A guest post by Sara Bir
I always tell people the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) awards are to the James Beard Awards what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars. They’re a big deal, a feather in the caps of publishers and authors who produce an award-winning cookbook.
I was a volunteer cookbook judge for the awards. The category I judged had nearly 30 entries. That’s 30 cookbooks to read cover to cover and scrutinize deeply.
Having written two cookbooks myself, I know how much effort goes into producing one. I took pains to consider each candidate for its functionality rather than whether I just “liked it.” After preliminary judging, the top three cookbooks moved on to the second tier, and judges made three recipes from each book.
It was a giant amount of work that included the grocery shopping for testing, the note-taking, and the dishwashing. But I came out of it invigorated about the enduring power of cookbooks. I spent hours considering what makes a compelling recipe stand out from a mediocre one. And more times than I’d like, I was reminded of what made one just plain bad.
I decided to look at cookbook judging as a bonus course in Advanced Recipe Writing, and I’ve put these takeaways into action in my own work as a recipe developer and cooking teacher.
What makes an award-winning cookbook? Here are 5 tips:
1. Decide whom your book is for and know why it needs to exist.
Readers come to recipes for all kinds of reasons. Still, a cookbook needs to be functional as both instruction and storytelling. Good recipe writers pull off both in a way that speaks to their audience.
Before you embark upon writing and developing recipes, ponder these questions:
- What’s the skill level of my audience?
- Is a dish they have to make different from what they love to make? Approach either with the same level of commitment.
- What need does your recipe fill for readers? It is a fascinating story, or just a quick meal on the table?
I loved some of the cookbooks despite not being the target reader. The authors did a good job pulling me in. They invited me to be part of their audience. So your audience isn’t just who follows you now, but whom you could convert. The writers who converted me had something fascinating to say about nearly every recipe, even seemingly prosaic ones.
2. It’s not about you.
The age of influencers has changed the tone of many cookbooks. A friend of mine cannily summed up the current tone as “Wanna be great? Be like me!” I saw lots of this attitude, especially in headnotes.
A truly welcoming, award-winning cookbook urges “To be great, be like you.” Its recipes come from a standpoint of hospitality. When you write a recipe, the reader is your guest. You are the guide for helping readers achieve confidence and developing their own kitchen persona.
It’s fine to be personal when it makes sense, and it’s important to come off as an authority so you can build trust. But in the end, you need to acknowledge your readers and what they need.
3. Voice matters more than anything.
Luscious photos will draw readers in, but it’s your voice that keeps them coming back. Once a reader selects your cookbook, it’s your voice that makes the Tahini Swirl Brownies memorable, not the 1/2 teaspoon of Maldon sea salt scattered prettily over their crackly tops.
You want readers to feel you are there with them in the kitchen, a reassuring companion. This does not mean you need to be a brilliant writer. You simply need to be you.
And voice is not for headnotes alone. As you walk your reader through the procedure, use clear language, but sound like yourself. You can use functional language and still be sly or idiosyncratic. Have fun. A strong, appealing voice builds trust as much as excellent recipe performance. Be hang-worthy.
4. You can’t write great recipes alone.
Ideally, a vigilant editor and smart recipe testers are part of your team. Otherwise, it’s impossible to catch every flub on your own.
The advantage of cookbook recipes is the higher level of attention editors devote to the language and formatting. A good editor ropes you in when you are wordy, helps shape ideas, and nudges you to get your point across while keeping your voice.
Sadly, I gave some promising books lower marks because the editing just was not there. Signs of that were
- wordy, unclear methods
- ingredients listed in incorrect order
- neglecting to direct readers when to season with salt
- or stating what kind of salt, and how much (more on that one later!).
5. Tiny oversights make a big difference.
Surprisingly few recipes bothered to mention how to store a finished recipe. Refrigerate it? For how long? Can you freeze leftovers? Are the yields and servings realistic? Trust me, readers want and need to know this.
Make sure all the sub-recipes make sense collectively. Don’t write an Eggs Benedict recipe to serve two that has a pint yield for hollandaise, a sauce that doesn’t keep.
I also found garnishes in photos that were not mentioned in the ingredients listing. This could be the fault of the food stylist, but it drives me nuts. I promise it drives your readers nuts, too.
Oh, and salt! If you’re not calling for exact measurements of salt (and you should be), remind readers to season with salt at every appropriate step. And remind them to taste as they go. This is one thing many home cooks need reminding of, because it can make the difference between a slam-dunk and a disappointing, bland result.
Should you try cookbook judging?
When I turned in my final ballot, I felt both relieved and satisfied. I was finally free to cook and read whatever I wanted, but I also had come to appreciate the scrutinous mindset of that makes an award-winning cookbook and recipe tick.
I heartily recommend saying “yes” if you’re invited to judge scholarships or awards. Doing so supports your community as well as standout emerging writers, because it allows you to judge works based on merit, not the renown of the author. If you ever read lists of winners and wonder “What makes an award winning cookbook?,” seeing how the sausage is made is enlightening.
Yes, it’s a huge time commitment to determine what makes an award-winning cookbook, but it pays off in professional insights. I came away from this epic undertaking feeling closer to my culinary colleagues and having a better pulse on what speaks to people. It made me a better writer, teacher, chef, and reader. And I have a bunch of shiny new cookbooks!
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Sara Bir is a chef and a writer. Her second cookbook, The Fruit Forager’s Companion, won a 2019 IACP award. She’s a regular contributor to Simply Recipes and writes for many websites and publications. Sara lives in southeast Ohio, where she goes plantspotting in the woods and skates with the Appalachian Hell Betties roller derby team.
(Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash)