Five Ways To Fail At Writing a Cookbook

Flickr user santos
There are two kinds of cookbooks in the world: professionally edited cookbooks and "you should totally make a cookbook" cookbooks. The difference is obvious: the professionally edited cookbooks follow a specific set of rules that makes like easier for the reader and cook, and the ad-hoc cookbooks are essentially brainstorming on paper.

Here are five ways to tell when you've got an amateur production on your hands.
1. Incomplete list of ingredients

Recipes Into Type, the stylebook for cookbooks that is the AP Stylebook of the recipe world, couldn't be clearer: every ingredient called for must be present, in the order needed, and every ingredient listed must be used in the order called for. Somehow, this escapes cookbook authors.

There's also a special place in Hell for the cookbooks that interline necessary ingredients without setting them off in bold font or with additional whitespace. A cook wanting to assemble a mise en place wants a list of things to go get, not a surprise ("and you need a stick of butter, melted and cooled, besides the half-stick you whipped into the dough earlier!") further down the line.

Flickr user fatloaf
2. Bad order of operations

I can't count the number of recipes I've read (and edited) where the writer has taken the cook through a number of time-sensitive steps such as whipping egg whites, only to follow with a giant roadblock such as "refrigerate something else for an hour" or "preheat the oven to 425ºF." It's important that the recipe flow; if it doesn't flow correctly, people get frustrated, and bad word of mouth ensues.

3. Specialized equipment not called out or explained

Abelskiver or takoyako pan?

There's a particular kind of hubris amongst cookbook writers, one in which everyone has a big, spacious, rambling farmhouse kitchen with an unlimited number of cabinets and an equally unlimited number of power outlets. If you're going to call for a takoyaki pan, a special meat grinder or a dough laminator (don't laugh, these recipe books exist), you had better a) say so up front and b) explain what it is.

4. Inappropriate or incomplete localization

Recipes sourced from outside the United States use metric measures; some use degrees Celsius for oven temperatures, and some use gas settings ("thermostat 5" means you're reading a French recipe, for example, and "gas mark 6" means it's British). When they're not converted correctly, the recipe fails or is frustrating to read. In addition, a tablespoon is not a tablespoon everywhere: a French recipe referring to "1 c. à s." (cuillère à soupe) does not mean one U.S. tablespoon. Does it matter in cooking? Maybe not, but in baking it certainly does.

5. Untested recipes

The very worst sin is a recipe that someone's written because it sounds good. All recipes in a book should be tested, a long, laborious and calorie-laden job that can take weeks or months. When a recipe doesn't work as written, an erratum has to be issued: "Oh, instead of four cups of basil, chopped, I meant four tablespoons of chopped parsley. Oopsie!" This, of course, assumes that recipe book readers are searching for them--survey says? BZZZZZZZT.

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Wayne Alan
Wayne Alan

This article offers good advice to future cookbook authors.  I am the author of Magical Meatless Meals, Famous Foods from Famous People and Places (  I’m a master magician and a wannabe chef.  My book features recipes from famous restaurants and hotels that I have visited in my travels, including the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hollywood’s Magic Castle.  It also includes some secret recipes from chefs and celebrities that I have worked with.   As Mr. Lieberman recommends, I called on pros to help me in writing my book.  I wisely hired a successful cookbook author, Whitey Schmidt, as a consultant and an established New York cookbook editor, Marc Haeringer.  Since I’m primarily an illusionist/magician, I have learned to depend on pros like stage lighting designers and operators, sound people, prop builders, script and music writers and costumers to make me look good on stage.  I tried to use the same thinking in writing my cookbook. Because my cookbook has lots of humorous stories and anecdotes, it is very entertaining and fun.  It also teaches you to be a magician in the kitchen by revealing the secrets to 25 magic tricks that can performed for your dinner guests.  By adding these unique elements, I had to be careful to not make the book too disjointed.  That is where my editor was especially helpful.   Because I am a wannabe chef all of the recipes are easy to follow.  If I can make all of the dishes, so can you.  In addition to my testing the recipes, I had three large recipe testing parties in my home where friends made the recipes, we all tasted them and then answered a questionnaire.    Wayne Alan

Phil Nigash
Phil Nigash

Sage advice, Dave.  Well done indeed.  One of my pet peeves is "salt and pepper to taste."  At least give me a starting point like 1/2 teaspoon or something. Because when I'm making a baked savory custard, it's a little hard to "salt to taste" when I can't really taste it until after it's been baked - and too late to add more salt.

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