How to write a recipe that works – for real

Okay, so none of us are celebrity chefs or prize-winning food writers. But sooner or later, if you can cook – even a bit – you’ll be asked to write out the recipe for a dish you’ve prepare that a friend has particularly liked. So learning how to write a recipe is quite a useful addition to anyone’s verbal toolbox.

And don’t you just love those celebrity chef specials that tell you to do things in the wrong order, using the wrong measurements, and assume you have the ability to chop, cube, slice, fry, sauté, grill, roast, simmer, flambé, check your emails and walk the dog all at the same time?

Get real, celebrity chefs – and write your recipes for human families, not TV studios

We ordinary mortals do not have stylists and other people chopping, peeling, de-seeding and otherwise preparing ingredients for our recipes – we have to do it ourselves. We do not have the luxury of assistants who know when to turn on ovens so they’re heated to the appropriate temperature when the time comes for us to shove the dish in question in for cooking.

Recipes need to follow a practical, logical sequence if ordinary cooks in their homes are to enjoy any measure of success. Yet judging by the way so many of these recipes in cookbooks are written, you’d think that the chef concerned had never actually prepared a meal in a normal, bustling kitchen with dogs and cats clamouring for their suppers and the kids doing their homework at the other end of the table.

So how do you write a recipe that’s truly practical?

List the ingredients required in total. Don’t airily dismiss such things as dried mushrooms or cans of foie gras as “little things you’re bound to have in your store cupboard.” Most of us don’t even have a store cupboard other than a drawer full of dried herbs 5 years beyond their sell-by date.

If the oven needs to be at XXX degrees, for Heaven’s sake tell us at the very beginning, before the ingredients list. Even fan ovens take a while to heat up and unless the recipe takes more than 30 minutes to put together, we need to get that oven going before doing anything else.

If you’re not sure which measurement form your readers use, be kind and show them all (metric, imperial and cups.) I know you can get measurement converter charts online but it’s not a pleasant experience to Google the conversion from metric to imperial measures while dripping melted butter and sifted flour all over your laptop or touch phone.

Don’t write more than necessary, but adding the odd bit of conversation into it won’t kill you. Some recipes you read consist largely of staccato sentences, e.g. “ Chill butter. Sift flour. Cut butter into cubes. Rub into flour. Work to consistency of coarse crumbs.” OK, it’s accurate, but wouldn’t “chill your butter for a half hour before you need to cook, then cut it into cubes. Sift the flour and rub the butter cubes into it until the dough looks like coarse crumbs.” I know, it’s longer – but much friendlier.

Put the number of servings it yields at the top, not the bottom. It’s useful to know if you need to halve, double or otherwise adjust the quantities before you even go shopping for the ingredients, not when you’re about to put the dish into the oven.

If your readers are in different English language countries, remember that some ingredients are named differently. I once spent ages trying to find a British equivalent to salt pork in an otherwise wonderful recipe a friend in Minnesota gave me for home-made baked beans. One of my current projects here on HTWB is a British English – North American English dictionary (am serialising it now) and I’ve got numerous food entries in there.

If your recipe is for a main dish, it’s a nice idea to suggest accompaniments. Add your favourites such as rice, pasta, potatoes plus whatever other vegetables you feel go well with it. You can even suggest a suitable starter dish and dessert, too.

If you suggest alternative ingredients (e.g. fish instead of chicken, tofu instead of pork) don’t just name them, but also say what quantities you would need. More often than not you can’t do a straight switch in weight or volume.

And to round off, I thought you would like to share this recipe from the wonderful Weird-Food.com website:

“Sent to us by the Sweetwater, Texas, Chamber of Commerce. The Sweetwater Jaycee’s ‘World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup‘ is held each year in March and hundreds of pounds of rattlesnake meat is cooked and served by Chief Chef Corky Frazier.

  1. Find and capture a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
  2. Kill, skin and remove entrails.
  3. Cut into edible portions.
  4. Make a batter of flour, cracker meal, salt, pepper and garlic.
  5. Roll your snake portions in the batter.
  6. Fry in deep fat, heated to a temperature that will ignite a floating wooden match.
  7. Fry until meat is a golden brown.
  8. Eat it!!”

I could have written it better than that, but I’m very happy to leave this one to Corky … especially instructions #1 and #2 ….

Now, let’s make sure your writing is always good and tasty:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

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