5 Rules for Writing Better Recipes

Here at Chicory, recipes are at the core of our business. Not only do we work with tons of recipe publishers and food bloggers--meaning we look at, easily, hundreds of recipes every week--but we've also invested the time to build out a complex recipe taxonomy that enables us to link ingredients to products.

The challenge with building that part of our business came when we needed to first "excavate" our construction zone. We analyzed millions of recipes across the web to come up with rules for understanding how food is talked about on the web. We quickly learned that people talk about food in countless different ways. For example, the product "1 lb of boneless, skinless chicken breast" could be linked to any of the following:

  • 1 lb chicken breast
  • 2 cups diced chicken breast
  • 1 poached chicken breast
  • 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 4 chicken breasts - skinned and de-boned
  • 2 cups shredded chicken breast

See what we mean? Ultimately, the cook needs the same product for every single one of these recipes. So, with the knowledge that shoppers use recipes both as shopping lists and as guides for actually making their dinners, we've found a few best practices that will help your readers coming back to your recipes for not only their tastiness, but also their ease of use.

Write Measures for Your Audience

Who are you writing your recipes for--moms? Millennials? Empty nesters? A global audience? Understanding the needs and habits of your core audience is crucial for so many reasons, but it also comes into play with recipe measures. "350 grams" of cubed chicken might make more sense if you write about food for an international audience. For busy moms, "3 chicken breasts" might allow them to eyeball a recipe and immediately know if it can feed their whole family. Millennials might be more used to shopping at urban farmer's markets, meaning they might purchase loose veggies or grains; talk in cups or other volume measures. Older, empty nester-types might be more inclined to seeing brand names that imply measures in themselves like "a box of Uncle Ben's rice pilaf."

Separate Adjectives that Imply Actions

Some ingredients imply an action. By this I mean something like "1 onion, diced." Separating out that action word (diced), allows readers to skim the recipe prior to cooking--likely in their building-a-shopping-list phase--and understand that the product they should buy is an onion, but the onion needs some prep before cooking begins. On the other hand, if your ingredient is something that your reader will likely purchase in its prepared state, list that ingredient as such. Think "ground coffee" or "sliced turkey." 

Begin Instructions with Actions

Your recipe isn't the place for too much narrative. In all likelihood, your readers will give your instructions a skim when they're deciding whether or not to give your recipe a try and then won't return to the instructions portion of the recipe until they're in the kitchen, cooking, with their hands covered in flour and a pot of pasta water threatening to boil over. That's why your recipe instructions are the place for concise, active writing. Be deliberate with your verbs: peel carrots, preheat oven, sauté kale. Feel free to also include visual queues here: broil until cheese bubbles and browns, flip pancakes when you begin to see holes form in the cake.

Make Notes Bold and Clear

While keeping your instructions active is helpful to your readers, you'll likely find that you need some kind of "notes" addendum here and there. This is the place for mentioning that no, substituting yogurt for vegetable oil in this particular recipe won't work. A helpful feature is to visually make your notes--especially if they're crucial to the success of the recipe--stand out from the rest of the instructions. I personally love the way the Food52 team handled this in their Genius Recipes cookbook. Almost all of the recipes are accompanied by a "Genius Tip" which appears at the end of the instructions, but you don't miss the bolded, helpful advice thanks to the recipe's formatting style.

Remember Basic Best Practices

While the above tips help your readers go from recipe to reality, as we like to call it, there are still a handful of basic recipe best practices that you should be cognizant of. List ingredients in the order they're used. If a few ingredients are added all at once, list them from biggest to smallest volume. Keep your style consistent (Tbsp versus Tablespoon, for example). Test your recipes at least twice. Don't call for a fully prepared ingredient without mentioning it in your ingredients list (saying something like "serve over steamed rice" without listing rice as an ingredient). Be as clear as possible, using subheads when necessary (avoid saying something like 1 cup flour, divided... what does that mean!?). I quite like this guide by A Cozy Kitchen for some additional tips. 

Photo via Studio Blog