Write Better Recipes: Avoid the Seven Most Common Recipe Writing Errors

8 years ago
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In the last week, I’ve been editing recipes for two books by food bloggers. Both have short deadlines, and I’ve been working long hours.

That’s okay. It’s so much fun to see such creativity and invention, to fantasize about which recipes I’m going to try, and –- yes -– to nitpick. Such is the job of an editor.

Credit: Emily Carlin

For one book, I make comments in pen and add little colored stickies to the paper copy. For the other, I make comments using Track Changes within the Word document.

And here’s what I’m finding: errors and inelegant phrasings. I thought you might want to know about  the most common mistakes. First though, let’s review the terminology: The list of ingredients is called (funnily enough) the “ingredients list,” and the directions are called the “method.” The mistakes:

1. Ingredients out of order. This is by far the biggest error. List ingredients in the order of use. If the first thing you’ll do is saute the onions, don’t list the  steak first, even if it’s the star of the recipe.

2. Missing ingredients. Make sure you use every item in your ingredients list, in order. Otherwise you’ll get a little note that says, “What were you planning to do with the lime zest?” Similarly, if you refer to an ingredient in the method, make sure it’s in your ingredients list.

3. Wrong amounts. I saw a recipe for 30 cookies that called for 2 1/2 pounds of flour (10 cups) and 3 cups of honey. I don’t think so.

I’ve also seen measurements in the ingredient list that don’t match the amount called for in the method. Not that you should be calling for amounts in the method most of the time anyway. (See next item about when to do so.)

4. Overuse of  the term “divided” in the ingredients list. “Divided” comes into play when you use an ingredient more than once. But it’s such an imprecise word, and recipe writing is all about precision. “Divided” doesn’t tell the reader anything other than that they will have to pay attention when it comes to using the ingredient.

And as we know, readers don’t pay full attention. Hell, most of them don’t even read the whole recipe first. I’m guilty, too. How many times have I dumped in all the sugar, only to read later that I need a “remaining” half cup? (Don’t ask.) Here are a few workarounds:

  • Use subheads. Let’s say you’re making a steak salad. You’re using vinegar twice: once when marinating the steak and once when making the salad dressing. Use subheads such as “Marinade” and “Dressing” so you can give the appropriate amount of vinegar for each use.
  • State just the ingredient, not the amount. Let’s say you use salt and pepper three times: once when seasoning the meat, then in the marinade, then add it at the end for flavoring. Just say “salt and freshly-ground pepper”  in the ingredients list. Give amounts in the method.
  • State both amounts, starting with the largest. Such as “1/2 cup olive oil + more to grease the pan.”

If you must use “1/2 cup vinegar, divided,” state the first amount in the method (1/4 cup vinegar). Write “remaining” 1/4 cup of vinegar” when you use it the second time. The word “remaining” has a purpose. It alerts people like me that it’s time to swear.

5. Listing water as an ingredient. If you're just using water out of the tap, such as to boil pasta, just bring it up in the method and state the amount. 

6. Calling for prepped ingredient in both ingredient list and method. If the ingredients list says “Grated Parmesan,” there’s no reason to say “Grate Parmesan over pizza” at the end of the method.

7. Saying “season to taste” when it’s not the right time to taste it. If your pasta sauce simmers for two hours, it won’t help readers to season it beforehand. Also don’t ask them to taste batter, raw meat and other uncooked things to season them.  It’s not the right time to taste, and people won’t want to anyway. Just provide the correct amount of salt and pepper when you need it.

I could go on about the excessive use of bacon and chocolate in desserts, or about photos that don’t show what the recipe said, or particularly, about overuse of the word “mixture.”

But I’d rather hear about what drives you crazy when writing recipes or when trying to follow one.


For more writing advice, visit our How to Write (Better) series archive.

Dianne Jacob
Website: http://www.diannej.com
Blog: http://www.diannej.com/blog
Twitter: http://twitter.com/diannej

Author of Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to
Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir and More

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