first thing you’ll do is saute the onions, don’t list the  steak first, even if it’s the star of the recipe.

2. Missing ingredient. Make sure you use every item in your ingredients list, in order. Otherwise you’ll get a little note that says, “What were you planning to do with the lime zest?” Similarly, if you refer to an ingredient in the method, make sure it’s in your ingredients list.

3. Wrong amounts. I saw a recipe for 30 cookies that called for 2 1/2 pound of flour (10 cups) and 3 cups of honey. I don’t think so.

I’ve also seen measurements in the ingredient list that don’t match the amount called for in the method. Not that you should be calling for amounts in the method most of the time anyway. (See next item about when to do so.)

4. Overuse of  the term “divided” in the ingredients list. “Divided” comes into play when you use an ingredient more than once. But’s such an imprecise word, and recipe writing is all about precision. “Divided” doesn’t tell the reader anything other than that they will have to pay attention when it comes to using the ingredient.

And as we know, readers don’t pay full attention. Hell, most of them don’t even read the whole recipe first. I’m guilty too. How many times have I dumped in all the sugar, only to read later that I need a “remaining” half cup? (Don’t ask.) Here are a few workarounds:

  • Use subheads. Let’s say you’re making a steak salad. You’re using vinegar twice: once when marinating the steak and once when making the salad dressing. Use subheads such as “Marinade” and “Dressing” so you can give the appropriate amount of vinegar for each use.
  • State just the ingredient, not the amount. Let’s say you use salt and pepper three times: once when seasoning the meat, then in the marinade, then add it at the end for flavoring. Just say “salt and freshly-ground pepper”  in the ingredients list. Give amounts in the method.
  • State both amounts, starting with the largest. Such as “1/2 cup olive oil + more to grease the pan.”

If you must use “1/2 cup vinegar, divided,” state the first amount in the method (1/4 cup vinegar). Write “remaining” 1/4 cup of vinegar” when you use it the second time. The word “remaining” has a purpose. It alerts people like me that it’s time to swear.

5. Listing water as an ingredient. Just bring it up in the method and state the amount. Such as “Add 1 cup of ice water, a few splashes at a time, until the dough comes together.”

6. Calling for prepped ingredient in both ingredient list and method. If the ingredients list says “Grated Parmesan,” there’s no reason to say “Grate Parmesan over pizza” at the end of the method.

7. Saying “season to taste” when it’s not the right time to taste it. If your pasta sauce simmers for two hours, it won’t help readers to season it beforehand. Also don’t ask them to taste batter, raw meat and other uncooked things to season them.  It’s not the right time to taste, and people won’t want to anyway. Just provide the correct amount of salt and pepper when you need it.

I could go on about the excessive use of bacon and chocolate in desserts, or about photos that don’t show what the recipe said, or particularly, about overuse of the word “mixture.”

But I’d rather hear about what drives you crazy when writing recipes or when trying to follow one.

© photo courtesy of Ruhlman.com.This post also appeared at BlogHer.

Update:  I continued editing and came up with 7 More Most Common Recipe Errors.

Share Button

  105 Responses to “7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chef Luna and Cooking in Stilettos, Dianne Jacob. Dianne Jacob said: 7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors. New post @http://bit.ly/dkL2te [...]

  2. I must bookmark this page because I finally started writing my own recipes and while much of it is common sense, seeing it from a seasoned editor such as yourself makes me realize that I have some serious work to do :) Thanks Dianne!

  3. Great tips…thank you!

  4. Great tips. I am always trying to improve my recipe writing. Thanks for the reminders:)

  5. love this post, great info!

  6. So sad how true you are! I’ve been doing lots of recipe editing and testing and teaching classes using recipes that are not my own. My “favorite” has been a 1/4 cup minced thyme for a crepe filling for 8 people!

    • Wow. That will not taste good, will it? Thyme is one of those spices where just a little too much ruins the dish, IMHO.

  7. Great list. One of my pet peeves is when the recipe doesn’t alert me that certain things should be done ahead of time, like preheating the oven. Although we all know we should read a recipe all the way through, I still want the recipe writer to do as much of the work for me as possible, including telling me when I should start preheating my oven.

    • Agreed. I like to get all that info in the headnote, not find out when I am already in the method or in a tip at the end.

      • While I understand this, I don’t say “pre-heat the oven” in my recipes because I feel its understood you need to preheat the oven to a certain temperature if you’re going to bake.

        • I looked at one of your recipes to see what you mean. You just say “Bake at 350 degrees” when it’s time to put the item in the oven.

          I don’t have a problem with that. My newish oven heats pretty quickly, so I never pre-heat it when the recipe says to. But I bet there are older ovens out there that need all the time they can get. Maybe that instruction is for them.

          • Dianne– Thank goodness for headnotes! I’ve stopped assuming that my readers have a certain amount of knowledge when approaching a recipe. I’ve been shocked by some of the questions I’ve been asked over the lifetime of my blog. I heard Barbara Ostmann speak recently and she talked about terminology that many of us assume people understand, and how that just isn’t the case. She cited studies that show the use of the word “chopped” (finely chopped, coarsely chopped, etc.) is the best word to use as opposed to minced or diced. Sorry, I guess that is slightly tangential!

          • Oh good, someone who understands that our readers do not necessarily represent our skill levels. Thanks Rachael. Not tangential at all.

    • It bothers me even more when they do write preheat the oven indiscriminately at the beginning of the method. If I’m making bread or pizza I don’t preheat the oven before starting to make the dough or the oven will be preheating for hours!

      • That bothers me too. I think it is a convention to put it at the top. Most of the time I ignore it because my oven only takes a few minutes to heat up.

  8. I admit..I hate to write recipes because I usually don’t cook with them. I’ll be inspired by one..but I can’t help changing it up.

    I’ve been blogging and cooking thru someone else’s book though..and have re-written a few recipes because they were confusing to me. I used the same ingredients but had to switch the order. My husband is a bread baker and he found errors in the amount of dough and spices! The author is very kind and revealed that the recipes in that particular section had been published incorrectly..and compared to the rest of the book..it was true to form.

    Thank you very much for posting these tips. It will help me a lot!

  9. I didn’t realize it was a mistake to list water as an ingredient. Is that always the case or is there an exception when it’s a special kind of water (filtered, iced, boiling, etc)?

    My pet peeve is writing down recipes at all! I’m so used to just cooking by eyeball and tongue that it’s difficult to get into the mode of measuring and recording everything.

    • Well, I thought it doesn’t matter what kind, but several people have challenged me and if you read below, I have a longer response on this to David Lebovitz.

      Cooking by Eyeball and Tongue. Sounds like a great book title, Malena.

  10. Thanks for the tips. I think a lot of it is proofreading as well. I notice so many bloggers don’t proofread their recipes. Just today I made a recipe that said, “bake 1 hour until bubbly, two hours”. What does that mean?

  11. I’m not a professional recipe writer, thank God, but I am a blogger who, sometimes, posts a ‘no recipe, recipe’ which means I’m usually ‘assembling’. I write the instructions down but before I hit that ‘post’ button, I do take the time to run through those instructions in my mind – literally making the recipe. I cannot tell you how often I’ve had to go back and make changes before finalizing!

    Probably my pet peeve is one that you mentioned Dianne, and that is the whole ‘set aside’ instructions. Finding where I’m supposed to use my ‘aside’ portions can be a real pain in the arse! So all you recipe writers out there – follow Dianne’s instructions!!

  12. I think ingredients listed out of order or listed but not used at all drive me the most nuts. Also, I recently made a recipe where I started pouring all of the salt into the filling rather than some in the filling and some in the cake because of the divided wording. I’m usually more on top of things!

    • Yep, happens all the time with “divided.” That’s why it’s best to avoid that word!

  13. There’s been a few times I’ve accidentally omitted an ingredient from my list and a kind reader has asked what amount they need for it because I mention it in the method. This is even after proof reading! But I guess a three times in two years isn’t terrible, and I’m so thankful when it’s pointed out politely.

    I get frustrated when recipes seem a lot longer than they need to be. I want simplicity, not paragraphs of descriptions and repeated directions. To me it makes the recipe seem more difficult than it actually is.

  14. This is a minor quibble, but it bugs me to no end when recipes use “t” instead of “tsp” and “T” instead of “tbsp” in the ingredient list. For some reason, I can mentally process the abbreviations just fine, but have come very close to catastrophe when working with the lowercase/uppercase letters.

    • Yup, in the old days, people knew what T. and tsp. stand for. Now they are almost always spelled out.

  15. Myabe I’m tired but I don’t understand the objection to “divided.” To me divided just alerts the reader that some of the amount is going to be used at one point and the rest at another. And that’s a good thing. If you don’t say divided to warn cooks, they may just dump in the whole amount the first time the ingredient is mentioned. The alternative is to list the two quantities separately–1/2 cup flour in the filling section, 1/2 cup in the topping section, but then recipes start to look very long and nobody will want to make them.

    • It’s not technically wrong. I just don’t like it because people are prone to not pay attention. So I like to think of ways around it.

  16. You have been a fabulous ray of light in helping me with my recipes. Thanks Dianne!

    Although…I still get a real kick out of my old cookbooks like the 1956 version of Real French Cooking by the great Brillat-Savarin. His “Trompette Rabbit” contains a real winning recipe:
    “Place inside your rabbit two truffle-stuffed pig’s trotters. Sew up the incision and cook on the spit, basting with a little brandy.”

    How many teaspoons is “a little”?

    • Thank you John. You are most welcome.

      In his day it was assumed that the reader knew the basics of cooking, and would therefore know how much brandy is the right amount. Although, that instruction is quite forgiving. What floors me is his assumption that people knew how to prep truffle-stuffed trotters!

  17. I’ve learned to write the recipe, then COOK from it to catch the little tricks and tips that might be useful to others, ways to save a pan, skip a step, etc. I also respectfully disagree about water belonging in ingredient lists — my belief is that experienced cooks hardly need the instructions, so after getting the jist of it (gist? what IS that word?), just follow the ingredient list. Water NOT being included actually drives me crazy in others’ recipes. :-)

    • It must drive you crazy a lot, then, because you won’t see water listed as an ingredient most of the time!

  18. Great advice. I thought I was pretty much in the clear until I hit the part about overworking the word mixture. Oops. In my defense though, I often use it because my print column has such tight space requirements and it says what I need it to say without a lot of words.

    One of my first published recipes called for 1 canned chipolte pepper. I got a lovely note from a reader who loved the recipe but thought it was a bit hot. Turned out she had used 1 can of chipolte peppers. It made me a lot more careful of my ingredient list!

    • Thats funny, Faith! But there was nothing technically wrong with the way you phrased it.

  19. Great post (as usual). As I embark on writing a new wave of recipes, I will pay special heed to your advice. I am also constantly thinking of how a recipe looks on the page and how it flows for the reader/cook. I write recipes for busy, stressed-out teachers and little non-native speaking children, so red bold the ingredients, cooking time & temp in the method. For other recipes, I am enamored with the style in Alice Waters’ Simple Food, but cannot co-opt, so am still searching for a good variation. Love Donna’s photo as well.

    • Bolding sounds good. However if you’re going to be traditionally published, you are at the mercy of the publisher.

      Thanks for noticing Donna’s photo. It’s gorgeous.

  20. Hi Dianne: I would say that some of these aren’t errors, but just differences in style. (And as you know, style can vary from one publishing house to another.) Some see ingredient lists as a ‘shopping list’, whereas I see it as a mis en place, a list the baker uses to gather their ingredients.

    Hence, I include water if a specific quantity is called for. I don’t understand why if you call for ‘1 cup of milk’ you would not say ‘1 cup of water’ as well. When the cook or baker is assembling a recipe, and measuring out their ingredients, why should be it excluded?

    • I agree. For clarity I think it’s important to list water if a specific amount is needed.

      • Yep, you are all testing me on that one. See my response to David the baker.

    • Agreed. That’s why I called some of it just “inelegant.” Less catchy for a headline, though.

      Re using water in recipes, since you are the second person to question it, I’ll quote from the sources, who don’t agree, of course.

      From Recipes Into Type: “Because water does not have to be purchased, it is always omitted from the ingredients are called for, such as for boiling pasta, for covering a vegetable or another ingredient with water and then bringing it to a boil, for adding to a pan to surround custards, etc.
      “There is disagreement, however, about listing water when the amount is essential to the dish, when the water must be at a specific temperature and when something must be dissolved init and thus becomes part of the final dish. We recommend that such specific amounts of water be listed so that the cook will know to measure it and have it ready when called for in the instructions.”
      So I like to call out warm or ice water in the method, and say how much.

      From The Recipe Writer’s Handbook:
      “Water, considered to be readily available, is usually omitted from the ingredient list when an unspecified amount is needed, such as for rinsing an ingredient, cooking pasta, or overing a vegetable before boiling. Water is usually listed when it is a specific ingredient, such as such as when a specific measure is given, something is dissolved in the water, or when the water is modified in some way, such as cold, hot, warm, or lukewarm. Include the desired temperature of water (or other liquid) in yeast bread recipes. Ex. 1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees).

      I just looked at Julia Child and she lists water in this case. So does the recipe for pizza dough in the cookbook I co-authored!

      So there you have it. Not wrong but a matter of style. And after typing all this up, I am reconsidering whether to delete water in the ingredients list in every case.

      Thanks for the challenge to everyone who called me on it!

      • I don’t think there should necessarily be a lot of hard and fast ‘rules’ for writing recipes. Everyone develops their own vocabulary and the best and more cherished recipes are from writers like Maida Heatter, Jane Grigson, and Richard Olney, who didn’t really follow any of the traditional rules, yet will always be remembered for their great cookbooks and well-written recipes.

        Nowadays so much has been getting standardized, especially with magazines and newspapers (where space is a consideration because it’s so valuable–which perhaps is a good argument for leaving water out of ingredient lists, and just saying “divided”). On blogs, and in some respects, cookbooks, there is a little more leeway. But generally speaking, the trick to writing recipes to be concise, but descriptive, without being overtly wordy. No one wants a 3 page recipe for brownies!

        • Can you imagine? That might make a good parody post someday.

          Re the authors you mention — yes they followed rules! Their recipes are conventionally written with an ingredients list and method. I find those recipes delightfully opinionated and specific. Now Elizabeth David, on the other hand, wrote narrative recipes, just a paragraph. I find those really hard to follow.

      • I actually lived in a small Saskatchewan town where the water was so bad I had to buy water to boil pasta or it would turn out gummy, since then I don’t take water, or any ingredient, for granted.

        That said, I also list water as an ingredient when a specific amount is used only.

  21. If, following your example above, a recipe calls for suddenly adding ice water (not just water), I want to see that in the ingredient list, because it’s asking me to take an extra step in preparing it beyond turning on the faucet. On the other hand, if the instructions tell me to bring a certain amount of water to boil (rather than just calling for boiling water), it’s fine to leave it out of the list.

    I especially dislike recipes that I can’t taste until they’re cooked (sausage, casseroles, etc) that say “salt and pepper to taste.” Food writers need to give cooks a starting point for seasoning, at least.

    • Yes, this is exactly what the Recipe Writer’s Handbook calls out.

      Agreed that recipes can use seasoning as a starting point. It’s just that sometimes, “season to taste” is not appropriate, such as when making raw sausage. Good example.

  22. Great tips! I only write recipes for my blog, and many times they are adaptations, but i feel like i’m always careful to put added ingredients in the correct order (rather than tacked onto the bottom of the original recipe) and change them in the method (substitutions, additions, etc).

    i agree with a previous commenter – i hate when there are all sorts of prep tasks and no warning. i don’t mind spending hours on a dish, but i need to know ahead of time! i’ve learned my lesson and now finally read the recipe in full before cooking – but that took a lot of training :)

    • Yes, one of the funny things about cooking is that a recipe can look so doable because it’s short. Then when you look at it more closely you realize all the prep is in the ingredients list.

  23. As you mentioned (DinasaurDishes) aside from the question of ingredient details, one recipe writing dilemma is walking the line between giving concise (sometimes cryptic) or lengthy instructions. Too much information scares people, yet thorough explanations bring about successful results and increase the knowledge base of the cook–if you can get people to read them!!
    Yesterday my class of teenage girls wanted to make Pommes Anna. I hadn’t made them in years and years, so I went on-line and looked at various recipes. They were short and full of mistakes. In the end, I opened Julia’s book. Her recipe was absolutely perfect. She made many distinctions other recipes did not (boiling vs. baking potatoes and why that is important; why cover the pan in the oven for only half of the baking time, what to do if the potatoes stick.)
    I guess we are living in ADD times, and if glossing over a few details is the only way to get people in the kitchen, that is the wave of the future. Yet recipe writers still have to be sticklers for details, as you pointed out!

    • Great story, Sally. It illustrates the difference between understanding what you’re doing and just doing it. Making assumptions on what the reader can come back to bite you.

  24. Hi Dianne, LOL at all the posts! You opened a little rat’s nest with this one didn’t you? I have to agree with your points — I edited a chef-driven cookbook last year and wrote him a LOT of little notes about missing ingredients or method. My guidance to recipe writers — and cooks — just slow down a little bit and read. You will hopefully catch your own errors and prevent cooking disasters. Thanks Dianne!

    • Yes, I’ve noticed that post about recipes seem to really get my readers going.

      Slowing down is hard for me. I have to read the recipe over and over because I’m paranoid that I’ve missed something.

  25. Longer to feel discount priced cialis the full effect.

    Number 7 drives me nuts and so many cookbook authors do it. I will even see “season meat to taste” – were they really taste-testing raw meat to see if it had just the right amount of salt and pepper? I need amounts to start with!

    I do disagree with #5. I am very slow in the kitchen, so it helps me a ton if I prep all of the ingredients – including having the right amount of water handy. If I am in the midst of a recipe that I was all set up for, the last thing I want to do is interrupt the flow to go measure out another ingredient (yes, water!). It actually irks me when cookbook authors don’t note it in the ingredients. I may be odd woman out, but my two cents :)

    • Oh good. It’s a subtle point and I was afraid most people would not get it.

      Re water, you’re on a growing list of commenters who disagree with me, not the odd woman out at all.

  26. Diane-Thanks for this post!
    When I was cooking professionally I had a notebook that I jotted down all of my recipes. They were short and to the point. Now when I write recipes I think of my non-cooking daughter as my audience and try to give as much description as possible. I think a good methods section should read like a short story, capturing the cooks attention and helping them along.

    I loved the old Gourmet’s recipes when they were written completely in paragraph form w/out separate ingredient lists cluttering the page!
    PS-I like water in my recipe.

    • I am not a fan of paragraph-style recipes. When I want to cook from them I end up making my own ingredients list so I can see what I need to buy.

      I like your ideas of how to write a recipe.

  27. Great post Dianne! Recipe writing isn’t as simple as some would think; thanks for keeping us on task. I too like to see water listed if it’s a specified ingredient.

    • You guys are keeping me on task as well, especially about the water.

    • Sometimes it can be appropriate, it turns out. See the definitions I turned to in response to David Lebovitz.

  28. I was delighted to find your blog through an article by Dawn Viola on foodblogforum. I have the Kindle version of your book, “Will Write for Food” and read it often. Thanks for a great book.

  29. I am going to save these tips. The tip I “hate” the most of yours and think of the most is the overuse of the word “mixture.” I think of you every time I want to use it and then have to struggle to think of a better word. I think of you alot.

    • Yes, I could go on and on about that one. But I already wrote a post about it, and a lot of people disagreed!

  30. Thanks so much for the post. I sheepishly raise my hand out of guilt of some of these mistakes. It’s good to be reminded. I learned a lot.

  31. Glad to hear you are correcting bloggers’ recipes. Have been reading a bunch lately and the ideas are great but the writing not so very. Finally occurred to me these are great cooks but have not had the benefit of an editor to teach them the craft. And it is a craft and a demanding one. I think of recipes like puzzles. Often I get deep in the middle of one and cannot figure out the best way out. That’s when I wish I had an editor on call. I’ve been writing recipes professionally for 30+ years and am still learning. And I’ve noticed as some comments have said that modern recipes tend to be briefer than those of old. I always wonder how they do that; we have the same questions and confusions we’ve always had. Probably more. Loved your comment about “divided”, I personally hate using that term and remember fighting with an editor who insisted on it. Ah well, the editor wins.

    • Hey Penni, nice to hear from you on the blog.

      Editors are not always right, as some commenters have pointed out. I’m still learning too.

      Yes, recipes are like puzzles. Good analogy. Sometimes fun to work out, sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode. You must have had some doozies when working with all those professional chefs on books.

  32. when i read your book i immediately decided to take some writing classes and started with one through mediabistro on recipe writing where I learned a lot of the tips you noted above: I guess I can thank you for them twice over! I am sure i still make silly mistakes all the time but i’m trying to be careful with my recipes!

    • As Penni said, “it’s a craft and a demanding one.” At least you’re trying to figure it out.

  33. A most interesting post.
    I agree with David Lebovitz about no hard and fast rules. Also that no one wants a 3 page brownie recipe!
    I write a food blog and do try and keep my recipes descriptive without rambling on. Sometimes it is necerssary to be descriptive about processes involved in certain recipes. If there is someone else who has a good post or video explaining what I’m talking about, then I just link to that.
    Some of my native style cooking involves processes which I would take for granted yet would need detailed notes for someone new to it. Same goes for recipes I’m new to.

    So it probably has to do with who your audience is going to be. For example, if you’re writing an “Introduction to Cooking” kind of book/ recipe then everything has to be detailed.

    As for the “water” part of the debate, for me, if the water plays a definite role as in “chilled water for pastry” or “boiling water for certain cakes” where the quantity is important, I want to see it in the ingredient list.
    If it is water for boiling pasta or a splash of water to be added while cooking, then I don’t need it on that list.

    • I’m not really sure what he’s talking about, to be honest (sorry David). There are certain conventions to writing recipes, and David follows them beautifully. The most irrefutable are the ones I mentioned first: list ingredients in order of use, and make sure every ingredient is used in the method.

      That being said, there is a certain quality to well-written recipes, including his. They make cooking seem doable, make readers want to rush into the kitchen to try it, help readers understand why certain decisions are made or how to employ a certain technique. Best of all, like you say, they seem to know what the reader wants or needs to know, in just the right amount.

      Yes, the beauty of writing online is that links make it possible to add more value or instruction without making the recipe longer. You can’t do that in print!

  34. Hi Dianne,

    I love it when you stir things up! Great point about the phrase “seasoning to taste”. Sometimes it is appropriate to list specific measurements, but often it is a matter of personal taste. One of the ways I’ve found to get around this is at the end of the method I write, “Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly” or something similar.

    • Just to play devil’s advocate: if they have not made it before, how will they know what it should taste like? Also, people tend to undersalt, and then they are disappointed in a dish.

  35. I didn’t realize that you edit recipes, Dianne. Just curious where you learned the skill. Barbara Ostmann has a great book out on the subject and she, too, does recipe editing.

    • I learned it on the job as an editor, Candace. I’ve been writing and editing recipes for about 12 years, as an author and coach.

      Yes, Barb’s book, The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, is an incredible resource. I referred to it in my comment to David and in my book, Will Write for Food.

  36. I had another thought I wanted to share — reread the Recipe Writer’s Handbook periodically. I did so recently and even though I was very familiar with it, it had gotten sloppy and the reread really helped me clarify and tighten my recipes.

    • Good idea. You could also read Chapter 7, The Art of Recipe Writing, in Will Write for Food. ;-)

  37. I have you to thank for the fact that I’m so anal about my recipe writing. :) I’m sure I still make mistakes, though – like I’d never thought about the “dividing” issue. Good call!

    What about listing water as an ingredient when it needs preparation that the reader might otherwise not have ready? Like if the method requires ice water, shouldn’t you list it? I for one don’t have ice water on hand unless I know I’m going to need it…

    • Thanks, Stephanie. You’re a great recipe writer. Nothing to worry about.

      Yep, several people have called me on the water issue, so sure, put ice water in the ingredients list.

  38. Very useful post! I must admit I sometimes slip into inaccurate measurements myself, simply because I hardly ever weigh or measure something. Or because I might add half a cup of milk first, and then pour a little extra in the dish…afterwards you can easily forget little tweaks you made during cooking.

    It is indeed a tricky balance between short, sweet but maybe a bit too vague for a less experienced cook and long, lenghty but maybe a bit too “exact” for more experienced cooks. For instance, you could say brunoise or julienne, but then you assume everyone knows what they mean. And how big should the brunoise cubes be?

    What I absolutely adore in recipes if I get the “why” behind certain key actions. This can help me become a better cook because it is advice that can come in handy in other recipes too.

    • Thanks, Kevin. I adore that part too. Not that many food writers explain why — maybe they don’t know, maybe there’s no room.

  39. I completely get David’s point and think he is right. People who need rules for everything are in general very insecure. There’s more than black and white, a lot of bloggers are doing a great job at writing recipes, because they are natural talents (and they do pay attention to details!), not because they follow “the rules”.

  40. I’m late to this party, and it appears that pretty much everything I’d say has been covered. I would question not including an amount of water in the ingredients, though. On more than one occasion, I’ve been cooking with a spoon in one hand, pot holder or other ingredient in the other, and realize I need to add some water–NOW–or risk ruining a recipe (could be a sauce, baked good, etc.). I’d much rather know from the ingredient list that I’ll have to pre-measure that water and have it handy for later. Then again, I suppose if I read the recipe straight through as one is supposed to do BEFORE starting to cook, I’d know about the water in advance, wouldn’t I? ;)

  41. (Of course we know that thyme is an herb, not a spice!) As a writing coach, I loved this post and would love to reference it when teaching my corporate students how to craft an effective email. Thanks Diane!

  42. “5. Listing water as an ingredient. Just bring it up in the method and state the amount. Such as “Add 1 cup of ice water, a few splashes at a time, until the dough comes together.”

    This statement might be too general. Sorry but as a seaoned recipe developer, editor, and tester for both print and online, I have to disagree with this one and think it depends on the recipe. When making a recipe where water is integral to the dish make up (such as rice pilaf, risotto, chili, pie dough, etc.), it’s best to have measured out prior. I’ve seen too many recipes ruined by last minute additions of water – either adding a bit too much or not enough – because the water became an after thought.

    I don’t know too many people that read through recipe directions from start to finish before making – why not make it easier for the cook and put the water amount in the ingredient list for recipes where it makes a difference.

    • Yep, there was lots of pushback on this one. I have revised my view, but only when it’s for an exact amount of water, and critical to the recipe.

  43. Quite helpful, I’ll have to keep these in mind when editing my recipes :)

  44. You are my new hero. As I begin my food blogging journey, I can tell that I will find a wealth of information on your site…and will give proper credit. ;-)

    • Hey thanks, Kendra. You are too kind. Yes please, give credit whenever possible.

  45. Diane,

    “If the first thing you’ll do is saute the onions, don’t list the steak first, even if it’s the star of the recipe.”

    I strongly disagree with this. When scanning recipes the first thing I want to know is what and how much of the primary ingredient is required. For instance, if a recipe calls for two duck breasts I have easy access to the ingredient on the day I make it. If it calls for two duck legs I’m going to have to buy a whole duck in advance, thaw it out, butcher it, and decide what to do with the rest of the duck.

    • I see your point. However, the convention is to list ingredients in the order used. To address your issue about the duck legs, put it in the headnote. “If you can’t find fresh duck, you may have to buy a frozen one, thaw it, and saw off the legs.”

  46. Oh my, boy I wish I had read just this one post (or even discovered your blog and book) when I first started writing recipes 2 years ago for cooking classes. Thankfully I did buy your book and now reading this blog, I can pat myself on the back since I used your tips! One thing that I wonder about is when I write recipes how much detail should I be going in in the Method section (in terms of how something looks at different stages). I often have students that are novice cooks completely and then I have students who are advanced cooks but have never cooked Indian food. Any thoughts? I feel like it’s kinda tricky trying to write a recipe geared to both types of people…and one day I’d love to publish these so I should start working on that now don’t you think?

  47. This may not be an issue but when my editor worked on my book every time that I put tsp. she wrote out teaspoon. I have become more sensitive to writing out everything out possible.

    • Oh yeah. That’s a good one. It seems that most books assume that readers might not be able to distinguish between tsp. and T.

  48. What drives me crazy when writing a recipe is trying to find synonyms for the term (or concept) of “Add” in the same method paragraph. Fold in, Pour in, Fork in, Spoon in… yes. These are all valid substitutes, but “adding” ingredients to others that are cooking is different… There’s progression in the term “add.”

    Is there another way of conveying this simple action?
    Ciao

    • Agreed that saying “Add” every time is boring. You are working on other terms. Stick with it!

  49. Thanks so much for the tips! I was recently hired to be a recipe writer for a food company. I took up a seminar on recipe writing a few years back but I wrote down a note I couldn’t understand (thanks to my pristine hand writing!). Anyway, I wanted to ask if, when writing the ingredients, it is acceptable to write the preparation first before the ingredient if my intention is to measure the prepped ingredient? (ex. 1 cup whipped cream vs. 1 cup cream, whipped). My boss keeps on changing the order when I have explained to her that the cream should be whipped first before placed in a cup. She said the standard should be preparation AFTER ingredient. What’s the correct way? thanks!

    • I’m going with your boss here, Samantha. Typically the prep is listed after the ingredient, ex. 1 onion, diced. And of course, 1 cup cream and 1 cup whipped cream are two different amounts.

  50. Biggest of all, in my opinion, “ingredient amounts” in more than one format in same recipe (and worse, if in same book) ie. ‘Grams’ & ‘Ounces’ & ‘Spoonfuls’ & ‘Cups’ & ‘Liters’

  51. When I have an ingredient that is prepped early in the recipe and then set aside (such as melting chocolate, toasting nuts, or sauteing the meat for a stew), if is very easy to forget to put it into the dish later. I now highlight, copy, cut, and paste the step to the end of the recipe as a reminder. I haven’t forgotten to add the chocolate to brownies since.

    The above paragraph has two issues that could start a “discussion” with my editor for the recipe. First is the use of “set aside.” Some editors (and recipe writers) hate that phrase, arguing “Well, what are you supposed to do with it?” I use it because I do think it helps the cook keep track, especially in recipes with many components. The second is whether or not to use a serial comma. Most of my publishers use it, so I do, too.

    When you have a blog, you can do whatever you want. When you are working for a publisher, they often have an established recipe style sheet that has to be followed, so all talk about whether or not water is included in the ingredient list is moot. I recently had a publisher who insisted on using two numerals in sequence in the ingredients list (“1 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up”), something is anathema in every recipe writing guide.

    One other trick: When you have a long ingredient list (for example a curry with a long list of spices and vegetables in the same step), copy, cut, and paste the entire list into your recipe directions. Then, just cut the details you don’t need (“2 large onions, chopped” becomes “onions” in the directions.) This way you won’t accidentally drop an important ingredient from the lineup.

    • Love that last tip, Rick, and the earlier one about cutting and pasting as well.

      I’m in the “what else are you going to do with it camp” as far as “set aside” goes. As for serial commas, I never used them when I was a magazine and newspaper editor, because we wanted people to read quickly. Funny how camps are set up.

  52. The one thing you hit on that I hate in a recipe is not separating out ingredients if they are for totally separate components. I acknowledge I’ve made the mistake of adding all of something at one time and I blame that on so many years of experience which often lends itself to expecting a certain rhythm to a recipe. If I have four eggs ready and read it’s time to add eggs; I’ve dumped in all four in before realizing I was only supposed to use two and save two for the next component.
    So…if I make something that I plan to add to my blog, I rewrite the ingredient list; I prefer seeing those components separated and have always assumed others would too.

    • It’s kind of complicated to separate them out, Barbara. If you can do it as sub-recipes, then fine, but I really don’t like the word “divided.” If it says in the method: “Add 2 eggs,” even if it says “4 large eggs” in the ingredients list, I think that’s pretty clear. But yes, I have done the same thing from time to time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.