Secrets of Writing Recipes for Big Food Magazines

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Kristine Kidd, former food editor at Bon Appetit magazine, ran the test kitchen for 20 years.

Guest Post by Kristine Kidd

When Kristine Kidd was food editor of Bon Appetit magazine, her staff tested recipes from writers and recipe developers, and she decided which ones would run.

A 20-year veteran of the magazine, Kidd is now self-employed and the author of several cookbooks, most recently Weeknight Gluten Free. Here are 14 insider tips. — DJ

At Bon Appetit, we tested hundreds of recipes every month. The ones we published were the ones that worked best in the test kitchen.

We rarely gave a new writer another chance if the recipes did not test well or if we had too much trouble with them. Editorial schedules are jammed and there are many talented recipe developers who would love to be published in the magazine.

If you want your recipes published in a big magazine with a test kitchen, here are my tips for success:

1. Write the recipe immediately after testing so that you are certain to remember all the fine points. As you write the procedure there are bound to be nuances you want to include that you won’t recall after testing several other recipes.

2. Think about a specific friend who represents the people who will use your recipe, perhaps someone who enjoys cooking but isn’t a pro. Provide all the information that person will need to have success with the recipe.

3. Make it easy for the test kitchen and readers. Shop for the ingredients by using recognizable names and correct can or package sizes. For obscure ingredients, offer information about the ingredient, how to find it, and substitutes whenever possible. Online resources are fine. We frequently ordered ingredients from the Internet at Bon Appetit.

4. Use a scale and standard measuring tools when cooking, and list amounts accurately.

5. Describe exactly how you cut the ingredients, both size and shape.

6. List the ingredients in the order they are called for in the directions. This is true even if doing so puts the most important ingredient near the bottom. It is frustrating to have to search the ingredient list for each item.

7. Specify both time and visual clues for each step because equipment and ingredients are rarely consistent. Include the size and weight of pans and the temperature settings you used. Variation in equipment and ingredients will influence the time it takes to cook, so the visual clue gives a roadmap. Without it, some readers will take your directions literally, such as pulling raw eggs off the heat after 2 minutes if your recipe says they will be done after 2 minutes.

The word “about” is invaluable when giving times.Use a timer when testing, and record the times accurately.

8. Divide the recipe into components if that makes it easier to follow or understand. It can be daunting to see a long list of ingredients and a big block of text describing the steps. Smaller elements are friendlier and less intimidating.

9. Use accepted recipe-writing conventions. Dianne offers lots of information on her blog and in her book, Will Write for Food. Study them!

10. Write close to the publication’s style to make it easier for the recipe testers and editors. But don’t worry about copying the style exactly. Most publications have editors who will refine the final wording.

11. Include notes to the test kitchen. Explain anything extra that will make it easier for them to test or present your recipe. Offer serving suggestions.

12. Make notes on your recipe as you cook, and save those notes. A publication might have questions months later.

13. Many publications will not show you the edited recipes before publication. This is another incentive to write your recipes accurately.

Above all, keep in mind that your goal is to make it easy for testers and readers to have a great experience, and offer everything they will need to know.

Got a question for Kristine Kidd? She will answer below. — DJ

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  1. Sina says

    This is so helpful and informative! So many points are obvious but definitely get overlooked easily. I’m bookmarking this.

    Dianne, how do you even get a chance to pitch recipe ideas to food magazines?

  2. says

    Dianne, you continue to be a great resource for food writers and recipe developers like me. I love reading stories like this for two reasons: 1) the information I might glean from them, and 2) the confirmation that I’m doing things correctly.

    As a writer who often develops recipes for publications that don’t have testers, I pay extraordinarily close attention to the details. It can be a nerve-wracking experience to know that it’s up to me to ensure an accurate recipe that will equal success in the kitchens of the readers. But recipe development is such a fun and creative–and delicious–process, and it’s a joy and privilege to be able to do it.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Daytona. When I first started writing recipes for Sunset magazine, I was so clueless I didn’t even realize people were actually making my recipes. 95 percent of the time there were no phone calls, but I did get one when a tester reported that something took 40 minutes and I had said 20.

      Do you have any questions for Kristine about the process?

  3. says

    What an excellent list–obviously Kristine knows this topic very well. Thank you, Diane, for another valuable post–helpful for writing recipes in general.
    I have a question, Kristine, regarding what you mean when you say to include “the weight of pans.” Other than calling for a “heavy-bottomed sauce pan” I’m not sure what you mean.

  4. says

    Dianne and Kristine, this is so helpful! I currently do double duty on this- I work part time as a recipe tester, and I develop and “shop” my own recipes, usually from my blog. Working as a recipe tester and trying to navigate sometimes clumsily written recipes has honed my own game considerably. It’s easy to understand what YOU mean, when you reread what you’ve written down, but it helps to imagine yourself as someone else who is trying to follow along with a new recipe. I have a few friends I think of when I write my recipes; some are talented in the kitchen, some are earnest but need a little help, and some are hopeless but want to learn. If I feel each friend could get through one of my recipes without feeling lost, then I feel I wrote the recipe well!
    A question for Kristine- I saw your answer to the first question up above, but do recipes need to follow a story pitch? Or can you just send an unsolicited recipe all by itself into a magazine and hope to get tested and published? Does Bon Apetit, for example, keep a number of recipes on file, to go with some stories or themes? And (last question!) are these developers typically paid when the recipe is accepted or published?

    • says

      When I was at Bon Appetit, I looked for story ideas, with tempting recipe titles to support the article. I did not keep a file of single recipes. However, if I liked an author’s recipe ideas, I’d start a file on that person, and contact them when I had a need for a story that was a good fit for their recipe style. We paid once the recipes had been successfully tested.

  5. Anna says

    As someone who works for a big magazine I would also add that you should find out about the magazines audience before you write the recipe. Understanding who they are will dictate the kind of recipe you produce. I can’t tell you how many recipes we receive that are inappropriate for our readers. Sometimes it ends up being more work for us to edit/rework freelancers recipes than it is to just make our own…which gives us little little incentive to outsource.

  6. MR says

    Thanks for this, Dianne.

    Since we’re talking about writing recipes for big magazines, can we briefly talk pricing? While I’ve done quite a bit of recipe development for food companies (for good rates, I might add), I’ve only done a bit of development for magazines. Recently, an editor at a major women’s magazine asked me to develop a monthly recipe for their website only, with a short headnote and original photo. I quoted them $400 and she said the most they could pay was $100 total for the recipe, headnote and photo. I said, “I’m sorry, I cannot do it for that.” I did offer to accept $100 for syndicating my blog recipes (didn’t hear back about that). I’m an author, too, always trying to grow my platform, so I wonder if I played too hard or not. That is the lowest offer I’ve ever received for a recipe, though. A bit insulting.

    What do you all think?

  7. says

    As a cookbook author, I found this article extremely valuable. Testing and re-testing and re-testing a recipe still doesn’t guarantee it will work for readers. I also have friends test them and people who don’t like to cook, just to be able to sleep at night. I am printing out your article and taping it to my workspace. Thank you for this!

  8. Eric Roberg says

    Excellent, invaluable tips, from both of you. Thanks! There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to follow a poorly written recipe. My friends think I am kind of nutty for saving all my recipes to Microsoft Word, printing them out, using an Oxo digital scale, adding notes to the printout as I cook, then typing them all in to the digital file once I’m finished. But, my goal is a food blog, and I want to be sure the recipe is easy to follow and yields perfect results. Now I don’t feel quite so crazy. lol -eric

    • says

      Eric, I often follow the same procedure as you. Cooking directly from a recipe I print out and taking notes on it as I test is an excellent way to be certain everything is correct.

      • Eric Roberg says

        That’s reaffirming, Kristine. Thanks. I’m a pharmacist, so I’m trained in the scientific method. I have to weigh, measure, test, and write it all down. This allows me to correct the mistakes until I perfect the recipe to fit my own taste buds. Then, I can replicate this success every time and not have it be hit or miss.

        I started using this method well before any thoughts of a food blog. I was trying to perfect a recipe for Filipino lumpia, which I grew up eating while living next door to Filipino neighbors. Every single time I would make it, my (very picky) little brother would say nothing. lol I knew this was his sign that it wasn’t right. I kept trying and kept trying, using my method, until one fine day he took his first bite and said, “Now this tastes like Mrs. Felix’s lumpia! That stuff you made all those times before was just way too strong.” Aha! It works! Happy, happy, joy, joy! :)

  9. says

    Thanks for this informative piece, Dianne. I myself, try my best to be very clear in communicating every detail of my recipe to readers. I have had readers ask “when you boil water, how long will it take before the water boils?” From then on, I have always kept that reader in mind when I write a recipe. The new cooks will need hand-holding and of course, the experts will know what to do. But overall, everyone needs a well-written recipe for a dish to be successful. I look forward to your weekly articles and this one will go straight to the “must know this” file.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome Betty, but all the credit goes to Kristine. You are absolutely right, and it takes a fine balance to know what to include for new cooks but how to keep the recipe interesting to people who cook regularly and don’t want to feel that you’ve “dumbed it down.”

  10. says

    I love this post. This is very helpful in regarding to my recipe post. I do much of what she recommends, especially writing out the recipe right after testing it. Nevertheless there are some things she mentioned that I will be incorporating into each of my future recipe post. Thanks so much for this. It is very helpful. :-)

    • diannejacob says

      Sure Susan. It’s great to have a pro like Kristine on hand to tell us how the system operates at big magazines.

  11. Christine Venzon says

    This is possibly the most useful article on recipe writing I’ve ever read. Thanks.

    I have a question I’ve never seen addressed regarding ownership of recipes entered in a contest. Most rules clearly state that all entries become property of the sponsors. I find this unfair and greedy. As I understand it, recipes are rather slippery when it comes t copyright, which applies mostly to the text in the directions. However, it still bothers me enough that I have refused to enter some contests because I don’t want to give away my rights as recipe developer. Am I being overly conscientious? Is this rule regularly enforced?

    • diannejacob says

      My understanding is that this is a typical rule for contests. So if you want to enter them, you’ll have to find the ones that don’t want to own your recipe. You are not being overly conscientious. You must may not be able to enter contests if you want to keep your recipe.

  12. says

    Hi! I’m a little late to the conversation. I’m starting to get involved in freelancing in the prep kitchen of a daytime TV show and am paid a daily rate that I feel is pretty good (NYC). I’ve been approached by another media corporation (TV/magazines/books/product development) in NYC as well to freelance in recipe testing etc and was wondering what an appropriate daily rate would be. I’m thinking ballpark 300-350/day.

  13. says

    this is very helpful. I am a culinary school graduate and an active food blogger and have been trying to break into this field and the suggestions from the article as well as the previous comments are very helpful. Thank you

    • diannejacob says

      Being a culinary school graduate will serve you well as a recipe developer, Mireille, as long as you keep the home cook in mind. Best of luck to you!


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