Home > The Editor's Corner > Editor’s Corner: Creating a Cookbook, Part II: Recipe Instructions and Other Helpful Features

You might remember from our previous discussion about cookbooks that they are technical manuals and, as such, should provide easy-to-follow steps. In this article, we’re going to discuss how to make your recipe instructions clear and to make life easier (and yummier) for the reader.

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Recipe Instructions

The first thing to remember in crafting instructions is to move in order of priority. For example, if the oven needs to preheat, make that an early step so the oven will be warm in time. This doesn’t mean the first step must be to preheat, however, especially if preparation will take quite some time (letting dough rise for several hours, for example).

Second, include all important information. Consider the instruction “In saucepan, combine butter, milk, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and vanilla. Once butter is melted and sugar is dissolved, set aside.” Notice what the step did not include:

  • Temperature at which mixture should be heated
  • If mixture should be stirred and, if so, how frequently

Third, keep each step manageable. Yes, it’s vital to include all necessary information, but the way the information is provided is just as important. Grouping instructions together in one step is fine, but try to avoid making the step too long. It’s very easy for cooks to miss a sentence in a long step, or to miss a single step in a very long list. Consider the examples below.

Example 1

  1. Using a fork, cut chilled butter into flour until pieces are size of small peas.
  2. Add wild blueberries and toss to coat.
  3. Mix 1 cup buttermilk and finely grated lemon peel in glass measuring cup.
  4. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and stir until dough begins to form.
  5. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and gather together.
  6. Knead dough briefly, about 5 turns.
  7. Divide dough in half.
  8. Form each dough half into ball and flatten into 1-inch-thick disk.

The above example is fairly easy to read, but this is only half of the instructions of the recipe. For a long/complex recipe, this could be difficult to follow.

Example 2

  1. Using a fork, cut chilled butter into flour until pieces are size of small peas. Add wild blueberries and toss to coat.
  2. Mix 1 cup buttermilk and finely grated lemon peel in glass measuring cup. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and stir until dough to form. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and gather together. Knead dough briefly, about 5 turns.
  3. Divide dough in half. Form each dough half into ball and flatten into 1-inch-thick disk.

Example 2 is also fairly easy to read, but notice how many pieces are involved in step 2. The author could possibly overlook something. Example 3 (below) seems to strike the best balance.

Example 3

  1. Using a fork, cut chilled butter into flour until pieces are size of small peas. Add wild blueberries and toss to coat.
  2. Mix 1 cup buttermilk and finely grated lemon peel in glass measuring cup. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients and stir until dough begins to form.
  3. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and gather together. Knead dough briefly, about 5 turns.
  4. Divide dough in half. Form each dough half into ball and flatten into 1-inch-thick disk.

Finally, don’t leave any instructions incomplete. For example, if step 3 instructs the cook to set aside an ingredient/mixture, a later step must use the set-aside item.

Making Life Easier for Your Reader

The points above are all that’s required for good recipe instructions, but to make your cookbook an excellent text that is easy to use and very helpful, consider these further tips.

  1. Include the following information for each recipe to help the cook plan:
    • number of servings the recipe makes
    • estimated preparation time
    • estimated cook time
    • any special equipment needed (e.g., springform pan, oven roasting bag)
  1. If an ingredient needs to be prepared a certain way, either say so in the ingredients list or include a step with the necessary preparation. For example:

how to write a cookbook

  1. Provide instructions for the equipment your readers will most likely have. Not every cook will have the same equipment. If you provide instructions for a stand mixer, also be sure to provide instructions for a hand mixer if the process would not be the same.
  2. As much as possible, try to have the reader use dry ingredients before wet ingredients. This allows the cook to more easily reuse measuring cups and spoons. Who doesn’t love faster cleanup?
  3. Include entries for all major ingredients in the index. For example, a cook with an abundance of cauliflower from the garden or a supermarket sale may be looking for new, creative ways to use his or her supply. If your cookbook uses cauliflower in recipes spread through the Appetizers, Poultry, and Meatless Entrees sections, an index entry for cauliflower could be eminently useful for the cook.

The Single Most Important Rule to Follow

Finally, before submitting your text for editing, test every recipe yourself, following the instructions exactly as written, and then have at least one beta reader do the same. Some problems in instructions can be caught by simply reading the recipe, but nothing compares to the experience of actually following the recipe. What happens if someone purchases your book and, halfway through making a recipe, discovers that an important step or ingredient was omitted? You’ve wasted the cook’s time—and possibly food—meaning an unhappy reader and, consequently, bad reviews. Testing every recipe before you publish helps ensure that your book is a great tool for satisfying your reader’s taste buds!

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.