Thursday, January 03, 2008

Recipe Writing: Part 1

This article was previously posted on the Dining Hall forum.

Recipe writing is an important component of food blogging. We invest a great deal of time in typing out recipes and posting them, for ourselves and for others. For many of us, our food blog becomes our own easy-to-access recipe notebook. Noting down traditional family and regional recipes and seeing them in black-and-white print reassures us that these precious aspects of our history do not fade. Recipes allow our readers to recreate favorite recipes and enhance our collective culinary knowledge. A well-written recipe that actually works is a valuable resource; it saves time, ingredients and frustration.

One of the most endearing aspects of blogging is that it is a creative process that gives us complete freedom. Unlike someone who is writing recipes for a book, magazine or newspaper, we have no editors to worry about and no consumers to please. We can write recipes just the way we want to and no one can object. However, as my parents have often said to me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” So there is always room for a little improvement when it comes to recipe writing.

In this first article, let us look at three topics in the art of recipe-writing. There is no "correct" or "perfect" way to blog a recipe, but here are some aspects to consider.

1. The source of the recipe
We food bloggers know how awful it is to have our work plagiarized. Surely we don't want to be the plagiarizers, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Acknowledging recipe sources is in good taste and is the ethical thing to do. It takes nothing away from you. Failure to give credit seriously undermines one's credibility, is unethical (it can also be illegal) and should be avoided at all costs. Hence, any blogger who posts recipes on her/his blog needs to understand copyright as it applies to recipes. You can read about it here and here, and on plenty of other websites, but here is the bottom line as I understand it:
a) Ingredients lists cannot be copyrighted, but the procedure or method portion of a recipe can be considered a creative work and protected by copyright. Therefore, it is a good idea to write the method in your own words rather than copying it word for word from your source.
b) The source should be prominently displayed in the blogged recipe, either in the recipe introduction, under the title or at the end of the recipe. It is a good idea to get into the habit of writing the source of every single recipe. It could say "Source: Mom, my own creation, my friend XYZ, fellow blogger ABC or the book/ magazine/website" etc. that you got the recipe from. No matter what the source is, just place it in plain sight.
c) When the recipe is from a commercial source, I personally like to provide a link to where the book can be bought, or the website of the magazine, or a link to the blog if it is a fellow blogger's recipe. I feel that providing this small "ad" for my source is a way of saying thanks for letting me share the recipe.

2. The ingredients list.
Now for a look at a crucial part of the recipe, the ingredients list. Here are a few things to think about, and then decide on what style suits you best.

a. Should you use quantities that are exact or approximate? For instance, would you say, "a big pinch of asafetida" or "1/8 of a teaspoon of asafetida"? Some recipes need more precision than others: sometimes I feel like successful idlis require precise planetary alignments, while a sambar recipe is a lot easier to follow from written instructions! Broadly speaking, stove-top recipes tend to be a little more forgiving than baking recipes. There are some recipes that are strict protocols (meringues, for instance), while others are concepts and ideas that one can play with (like mango puree+ yogurt+ milk= mango lassi, and you can pretty much use your favorite proportions as desired).

b. In what order are the ingredients listed? Should you write the major ingredients first… does knowing the major ingredients makes shopping for the recipe easier? Or should you list the ingredients in the order that they are used in the recipe? Should the ingredient be listed first, followed by the quantity (Yogurt, 1 cup) or the quantity be listed first (1 cup yogurt)? The former may be a little easier as a pantry checklist, or in assembling ingredients before making the recipe. Subheads in the ingredient list make it much easier to understand the recipe, that is, collections of ingredients for sub-recipes (masala, tempering, dough, filling etc).

c. Weights and measures: Do you use metric measures (grams) or imperial measures (ounces)? Do you use weight (100 grams flour) or liquid measures (1 cup flour)? If possible, multiple measures can be helpful (1/4 stick of butter or 2 tablespoons butter).

d. Language of ingredients: If I am writing an Indian recipe, do I list "jeera" or "cumin seeds" in the ingredient list? Often, we use English words interspersed with words from our own language, depending on what term is most familiar to us. But I get the occasional feedback from readers saying both, "You say poppy seeds….what is that in Marathi?" and "You say ratala… what is that in English?" What is the solution to the language dilemma? Perhaps a link to a glossary? Creating a glossary page on our blogs? Or we can where possible put the name we are most familiar with and the English or other name in (brackets).

e. Ingredient shorthand: Ingredients can be written in short forms, and some of the common terms are S&P (salt and pepper), t = teaspoon and T = tablespoon, C = cup, and lately, thanks to a certain someone, EVOO (extra virgin olive oil). But if one chooses to use short forms, the readers should know the meaning of the terms to avoid confusion. Perhaps a glossary or a key would be helpful?

f. Instructions with the ingredients: A recipe method can be simplified and shortened by writing some directions in the ingredients list itself. Simple instructions ("2 eggs, beaten" instead of just "2 eggs" and then "Beat the eggs" in the directions) are good to have in the ingredients list, but complex preparation steps belong in the method section.

g. Ingredient substitution: It can be useful to say what substitutions can be made right in the ingredient list, so that the reader can see at a glance whether they have the ingredients for trying out the recipe ("8 ounces macaroni, or other short pasta")

h. Way of presenting ingredients: It is a general consensus that a recipe looks neater and more user-friendly if each ingredient is listed on a separate line. Of course, in the case of just 3-4 ingredients, it does not matter. But a very long ingredient list in paragraph form is quite difficult to read.

i. Photographs of ingredients: Blogging gives us the advantage of laying out the ingredients beautifully and providing a pictorial depiction of the ingredient list, so readers can see at a glance what goes into a recipe.

j. Is an ingredient list necessary? Recently, I got rid of ingredients lists altogether and started highlighting ingredients in bold in the methods itself. I have no idea if this makes it very difficult to use, but it sure makes it less work to write the recipe! Any thoughts on this?

3. Accessorizing the recipe: Beyond the ingredients and the method, there are several features that we can use to enhance the usefulness of our recipes.
a. Yield of a recipe: This gives an approximate idea of how much food a recipe makes. The yield can be expressed as "4-6 servings", "makes 1 cup", "makes 6 medium patties" etc.
b. Equipment list: If a recipe calls for specialized equipment, (ice cream machine, bread machine, microwave), that fact can be written in a list following the ingredient list, for instance. This way the readers can see at a glance if they have the equipment necessary for trying the recipe.
b. Time of preparation (active cooking time, total time, marinating time, rising time): this gives an idea of time that one needs to invest to try the recipe.
c. Variations: E.g. variation of ingredients, "Use okra or radishes or eggplants to make variations of this sambar", of consistency, "for a smoother consistency, put the soup through a blender", or equipment alternatives, "To make a loaf instead of individual rolls, bake the dough in a loaf pan". Such tips are highly useful, especially for less experienced cooks.
d. Notes on how to serve: This can be in the form of serving ideas ("this chutney can be used as a dip or as a sandwich spread"), adaptations that can go in the lunch-box, or suggested accompaniments ("this rice goes well with a yogurt raita").
e. Nutrition facts: Just looking at a recipe, it can be quite challenging to figure out the nutrition and calorie content. So, precise nutrition facts can be a useful feature for anyone who is trying to eat healthier or anyone who has special nutritional needs or restrictions. There are many software packages out there to calculate nutrition facts for any recipe; here is one recommended by fellow blogger Alanna.
f. Links to other recipes: These could be links to other recipes on the internet (or even on your own blog) using the same main ingredient (Five more cauliflower curries), or to similar recipes with alternative ingredients (Other recipes from Sri Lanka). I personally find this very useful and convenient.

Research for this article:
1. The Recipe-Writer's Handbook: Barbara Gobbs Ostmann and Jane Baker
2. Rogov's Ramblings
3. Eggbeater Post
Many thanks to Cynthia for pre-reading this post and giving her valuable input!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. A valuable information for any food blogger. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Nupur, was a good read and definitely useful to any food blogger.

  3. Thanks Nupur. I am a new bee when it comes to food blogging, find your comments very useful and certainly provide an insight into legible writing style to be followed for blogging. I invite you to view my blog at konkanifoodie. Let me know your thoughts/inputs if any.

  4. First time I've seen your site. It's so professional and the recipes are making me drool already. Are you going to write a book, or have you already?


    Bon Appetite,

  5. Hello Nupur,

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I was just reading a chapter in Will Write for Food on recipe writing, and was about to write a blog post about it on my blog, but I decided to google and see what I could find on the internet and I came across your article, which caters to food bloggers. I love it and I'm quite new to food blogging too (i am in a group food blog), so all the information you have carefully and very thoughtfully laid out are very beneficial.
    Thank you again.

    Oh, and when I do end up writing a blog post on the art of recipe writing, I do intend to link to your wonderful article :) I hope you don't mind :)

    Warm regards,
    Juli Herman


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