We’ve reviewed a lot of cookbooks, done a lot of writing in general, and cooked a whole lot of food. From these pursuits we’ve come to a number of conclusions about what makes a better cookbook for the home cook. Hopefully you’ll find them useful.
Flipping back and forth
No one likes to flip pages back and forth in the middle of a recipe. It makes it easier to lose your place, or lose track of what you’re doing, or get butter all over the cookbook. It certainly makes things more confusing and frustrating and increases the chance of error. Thus, when possible, arrange your page layout so that the cook does not have to turn the page when cooking–in other words, so that the recipe does not trail onto the back of the page.
Of course, sometimes you have to lay out the recipe so that page-flipping is required (some recipes are just that long). When this happens, you can make things much easier by giving amounts when writing directions. For example, “add the 1 cup flour…” This should, for the most part, prevent the cook from having to flip back and forth. (If you want an example of this sort of thing done right, try Marcel Desaulniers’ Death by Chocolate and related books.)
Detailed, complex instructions
Sometimes cookbook authors would like to explain a certain process in greater-than-normal detail, such as how to make pizza dough and crust. There are three major ways to go about this:
- Put a set of extremely thorough instructions into every pizza recipe in the cookbook.
- Put a set of extremely thorough instructions in one place in the cookbook, and just refer the reader to it from each recipe.
- Put a set of extremely thorough instructions in one place in the cookbook, put simple instructions with each recipe, and refer to the complex instructions in case anyone needs them.
Method #3 is ideal. If you use method #2, people have to do a lot of flipping back and forth (we already talked about why this is bad). Once the cook is familiar with the detailed directions she probably doesn’t need them any more, and almost certainly doesn’t need them every single time she makes pizza. Thus, flipping around becomes redundant and unwanted.
Method #1, on the other hand, makes the cookbook much thicker than it needs to be due to unnecessary repetition, and means that people end up having to skim past a lot of unnecessary instructions once they’re familiar with them. If you provide simple directions with the recipes and references to the complex directions, then the cook can make the decision of which set of directions is most useful to her at any one time, and thus avoid lots of unnecessary confusion and frustration.
Yes, it’s nice to keep a cookbook slender by providing a recipe once and then referring to it from recipe after recipe. Don’t overdo this. Remember that point above about the cook not wanting to have to flip back and forth lots. The more component recipes you introduce, the more likely the cook is to miss buying ingredients she needs. Also try not to provide multiple component recipes that the cook has to make and use at the same time–flipping back and forth is bad enough when it comes now and then. It’s incredibly annoying when it comes all at once.
Keep in mind that most professional chefs use component recipes because it allows them to make up a huge batch of simple syrup or puff pastry and use it in dozens of recipes, so that cooking becomes simple assembly. This is not helpful to most home cooks, obviating half of the usefulness of component recipes. Which brings us to…
If you reference another recipe, try to arrange things so that the cook is using the entire secondary recipe. Most home cooks will never get around to using the other half of that pie dough recipe, or the other 1/3 of the syrup recipe. Try to provide the recipe in terms of the smallest size necessary. If a larger batch is needed for something else, then provide simple directions for increasing the batch of syrup or dough or whatever.
Breaking up directions
Break instructions into manageable chunks. If the instructions are particularly long, then provide appropriate sub-headings. For instance, you might label one section “Cake,” the next “Icing,” the next “Assembly.”
Ingredients by number
Do not refer to ingredients by number. No “add the next five ingredients” instructions. These make it very easy for the cook to lose her place or make a mistake. Every time she looks at the recipe she’ll have to re-count out the ingredients. It’s easy enough to substitute in “add everything through the red pepper,” or “add the dry ingredients,” or better yet, “add the flour, cumin, and crushed red pepper.”
List ingredients in units a home cook can buy from the store when possible. A home cook can’t buy “1 cup diced apple” from the store. If it isn’t something she has around the house, then she wants to know when she goes to the store how many apples, tomatoes, or potatoes to buy. If the recipe requires exact amounts, then provide an equivalent: “1 cup diced Granny Smith apple, approximately 1 apple.
If you call for ingredients that aren’t universally available (and remember when you consider the word “universally” that there are plenty of people who don’t have ethnic grocers near them, or health food stores, or internet access), then suggest substitutes. Not only that, but suggest substitutes that are more likely to be available. Suggesting a rare cheese as a substitute for a rare cheese is not particularly helpful. While you might suggest other unusual ingredients as substitutes in case a store is out of stock of one but not the other, remember to include some more common substitutes as well for those who don’t even have the right store.
Unusual ingredients and items
If your recipes make extensive use of unusual ingredients (or equipment), particularly ethnic ingredients, then provide suppliers for those ingredients. Provide addresses where people can write for a catalog, phone numbers, and if possible, web site addresses.
Make sure these suppliers ship small amounts of ingredients, not just bulk ingredients for restaurant supply. And if your favorite source of an ingredient or item also happens to be an unusually expensive source, remember to provide a less expensive source as well. For example, most people making hors d’eouvres who are looking for cocktail picks just want something a little nicer than toothpicks to fasten things with — they aren’t looking for $30 each one-of-a-kind heirloom items. If that’s all you provide, it’ll be useless to them.
Also, provide a brief explanation of what an odd ingredient (or piece of equipment) is. This will help the home cook find the ingredient, decide on a substitute, or figure out that her children won’t like it so she shouldn’t try it. In the case of equipment, she might be able to jury-rig something that will do the same trick.
Clean and clear
Make sure your layout is crisp & clear. You want it to be as easy to read as possible. This means visually separating out sections from each other, ingredients from directions, special notes from ingredients, and so on.
Beware unusual fonts
You might think that faux handwriting font looks quaint. The cook is just cursing the fact that she can’t read the recipe quickly while cooking.
If you’re going to provide photographs, make sure they actually match the recipes. Yes, it’s true that you usually have to use a little “movie magic” to make the photo of a recipe look like the recipe. That’s different from providing an entirely false photo. If a cook makes a recipe from your cookbook and it’s clear that the recipe could never have produced the dish in the photo, it completely undermines your credibility.
You absolutely must kitchen test the recipes for your cookbook. We don’t just mean that you should try each recipe and make sure it works. We mean that someone who is not familiar with the recipes should try out the final write-up of most if not all of the recipes. Why? Because it’s entirely too easy for a typo to slip past your notice; writers of all types tend to read what they think they wrote rather than what they actually wrote. An editor can catch a normal writer’s mistakes, but only kitchen-testing will catch the fact that the bread won’t actually work without twice as much water in it.
If someone tries your cookbook and finds that the first two recipes she makes come out wrong in some way or another, she won’t keep using the cookbook. She’ll throw it aside and tell all her friends not to buy it–and with good reason. We have cookbooks collecting dust on our shelves because even though the recipes look so good, we’re unwilling to deal with the frustration caused by using them.
Number of servings
If you provide an estimate of the number of servings (this is often helpful), estimate low. Most cooks would much rather end up with a little too much food than not enough; the last thing you want when having company over is to not have enough food.
Special notes and unexpected results
If the recipe isn’t going to come out the way the home cook expects, say so. Otherwise, if you provide a muffin recipe that has a particularly thick biscuit-like dough, you’ll also have a cook thinking, “hmm, should I add more liquid, or not?” and being very, very confused. And if she ends up adding that extra liquid, she’ll be blaming you when things don’t come out right.
Never just say “until thickened.” Ever. EVER. Do you have any idea how many different values there are for “thickened?” In some recipes thickened means a slightly syrupy but otherwise thin liquid. In others it means a custard-like coat-the-back-of-a-spoon thickened. In others, it means nigh-solid. In others it just means “thicker than it started out.” Unless you want the cook to take the recipe off of the burner too soon because she thought something that thick would burn, or leave it on too long because she thought that didn’t really qualify as “thick,” then explain what you mean.
Many cooks like to suggest variations on the recipes that they provide. They do this either by providing a whole secondary recipe, or by mentioning the variation somewhere in the recipe or accompanying notes. The Ultimate Ice Cream Book provides variations in the most ingenious, useful way we’ve ever seen, and as far as we’re concerned every cookbook writer should copy it.
At the end of each recipe the author lists separately several short paragraphs, each with its own recipe title. In these sections he explains in simple and clear detail exactly what you have to do to create the variation, and exactly what other ingredients you need. But wait, here’s the best part: because he’s given each variation its own name, you can find them in the index!
You see, if you just mention the variation in the recipe, the cook is unlikely to ever make use of it. Why? She won’t notice those suggestions for the different ingredients when she’s making her grocery list, because they aren’t separated out at all. So if it uses any ingredients that she doesn’t have around the house, she probably won’t make it. If you write up each recipe separately when the variations are small and simple, then the book gets overly large, and the home cook might end up feeling cheated by the “repeat” recipes.
Caveat: if the variation is at all non-simple, however, you’re better off writing the recipe up separately, or the cook could well get confused during cooking by having to go back and forth between the altered directions and the originals. Then she’ll end up with something that’s a hybrid of both recipes, and quite possibly not fit for consumption.