As the food director at Real Simple magazine, responsible for all recipes, Sarah Copeland has lots of opinions — and experience — about writing a high-quality recipe good enough for a national magazine.
A former freelancer and veteran of several magazines, Sarah’s recipes and articles have appeared in Saveur, Food & Wine, Health, Fitness, Better Homes & Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Oprah Magazine and The Food Network magazine.
Sarah is also the author of The Newlywed Cookbook: Fresh Ideas and Modern Recipes for Cooking With and For Each Other and the James Beard-nominated Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite.
Here’s how she got to where she is today, with tips on writing a high-quality recipe:
Q. How long have you been developing recipes?
A. My first opportunity was as an intern at Redbook magazine in 2001. I was starting culinary school. I was really jazzed about creating recipes out of thin air.
Q. What do you mean by “out of thin air?”
A. Well, that’s what I thought I was doing, until I got a little perspective. I would eat something in a restaurant, twist it and make it mine. Then the longer I spent working with cookbook authors and working at magazines and restaurants, I realized that most things have been done before, but we can all bring our own unique spin to them.
That said, there are moments when we may introduce something into the culture that isn’t widely known about or widely used, and when that happens, we feel a little more ownership over the idea.
Q. Can you give an example of that kind of recipe?
A. When I wrote my first cookbook, I stayed in a friend’s house in upstate New York, who was a master gardener. One morning I picked blackberries, and pulled together pancakes from my friend’s pantry. I used yogurt instead of buttermilk, and oats with a little flour, because that’s all the flour he had. Oatmeal Yogurt Pancakes with blackberry Crush became one of my most picked-up recipes, all over Pinterest and in food blogs. Bloggers were using that exact title and it was very clear that it had come from my book.
To pull back, the recipes I made up from my own experience are the most special, the most delicious, and I’m the most proud of those.
Q. Who are your teachers and what have you learned?
A. I learned technique from the restaurant chefs and great food editors I’ve been lucky to work with. I know how to distill a recipe in a way that makes the recipe unique. I spent years learning how to master the classics in cooking school, restaurants and test kitchens, and now have the confidence to veer from that.
In culinary school, my friends and I would save up our money to eat out. I was experiencing lots of new tastes. When we made truffles in class, I wanted to infuse my cream with rosemary. But the instructor said I had to make classic truffles first, and then I could go home and make rosemary truffles on my own time.
Q. So should food bloggers go to culinary school?
A. No, but they can go to cooking classes, and they can learn from books, television and friends who are classic cooks.
Q. Do you think bloggers can write new, classic or foolproof recipes?
A. I realize that few bloggers have the resources to make béchamel six times before they hit publish. But if they take the time to understand the classic way, it’s easier to do something new.
What’s hard about writing foolproof and classic recipes is it’s very tempting to just Google something with 30 stars and adapt it. But the best reference for doing your homework is still books, because anyone can publish a recipe online.
I don’t think anyone should publish a recipe they’ve only made once. I know that’s the reality of blogging, but it’s especially dangerous with baking. When I worked at the Food Network, the first time we made it it was amazing, but the second time could be a flop. Then I had to figure out what went wrong, and then I made it a third time.
If I want to create a cream puff I know is going to work, I’m not going to the Internet. I’m going to ask myself who are the best five bakers I know, and look at my cookbooks or go to the library. I want to learn from them and then credit them. I’m going to go to Sherry Yard and see how she did it, because she’s so rooted in the skill. She’s done it over and over again.
Q. What are the five books you reference all the time?
A. I’ll break it up by category:
- Crowd pleasing: Mad Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn
- Anything French, pastry or baking: Dorie Greenspan’s books
- Whole grain baking: King Arthur Whole Grain Baking
- Troubleshooting: BakeWise and CookWise by Shirley Corriher
- Simplicity and pure deliciousness: Nigel Slater’s cookbooks
Q. What is the best recipe writing process?
A. Writing a good recipe is like writing a report for college. First do your research; second you make sense of your research by organizing it a little and getting rid of something that’s not exciting or interesting, or that’s not going to build on what other people have done; third, get cooking; and fourth, revise.
Q. What about testing?
A. All my recipes have been cross-tested by someone else before publishing. Depending on the project and budget, they’re tested by a professional recipe developer, an intern, a volunteer, dear friends who represent my target audience, or my mom or sister or cousin.
Those extra set of eyes and a once-through in a kitchen other than your own reveal so much. Testers always improve upon the experience for the reader. And people love being in proximity to good food, so I find it’s always easy to find someone eager to give a recipe a run-through.
Bonus: Sarah collected her five favorite five recipes (If you use these you have to credit her!) to share with you:
- Roasted Kale, Broccolini and Chickpea Salad with Ricotta
- Wild Mushroom Goulash
- Thousand-Layer Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Triple Decker Peanut Butter and Pretzel Fudge
- Rhubarb Upside Down Cake
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