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Writing the Recipe
 by Pam White

It sounds simple. Sell your family recipes for money. Gather up your community's traditional


dishes and submit them to magazines. List meals you make for guests and slap together a cookbook. Right?


Writing down recipes is an art, and one that keeps reinventing itself.

I have a wonderful cookbook - "The Home Queen Cookbook" - that is packed with recipes submitted by the wives of governor's, senator's, famous businessmen, and other notables. This book was published in the late 1800's, after Fannie Merritt Farmer's Boston Cooking School cookbook was published, but those fine home queens' submissions are less than standard in their presentation.

Sponge Cake - "Ten eggs, weight of 8 in sugar and four in flour, flavor with lemon, add a pinch of salt." That is the entire recipe and while seasoned cooks might be able to understand what is meant, and professional chefs sympathetic to the simple notes made for memory's sake, new cooks would be stumped by this listing of ingredients.

Write simply, but not as simply as the Home Queens did. Remember that omissions or
mistakes are disastrous to the cook using your recipe, and will also hurt your reputation
with editors. Think about how you felt the first time a "friend" shared a fantastic recipe with you but left out one or two of the ingredients so your version would never be as good as hers or his. If you've never been the victim of a recipe-otomy then your friends are true. If you have, you have my sympathy.

We all have our own way of creating dishes after family traditions, borrowing from this cooking show or that classic cookbook. Sometimes dishes are created out of necessity  quickie dinners, no-time-to-shop meals that use up stuff you have on hand, or ways to use up garden surplus. Personally, I dream of cakes and pastries, cassoulets and frittatas. My original recipes come from those late night, subconscious feasts.

We scribble notes on napkins, in journals or keep them inside our head.

It's time to get organized. Dedicate an entire notebook to recipe development, or buy a
recipe box and fill it with note cards on which you've written your recipes and notes about your results (including comments from your resident taste-testers.) You're going to need these notes and recipes on hand when you find a new market to submit to.

Standardize - When writing a recipe, list the ingredients in the order they appear in the
preparation. Write out measurements to avoid any confusing abbreviations. When writing for the internet or non-American publications consider using both metric and non-metric measurements, or providing a conversion rate. If you don't, it means an extra step for your reader to look on a conversion chart, or even flat cakes or rock hard muffins.

Most recipes list the ingredients in one of two ways. If you are using herbs, onions, or
eggs, for example, you might list "one-quarter cup basil, washed and chopped," "one Vidalia onion, sliced and sauteed," or "four eggs, beaten." Alternatively, you could list the ingredients and discuss the preparation in the how-to part of the recipe, i.e., one-quarter cup basil, one Vidalia onion, four eggs. When using frozen or canned food, list the size of the can or package.

Tools Needed - Unless you are writing recipes for an article or a cookbook on slow cookery, or stoneware pans, then you'll want to list special tools, pans, or appliances that will be needed to prepare each recipe. If the recipe is for a chocolate, chocolate chip quick bread, one way to write this part of the recipe is "lightly butter a 9" by 3 " loaf pan or muffin tins if you are making muffins."

Cooking Method - Do you preheat the oven, start the grill, season the pizza stone? Not
everyone reads through a recipe before embarking on the culinary adventure of making
the dish. Give your readers a bread - tell them up front what pans they need and what
they need to do to them before they are ready to pour the batter, or grill the steaks.

The Process - My favorite cookbooks are the ones that tell a story, either as an
introduction to the recipe, or during the paragraphs explaining the steps. You can
number the steps, or write it as an explanation. In your pizza recipe, include the
history of pizza, your history with pizza, how to make thin, crisp crusts or simple ways to
make cheese-stuffed crust if you want something new to feed your teens. You can
weave your tidbits into the recipe - one cookbook on breads gave a recipe for making
French baguettes with hard crusts. The key was to spray the bread with water during the baking. The author shared that she had, unintentionally, spritzed water on the oven's light bulb causing the hot bulb to shatter all over the baking bread.

So how does the cook know when it's finished? Don't just give the time parameters. Cake
recipes talk about the toothpick test. Flans, I learned, are done when they are in the firm
yet wobbly stage. When making candy, be kind to cooks without candy thermometers and define
what the hardball and softball stages look like when staring into the pot at a spoon
covered in goo.

Extra Information - List substitutions. If your recipe for sorrel soup can be made with
spinach as a substitute, share that. Tell about garnishes. Will your whipped cream and
orange mousse look stunning with a mint leaf or thin chocolate medallion perched on top?
Serving suggestions are another way to give your readers more than they expect. My chile
relleno casserole benefits from cool side dishes like a spinach salad or the mildness of
homemade flour tortillas. Nutritional information is always a bonus, and sometimes a
requirement. Don't forget information on how to store it, or if it tastes better the second

Ready to submit? First, walk through the recipe as you've written in. Did you list two
tablespoons butter but forget to tell your readers to melt it? Did you have baking soda
on the list of ingredients but you never use it? Regroup, revamp, rewrite until it's

Copyright Stuff - Did you know that the ingredients of a dish cannot be copyrighted
but the preparation can? You can take a traditional recipe, chicken Cordon Bleu - and
use the exact ingredients found in countless other cookbooks, but write your preparation in
your own words (or even with a new approach.) I met a food writer once who said that her
recipes were taken from popular cookbooks she just changed three ingredients, adding
parsley, using white pepper instead of black, and reducing the amount of salt by half. Ta da
- she felt she had an original recipe to sell. Not cool. (Did I just say that?) If you are so
in love with one of Maida Heatter's lemon cakes that you added something special to it
for your own signature touch, give credit to her for originating the cake. If you want to
publish someone else's recipe on a website or in a magazine, newsletter or book, write to
the publisher, addressing it to the permissions department, and state where, why
and how you would like to use it. Permission may be given with a fee attached or for free.

Don't steal recipes. Do acknowledge your influences, read cookbooks published
throughout the last two hundred years, and recognize that today's cookbook and magazine
buyers may enjoy reading more than cooking. Write to that market, and you'll enjoy


About the Author

Pamela White has written an e-book on becoming a food writer, teaches food writing classes and publishes on online newsletter on food writing. Information on all three can be found at