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Even experienced cooks and bartenders can sometimes write recipes that say too little. It’s easy to think everyone knows that term or what a certain technique means. Remember when you were first starting out? Try to put yourself back in those newbie shoes when you write a recipe.
When I write a recipe, I take notes as I am making the dish or drink, even if I have made it dozens of times before. That way, I can turn it into a real life experience that readers can replicate at home. And, I still sometimes get queries from editors and readers.
Here is a bare bones description of how to write a recipe. These general rules can be followed for any kind of recipe, from sweet to savory foods and alcoholic cocktails to smoothies:
Introduce the recipe: Start with a short introduction to the recipe, noting its origin and anything interesting about the ingredients, as well as any notes about hard to find ingredients or special equipment required. Home cooks and cocktail aficionados appreciate prepping and cooking times as well.
Name it: A descriptive, but simple name is a good guide as well.
Estimate servings it makes: Serves 4. Makes 1 9 inch pie. Makes 24 2 inch cookies. Makes 1 cocktail. Etc.
List ingredients: Each ingredient, with its exact measurement, should be listed in the order in which it is to be used.
Give step by step instructions: Each step should be described in the order that it should be done. Give exact temperatures for ovens, stoves and grills, and cooking times, as well as careful descriptions of cooking techniques. What kind of glass is a cocktail served in?
The final product: Tell home cook how the dish or drink should look, smell or feel when it is ready. For food, is it “golden brown and bubbly?” Is it just browned on top and set?
To dive deeper into the process, read on. That way, she can takes notes on each step as she goes. (Photo by Noah Simon)
Ingredients: Gather all ingredients needed. If ingredients are hard to find or expensive, note that in a brief introduction; offering suggested resources or substitutions. Sometimes name brand products are essential, but if they are not, use the generic term for the food.
Tools: Gather whisks, graters, chef’s knife, ladles. whatever is needed. Note if special equipment is required. (Most of us have a hand held or standing mixer, but not a meat grinder or an immersion circulator for sous vide.) Provide instructions on doing it by hand, or alternate equipment options, when possible.
Pots and pans: When describing the containers that food will be cooked in, be as specific as possible about size, dimension and materials: a 13 by 9 glass casserole dish, a 10 inch nonstick pan, a 9 inch, deep dish pie pan. For cocktails, is a certain glass required?
To ensure your ingredients and directions are accurate, with no incorrect amounts or skipped steps or foods, take careful notes as you go. Record each step: What’s the very first thing you do? Preheat the oven? Remove butter from the refrigerator so it can soften? Did you add more salt at the end?
Measurements: Be specific with amounts. Even the smallest mistake 1/2 teaspoon of salt, when you meant 1/4 teaspoon can make or break a dish or drink.
Use simple terms or define them. If a step is complicated, walk yourself through it and make notes. What does the ingredient look like when it has reached this point in the process? (For example: “Whip egg whites until fluffy and soft peaks form.”) If you’ve got a smart phone or camera, take photos as you go to remind yourself of what you will see, smell and taste at each stage. That way you can look back and describe it.
Now, you’re ready to write the recipe:
Start with the ingredient list.
List ingredients with exact measurements and in the order in which they will be used. Leaving out ingredients is the most common mistake in recipe writing. Listing them in the order used is a way to avoid that.
If it doesn’t matter what order the ingredients are added; list them by amount, with the largest first. For example, 4 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt.
If the technique is simple, add it to the ingredient list: 1 cup onions, chopped; or 1 shallot, minced; 3 tablespoons butter, melted.
If the ingredient should be chopped, sifted or otherwise altered before it is measured, write it this way: 1 tablespoon minced garlic. 1 cup sifted flour.
Spell out teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, etc. (Some use C for cup, T for tablespoon and t for teaspoon, but for clarity, I find spelling it out is best.) If a food does not require an exact measurement, simply list it and capitalize the word, such as “Butter” or “Olive oil” or “Ice.”
If a single ingredient must be used more than once in a recipe, list the full amount of the ingredient on first reference in the ingredient list, with the word “divided” after it. In the instructions, be sure to note how much of that ingredient goes in at each stage.
If the recipe has separate component a sauce, vinaigrette, pie crust make a separate ingredient list and directions for that component and place it below the main recipe. Where that item, such as pie crust, is needed in the main recipe, write “Pie crust (see recipe below).”
Temperature: For appliances with thermometers, use the exact temperatures. If exact temperatures are needed for a recipe, such as candy or meat, recommend an appropriate thermometer. For stove tops, rely on low, medium low, medium, medium high and high.
Cooking time: Along with heat, explain how long the food should fried, baked, grilled or cooked at that temperature: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.