Thursday, August 14, 2014

How to Write Recipes

A cookbook lays open in a lovely kitchen and a lemon meringue pie sits finished.
Written recipes are a type of expository writing.  The goal of a recipe writer is to explain to a reader how to prepare a dish.

Minimally, a recipe includes ingredients and step-by-step  instructions.  Sometimes a recipe includes a list of required equipment or skills. In addition to those basics, however, there are many other ways to liven up a recipe.  Sometimes a recipe writer will add nutritional information, a brief history of the dish or ingredients, or add alternative methods or dietary requirement instructions.  As readers, we may take a recipe writer's writing skills for granted as we drool over beautiful photographs of the finished product.  We shouldn't.

In addition to the recipe's content, a recipe writer must also pay special attention to writing conventions.   The grammar and mechanics of writing a recipe are just as important, if not more so, than in any other piece of expository writing.


Measurements and Abbreviations

First, a recipe writer must adhere to a consistent set of measurements and abbreviations.  Can you imagine a new baker reading a recipe and trying to figure out how to combine 4g of baking powder with 1C of flour and 2 ounces of baking soda?  What about .5L of milk?  How about if it said 4 TBS or 4 TBLS or 4 TSPS?  Is 4 tsp the same as 4 TSPS?  And aren't ounces for liquids?  Some fortunate souls might be able to work it out, but others will not.  Therefore, it is essential that a recipe contain measurements and abbreviations consistent with the conventions accepted by the intended audience and consistent within the recipe - not changing willy nilly in the midst of the recipe.

Verb Tense and Order

Second, a recipe writer must use the proper verb tense and explain the cooking steps in such a way that they are easy to follow.  In other words, it's important to clearly tell the reader when tasks and steps should be completed by using a clearly defined step-by-step order.  A new cook might truly appreciate the instructions to preheat an oven while whisking eggs, or to add chopped nuts only moments before placing a bread into the oven. However, if the instruction to preheat the oven appears after the instruction to add chopped nuts, the instruction to add nuts moments before placing the bread into the preheated oven will be for naught.

A recipe will also read more smoothly if verbs are consistent with previous verbs.  It will read even more smoothly if the structure of each step emphasizes the verbs.  For example, each new step can begin with "chop," "dice," "saute," "steam," or "grate."

Vocabulary and Terminology

Third, when writing a recipe, the vocabulary of cooking must be used correctly.  "Saute" and "fry" may seem like the same thing to some cooks, but they really are not.  Likewise, to use the zest of lemon is not the same as using a lemon.  And can you imagine what might happen if you label a recipe gluten-free when it is not, or vegan when it is really vegetarian or pescatarian?  It is essential that the specific language of cooking, all the jargon and vocabulary associated with cooking, be used appropriately.

The main goal of a recipe writer is to help the reader recreate a favorite dish based on the written recipe.  That requires recipe writers pay very close attention to some very specific writing conventions in order to successfully meet that goal.


Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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