Q&A: Amanda Hesser on How to Adapt and Write Recipes

by diannejacob on March 7, 2011

Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52 (Photo by Sarah Shatz)

The subject of writing and adapting recipes generates lots of heated comments on this blog. We debate whether anyone can own a recipe, and whether changing someone else’s recipe makes it yours.

To get another perspective on the creative process of recipe writing, I interviewed Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52, the crowd-sourcing recipe website; and author of award winning cookbooks, most recently The Essential New York Times Cookbook.

Food52 accepts recipes for testing, voting and eventual publication, so the site has contest rules for acceptable recipe adapting. Intrigued by the pains Hesser took to show an example of successful recipe changes, I thought Hesser might have opinions on the matter.

Q. This blog has had heated discussions about what constitutes recipe writing and adapting. What is your definition of an adapted recipe?

A. There are two definitions.

At the New York Times, any recipe that comes from another source will always say “adapted from” because it goes through the copy-editing department, and there are little tiny changes that have to do with the stylebook. It means it’s not a word-for-word replica.

The other definition is when it’s someone’s own recipe has been inspired by another’s, for instance, if someone has cooked Alice Water’s Braised Leeks enough times that they’ve personalized it. A lot of people read recipes for inspiration, looking for a flavor combination to play around with. Then they go in the kitchen and do their own thing. But it’s important that they credit the source from which they adapted their recipe.

Q. What about the idea that if you change three ingredients, it’s now your recipe?

A. You can do that, but is that really what you want to call a creative endeavor? Is that what you want to put your name on, as a creative author?

Over the long term, bloggers or anyone who does that kind of thing is not going to gain a lasting following. Personal voice, experience, and conviction are what come through. If you’re just tweaking to legally call something your own, that lack of genuineness will surface.

Q. Is the proliferation of food bloggers and food writers a good thing?

A. If more people are out there writing recipes, it’s better for the food world and our food culture. It means they are enthusiastic about cooking, eating, and expressing themselves. I don’t see what the great harm is. But this idea of just tweaking recipes is how our cooking culture has evolved.

Q. And what about the argument that there are no original recipes, that no one owns them?

A. There’s nothing new in the food world. It’s all about personal perspective. It comes down to the individual. If people are not putting their own voice and experience into the recipe, they’re missing out on the fun.

There’s original voice. There aren’t original recipes. It’s the way in which someone explains a technique, the way they construct and write their recipes — that is original. That is what people own and what distinguishes one recipe from another.

Q. What are examples of original voice?

A. On Food52, one of the great benefits of submissions from home cooks is that the recipes are really fun to read. Their metaphors are so fresh, exciting, lively and personal. For instance, there’s a Food52 member who contributed a tomato soup recipe, and in one step she said, “Stir the shit out of it.” We knew exactly what she meant. You could say, “Stir vigorously,” but it’s not as vivid.

I spoke with a cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter who said she wouldn’t buy a book from a writer who uses standard recipe language. She wants voice. Not “Add the flour to the mixer,” but “Toss in the flour.” It’s natural. It feels like this person is talking to you rather than a recipe robot.

The Momofuku cookbook was a great cookbook for this reason. It’s written the way David Chang talks. There’s a lot of profanity but the recipes have real voice. That was part of the genius.

Nigella (Lawson) is another great example. She has a colorful vocabulary, and she gives you a sense there’s a human being behind the recipe. Dorie Greenspan writes in a formal style, but her sense of experience is vibrant and clear. You find it comforting to make her recipes. You feel like Dorie has been in your shoes and she’s looking out for you.

Q. How do you know if you’ve received an “original” recipe on Food52?

A. When we built Food 52 we did a few key things to set the tone for the kinds of recipes and cooks we would attract, and the conversation that would form around those recipes. For example, you cannot cut and paste a recipe from Epicurious into our database. Our recipe uploading form is very structured, so only the most determined cooks will add recipes.

We say, “Tell us about the history, what inspires you, where did this come from?” We want to encourage the conversation around a recipe’s history. Recipes have been handed down forever and over time they change in small but significant ways.

And people pick up tips as they go. Someone might say, “Thanks to Ina (Garten), I found out that you get this really intensely flavored lemon cake when I zest the lemon, make a syrup and use the juice in the batter.” Why not thank Ina for these tips when you write a recipe inspired by her?

Or our community members might say, “This started out as a recipe from Southern Living.” So we look up the recipe. We don’t want to be awarding someone a prize for a recipe that’s either plagiarized or too close to the original.

Q. How do you select contest winners?

A. We read every recipe entry and create a spreadsheet with our favorites. Then we test 10 to 15 percent of them. Every recipe tester is assigned to source check. We Google the title and main ingredients to figure out whether the recipe came from another source. Often the person who wrote it will state the source of inspiration, so we go to the cookbooks or online to check out the recipe.

We make our best effort. You could go mad trying to find out the origin of every recipe. If we find something that’s too close we don’t test it.

Q. Have you discovered many suspect recipes?

A. There was a case where a person grew up eating a cake, posted the recipe on the site, and never realized her mother got it from Gourmet. We sent her a note and asked her to credit Gourmet. This has happened maybe twice.

Q. What about copyright law? Do you believe that parts of a recipe are copyrightable, such as the headnote or method? Or is that irrelevant?

A. It’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about.

Q. You give an example of an acceptable adapted recipe with Anise Cupcakes with Chocolate Icing. Is this how people should approach developing a recipe?

A. It’s about sensibility and conviction, rather than just tweaking measurements: you found the original too sweet, you want a caramel note, and you think anise is an underappreciated flavor. That’s when it becomes your own. If you can’t articulate why you made those changes and what inspired you, then that’s laziness and dishonesty. It doesn’t seem like an interesting way to get engaged in the food world.

People should take a step back and think about how they’re living their lives. There’s this great chai supplier in Connecticut. The first time I ordered the chai by phone, she told me she would send me an invoice. I said, “You mean, you’re going to send me the chai before I pay?” She replied, “Yes, because if you don’t pay, it’s really your problem, isn’t it?”

I thought, “Yeah, I have a problem with my life if I take the chai for free. I have to live my life as a person who steals. Is that an interesting way to lead your life?”

The Internet is a democracy and that’s the beauty of it. Over time, people will get bored adapting recipes, or readers will eventually see through those who adapt recipes in an uninspired fashion.

A recipe becomes your own when you write the recipe as you would cook it, and it reflects your voice and experience. It’s not a game about moving this part or that, or tweaking a few ingredients. It’s about telling a story through ingredients and instructions.

* * *

You might also like:

Adjusting a Recipe Doesn’t Make it Yours

Should Bloggers be Praised for Recipes They Didn’t Write?

7 Most Common Recipe Writing Errors

Hesser Compares Adapting Recipes to Stealing


CopyKat Recipes March 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Isn’t the major premise of Food52 the submissions readers bring. I don’t see why this would bring on any hate mail, but I think it is a little ironic when the focus is on copyright, and if we were talking solely about the website, it may not be all completely original content by the person interviewed.

diannejacob March 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Yes, it is all community generated recipes. I said on Facebook this post would bring on hate mail — I hope I’m wrong, but people get very defensive about adapting their recipes. In the interview she says she does her best to find out if recipes are too similar to something already published.

CopyKat Recipes March 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Adapting recipes is always going to be a difficult issue. I think about the only thing we all can agree upon is copying a recipe word for word is a no no. Beyond that, good luck, there are lots of opinions after that.

Dina Avila March 7, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Amanda’s responses are perfectly clear and elegant. I always air on the side of caution when posting a recipe on my blog. Unless I seriously change the heck out if, I always, always credit the source as “adapted by”. It’s amazing to me that folks think it’s just fine to take others work. As a photographer, I’m particularly sensitive to this issue. Thank you Diane for bringing Amanda’s perspective on this issue. I think you’ve articulated it very clearly in your writings, but it’s always nice to read another. Especially Amanda Hesser 🙂

diannejacob March 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Yes, she does have a clear way of communicating her views! Nice to have someone besides me discussing this subject.

I think she is talking about the kind of recipes you don’t “seriously change the heck out of,” even if you say they are adapted. But that’s definitely better than not doing so.

Sara Bir March 7, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Savvy readers pick up on the difference between “adapted from”, “inspired by”, and [uncredited rip-off]. So, despite the questionable ethics of not giving a holla to original sources, I think the proof of the pudding is in the quality of the writing. Something will be flat and hollow in a post if a blogger does not give voice to the natural progression of a recipe. Isn’t that what cooks love most about recipes–their living, breathing, evolving nature?
But that still does not mitigate the professional and emotional harm bloggers can inflict when they don’t give proper credit. I feel Hesser’s points summed things up very well, but as long as recipes and the Internet exist, this will always be a problem.

diannejacob March 7, 2011 at 10:27 pm

I don’t know. I did a post a while ago about a blogger who picked up a recipe from a cookbook. She changed 3 ingredients and wrote her own method, but it was very clearly not her recipe. So she added her own writing but still, it wasn’t hers.

Don’t forget cookbooks and freelance writing. The problem existed long before bloggers, but now it’s magnified.

Jenn March 8, 2011 at 1:11 am

I love what Amanda says about an original voice being the deterministic factor that makes a recipe one’s own. It really inspires me to work on improving my writing!

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:34 am

Perhaps I need to write more about voice, then, Jenn.

Jenn March 8, 2011 at 9:12 am

I would love that, Dianne.

Sarah March 8, 2011 at 1:39 am

Interesting article. Traditional recipes tend to be very similar if not exactly the same and this will be reflected in the ingredient list. The difference, as you mentioned, must come from the writer’s own descriptions.
I am also inspired by recipes translated from other languages or out of print books, both hard to track down, but which also needs to be acknowledged..

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:36 am

You are right that with traditional recipes, you can’t do much about the ingredients list, but the rest is open to interpretation. You sound like someone who love to do research!

GIlda Claudine March 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm

This point is really important to me, especially since many of the Dos Gildas recipes (and we are a brand new blog) are family recipes. Also, we have begun our project by writing about really basic dishes, so basic (e.g. black beans, sopa de arroz, etc.) that I imagine there are a myriad of ways cooks prepare them and really no original author. If my grandmother learned from her grandmother, and so on, then who’s to be credited? It’s very clear to me that a food blogger should acknowledge when she adapts a recipe. I’m a little less sure about whom to credit when I’ve been baking my banana bread the same way for as long as I can remember (and can’t recall the original recipe that I might have used) or when the dish is so traditional that no original recipe exists and the technique is also fairly universal.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Well then, that’s what you say about the banana bread in the headnote. But, before you do so, you can also Google a few recipes, or look in a few cookbooks you’ve had around for a while, to make sure it didn’t come from somewhere.

And on the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of similar banana bread recipes to the one my mother wrote for me in her own handwriting, so I have no idea where it came from either. As long as I’m not publishing it as mine, no problem.

Tamara Mitchell March 8, 2011 at 4:25 am

I’ll admit the title of this post immediately made me think isn’t she being a little bit hypocritical considering that the Food 52 recipes are often adapted submissions.

But after reading Amanda’s clear definition of it, I totally agree. It is the voice and personality that makes reading someone’s work, even adapted from another source, interesting and personal.

And I thought I was the only one that stirred the shit out of things.

Jackie Baisa March 8, 2011 at 6:56 am

I felt like the title of this post was a total bait to get us to read. I normally really enjoy Dianne’s site, but this one kind of pissed me off, and had I just read the title (and not the whole blog post), I would have been walking around pissed off at Amanda Hesser. But the whole conversation was very upfront and to the point. I liked it. So, shame on Dianne for bringing the absolute most negative thing (totally not the focus) to the forefront!

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:38 am

Maybe people adapt when they submit, but it sounds like the Food52 team does a lot of work to make the recipes sound as original as possible. Re “stir the shit out of it?” I guess once and a while it’s fine, but it could be easily overdone.

AntoniaJames March 8, 2011 at 11:09 pm

i don’t care much for vulgarity in the spoken language or in written works, and even less in recipes. In fact, use of common expressions generally suggests a lack of imagination. Yes, we all know immediately what that cook wants us to do, but I for one am intelligent enough, I hope, to be able to understand the concept expressed more elegantly. Finally (and on another note), as a cook and a writer, I appreciate economy in the use of words, so I prefer not to have to slog through unnecessary prose as I’m working through a recipe for the first time. I actually like recipes that others might describe as dry, or uninteresting, but which tell you simply what to do, without any fluff. And I find sentimentality tedious. ;o)

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 10:59 am

How wonderful to have a contrarian in the crowd. Thanks, Antonia.

AntoniaJames March 9, 2011 at 11:29 am

For the record, most of the writing I do is as a transaction lawyer, where getting it right (i.e., expectations are clearly stated and reflect the understanding shared by both or all parties) can be worth millions of dollars, or Euros, or whatever. ;o)

Sharon Kebschull Barrett March 8, 2011 at 5:48 am

I can’t imagine ever wanting to make a soup that has me thinking about s*** as I do so. Yes, that may be the writer’s voice, but original? Hardly. Just lazy and dreary.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:39 am

You are being very literal! It’s about saying something different, just for fun.

Jackie Baisa March 8, 2011 at 6:53 am

Dianne, I’m an avid reader of yours, but that title is baiting people. The focus on this whole conversation was not “stealing”. Yes, she mentioned the story about the chai at the end, but it wasn’t the main overlying tone. The message was to add your own creativity and voice to a recipe. I didn’t have a problem with anything she said, but did have a problem with your title.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:40 am

Point taken, Jackie.

Heather Jones March 8, 2011 at 7:20 am

Amanda did a wonderful job of discussing a real hot button issue, but her advice/suggestions are solid and sound. She is considered to be one of our modern day authorities on food and I would imagine there will be many bloggers/aspiring food writers who will take heed.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:42 am

I hope so too, Heather. She is so clear-headed and authoritative. It was a pleasure to interview her.

Christine (Cook the Story) March 8, 2011 at 7:22 am

Great interview. I enjoy how Food52 works and how it has formed a community of recipe lovers, testers and developers. Participating in their contests has been a blast so getting a behind the scenes taste is pretty awesome. Thanks Dianne!

Amanda’s answer about sensibility and conviction seems spot on to me. If you’re just changing three things to claim it as your own, you haven’t made it yours. But when you change three (or more) things for a reason, then I think you’re developing and, in a way, you’re also having a conversation with the original writer.

I just adapted a mulitgrain flapjack recipe form the Joy of Cooking by adding cooked mashed sweet potato. That seemed to call out for maple syrup instead of honey, brown sugar instead of white, and a heap more of the autumnal spices (plus a couple of extra ones). And I skipped the corneal and went for more oats because, well, oats and maple = mmmmm. I still credited the source (of course!) but this one feels like it belongs to me a tiny bit too. Now, thanks to Amanda, I know why.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:43 am

Yes I agree! It does belong to you as well, because of all the work you put into reworking it the way you wanted it.

Susan @ SGCC March 8, 2011 at 7:30 am

Oh, please! Dianne’s headline was merely a hook to draw people in, which I’ve been taught is good journalism. It certainly piqued my interest. I don’t think it was meant to mislead or upset anyone. After reading the article, I was pleased to find that Amanda Hesser had some thoughtful and helpful things to say, and wasn’t just taking potshots at food bloggers. Her comments comforted me in the knowledge that I am doing some things right! Well done!

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:45 am

Hah. I could’ve come up with a tamer title, but it wouldn’t have had the impact. But in the end, I changed it to something more sensible.

Jackie Baisa March 8, 2011 at 7:21 pm

There is absolutely no need for THAT level of a “hook” to bait people. Please, it WAS misleading. She said Amanda was comparing “adapting” to “stealing” — she wasn’t! She was comparing STEALING to stealing. She was basically saying to follow the proper protocol and make it yours, OTHERWISE you might find yourself feeling bad for stealing. She was not saying that adapting is stealing.

If you’re like me, and you mostly just scan the headlines of your favorite blogs and don’t have time to read, you would walk away thinking Amanda Hesser called all adapters “thieves.” While I normally support Dianne’s ideas, I could not get behind this one. There was zero need for sensationalism here (something Dianne admitted to doing in her Facebook thread). Why? Why create drama on any already hot topic? Tsk.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Boy, Jackie. Three comments on this post and two on Facebook. Must’ve really hit a nerve with you. As you can see, I ended up changing the title.

Jackie Baisa March 8, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Yes, it did. 🙂 You invited people to come here and fight over the topic, so you shouldn’t be surprised. HAH! Thanks for letting me say my piece. I do appreciate it. And I was responding to her comment about it not being misleading. It was. (My opinion, of course.)

That said, you didn’t answer my question. 🙂 Why rile people up? I honestly want to know what’s behind that. Normally, you’re very fact-driven. I see you as someone totally level-headed and anti-sensationalistic. This was over-the-top for you. Any particular reason you changed up your normal routine of presenting industry happenings from calm, cool, and collected, to baiting people to comment? You’ve talked about that tactic in your writing classes, and how some bloggers use it, but I’ve honestly never seen you utilize that yourself.

I’m glad you changed the title but I hope it was not at all on my behalf! You have every right to your own opinions. I was just expressing mine.

Janet Mendel March 8, 2011 at 8:08 am

I wonder if recipes don’t become of “public domain” at some point and that, my job, as cookbook writer and blogger, is just that, to adapt them. If I taste a similar dish in five different Sevilla tapa bars or get recipes from several housewives for a traditional dish or, even, consult several cookbooks in Spanish for additional clues, I still have to, first, put the recipes into English. Then, most importantly, I have to make them work in the kitchen, often tweaking them to suit American readers/cooks. Only when the recipe or inspiration comes from a single source would I give credit.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 8:46 am

That is a good point, Janet. It’s one thing to go through a huge process like the one you described, and another to see a recipe in a cookbook and just tweak a few ingredients.

Allison March 8, 2011 at 8:43 am

Great interview! I can see how this post might attract some negative responses. However I really appreciate the clarity of when and how to acknowledge when posting a revised or reinvented recipe. I wouldn’t have thought about my voice in the recipe in more then the preamble. I might have gone for a generic authoritative tone instead of developing my own voice.

The idea of being a bit of a potty mouth (thanks Mom) in a recipe doesn’t sound like something I would do. I adore the suggestion of it! It’s like it breaks open the barriers of how far one could go with their descriptions without damaging the cooking experience of the reader.

Brenda @ a farmgirl's dabbles March 8, 2011 at 9:36 am

This was a great interview. I find it difficult to stomach some of the talk about only original recipes being worthy of blogging about. Like alot of things in this world, as Amanda puts it, “There’s nothing new in the food world. It’s all about personal perspective.” I completely appreciate her blunt view. It’s about sharing what you enjoy with others, so they can enjoy it, too. And always being upfront and truthful about where it is your enjoyment came from. Thanks, Dianne!

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

You are welcome. I have to agree that there is nothing interesting about a recipe for frying an egg, unless you can be hilarious, weird, or inventive.

Anastasia March 8, 2011 at 9:48 am

Another great post! I like the idea of full historical disclosure. It gives credit where it is due, and may just reveal what stirs your pot — what drew you to the recipe, why you changed what you did, and if it accomplished what you hoped for. It makes it about the human experience, not just about a formula. I love that in a blog and in a cookbook.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 11:20 am

I’m a big fan of that. It also teaches the reader how to think about a recipe and change it to your personal desires.

Robin (Hippo Flambe) March 8, 2011 at 9:52 am

Hesser’s reasoning on what makes the recipe truly your adaptation should be required reading for all food bloggers. It is not about change for changes sake but a truly thoughtful reason related to your personal voice.

I am often bothered by food blogs that do not credit the source. I have read one recently that talks about the way the writer adjusts the recipe to her families tastes in the header without ever crediting the source. There is also a paid food blogger that I read who almost never mentions a recipes inspiration, based on her writing about food I believe she adapted but not that she started from scratch.

However I know the problem can also be found in the cookbook world and not because the author left it out. A food writer friend told me of authors who were angry of the elimination of recipe sources in their cookbooks. It made me feel less accusatory towards a favorite cookbook which contains a slightly tweaked recipe from a book edited by the author.


diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 11:22 am

I wrote a post about someone who credited the source and did a lazy adaptation of the recipe. It is one of the links in this post. Then another blogger just ripped off her whole recipe. I didn’t say who did it because people tend to go crazy online.

christo aka doggybloggy March 8, 2011 at 10:25 am

great article/interview – I have so many peeves about “foodies” and food blogs and recipes I dont even know where to begin…

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

When you’re a blogger, the whole world can see your mistakes. The point is to learn and improve. That’s my goal.

Kathy - Panini Happy March 8, 2011 at 10:35 am

Thanks for inviting Amanda to share her take on this issue – her views make a lot of sense to me. I enjoy seeing where people find their inspiration and it just seems like the neighborly thing to do to credit those sources. The last paragraph, in particular, seems like an excellent definition/guideline for determining whether a recipe is “yours”.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 11:24 am

You are welcome, Kathy. Hesser is an amazing resource on this subject, having combed through and edited thousands of recipes at the NY Times and at Food52.

Sarah March 8, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Thank you for posting this interview – this is something we are concerned with a lot at RecipeRelay. We always credit the source while trying to focus on the experience people had while making the food and what was fun or challenging about it. I agree with Amanda that there is nothing new in food – but there can always be new discoveries on the personal level – those are the ones that make the eating and cooking experience so meaningful.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm

So true, Sarah. I like that you link to the original recipe and then say you took off from there. I think it would also be good to say how you changed the recipe, just to make it clear.

Nancy Baggett March 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm

I hate to sound like a broken record, but creating & adapting are really very different and take wildly different amounts of time and skill. Actually creating a recipe often requires many testing and reworkings to get the balance right–certainly in the area of baking, where the chemistry is tricky. Due to the time/money/skill involved I don’t think many people are actually creating recipes anymore–recipe developers writing for certain magazines, some cookbook authors, and commercial test kitchen people are the main ones. The number of adapters, tweakers, and borrowers is much greater–I don’t know what they would do if the real creators stop producing recipes they need to work from!

I have no idea why Amanda or anyone else claims there are no new recipes. This is like somebody insisting that all paintings have been painted, or all stories or songs have been written. I have created many new, original recipes over the years–though they often no longer seem original because they have been so often borrowed and adapted!

Re headnotes: Just as other text is copyrightable, I’m told by I P attorneys that recipe intros and directions text can be copyrighted, so those who borrow legally must rewrite or they are plagiarizing. Ingredient lists, however, can’t be copyrighted.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm

You make some good points, Nancy. I agree that they are different skills. I would prefer everyone to be in the original recipe category, but it’s just not going to happen, especially when it’s so easy to copy recipes, and so hard to create new ones, as you say. So given that so many people start with someone else’s recipe, where to go from there? I like her description of how to tweak.

Agreed that the ingredients list is not copyrightable, but other parts are.

Amanda March 8, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Danger, Will Robinson, danger!!
The whole recipe issue is so very tricky that I find it is best to be cautious always.
I always credit any recipe that I adapt so that my readers know exactly where it came from. Having said that, I recently posted one that I made up from scratch one night at dinner time, with what was on hand. Later that week, when looking for something completely different I found several extremely similar recipes! Unless one is coming up with something utterly unique and new, there seems to be a very real risk of duplicating what is already out there somewhere.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Oh how frustrating, Amanda! I don’t know what to say to that. Sometimes I think it’s a bad idea to look up recipes because you will be influenced by them; other times I think it’s good to look them up as a starting point.

Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) March 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm

What an informative, clearly written post. This is something I struggle with all the time, and I appreciate the clarifications from you and Amanda. When I come up with a recipe of my very own, it’s easy. When I copy right from a cookbook, it’s easy too. I just credit the cookbook author. But it’s when I’ve been making a recipe for years and have personalized it so much that it’s my own, that I’m not quite sure what to do. This was so helpful. Thank you.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Thank you — on Amanda’s behalf, I guess, since all I did was ask the questions.

Um, if you copy right from a cookbook, it’s not enough to credit the cookbook author, Rivki. You have to get permission to use it word for word. Otherwise it’s plaguerism. Better to find out sooner than later.

Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) March 9, 2011 at 4:30 am

Thank you for the clarification. I will always rewrite the recipe in my own words, but I credit the author if the recipe is the same (or pretty much the same) ingredients as the original one. So, I guess I should have said “when I use the same ingredients and technique as the original cookbook, I credit the cookbook author.” Dianne, can you clarify for me if that’s ok or if in that case I would also need to get permission? Thanks so much.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

If you rewrite it, you do not need to get permission as well as crediting the author.

Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger) March 9, 2011 at 11:06 am

Thanks for clarifying Dianne. You had me a bit nervous there. 🙂
— Rivki

AntoniaJames March 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm

From a copyright law perspective, there is actually a grey area between what is a “derivative” work (violating the law, subjecting the writer to statutory damages) and what isn’t. Thus, you have to re-write in a way that makes the work you claim as your own unique, i.e., it doesn’t just re-phrase or re-format. I’m sure this ground has been plowed many times, so I apologize for stating the obvious. This is my first visit to this blog, and the only other food blog I ever read is food52. ;o)

Nancy Baggett March 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Good point Amanda. We aren’t always as clever (or unique) as we think. My biggest problem with people declaring that there are no new recipes is that it denigrates the work of those who really do spend hours experimenting and exploring and who come up with unique methods/recipes and whose work really is not derivative. The statement also troubles me because it suggests that there’s no point in anybody personally trying to actually create anything because–well, everything has already been done before. ( I know for sure that not everything has been discovered or done in some of the confectionery areas I’ve worked in.) I despair that when food writers hear experts say that they are given a great excuse just to adapt and borrow from others rather than dig in and do their own research and testing. There is already far too much copying going on today, whether credited or not, whether technically legal or not.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Thanks Nancy. Good points.

Winnie March 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm

This is a great interview. I think the world of Amanda (and her food52 partner Merrill) and have been enjoying food52 since just after it launched. It is nice to hear how they evaluate recipes for the site- in all of the time I’ve been contributing over there, that part has been something of a mystery.

diannejacob March 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Oh good. I thought it was useful to know also, not so much in terms of how things tasted, but how they evaluate for “originality” or whatever it’s called.

Kristin Nicholas March 9, 2011 at 6:39 am

Found you through FNJ and then I realized I have your book on my nightstand! Great article. I am a knitwear designer and sheep farmer and write knitting and stitching books. The food world is new to me.
I sell our lamb meat at Farmers Markets and was wondering the protocol on recipes, tweaking, crediting sources,etc. This is incredibly helpful to me. Best thing I learned which is to add my voice and I CAN do that! Thanks so much. Love Amanda Hesser. Have many of her cookbooks too!

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 11:02 am

Thank you. What a terrific career, Kristin. Such ingenuity to use the lambs for meat and wool in your design business. And now, recipe writing to add to the package.

Jen March 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

What a thought provoking post!

For me the gray area comes with a recipe like quiche. I could pull any one of the 100 or so cookbooks I have off the shelf, and the basic recipe of quiche will be pretty much the same. After all, there are only so many combinations of egg and cream (or milk) that will create the right texture for a quiche. Same goes for the crust. The question is, when does it become your quiche and not someone else’s quiche? That’s where original voice and unique spin enter the picture. I think sometimes the issue is trying to delinieate the line in the sand – a line which is often very blurry.

Thanks for the daily food for thought!

Lin Ann March 9, 2011 at 10:55 am

I want to say something similar to what Amanda said. I come up with recipes in my head sometimes and use those on my blog. But I always wonder if there’s a similar one out there on the internet. I’ve been afraid to look, because I wouldn’t know what to do if I saw one! But, last night I was making a lasagne with cauliflower (as the bechamel sauce, as I do when I make moussaka) and spinach. My curiousity got the best of me and I decided to search. And there was a similar recipe. Almost identical! What do I do?

josh March 9, 2011 at 11:35 am

I have an earth-shattering solution to this problem that completely avoids this murky issue of adaptation. If the blogger’s ultimate objective is to republish the recipe for his/her readers and is using adaptation as a way to skirt copyright issues, why not instead simply go to the author or publisher and ask for permission to reprint the recipe. I do it all the time.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Because often the author is not immediately accessible, and blogging is all about immediacy. By the time you go to the publisher’s website, find the right editor, submit an email request, wait for the editor to send to the author, wait for a reply…it could take forever.

I assume you have circumvented a lot of this problem. Please explain how the average food blogger could do so! Thanks.

Josh March 9, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I wish I had a trick to share, but I usually do just what you described. Many authors have a web presence, so it’s become easier for a blogger to go ahead and contact them directly. Nonetheless, I usually get a response relatively quickly. I’m also someone who has a backlog of recipe posts, so I’m not worried about immediacy. Bottom line: if I’m writing about a recipe which I have really not adapted, I feel I have a responsibility to seek permission from the author.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I really like that approach, Josh. It works well for everyone, especially since you’re a planner.

mary constant March 9, 2011 at 12:16 pm

What an informative interview! I usually google the main ingredient or method after I concoct a recipe. That usually gives me an idea of whether I am using an idea that someone else has already invented. I once submitted a recipe that I thought was an old family recipe and when I googled it I found that it was on the side of a product package. I thought that my submitted food52 recipe was going to turn pink on the page, I was so embarrassed! Luckily , I was able to delete it right away.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Oh gosh, how embarrassing. I guess some dishes are imprinted on our subconscious in ways we don’t even realize.

nicole March 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Thanks for this –so many things to think about! And I especially love that bit about the chai. And: “A recipe becomes your own when you write the recipe as you would cook it, and it reflects your voice and experience. It’s not a game about moving this part or that, or tweaking a few ingredients. It’s about telling a story through ingredients and instructions.” — she’s so wise.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm

She is, I agree!

Penny De Los Santos March 9, 2011 at 8:29 pm

I’ll just put my comment all the way down here behind comment #75. WOW.
I think you might have struck a nerve with this post DJ. Nice job, great post, totally learned something too. Kicking butt!

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Thank you Penny. But it is not my top post. See Is Food Blogging Too Much Work?, coming in at 210 comments.

Maria March 11, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Okay…let’s take someone like The Pioneer Woman! Love that she is so popular and she obviously puts a lot of time into her website. I like her tone…just about everything about her, but NOT ONE of her recipes is original! And maybe I just haven’t checked, but there has been no credit given. Why? Go figure! What is your response on that?

diannejacob March 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

How do you know about the source of her recipes?

Maria March 14, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Because her recipes are common recipes. I am not trying to say anything negative about her, but the majority of her recipes are Americana,take to the potluck recipes that many of us are familiar with. Whether they came from the side of a box or a magazine, they are recipes that have spanned the test of time. Look at them and there is not anything original, (except for her humor).

diannejacob March 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

She must have a lot more going for her than just the recipes, then.

Maria March 14, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Absolutely! I found her website one night I couldn’t sleep! I read her entire story about meeting Marlboro Man! She is funny, she covers many subjects that are near and dear to the heart of America. And in today’s world where many are scared to cook, she has outlined simple, familiar recipes in a step by step format! All this is done in a very funny, self-depracating manner. She is fun to read. She is beautiful. She has close to the ideal life! We identify with Ree yet we want to be like her…does that make sense? Oh and did I mention she is funny?
My point is, her recipes, aren’t hers in the sense that she wrote them, (at least the majority), and I think that is perfectly fine. She entertains us and teaches us with them! They belong to humanity…so I guess I am of the thought that the majority of recipes belong to no one as well.

Tamar March 21, 2011 at 9:54 pm

Sometimes the most inspired recipes aren’t the adaptations from cookbooks but your attempts to replicate your favorite restaurant dish. For example, my local Korean restaurant serves Korean potato salad (감자 샐러드) as one of their appetizer plates (called banchan in Korean). I was too shy to ask for the recipe so I tinkered with the idea at home. The hardest part was finding the right mayonnaise but once I found that, the recipe fell into place and the rest is history.

diannejacob March 22, 2011 at 6:35 pm

That is what I would call a recipe that is “inspired by” vs. “adapted from,” Tamar. You developed it from scratch, without reading any other recipes. Now, I hope you don’t do a search online and find many similar recipes, but it’s possible. And I also hope you credited the restaurant with the original idea for the dish.

Diane March 23, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Excellent interview and great insight on sourcing recipes. Although I question how fine a line is being drawn to source everything. If I create my version of a chocolate chip cookie, do I need to credit Ruth Wakefield and her Toll House Cookie recipe? It seems that many cookbooks published today have been inspired by earlier recipe versions. Yet the value they provide is a different approach to preparing, slightly different ingredients, etc. I love the idea of voice, taking a recipe and making it your own. Inspiring!

karen brown July 29, 2011 at 1:10 am

Dear Dianne, I found your blog last night, and as a new (only been doing it for two weeks) blogger, it’s great to have some guidelines. Now I need to work my way through the rest of your postings. Cheers from Karen..Wellington..NZ

diannejacob July 29, 2011 at 7:59 am

Hi Karen, and welcome. I hope you find what you’re looking for here. I’ve got two years worth of posts. Good luck with your blog, and I hope to see more comments from you.

Margarita February 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Clearly, I am so new to this food blogging thing (because my post is like a year late) and this was a very helpful article. I copied a recipe word for word and posted it on my blog, but made sure to give credit to the author and the book. The reason why I did this was because I want the readers to follow exactly how the recipe makers made the original version and not my own. Is this an ok thing to do?

diannejacob February 2, 2012 at 8:34 am

No. But I’m so happy you’re reading about this here, so you can find out it isn’t okay. Cookbooks are copyrighted, so you need to ask the publisher for permission. It might even involve a fee. It’s better to write about a recipe, or adapt it so that it isn’t recognizable.

Margarita February 2, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Thank you for your advice. I fixed my word-for-word copying and will not ever do it again even if I credited the source (including the page number). Learned a lot today!

kale February 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

This was an extremely valuable interview to read. Thanks to Amanda for her thoughts on recipe adaptation and thanks to you for your on-point questions!

diannejacob February 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Thank you. Recipe adaptation continues to be a big issue among bloggers and cookbook authors.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 7:49 am

Actually very little fighting is going on in this post. Perhaps it is preaching to the converted. Re why rile people up? Because that is what piques interest. We’ve had a lot of good arguments on this site, and I enjoy the discussion. Not every time, of course!

Jen March 9, 2011 at 10:46 am

There’s a big difference between arguing and debating! Debating is arguing with intelligence and reason. An argument, simply for argument’s sake, is rarely founded in reason.

diannejacob March 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Well, I feel very honored then, Antonia. Yes, I have covered that before and provided a link to the US copyright office’s view of recipes in the article. Never hurts to have it re-emphasized, though.

diannejacob March 10, 2011 at 10:35 am

Good question. Nathalie Dupree, Nancy Baggett and Ken Albala say they do just that, and are discussing it on my Facebook page.

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