Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman on What She Learned by Writing a Cookbook

Aug 022011
 

Deb Perelman turns in the manuscript for her first cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, at the end of this month. I caught up with her to ask her how writing a cookbook has been different than writing her blog.

You can meet Perelman at the International Food Blogger Conference in New Orleans August 26-28. She, Kate McDermott of Art of the Pie, and I will be talking about recipe development.

Q. What percentage of recipes will come from the blog?

A. Very few recipes, maybe 10 to 15 percent. I have to put in the greatest hits or it wouldn’t feel like the Smitten Kitchen cookbook.

Q. Where did you get your inspiration for new dishes?

A. I have no shortage of ideas. I have a long list of recipe ideas I’ve been building on for a decade, and I keep them all in Google Docs. I can reach them from any computer, from the phone and from the grocery store.

Besides cookbooks that I know and love, the web is a great tool to research recipes. I gravitate towards recipe sites that have reviews, like the Food Network, Allrecipes and Epicurious. It’s not that I’m looking for new ideas. It’s more like I have my recipe for pancakes, and I wonder if the salt level is too high or how much milk other recipes use.

I get a lot of ideas from restaurants too, where there’s something about the dish I like, like the combination of ingredients.

Blueberry Yogurt Multigrain Pancakes. (Photo by permission of Deb Perelman.)

Q. How is the cookbook different from the blog?

A. There are things I’ve pulled from the cookbook because they were going to be really complicated to make. I didn’t think I could test out those recipes 20 times this summer to get them right.

In a cookbook, I get to do things I wouldn’t do on the site, like a gathering of meal ideas, certain kinds of sidebars, and a nice layout.

Also, when I’m remaking things from the website, I make them different now.

Q. What is the difference between the way you write a recipe for the book and for the blog?

A. It’s not terribly different. I have to add more detail because I’m not going to have process photos for each recipe.

Q. What have you learned from writing the cookbook?

A. Writing the book has changed the way I do the site. I’ve gotten more aggressive with my recipe testing and my writing.

My recipes in the last 1.5 years are different.The first couple of years, I was clueless about recipe copyright and adapting. I would use a recipe from somewhere and change very little. I used to feel it was disrespectful to the cook to change the recipe — that you’re supposed to give credit and compliments. As the site went on, I became a better cook. Now I’m working hard on recipe development.

My next project is going back to older recipes on the site and reworking them to make them true Smitten Kitchen recipes. They’re a minority.

Q. What is your definition of “adapted?”

A. It means you’ve changed things. If I haven’t changed the recipe, I won’t use it. I really try to detail in the headnote what I’ve changed. If someone loved that recipe from Ina Garten, I want to give them a heads up that I did not make it the same way.

Q. Are you in charge of the photography, and is it different from the blog also?

A. Yes, I’m doing the photos too. On the website, I will publish imperfect photos. Mostly I’m looking for a good top picture. If they’re not perfectly lit and the focus is not where I want it, that’s okay. But for the cookbook, I have to reshoot it.

Q. Who is your editor at Knopf?

A. Her name is Lexy Bloom. It’s her first cookbook. Judith Jones has been advising her a little bit about process. She talks about what she did with Julia Child! She likes to come to the kitchen with her authors see how they work. So now Lexy’s come over and we have a couple more visits scheduled.

Q. Did you use recipe testers for your cookbook?

A. For the site I’ve always done my own testing and I guess I’ve been very lucky because people like the results. For the book I’m more nervous so I’ve brought in two recipe testers. I’m not giving them all the recipes, just as many as I feel nervous about and want to get their home cooking notes.

It’s hard for me. I’m not good at sharing. I don’t understand the concept of rough drafts. Recipes are either done or I leave them in my computer.

Cauliflower Gratin (Photo by permission of Deb Perelman.)

Q. What do you want them to check?

A. More complicated recipes, baking recipes. Or ones where each time I tested it, it came out a little different. I’m going to have weights measurements in the book, so I want them to verify the weights, and the cooking times. I want them to let me know if there are gaping holes in the recipes.

Mostly I want to know that their results are the same. These people live in Brooklyn, and I really want to take a bite of what they make but I can’t run over there (DJ: Perelman lives in Manhattan)!

One thing I’ve found is that I have to be true to the way I make it. One tester said a bread wasn’t cheesy enough. But I have to remember that I made it three times that way and my family and I loved it. And I’ve always published recipes to my taste.

Q. Will you feel like you have reached some new level of credibility with the published book? That you’re not just a blogger?

A. I’ve never felt like I’m just a blogger.

I’m sure I will feel that way. My drive has never been to be famous, though. I just want to do work that makes me happy.

Q. What do you say to people, particularly bloggers, who want to write a cookbook?

A. I was very glad I waited for a fairly developed audience (DJ: Perelman says Smitten Kitchen has 2.5-4 million unique views a month. She started the blog in 2006.). I had a lot more opportunities, more people were interested, and could develop a book into what I wanted. As a result, the cookbook reflects my vision for the site, my vision for cooking, and how I feel about cooking.

  65 Responses to “Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman on What She Learned by Writing a Cookbook”

  1. It’s refreshing to hear that someone waited until they felt they were more prepared to write a cookbook than just being so anxious to write a book the first time someone asks them too.

    • Yes, I think so too. I hear from many people just starting out who want me to help them with a cookbook. I suppose they don’t like it when I suggest it’s too soon.

  2. Diane,
    Once again, you seem to post the type of info I need to keep me motivated as I blog and write my cookbook. Thanks.

    Congrats to Deb! and her SK cookbook. I’m a fan of SK blog and I’m looking forward to her cookbook.

  3. An insightful interview. I love how comfortable she is in her own skin, with her own recipes, with the way the process for writing her cookbook has naturally developed through her love of cooking, not from the pursuit of fame.

    • She seems pretty confident, don’t you think? That must have something to do with her success. I think very few food bloggers who are super-successful did it for the fame. They’re mostly super-hard workers, very smart, and competitive as hell.

  4. Didn’t surprise me that not a lot of the recipes in the book come from her blog. Smitten Kitchen is for the most part a cook-along of different cookbooks, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Saveur and other publications, print or online. Many of the recipes on the blog have been taken from the sources verbatim. Rarely does she have anything original on there.

    • She admits that early on she took recipes from other sources and printed them with little change, but she doesn’t do that any more, and plans to go back and fix those posts. She learned and she moved on.

      What’s refreshing about Deb is that she says where she got the inspiration. Other bloggers use the same publications as resources but don’t credit them. For more on this subject, see Adjusting a Recipe Doesn’t Make it Yours.

  5. Fantastic interview. I met Deb once and found her to be lovely and down to earth…I think that “down-to-earthness” is evident in her words here, as well. I agree that it’s nice to hear she waited until her audience was well-established….good advice.

    • I found her that way as well. It just goes to show you that people who are famous can be nice too.

      Re waiting until her audience was well-established, I like that idea. I guess every blogger has to decide what “well-established” means. I don’t think it means you get a book deal within six months of starting your blog.

  6. Always a fan of Deb and Smitten Kitchen. Nice to hear some background.

    • Thanks. There’s lots more background that I couldn’t fit into this post. Ex. that she was a high-tech writer, and started out with a degree in Psychology and Art Therapy.

  7. Thanks for the interview. I always admired her posts and her humor, so nice to see her here and read more about her.
    I love that she said she never felt like she is a blogger. I don’t have a problem with the term but I do feel the same way. When people say, so you are a blogger?, I always say “no. no I just wanted to have a web site to organize my Turkish recipes and keeps me structured to improve my writing”. People (at least the ones around me and at work) tend to approach the “blogger” thing as something temporary, you are just bored and sharing whatever is going on in your life because you have free time in your hand. For me, the blog is more about the food and the memories it invokes as well as cultural/culinary information outlet for Turkish cuisine.

    • I was waiting for someone to pick up on that, Ilke! Thanks for bringing it up. Apparently “blogger” still has a negative connotation, like you’re not serious.

      • To me, it’s a little like saying you’re a writer of historical romance fiction. Even famous, successful writers in that genre are looked upon as something “less than” other writers.

        Regardless of what you write, be it a blog or novels, if you are successful then it’s usually because you’ve worked hard to develop your craft and you persevere where others don’t.

  8. Great interview, Dianne. I’m teaching a two-session class at mediabistro..com in October and plan to give this article to all attendees.

  9. Congratulations! Love this interview; really enjoyed it.
    Rita

  10. I like her patience. I will be interested in her book – because of that. And because of her development and her choices as to what to post. They interest me. And because of her voice. I am “just a blogger” and happy with that!

    • Hah. Nothing wrong with it, from my standpoint. I think this whole testing thing might try her patience, though.

  11. What an eye opening post. I started my blog in 2009 and I’m starting to put things together for a cookbook I’ve wanted to do for years. After reading this post I feel like maybe I’m 3 years too early. I would agree, having a large following can only benefit when pubishing your first book of any kind. Great advice!

    • You can always plan for a cookbook. Blogs are good because they help you figure out what exactly you want to write about, and which kinds of recipes interest your readers. But yes, it’s probably too early, unless you have a big following.

  12. Quite insightful. Thanks for posting an excellent interview on this arduous cookbook writing process.

    • You are most welcome, Rebecca. It’s a good challenge, that’s for sure. I didn’t find cookbook writing arduous, though the stakes are higher for Perelman.

  13. Dianne, Deb- Thanks for a great interview. Longtime fan of Smitten Kitchen recipes! One of you questions/answers struck a chord with me.

    I’m interested in hearing more on your thoughts about what it means to be “just a blogger.” Dianne, I would be interested in hearing what you meant with your question and Deb, you seemed adverse to the idea that your identity was that of a “blogger” when in fact, aren’t we all more than “just a blogger” regardless of what our day jobs are? To play devil’s advocate, some of us could argue that whether we write cookbooks or work as janitors from 9-5, we are all “just bloggers.” What does it mean to you to be “more than a blogger?”

    There might not actually be answers to these questions but that part of your interview really made me think.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Maris — I’m actually so glad that you asked because when I read that answer back to myself, I thought it didn’t sound so great and could be taken the wrong way.

      When asked whether I’ll feel more credible after writing a book, versus being “just a blogger”, I resisted the implication that there’s any “just” to being a blogger. As big of a dork as this may make me, I love the web. I think the internet is an amazing place to publish, there’s a real democracy to what people read versus reject. I never felt that if didn’t lead me to bigger things that “just” blogging was any less of a career, nor am I writing a book in hopes to validate myself to people who don’t think much of food blogging. I’m writing it because I think (hope) that it has the potential to be a good book and because I hope people might find something to cook in there that becomes a favorite.

    • Good questions, Maris. I asked that question because I hear from a lot of bloggers who desperately want a cookbook. It’s like they haven’t quite arrived until they do a book. Since Perelman HAS arrived, it makes sense that she wouldn’t need the same level of validation. But on the other hand, it’s nice to hold a body of work in your hand. Can’t quite do that on a blog.

      • Deb, Thanks for the thoughtful response. I can completely understand why after many years as a writer, it would be a huge accomplishment to see your work come together in the form of something tangible. And what better thing to write about then food to help bring people together? Looking forward to the book!

        Dianne, interesting point about bloggers who want to write books. I do hope that the number of bloggers out there who desperately want cookbooks want them for the right reasons. It might be cynical of me to say this, but sometimes it seems as though there are two types of bloggers out there: those who want to write books because we are serious writers and want to share our words and recipes with our existing and new audiences in a tangible medium; and the bloggers who want to write a book so they can see their picture in the paper and their face on the Today Show. I know it’s tangential to what you and Deb were discussing in your interview, but your comment was thought-provoking.

        • I guess there are a few people who want a book so they can be famous, but usually they give up, because writing a book is such hard work.

  14. I’ve been a fan of Smitten Kitchen for quite a while and it is nice to be able to get to know Deb a little more. It is very refreshing to know that she has waited with this cookbook and not rushed into it – as so many seem keen to do these days. I’m also very pleased to hear about her firm line on testing the recipes. Recipe testing often seems to be somewhat overlooked in the rush to get a book to the presses and it just drives me crazy. Just yesterday I made a recipe from a book I had reviewed only to find that it doesn’t work as is and needs some fairly significant tweaking – very frustrating.

    • I am quite sure that most cookbook authors don’t have anyone test their recipes. It takes a lot of scheduling in advance and it costs quite a bit. And it explains why so many recipes don’t work very well. Hence my post about the Barefoot Contessa and her dogged recipe testing.

      • Yes Dianne, I remember that post and I suspect I might have made a similar comment at that time – it’s a bit of a hobby-horse of mine. :-/

  15. Smitten Kitchen was one of the first recipe blogs I found and I’ve always had success with her recipes. Great interview! Can’t wait for the cookbook:-)

  16. Great interview. Thanks Deb and Dianne! I am curious … you mentioned going back through your archives and redoing some of those older recipes. Do you think that’s wise for all bloggers? Or does it take away some from the natural record and progression of a blog that chronicles how we change, mature and grow?

    • Hi Sarah — For me, going through the archives would be less about changing the history or story that went along with the dish (I wouldn’t, even if the silliness of some of the posts now make me cringe) and more about getting the recipes up to speed with something I’d post today. I’d be making my own adaptations (something I used to just suggest vaguely) and making sure the recipes were in my voice, with the kinds of tips I like to include. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten many complaints about early recipes not working, but still, they don’t feel to me like SK recipes, largely because they weren’t.

    • Sorry to chime in. If you have taken recipes directly from others, yes, please redo them, Sarah. They are on your blog forever, and they leave you open to criticism and complaint.

      • Oh, that’s not what I meant, Dianne. I was just thinking in terms of quality changes.

        • Oh! Sorry, Sarah. Say more about what you mean by “quality changes.”

          • Well, for many of us who started in around 2004-06, things were really different back then for food blogs. Many of us didn’t post photos at first, and when we started to the images were blurry and amateurish. And for me, I didn’t have a grasp for the right way to write a recipe, so when I did write out my recipes I didn’t necessarily list ingredients in the order used. Also, the directions didn’t include the same level of instruction that I include now. My personal standards, like Deb’s, have changed substantially. I’d never post a recipe without a good photo now. I also test my recipes a lot more now. So, I was just wondering if longtime bloggers should leave those old recipes as is or update with new photos and better ingredients lists/directions … should that be a step we all take?

          • That’s a good question. At some level, it’s fun to go back and see how your blog evolved. On the other hand, if I’m looking for the best cinnamon bun recipe, and I go to your post with blurry and amateurish photos, I might click away. Many bloggers go back and upgrade their earlier posts.

  17. Great interview! I can’t wait for Deb’s book to come out…….

  18. I have been reading Smitten Kitchen from the beginning, years before I ventured into the adventure of writing my own blog. It is still one of my favorite reads. I enjoy the combination of Deb’s witty writing, great photography, and recipes that work.
    Producing a food blog is not an easy endeavor, and therefore there is not such a thing as “just a blogger”. Being a blogger makes me proud and accomplished, even though I am a novice compared to Deb.
    Congratulations on your book!
    Great interview, Diane:)

    • Thanks Lana. Yes, there is so much to being a blogger — understanding publishing, technical software workings, marketing, photography, social media — all in addition to having a good story to tell.

  19. Thanks for the Q&A. It’s interesting to hear abut the behind the scenes of her cookbook as well as how her writing has changed from the start of her blog until now. I think many of us whose cooking skills have grown in our blogs can relate to the transition from using other sources heavily for recipe ideas to experimenting more on your own and creating your own recipes.

    I think the side discussion on the comments about being ‘just a blogger’ are interesting. I think it’s fascinating because working in communications as my day job it’s interesting to see so many traditional writers and outlets who want to become bloggers and on the flip side, so many of us who started as bloggers who yearn for something a bit more traditional like a byline in a magazine or a book deal.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Hah! I guess the other side is always greener, eh? Speaking from the traditional print side, I think there are still print writers who resent the idea of writing for free and don’t agree with the benefits of blogging. Their loss, as far as I’m concerned.

      Re growth of a blog, it’s a topic I haven’t written about, so I was pleased when Perelman brought it up.

  20. It’s so good to see this post, Dianne. Deb’s blog was the very first food blog I ever read. I had just launched my blog which had nothing to do with food when my sister announced she had launched a blog and that she, “loves this blog called Smitten Kitchen.” It was that babka post that captured me and from there I looked forward to every post.

    It has taken me 4 years, but I finally found my niche a few months ago after two trips to Mexico for Food Blog Camp and countless conferences with a big change and new blog, but Smitten Kitchen is one site I have never failed to turn to as a source for inspiration and beauty.

    I’m looking forward to reading the book!

  21. Great interview. I love Smitten Kitchen. Thank you for pulling back the curtain! – Gary

    • You are most welcome, Gary. Glad you enjoyed it. There’s so much more behind the curtain, but the post was already too long.

  22. What a great post! I’ve been a fan of SK since I discovered food blogs existed and I’ve always viewed it as a benchmark blog. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments as well. I suppose I’m one of those bloggers who yearns to be able to hold my recipes in my hands, as a book… eventually. Deb is a great example of timing, patience, and really focusing on quality instead of rushing in. Thank you for this post, Dianne! And thank you, Deb, for sharing!

  23. Fascinating interview Dianne, I think the main thing that is evident on the Smitten Kitchen is Deb’s real love for good food. This for me is one of the most attractive features of a food blog; so many of them just regurgitate recipes, rather than convey any enthusiasm for the food. Rather basic really, but so often missing in much of the writing on the web. Cheers from the Antipodes, Karen Brown

    • Hi Karen, thanks for checking in. I agree. She is enthusiastic and inquisitive, even after all these years. That goes a long way with readers.

  24. Hi Dianne! Oh dear. You must have a good site because after all my link-hopping, I don’t even remember how I found this page :)
    This is a great article, and I love all the comments, too! I’m a college student who started cooking this summer, and who turned to blogging after reading a friend’s food blog. This sounds silly, but I had NO idea that so many other food blogs existed… that they had developed into an entire (large) corner of the Internet! Smitten Kitchen was the first ever food blog that I read, as an unknown website that kept popping up when I googled recipes.
    Since then, I’ve been learning so much about food (I just discovered Bon Appetit magazine! I know. It wasn’t just the online food world that I was oblivious to). After wondering how to break into the food blog community, I realized, stupidly, that I had always been to afraid to comment on others’ blogs! I wanted everyone to somehow, magically, find me and say hello first – just like the sandbox in kindergarten :)
    Anyways, I’m so glad to have found this. Blogging is so much more fun now that I’ve finally found community!!
    PS- Any tips on maintaining a food blog without a pro camera? I’m trying my best with my Canon point-and-shoot, but oh, it’s just not the same :(
    PPS – I’m not sure how often bloggers recheck articles… This is kind of like reaching out to a rockstar – hi Deb? I would be so honored if you would wave back – because you ARE a rockstar to me! :)

    • Oh no… I apologize for the long comment. And copious use of emoticons. A writing habit that I’ll have to polish, I guess

      • I’ve just read through most of your website, and you’ve really opened my eyes! I’ll come clean. I’ve definitely been guilty of having the “make posts, wait for visitors, harvest comments” sentiment recently, and it took away the main reason that I started blogging – to have fun! I should probably sleep now, and should (probably) never repeat another comment-on-my-comment-to-my-comment, but I’m an enthusiastic person, and I wanted to say, again, thank you so much.

      • Here’s the thing about commenting: No apologies are necessary. Really! It’s just fine. Hope you will comment more in future posts.

        • I definitely will! Those pages are great resources… I’ll be spending some time looking at those links. And after skimming, I also never thought about using a hair dryer to style food. I’ll have to go back and read those articles more in depth. Thanks!

    • Michelle, welcome to the world of food blogging.

      Rock stars always love to hear from their fans, so I’m sure Deb will enjoy your post. Thank you for doing so.

      Re photography on food blogs, I wrote about 17 pages on that subject in Will Write for Food. You could also see this post on photography, and this one on food styling.

  25. Dianne! Thank you so much for this interview and post. Wise advice from Deb Perelman. Especially took the last paragraph to heart. I know I have several cookbooks in me (as you know), but I’ve been struggling with timing, focus, voice. it WILL come at the right time.

    Thank you Deb for your wisdom, insight and sharing! Best wishes for great success with your book.

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