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Writing the Recipe

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Writing the Recipe
(c)2003 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 is at


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