A guest post by Emma Laperruque
In the year and a half since I joined the Food52 staff as a writer and recipe developer, I’ve developed over 200 recipes — including some high-performing recipes. Many are for my column, Big Little Recipes, which is all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. The rest are ad hoc for the site. While this number is a small drop in our bucket of almost 50,000 recipes, every one taught me something about how to write a high-performing recipe in the digital age.
Before working at Food52, I worked a lot of odd jobs, often in the same day, including line cook, baker, magazine columnist, newspaper restaurant critic, and cooking instructor. It was exciting and exhausting and just the sort of mishmash-education that readied me to join an editorial staff.
Here are five lessons I keep coming back to for creating high-performing recipes:
1. Every recipe needs a reason.
When I started a food blog in college, my ideation process went something like: Do I want to eat this? Yes. Perfect! At Food52, I need something more substantial. Sometimes my idea is SEO-related. Other times, it’s about our content (say, are we missing a cornstarch-based ice cream recipe?). Other times, it’s more personal.
A couple examples: We published this meatloaf recipe because meatloaf recipes are in-demand, easy recipes are even more in-demand, and meatloaf ingredient lists are usually long, which makes this the perfect candidate for a Big Little Recipe. We published this eggplant spread recipe for totally different reasons. Search traffic? Basically none. But the recipe goes back generations in my family—and I wrote it for our weekly column, My Family Recipe.
2. You are not your audience.
Back to that meatloaf recipe for a minute. Between you and me, I’m not a meatloaf person. But my editor and I felt like an easy meatloaf recipe was a good fit for my weekly cooking column, and we anticipated that it would be a high-performing recipe as well.
While food writing is increasingly personal, it doesn’t always have to be (and, honestly, it shouldn’t be). Food52’s readers might find my life interesting in bits and pieces, but they aren’t coming to Food52 for me. They’re coming to Food52 for recipes. It’s my job to figure out what they’re hoping for—and have it ready as soon as they arrive.
3. Basics are your friend.
Recipe developers always want to put their own spin on something and I’m no different. I add miso to ranch dressing for its salty-umami flavor. I skip butter in chocolate chip cookies (gasp!) because tahini works just as well.
But not everything needs a creative twist. When someone Googles ranch dressing or chocolate chip cookies, they’re usually looking for just that. I used to find this—what’s a nice way to put it?—boring. But now I look at it as a challenge: How can I develop the best version of a classic? How can I create the most flavor with the fewest steps? How can I write a recipe that most home cooks can successfully execute? When I look at basics from this perspective, they become exciting in their own right.
4. Chicken, pasta, eggs, and cookies (almost) always do well.
I’d like to think the longer I work for Food52, the better I get at working for Food52. The same is true if you’re running your own blog or freelancing for a repeat client. The more familiar you are with what your editors and audience want, the smarter the content you’ll produce.
Take these consistently high-performing recipes for us: chicken, pasta, eggs, and cookies. It’s a running joke at our weekly traffic meetings. Which is why I know to pitch ideas like a carbonara frittata (eggs and pasta!) or cheater’s chicken schnitzel (a fuss-free take on a classic). I can take a topic that I know resonates with our readers and put my own spin on it.
5. If you hit a wall mid-development, stop developing.
On a good day, the next step in a recipe’s development is clear: needs more salt, needs more time in the oven, needs something acidic — you get the drill.
But sometimes, I have no idea what to do. Say, the cream sauce was too watery in this green bean casserole. Or the olive oil crust tasted burnt in these lemon bars. Or the crust kept falling off this latke chicken.
Whatever the problem, the solution always turns out to be the same: Stop. Put aside the project for however long the deadline allows (be it a couple days or weeks), and don’t think about it. By the time I come back to the recipe, and do another round of research, and look at it with fresh eyes, the path forward basically paves itself.
Of course, if I’ve learned anything from recipe developing for a website, it’s that digital media is always changing. What will the next 200 recipes teach me? I can’t wait to find out.
* * *
Emma Laperruque is a staff writer and recipe developer at Food52. Her weekly cooking column, Big Little Recipes, just won Best Food-Focused Column of 2019 at IACP. Before joining the Food52 team, she worked in professional kitchens as a line cook and baker, freelance wrote for local publications in North Carolina, and taught cooking classes. She now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Find her on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.
(Top photo is by Ty Mecham for Food52.)