Anyone writing a cookbook or a food blog will need to know how to format recipes so that the reader has an enjoyable experience making the dish.
There is an art to writing recipes that will inspire but are also easy to follow and make sense to the cook or baker – there is nothing more frustrating for a than trying out a new recipe and finding the instructions ambiguous, that something should have been prepared hours in advance, or that the ingredients are not easily obtainable.
The writer needs to get into the head of the reader and anticipate any questions they may have, but they also won’t want to spoon-feed (pardon the pun!) the reader if they are targeting an experienced audience.
Just like with cooking, the balance of all the elements needs to be right.
Here are some ideas to get you started on the recipe format, which measurement style to use and recipe copyright.
Once your recipe is as clear as you can make it, an editor with experience in cookbooks will be able to help you get it looking polished and professional and iron out any final inconsistencies or confusing elements.
Parts of a recipe
Most recipes contain some or all of the following parts.
A title will tell the reader whether they will want to make it even before they have checked the rest of the recipe, so it needs to be informative but appealing. Avoid using a description containing “cute” words, lots of adjectives or people’s names as this doesn't tell the reader immediately what the recipe is and may put them off making it. For example, it is easier to know what to expect with “Chicken and Apricot Bake” than “Sweet Chicken Surprise”.
The headnote is the small paragraph under the title which tells the reader a bit about the recipe. It can inform about specific ingredients, how to serve the dish, warn about anything to watch out for, explain what the recipe means to the writer, attribute the recipe to someone or just contain something interesting about the dish or writer.
It’s pretty obvious that a recipe will need an ingredients list. But what’re not as obvious are the small subtleties that make an ingredients list workable.
The list should serve as a shopping list and gives the reader a clue on whether they want to make the recipe.
It is a writer’s choice how detailed the instructions are. Some cookbook writers like to keep them short and trust the cook’s skills; others like to be very explicit. And it also depends on the target audience and their experience. However, whichever approach you take, you need to keep in mind any questions a reader will have and answer them.
A note at the end of the recipe provides further information that would have been awkward within the recipe. It can discuss specific ingredients or preparation or to suggest accompaniments. If a headnote is used for this purpose, be consistent with where this information is included.
Serving sizes are very subjective, so it is important to be consistent throughout the book. Most meal recipes should be for 4 to 6 servings. You can also give a yield by weight, measure or total.
Variations can be added to let the reader know how they can easily adapt the recipe. For example, how to make chocolate muffins from a lemon muffin recipe.
Metric or imperial measurements
It depends on your target audience whether you use metric or imperial measurements. If you are writing for New Zealand, Australian or British readers, use metric measurements; for American, use imperial measurements.
However, New Zealand and Australian recipes do use cups for liquid and dry ingredient volume measurements. Small spices are usually measured by volume in teaspoon or tablespoon amounts.
Measuring cup sizes vary around the world. A cup is equivalent to 240 ml in America, 250 ml in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and anything between 200 ml to 250 ml in other countries, so be careful when converting a recipe for a local target audience.
Copyright of recipes
This is not a substitute for legal advice, as copyright law is complex, different around the world and can change. If you plan to publish a recipe you have copied or adapted from someone else, check with a lawyer specialised in copyright law.
You may be required to ask a publisher for permission to use a recipe. But in any case, if the recipe is copied or adapted from someone else’s recipe, it is customary (and polite) to include a credit below the text of the method or in the headnote.
If you have written a recipe or cookbook and this all sounds too overwhelming or you want to make sure it is clear and consistent, I can help. I am experienced in editing and proofreading cookbooks.
I am a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of fiction and non-fiction books. I can discuss with you where your recipe or cookbook is at and what you need to do next.
For more information on how I can help you make your book shine, please contact me on: www.clearlingo.co.nz/contact.
I would love to hear from you.
Related article: The basics of writing a cookbook
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries for how she can help you make your book shine, please see her website:
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