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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

What Makes a Great Cookbook? Here's Our Writing and Format Recipe


A great cookbook can be an inspiring treasure that its readers can reference again and again, providing feel-good recipes that turn out delicious every time. But even if you're sitting on the best recipes in the industry, in creating your cookbook, you might be making some blunders that make your book more difficult to follow, dooming it for the donate pile. Here are some tricks to make sure your cookbook becomes a cherished, time-tested kitchen companion for your readers.

Identify your audience

Are you offering quick dinner recipes for busy people? Maybe you're sharing your expertise of European desserts. Does your cookbook show your readers the intricacies of cupcake baking? Pinpoint the ideal readers of your cookbook first, and many of the details will fall into place.

Create an outline

Once you have a general subject, identify the subcategories you want to feature. Perhaps your book offers a range of recipes for cookies, and you have a bunch of variations on the classic chocolate chip; give those their own chapter! Mapping out an outline for your cookbook can help you clarify many other details for your book and help you see what sections you're prepared to fill and which ones need a little more material.

Title your recipes thoughtfully

Each of your cookbook entries needs a good title, and each title has to walk a thin line between interesting and informative. If you're feeling adventurous, you can name your dishes with a bit of humor, such as in the case of these Ugly but Good cookies. Some titles offer little information regarding the dish they produce (like these Pink Cuts), which can pique your readers' curiosity. But be careful – if your title is too weird, your readers may lose interest and move on to another recipe, or worse, a different book. A good strategy to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your recipe titles is to run them by a group of friends who will give you honest feedback.

Use consistent names and measurements

Remember that referencing different names for certain ingredients (cane sugar, granulated sugar, white sugar) can confuse your reader. If you call for baking soda in the ingredients, be sure not to shorten it colloquially to "soda" in the method instructions. Also, become familiar with the abbreviations for measurements used in the majority of recipes and use those with precision, or you'll risk sending your readers down a path toward certain culinary disaster.

Follow the common recipe structure

All good recipes have the same format, and we have all come to recognize and follow it. Try not to stray from the classic outline. Your readers might be trying to muster up the nerve to try a new recipe outside their comfort zone, so give them a format that feels comfortable and familiar. Include these elements in this order:

  • Title: See the guidelines above on making a strong recipe title.
  • Introduction or special instructions: Keep this section brief. A common trend on food blogs is to offer a lengthy backstory about what the recipe means to the author, burying the recipe under an emotional tribute to Grandma. Do NOT do this. Sharing a little bit of your story can help your readers form a connection with your recipes, but try to offer just a sentence or two about how you came across this recipe, and then move on.
  • List of equipment needed: Many recipes just assume you've got a bowl, spoon, and measuring cups, so you don't have to list these. If your recipe requires a panini press or spring-form pan that not every basic chef owns, include it in your instructions. However, if you know your readers are seasoned cast iron users, you know you don't need to specify the need for one in the beginning. In such a case, you can include a brief mention in the method instructions.
  • Ingredients and measurements: As mentioned above, use consistent names and abbreviations that the majority of your readers will recognize (e.g., tsp., T, C). This information is provided in list format.
  • Preheating and preparation instructions: The paragraph under the list of ingredients starts with the temperature of the oven and any other specific preparation the chef needs to complete before compiling the elements of the recipe.
  • Method and combination of ingredients: Within the same paragraph, offer step-by-step instructions in the order they need to be carried out. Be clear and simple.
  • Estimate of cooking and prep time: Offer a range to accommodate different oven models, if needed. Your experience can help dictate what works well, and you can even provide your own findings to help guide readers.
  • Serving suggestions: Determine what a serving size is and list how many of those servings a recipe will yield. This can also help you determine the nutritional information for each serving, if you're providing it.

Test your recipes, and then retest

Just because you have an amazing dish doesn't mean you've perfected the recipe (many chefs have learned this the hard way!). Some chefs find that they like to eyeball the amounts of ingredients they put into a dish when they get really comfortable with making it. When testing your recipes, measure items exactly; this way, your readers will be more likely to get the results you have had and to get a dish that looks like the picture!

Remember that the tricks that are second nature to you aren't obvious to others

Is it a habit for you to mix the dry ingredients first? Maybe you've got a knack for knowing when you've let your dough rise until it's "just right." The habits you've picked up through your own years of experience won't always be available to a novice chef. You want your cookbook to help people develop skills they don't have yet, so when writing your recipe, remember to spell out your time-honored strategies and explain why they are important. What happens when you don't use parchment paper? What results will you get when you refrigerate your cookie dough as opposed to using it at room temperature?

Choose the right format for your type of cookbook

Keep your audience and the purpose for your cookbook in mind as you choose the right trim size for your photos. A book with a variety of recipes, ingredients, and techniques will call for a larger photo spread, whereas a book with a more limited audience will need a smaller profile. A specialty cookbook will have general instructions at the beginning with more specific examples, photos, and tips in the remainder of the book, whereas a heritage cookbook will have a range of different dishes featured, so each page can stand alone as a separate recipe for reference. Keep your specific type of book in mind, and imagine your target user opening the book for kitchen use. What will he or she be looking for in a cookbook of this type? Do you want it spiral bound for functionality, or do you want a more solid, luxury tactile experience for your intended consumer?

Select your layouts before you start taking photos

Knowing the size and orientation that you want your photos to be in your book beforehand, you can better control the content and angle of each shot to suit your needs. For example, a photo that you know will be a bit smaller in the book will need to capture a simplified subject. On the other hand, if you're taking a shot that will be featured in a full-page spread, make sure the details are just right. Does your book offer a portrait orientation? Keep this in mind as you frame your shot. Balance the shapes and colors in your photos, too. Your cookbook should be enticing to the eye and provide good motivation for your readers to make the recipe so they can taste what they're seeing.

Embrace white space in photos

A full plate is appetizing at the dinner table, but for your cookbook, take photos of less food than you would serve. This helps emphasize the dish that you're featuring by drawing the eye to the main subject. Secondary objects in the photo should also contribute. Review every item included in the shot; is it making your dish look more enticing? If not, remove it.

When you're nearing the end of your cookbook collaboration, it can be tempting to keep polishing your instructions, taking better photos, and tweaking your book layout. If your quest for perfection is preventing you from completing your book, try to satisfy yourself with good enough. Many cookbook authors state that the process improved their own cooking abilities, and when they're done, they feel they've elevated their own abilities. Let this feeling be your goal as you complete your cookbook, and give yourself a pat on the back, knowing that you've helped many fumbling cooks out there to improve their skills as well.

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