ten tips for foolproof recipe writing

crispy breadcrumbs risotto rice in a jar

Only one week until the launch of my first ever ebook – How to Bake Your Family Cookbook. Yay!

So I thought I’d share a little excerpt from the book and get some feedback on your likes and dislikes when it comes to recipes – particularly reading them on line. Do you prefer point form or proper sentences? Lots of description and instruction or bare essentials? Detailed ingredients lists with the preparation required for each ingredient or simply the ingredients and amounts required? A nice long preamble or just sticking to the old method and ingredients format.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

from ‘How to Bake Your Family Cookbook – to be released 29th March 2010
ten tips for foolproof recipe writing

1. List the ingredients in the order they need to be used. This makes it easier for the cook to see what is needed when. It’s also helpful when checking that nothing’s been omitted.

2. List the amounts required in the ingredient list. Saves reading through the method when it’s time to write a shopping list.

3. Include measurements by weight as well as volume. Some people live by their kitchen scales and others by their cups. It helps to keep both camps happy if you include both. There is an online recipe converter at www.cuisinedumonde.com/convert.html.

4. Be consistent with measurement types. Use either metric or imperial or both, but don’t switch between mid recipe – it’s too confusing and likely to cause problems.

5. List the ingredients in the state that they are to be used in. It’s much easier to scan the ingredient list to see if you need the onions peeled and diced or the herb leaves picked, than trawl through the method. Makes for simpler method writing as well.

6. Write the method in a logical sequence. Think through what needs to be done first and move on from there.

7. Use point form or short sentences with well spaced out paragraphs for the method. Remember that usually people will be reading in a hurry while they’re trying to figure out what to do next. Make your method as simple and as scannable as possible.

8. Give more details than just times and temperatures. Every kitchen and cook is different. Just saying to cook the onions for 5 minutes doesn’t tell the full story. The cook needs to know how to tell when things are done or when they are ready to move on to the next step. A little explanation as to what they’re looking for can make the world of difference. Best expand a little such as ‘cook the onions for 5 minutes or until soft, but not browned’.

9. Include the number of servings or yield.

10. Proofread. It’s easy to make mistakes, proofreading is critical to make sure your typing error doesn’t end up a big mess in someone’s kitchen.

cauliflower risotto

[almost 5 ingredients]
basic risotto

serves 4-5

I was going to use olive oil to make this 5 ingredients but I just couldn’t bear to have risotto without butter – thus the ‘almost’.

I like to use fancy Italian arborio rice for my risotto. Different rices with vary incredibly with their liquid absorption capacity so don’t worry if you don’t use or the stock – or if you find the need to top up with a little extra water from the kettle.

If I don’t have time to make my own stock, I use supermarket liquid stock but freshen it up a little by simmering a chopped carrot and a few ribs of celery in the stock before starting the risotto – even 10 minutes will make a difference to the depth of flavour of your risotto.

Unlike my pasta, I’m a fan of soft, well cooked, oozy, almost soupy risotto. Feel free to cook to your own preference.

I’ve read that the best thing for risotto is to make sure the rice has completely absorbed each ladleful of stock and is crying out for more liquid before you add the next. But to be honest I didn’t see much difference.

I also don’t stress too much about constant stirring – although it can be a good task to delegate to a dinner guest if you happen to have one handy.

If you do want to prep ahead you can cook the risotto until three quarters done and leave it covered on the stove and finish it off later.

For me the key thing with risotto is the final resting step with the butter and cheese.

6C chicken or vegetable stock
100g (3.5oz) butter
1 brown onion, peeled & finely diced
1C (200g or 7oz) arborio rice
1C white wine
100 – 150g (3.5 – 5oz) parmesan cheese, grated

Bring stock to the boil and keep simmering.

Meanwhile, melt half the butter in another large saucepan. Add onion and cook over a medium heat until the onion is soft and not browned.

Stir through rice and toast for a few minutes. Add wine and allow to gently simmer. Stir until wine has been absorbed.

Add stock one ladleful at a time, stirring in between until the rice is soft and oozy. It takes about 20 – 25minutes.

Stir through remaining butter and cheese and turn off the heat. Cover and stand the risotto for 3-4 minutes.

cauliflower risotto

light cauliflower risotto
serves 5-6

Inspired by Jamie Oliver from Jamie’s Italian.

The cauliflower makes this a lovely light risotto – that even feels a bit healthy. I love the crunchy contrast of the fried breadcrumbs with the soupy rice.

1 head cauliflower, cut into florettes with stems finely diced.
1 x basic risotto [above]
8 anchovies
2 slices sourdough bread, torn into fine crumbs
pinch chilli flakes

Add cauliflower stems to the softening onion and add the florettes to the stock so that they get added to the rice as the stock is added.

Add the anchovies at the same time as the rice.

When the risotto is resting, fry the breadcrumbs in a little olive oil until golden and crisp. Stir through a little chilli.

Serve risotto warm with breadcrumbs sprinkled over.


On breadshoes – a review of the lott – cooma.

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  • Great tips they are all so true and relevant. I notice all the same things. An added thing I like is if you are using the oven having the temperature at the top of the directions gives a decent amount of time for preheating.

  • Is it me, or is the quantity of rice missing from the ingredients of the basic risotto.. I think your list of rules for recipe writing are excellent – my only other basic gripe with recipe writing is when the person writing it obviously hasn’t ever cooked it. Muppets. Why should we “test” their recipes for them!! :-)

  • It’s funny, when I was younger I always considered it cheating to put the ‘peeled and chopped’ sort of details in the ingredients list, because it made the recipe look deceptively quick and easy (‘My! A one-sentence method! That’ll be a cinch!’). Then later you realised you had to julienne six types of vegetables. ^_^

    These days, some of my favourite recipes are the type Mark Bittman puts in his ‘101’ collections each season, just sentences, no formal recipe structure. Here’s one:

    “Cobb-ish salad: Chop bacon and begin to brown it; cut boneless chicken into strips and cook it with bacon. Toss romaine and watercress or arugula with chopped tomatoes, avocado, onion and crumbled blue cheese. Add bacon and chicken. Dress with oil and vinegar.”

    But I admit I may be jaded, because I have had to edit many, many cookbooks in the course of my work.

  • Oops, there is no rice in your risotto. Perhaps you are pointing out the importance of proof reading :)
    I find ingredients in order is very useful and make it very clear if one ingredient is to be used twice, perhaps by listing the actual amounts where they are to be used. I remember one cake disaster where I had skim read the recipe and didn’t realise until I got to the method for the icing when it said “Add the remaining sugar….”. What remaining sugar? I’d mixed it all into the cake which not surprisingly didn’t rise and stuck to the tin. Not a major success.
    Good luck with your ebook. How exciting.

  • Nice to meet you in Melbourne – has made me even more interested in this blog and your approach so I must read more of your archives

    re recipes I thing these tips are great and so many just seem like common sense – one thing i like to do when writing out recipe is when there are lots of things to add at once to list them in order from largest to smallest – not sure if there is a reason other than it looks neat to me – I also love number 1 because I think this helps so much with organising yourself to cook a recipe.

    I have occasionally on my blog done more than one version of the recipe – a very short one and a long chatty one – I think the short one is easier to follow but the chatty one is more entertaining and better if you are unsure about anything – so I guess different styles of recipes are useful for different needs

    (and there is a typo in the line about adding the butter – halve not have! one thing I would add about proof reading your recipes is that in my experience it is so easy to find typos in others’ work and hard to find them in your own – best to get someone else to do a final proof read if possible! not that this happens on my blog hence more typos than I would like)

  • As much rice as you need to absorb the liquid and a little bit extra or less depending on the consistency you like – surely that’s obvious in the preamble?!

  • I am not a fan of recipes that blather on for too long – making something more complicated than it needs to be. Short, sharp and succinct works for me. But then I am a fairly experienced cook and rather time poor. I guess the hard thing is knowing what audience to pitch it to – an experienced one or total beginers. The recipes I write are usually more of an idea than a specific rule book – a concept, a taste that I am chasing. So I tend to write in a more loose style and keep it as short as possible.

  • claire
    thank you so much – I did notice the rice was missing when I proofed last night but didn’t save the change – sorry everyone. rice is there now.

    I used to feel the same but now I prefer to have the details next to the ingredient so when I’m cooking I can quickly scan and see whether the onions should be chopped or sliced

    hey heather – yes – a good example of the importance for proof reading – unfortunately not intentional. I’ve been caught out with recipes that have ingredients added at different stages as well – very annoying

    lovely to meet you as well johanna – and thanks for sharing your insights – I like the idea of doing a bare bones version and a more chatty one so people can choose their preference. and thx for the typo pickup

    sorry RdV and Rowena I was a goose and forgot to include the rice.

    spice and more – excellent point – it should be about what your audience is after.

  • Wonderful treatise on the risotto … I also don’t stir constantly … but watch carefully as invariably other special things are being worked on at the same time for the ‘meal’.

    I agree with Johanna, that it seems much easier to find ‘typos’ with other’s work than with your own. If someone is available (and around) it is key to have another ‘proof’ your own stuff.

    Love this blog … looking froward to more … and … the scrumptious photos …help so much …

    Thanks …

  • Great to meet you at the conference, Jules. You are truly amazing and inspiring! All the best for the adventure you have decided to undertake!

  • When baking, the type and size of the tin/dish should be mentioned at the start of the recipe so that it is prepared at the start of the process. No getting to the end of the recipe to find you have to prepare the cake tin in order to bake it the cake! Sounds obvious but it helps!

    Love your work!

  • thanks dan – you say the nicest things

    was lovely to meet you as well anh. and thanks for your good wishes

    good idea bronwyn – I hate when you get to the end and have to rush to prep a cake tin

  • Great tips! One of the hardest things to do is to actually keep track and record what you are cooking so that you can share with others. An easy to read recipe is key for me when I am looking to buy a new cookbook. Cooking should be fun, not frustrating.

  • I totally agree with #8 on your list. If I have never done a specific thing in the recipe before it is most helpful to have a reference point. Also if possible, step-by-step photos are extremely helpful. I love to hear about the history of a recipe but I think it should be separate from the recipe itself. Congratulations on your book!

  • In a recipe, I love the comments on variations to tweak a recipe. And in a cookbook I like stories. I never read or buy a cookbook that only has recipes in it.

  • thanks janet – couldnt agree more – cooking should be FUN

    thanks samantha – I love hearing about history of recipes as well

    tracy – yeah stories are the best part (along with the photos)

  • It would also be helpful to me to have the US customary units for cooking measures for the ingredients ex. for the butter x amount of tablespoons and for cheese x cups. The average minimalist cook does not have a kitchen scale and thus would not necessarily know the correct amount without converting the recipe. Thanks!

  • My experience with risotto has been quite limited until recently and although it appears to be quite simple, as a lone dish, it can be very deceptive. Good puck and don’t forget, mushrooms are always a lovely admission to a resistant risotto.

  • You see Devi – I like to be a bit controversial – no -it’s really how to write your family cookbook

    fun guy – you’re so right about the deceptiveness of risotto – and love mushies in risotto

    jennifer – you’ve reminded me that I need to write a post about minimalist kitchen equipment – but good point that not everyone has scales. I guess I default to weight because thats how I usually buy things like cheese and butter. will keep it in mind for the future

  • Here are my tips:
    1. include prep and/or cook time as well as, if appropriate, marinading time, rising time etc
    2. use the most ‘logical’ measurement, eg: 1 (250g) punnet cherry tomatoes rather than cups, liquids should be ml/L and, due to variances, all dry baking ingredients should be weight measurements rather than cups – apologies to the kitchen minimalists
    3. for those of us without dishwashers, try to minimise the number of pans/bowls etc used throughout the recipe
    4. the recipe method is better in numbered points for ease of reference
    5. it is always good to think of pack size when writing recipes, particularly with perishables, eg cream should be 300ml rather than, say, 250ml – what do you do with 50ml of leftover cream?
    6. if appropriate include microwave shortcuts
    7. any tips such as ‘can be frozen’, ‘best eaten on the day it is made’, ‘can substitute lamb for beef’ etc should be in recipe preamble
    8. as mentioned by Tracy, personal notes – ‘i used to cook this with my grandmother etc’ in the preamble add a really nice touch
    9. if not immediately obvious it is good to include a ‘serve with soft polenta / rocket salad / steamed carrots / a spoon of natural yoghurt’ etc at the end of the method

  • Hi Jules,

    So, I’ve recently moved out of home and have had to start my pantry from scratch. Often this means that I don’t get to try as many meals as I want (because making a normal batch of spaghetti/soup/etc, means I have too many left overs and whole bottles of chilli left in my cupboard). I was curious, because I do love risotto, am I able to freeze it?


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