Cooking may be an art, but writing recipes that anyone can use? That’s a bit of a science.
When writing a recipe, clarity is key. If your reader gets tripped up on your language, they won’t attempt the recipe at all—or worse, they’ll try it and get bad results.
Don’t worry—clarity doesn’t preclude creativity. There are plenty of ways to showcase your style and personality in your recipes, as long as, at the end of the day, the language is clear and concise.
Let’s walk through the essential pieces of any recipe: The title, the headnote, the ingredient list, and the recipe steps.
You can download our free recipe template in Microsoft Word and follow the steps mentioned in this post to write your recipes down like a pro.
Whether you’re writing recipes for your friends and family, a blog, or a cookbook, this template will help!
1. The Recipe Title
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good title: It’s the first impression your readers will have of the recipe, and it’s likely what will determine whether or not they continue reading.
Your title should be descriptive; make sure to mention the main ingredients and flavors. When in doubt, stick with something straightforward, like “Roast Chicken with Garlic and Rosemary” or “Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream.”
A few carefully selected adjectives can give your recipe extra appeal, especially if they have a personal bent; think “Nana’s Famous Lemony Rice Pudding” or “Fluffy Dinner Rolls.” But be judicious: Adding too many adjectives can make your title long and cumbersome.
If you’re writing a cookbook, you’ll also have layout limitations to contend with. Keeping the length of your titles fairly consistent will make for more aesthetically pleasing pages.
Be sure to include the yield and/or serving size of the recipe just below the title.
A headnote is a short paragraph that precedes the recipe and acts as a sort of introduction. Think of the headnote as an opportunity to let your personality shine, both as a cook and as a person.
Consider starting your headnote with a short anecdote. Tell the reader why you’re including this recipe in your book. For example:
- Did you eat something at a restaurant that inspired you to create this dish?
- Did your best friend make something like this for you when you needed cheering up?
- Have you been making this dessert since you were 14, perfecting it along the way?
Those stories are what make your recipe different from anyone else’s—and what will draw your readers in.
Next, offer any tips, tricks, or suggestions that will help your readers succeed when cooking.
For example, you might mention that a French onion soup recipe requires broiler-safe crocks, or that your recipe for popovers can be made in a muffin tin instead of a popover pan. If your braised pork recipe calls for pork shoulder, this is your chance to fill the reader in on what to look for at the grocery store.
Serving suggestions are good headnote fodder, too: If that beef stew is great with bread or egg noodles, say so. Putting this information in the headnote keeps your ingredient list and recipe steps clean and concise.
3. Ingredient List
Now you’re getting to core of your recipe: the ingredient list.
First, make sure every ingredient is on its own line. Units, such as tablespoons, cups, or ounces, should be fully written out, not abbreviated. Avoid writing two numbers in a row, as in the case of portion or package size; the second number should be in parentheses. For example:
- 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
- 2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins
Your ingredients should be listed in the order they appear in the recipe steps. If you’re adding multiple ingredients at once, list those ingredients in descending volume order.
If something is used twice in the recipe, it should be listed where it’s first used, followed by the word “divided” to give the reader a heads up. (Make sure to then indicate the amount used each time the divided ingredient appears in the recipe steps.)
One exception: If a recipe contains two or more very distinct elements (e.g. turkey and gravy, chicken and potatoes, pie crust and filling), it’s easiest to break the ingredient list into sections and list all the ingredients used for each element under the appropriate header (even if they’ve been used before). Then repeat those headers in the recipe steps so the reader knows what goes where.
The ingredient list is also where you’ll tell readers the basic preparation of each ingredient, such as “chopped,” “minced,” “sliced into 1-inch-thick slices,” or “peeled and quartered.” This is also where things can get tricky, since seemingly small differences in wording can really impact how a recipe turns out.
Take this example:
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup chopped walnuts
The first line, “1 cup walnuts, chopped” indicates that your reader should first measure 1 cup of walnuts, then chop them. The second line, “1 cup chopped walnuts,” indicates the opposite: The reader would chop the walnuts first, then measure out a cup of the chopped nuts.
Since you’d be able to fit more chopped walnuts than whole walnuts in a one-cup measure, the amount of walnuts used could vary considerably—all because of the order in which your words are written.
It’s also important to be specific. For example, “4 chicken breasts” is too vague; more information is helpful, as in “4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts.” Ambiguity is the death knell of a good recipe, so don’t leave any room for misinterpretation.
Any ingredient prep that requires more than a few words of description should be left for the recipe steps (e.g. butterflying a chicken).
4. Recipe Steps
When writing recipe steps, think concise and precise: Every sentence should be to the point and packed with information. Avoid extraneous adjectives or distracting parentheticals—these belong in the headnote.
The biggest question here: Where do the breaks go? Where does step 1 end and step 2 begin? A good rule of thumb is that, when you start a new task, start a new step.
For example, if you are instructing the reader to make a sauce for lasagna, making the sauce should be its own step—the instructions for layering the lasagna should be a different step.
One caveat: Breaking your recipe into too many steps can make it seem intimidating, so try to combine simple tasks into one step.
For example, if you are making cookies in which you instruct the reader to mix the wet ingredients and dry ingredients in two different bowls, you can do so in a single step: “In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, combine melted butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla.” The next step can then be about combining those two mixtures.
Be sure to consider timing when deciding the order of your recipe steps, as well. Don’t tell the reader to preheat the oven at the moment the casserole is supposed to go in. Preheating takes time, so put it in step 1. You can also use words like “meanwhile” to give the reader a clue that, for instance, while the pasta is cooking, they can be making sauce.
Short of an actual style guide, it’s difficult to capture all of the recipe step–writing rules in one place, since recipes can vary so much.
But no matter what type of recipe you’re writing, there are a few things you should always keep in mind:
Shortening Ingredient Names
Since you’ve already provided detailed information about your ingredients in the ingredient list, it’s ok to shorten the ingredient names in the recipe steps. For example, you don’t need to say, “Cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts,” only, “Cook chicken.” One exception: If you’re using two types of the same ingredient, like granulated and brown sugar, you will need to include the appropriate descriptors.
Vessel Types and Sizes
At the first mention of a new vessel, be sure to specify the type and size (e.g. 13 x 9-inch glass baking dish, large saucepan, small microwave-safe bowl, 12-inch straight-sided sauté pan, standard muffin tin, etc.). Once you’ve given these details, there’s no need to repeat them later in the recipe; you can simply say “dish” or “pan.”
When cooking on the stove, always indicate the heat level (e.g. high, medium-low, low). When the heat changes, it’s helpful to say “increase heat to high” or “decrease heat to medium-low,” which gives the reader a useful point of reference.
Whenever possible, give both the approximate cooking time as well as a visual (or temperature-based) doneness cue. Different stoves and ovens inevitably vary a bit in temperature and efficiency, so merely saying, “Cook onions over medium heat for 5 minutes” might yield different results for different cooks. Instead, you might say, “Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until onion is softened and beginning to brown,” which ensures that anyone making the recipe ends up with the same result. For meat, giving the doneness temperature is the most foolproof way to guarantee success: “Cook chicken breasts over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes, until internal temperature registers 165 degrees.”
Always end the recipe with basic serving instructions. If the dish should be eaten right away, you may want to say, “Serve immediately,” but if it needs to be completely cool, say, “Allow to cool completely, about 2 hours, before serving.” If it’s ok to serve something either hot or at room temperature, mention that too. Don’t forget about plating instructions, but keep them simple, as in “Sprinkle with parsley and serve.” You don’t need to go into great detail about how to swoop sauce across plates or how to position sliced steak atop a bed of greens.
Writing a Cookbook
When writing a cookbook, consistency is key. The best way to ensure this is to write yourself a style guide, which should include info on how to call for certain ingredients, whether your recipe steps should include articles (e.g. a or the), appropriate abbreviations, etc.
Never assume that your reader will be able to imply or extrapolate meaning. Give as much information as you think your readers will need without going overboard.
The best way to ensure your recipe is flawless is to have someone else make it. A friend or family member will be able to point out omissions, points of confusion, and other small errors you may have missed.
With practice, writing great recipes will become second nature.
Melissa Drumm is a lifelong book lover. She is passionate about helping authors make their work the best it can be. You can find some of her writing here on the TCK blog, and learn more about her other projects at melissadrumm.com. When she’s not writing, editing, or reading, you’ll usually find her in the kitchen, baking.