5 Ways to Write Recipes that Sell Without Selling

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It’s a quandry. You want to entice readers to make your recipes, but you don’t want to just hit them over the head with sales pitches.

Fortunately, there are more subtle ways to attract people to a recipe. Here are five methods cookbook authors use to draw in readers:

1. Make them salivate. Describe the food and how it’s cooked so readers can not only imaging tasting it, but they see it, smell it, hear it, even imagine touching it. Here’s a headnote for South Indian-Style Eggplant Pickle, from Cradle of Flavor by Saveur Editor-in-Chief James Oseland that gets the senses going:

“This south Indian-style pickle is popular in Malaysian kitchens, although the sugar in it is a decidedly Malaysian addition. Similar to caponata, the Sicilian eggplant relish, it’s made of chunks of Japanese eggplants in a lavishly spiced sweet-sour pickling base. Coriander, fennel, cumin, chiles, ginger, and cinnamon all vie for dominance, creating a lush layering of flavors. The eggplants are fried and then put in the pickling base, rather than cooked in it. Japanese eggplants, which are commonly used in Malaysian cuisine, cook quickly, so frying them first give you more control, ensuring that they won’t come out mushy.”

Notice his evocative description, so specific that you can almost taste the eggplant. He assumes you may not know caponata, so he describes it too. Then he tells you how to cook the dish, so you can visualize it, like a movie. Oseland finishes by reassuring you that with his technique, you’ll create a superior dish.

2. Building on that last point, give readers the confidence to make your dish. Here’s the headnote from Alice Medrich’s Molten Chocolate-Raspberry Cakes from Bittersweet:

“Have you ever ordered one of these sexy little desserts in a restaurant only to find that the anticipated molten center has morphed into a cake instead of flowing sauce? Because small desserts are more easily overbaked than large ones, and because baking ties vary with different kinds of chocolate, I’ve concluded that the bet and simples insurance against disappointment (congealed sauce) is the buried-truffle method. During the short time in the oven, the truffle in each small cake melts to form a luscious sauce, while the cake gets fully baked. Although it sounds like a completely separate step, the truffles are actually created with a portion of the cake batter, so the whole process is quite efficient.”

You sense immediately that she knows exactly what she’s talking about, that you can make this cake and it will turn out just as well as hers. And you’re drooling by now, right? You see your fork cutting into the dark cake, and the shiny middle oozing out. She’s evocative even though she’s giving you straight-forward, trusted instruction.

3. Set a scene that transports people. Take them to a place you love, and give them a vicarious thrill. Here’s part of Carol Field’s headnote for Bagna Cauda, in Celebrating Italy:

“When the air in the vine-covered hills of Piedmont was thick with the aroma of newly made wine, workers once used to gather to share a pot of bagna cauda set over heat in the middle of a table. They would dip crisp raw autumn vegetables into the steaming garlicky mixture (yes, I know) of oil, butter, and anchovies. This rustic dish is part of an authentic gastronomic tradition persisting to this day…”

It’s a simple recipe for a sauce of butter, olive oil, garlic and anchovies, but now I’m right there with the workers, sitting on a bench in the crisp air of the countryside, dipping my fennel slice into a warm bowl of garlicy goodness, enjoying the view of rolling hills covered with grapevines.

You don’t have to go to Italy to write a headnote. Set a scene in Chinatown, around your best friend’s table, or at the beach. The point is to take your reader there and describe it specifically enough so they can imagine it.

4. Bowl readers over with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious and gets people excited about your recipe. I love the conversational style of Ina Garten’s cookbooks, like she’s your best friend letting you in on her secrets. Here’s a partial headnote for Jeffrey’s Roast Chicken, from How Easy is That? It shows how much she loves to cook and how she thinks everyone else should love it as well:

“Recently, I met some beautiful young women from Glamour magazine. They make a roast chicken they call ‘Engagement Chicken’ because every time one of them makes it for her boyfriend, she gets engaged! How wonderful is that? That’s the best reason I ever heard to roast a chicken…”

It’s like you are sitting next to her at a restaurant bar, drinking wine and wearing your Sex in the City shoes, trading stories and laughing. She exaggerates a little for effect, another time-honored tradition of storytelling. Even though her style is casual, though, she’s dead serious about getting you to make that chicken.

5. Extol without resorting to vague words like “wonderful” and “delicious.” Use specifics instead. Here’s a partial headnote from Susanna Hoffman’s cookbook, The Olive and the Caper, for Classic Shrimp and Tomatoes:

“Hardly a dish exists on the honor roll of Greek cuisine with more names than shrimp baked with tomatoes and feta…The proliferation of names gives testimony to one thing: a dish so popular, widespread, and classic certainly must sing with flavor. And it does. Few cheeses go with shellfish, but sheep’s milk feta blankets the tender shrimp with a sharp tang the way a wash of lemon juice cannot…”

I like the way she glories the dish, not her version of it. And she tells you why it’s wonderful, rather than resorting to using the word.

Do you love a particular cookbook because of its headnotes? Tell me which one and why.


  1. says

    Funny you should ask. I bought Paula Wolfert’s “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook” a few years ago and it promptly got lost in the black hole of our cookbook collection. I rooted it out yesterday looking for a particular recipe and was immediately pulled in by the headnotes, which are as good as any I’ve ever read. They hit all the points you mention in your post and are rich with story, place and flavor, delivered with a sense of humor and lots of sound advice. A few favorites are the headnotes for her Slow-Cooked Duck with Olives and the Rhubarb Custard Tart. Brilliant and highly recommended.

    • diannejacob says

      What a great way to describe the inimitable Paula Wolfort’s headnotes. I thought of her but I didn’t have any of her cookbooks to pull out! (Shame on me, I know.) I’ll have to rectify that.

  2. says

    You’ve given excellent examples here. The word delicious can be distracting while writing. It’s such a cliche but seems to sit on the computer keypad waving from the sidelines ‘pick me, pick me’. I’m going to read this post before writing my next article to make my writing sharper.
    I like Tamasin Day-Lewis as she includes so much of her fairly eccentric personality in the introductory writing and often makes small producers the heroes:
    “The next step on from jam tarts is unquestionably the savoury sophistication of the quiche Lorraine. Ubiquitous and passé though it may seem to some, it is, to my mind – when perfectly executed, with buttery pastry and an unctuously creamy, bacony interior – infinitely preferable to a more fashionable, would-be provençale offering. The simple combination of thick, ivory cream, proper oak-smoked bacon, with perhaps a thin veil of Gruyère placed on it, and a butter-dotted top to glisten about a gloriously browned surface – this is food to console and please of the highest order.”

  3. says

    Thanks for this.

    Sometimes I think writing the headnotes is harder than writing the actual post. It’s more than a distillation or a summary. It’s a promise, an invitation to discover.

    • diannejacob says

      That’s a good way to put it. I don’t think there’s only one way, I just enjoy these because they’re more creative than the usual version of “try this because it’s delicious!”

  4. says

    I’m going to print this post and tape it somewhere near the computer. You’ve addressed so many writing roadblocks I repeatedly encounter – thanks for all the great examples!

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome. It’s definitely more time consuming to write like this, but worth it.

  5. says

    Thanks for more inspiring writing tips, Diane. I’ve got to say that having a feed to your blog has been highly useful, and your feed keeps me feeling in the loop about writing and the business of writing–which is important when you’re a solitary freelancer. For a humorous approach, I like the headnotes in Jaden Hair’s STEAMY KITCHEN, and for their approachable, measured, and helpful tone, with a splash of subtle humor and cultural insights, I like the headnotes in Sarah Marx Felder’s A COOK’S JOURNEY TO JAPAN. I edited them both, so I’m biased. I’m glad to hear about other people’s favorites, too.

    • diannejacob says

      I loved Steamy Kitchen, the book, because it captured Jaden’s energy, enthusiasm and sense of humor. I don’t know the other, but will have to look into it now. Thanks, Holly.

  6. says

    People tease me because I read cookbooks like fiction. But I do like Mary Ann Esposito’s folklore in many of her recipes, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s historical tidbits and the evolution of a recipe and Amanda Hesser’s intros. Actually, I could list most of my cookbooks for delighting me in more way than recipes. The idea of setting the scene more succinctly appeals.

    • diannejacob says

      I like to read cookbooks in bed for that reason, just for the pleasures of the text. You’ve named some classic writers.

  7. says

    These are such inspiring but practical tips for improving my food writing. I have been enjoying Melissa Clark’s “In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite” lately. I love a cookbook that reads like fiction. This one really does. While the recipes are the focus of the book, each one is prefaced by a beautifully written story that tells you how the recipe came to be. Delightfully written.
    Thanks for another great post. You are an inspiration to me.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh thanks Rivki. I haven’t read Melissa’s book yet, but I’m a big fan of her column in the New York Times.

  8. says

    Well, the headnotes were really essays, but Laurie Colwin’s books “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” come to mind. After reading each essay, I wanted to eat the eggplant, make the beef stew, bake the Jamaican black cake.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks for reminding me. I could have quoted at length from Laurie Colewin. Love her books.

  9. says

    Dianne, I definitely didn’t agree fully with that prior post, and still think that you are looking for flowery prose where many cookbook authors write recipes, not literature (I also thought some of the “do not do’s” in your prior post were actually helpful to “do” from a reader perspective!). However, I think the examples you have offered are wonderful and also think you explained them (and what you like about them) very well. The useful and constructive advice you’ve included can definitely be utilized by any recipe author. Thank you.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Alisa. Recipes and literature are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some of the diet books and quick and easy cooking books could use less tired writing, but on the other hand, they appeal to a different audience.

  10. says

    I love those examples, I think what is especially fun is that you can pick up on each author’s unique style. Even before I realized one of the quotes was from the Barefoot Contessa I knew it was from her because I could just hear her voice and tone. I think that’s something I always struggle with is how to make my voice well defined, while still be true to who I am.

    I will also say I am a fan of when writers serve up their recipe in the context of an antedote or a story. I always love the sense of greater purpose and meaning it gives the recipe because it gives me a sense of how it fits into something emotional that goes beyond just the meal. That said, I think on my own blog I struggle with this a little, particularly how developed to make the anecdote without making it so verbose that it ecllipses the recipe or causes people to tune out.

    • diannejacob says

      I suppose there’s always a risk of that, but on the other hand, a good storyteller will keep people reading all the way to the end.

  11. says

    II find it’s hard to strike a balance between writing a headnote that ‘s interesting and alluring vs. one that seems complicated enough that the reader wants to skip it completely and just get down to the recipe.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, when I was looking for examples I found some headnotes that went on for a few pages. Still, they were from popular authors like Julia Child and Richard Olney.

  12. says

    Here’s an example from Rick Bayless’ “Mexican Everyday” cookbook which heads up the recipe for Mushroom-Potato Crema with Roasted Poblanos:

    “This soup shows off the natural affinity between earthy mushrooms and earthy potatoes. Too much of a good thing can, sometimes, lead to lost luster, which is why I like the deep-green spice of roasted poblanos in this soup. And the aromatic flecks of cilantro. And, of course, the sweet bits of corn. If I want to gild this beautiful lily, I’ll cook a small handful of chopped bacon until crisp and add it to the soup just before serving.”

    I love his use of the word “and”, which makes the recipe playful and accessible to me. It’s no wonder Bayless has been called a 20 year overnight success story. His recipes in this book are designed to be tinkered with, and his headnotes set the tone for experimentation by the home cook.

    • diannejacob says

      I wanted to make the recipe as soon as I read the headnote. He shows the importance of each ingredient for color, texture and contrast. Thanks.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome, Stephanie. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m always challenging myself to do better as well. Some days are better than others!

  13. says

    I love the headnotes David Lebovitz writes in The Perfect Scoop and Ready for Dessert. They are educational, funny, provide insight and just make me smile. One in particular – in The Perfect there is a recipe for Turron ice cream (named for the famed Spanish nougat). The headnote is hilarious! He tells the story of “smuggling” a huge bag of the Spanish confection home and being stopped by the Barcelona police. When I created a Spanish-themed menu for a dinner party, I used his recipe as dessert and I had to tell everyone David’s story behind it. Brilliant.

    • diannejacob says

      David’s quirky sense of humor and take on the craziness of everyday life always makes me laugh. I have both books on my shelf.

  14. says

    The person who set me on the road to my passion for Middle Eastern food was Claudia Roden and her first edition of Book of Middle Eastern Food, many years ago. Each recipe came with a well written story of either its history, its flavours or its meaning to her and I was completely sold.
    Good, evocative writing can certainly paint a picture and create a desire to be part of that picture.

    • diannejacob says

      I adore Claudia Roden. Her Book of Jewish Food is one of my most treasured cookbooks.

      • says

        Yep – she is something of a patron Saint for me! My copy of Book of Jewish Food is very well thumbed as is her new edition of Middle eastern Food. My old paperback of the original is very tatty.

  15. says

    I frequently read cookbooks cover to cover as if they were novels, which is a bit perplexing to my boyfriend and others who have seen my bedside table stack of cookbooks, but I have a feeling that this trait is shared amongst many of your readers. While some reference works (The Joy of Cooking comes to mind) are worth a read despite their spare to nonexistent headers, I truly find myself engaged when there is a story behind the recipe. Two recent reads that come to mind are The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser, and The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. The former for its sense of history and looking back to how we as a nation ate in the past up into the current era, and the later for how completely tantalizing the recipes within seem even in their simplicity, I find myself bookmarking at least 50% Ms Cunningham’s recipes for my “to make” list. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Also, a quick proofreading note: I noticed two spelling errors in the Alice Meidrich header you wrote, I highlighted them with what I assume the correct word was in brackets: “Because small desserts are more easily overbaked than large ones, and because baking [times] vary with different kinds of chocolate, I’ve concluded that the bet and [simplest] insurance against disappointment (congealed sauce) is the buried-truffle method.”

  16. says

    It’s so easy to get lazy and rely on words that do little to tell the story such as “perfect” and “delicious.” I can always use the reminder to work a bit harder to land on more telling language.

    More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin is one of my favorites for her writing.

    • diannejacob says

      Love, love, love Laurie Colwin. I always feel such warmth and trust coming through in her writing.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welome, Cynthia. I hadn’t thought about how these might be useful for other kinds of blogs, so I’m happy to hear that.

  17. says

    Hi Dianne, I’ve printed out all your recipe writing advice and will pour over it in the next couple days. I’ve been madly writing skeleton recipes, that need to be gone over for headnotes, etc. Looking forward to seeing you in Austin. I’ve been a bit off the grid, but the good news is I’m making big progress on the book. Phew. I can’t even think about the radiation though, I’ve (almost) stopped checking the “progress.” I’ll be writing one last post-earthquake post before moving on to natto. High time, wouldn’t you say? N.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re going to be in Austin! Woo hoo. Will contact you about getting together.

  18. says

    Let me just start by telling you how much i enjoy reading your blog. actually, lurking around your site made me so inspired i decided to start a food blog of my own. i’m nowhere near perfect, or even aspiring to be, but either way your writing offers such concise and encouraging advice i just couldn’t keep my fingers off the keyboard – i had to start writing!

    Speaking of headnotes; they’re what makes a recipe breathe and speak to me. i’m never excited about cooking something that doesn’t come with a good story or a personal memory.
    Jamie Oliver did a tiny paper back called Something for the weekend, which i remember reading in my mom’s kitchen. he tells lovley stories, and has a great personality that really shines through the pages.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Becky, thanks for leaving a comment and congratulations on your new blog. That is a sign of a writer — someone who just has to do it. Hope you will keep going.

  19. says

    Thank you so much. As a new blogger too, I’ve struggled so much with my writing. In particular my recipes. What I really took from your post was I need to go back to the old adage about writing, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s really easy to tell someone that your recipe is good, it’s something else to show them. Looks like I’ve got homework!

  20. says

    To my dismay, the venerable Ruth Reichl used the cliché “summer on a plate” in describing a recipe on her blog recently.

    It just goes to show that even the best writers can get lazy or run out of imaginative new ways to “sell” their recipes. Kind of depressing for the rest of us mortals! :)

    • diannejacob says

      I guess we hold Reichl to a higher standard, but she’s just human like the rest of us. Maybe she was in a hurry or tired. We’ve all been there. All we can do (including her) is try harder the next time!