How to Write a Cookbook in 8 Deliciously Simple Steps
Ask Food and Drink editor Laura Gladwin if writing a cookbook is a good idea and she’ll not only tell you yes, she’ll tell you it’s a great idea. According to Gladwin, “Food and Drink is one of the best-selling genres in non-fiction!”
It also happens to be one of the most competitive markets. But the good news is — whether you’re a passionate home chef, food blogger, Masterchef-binger, or just someone who’s dreamt of taking their food fancies for a literary spin — the best place to start when it comes to how to write a cookbook is with a love of good food.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than just appetite. This post covers the eight steps of how to write a cookbook, from distilling your core idea to penning precise ingredient lists.
Step 1. Start with a solid concept
No author will get very far without first narrowing down the scope of their project: what kind of book is it? What is it about? Likewise, foodies with publishing aspirations need to refine their big idea beyond just “writing a cookbook” if they want to ensure it doesn’t wind up half-baked.
When nailing down your idea, it’s a good idea to first get an overview of the different cookbook categories, such as…
These cookbooks focus on one specific type or aspect of cuisine. For instance, it might feature...
- Specific cooking methods or techniques, such as The Baking Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, a quintessential reference book in the art of baking.
- One type of food, like The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice Ojakangas.
- One particular meal type, such as Sarabeth's Good Morning Cookbook by Sarabeth Levine, which covers all the breakfast bases.
Comprehensive cookbooks cover breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. They are meant to act as all-encompassing cooking guides. For example, these might plate up...
- Diet-specific recipes, such as Oh She Glows by Angela Liddon, a vegan staple.
- Cuisine from a specific region, like Olives, Lemons & Za'atar by Rawia Bishara, which combines Middle Eastern techniques with Mediterranean flavors.
- Level-specific recipes, such as Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Family Style, which promises easy recipes families can make together.
Whatever the case, comprehensive cookbooks are meant to be a kitchen primer that can be referred to under a number of different culinary circumstances.
From the culinary minds behind the world’s great dining establishments, restaurant-cookbooks offer insight into the creative processes of chefs and the dishes that bring it's patrons back time and time again. One iconic example would be The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, a household name in French dining thanks to his three-Michelin star restaurant of the same name.
These cookbooks are written by well-known chefs and often offer a glimpse into their home kitchens, such as Bobby at Home by Bobby Flay.
These creative nonfiction-cookbook hybrids offer detailed explorations of how food and cooking have impacted people’s lives. They’re typically written by prominent figures in the culinary industry, and are peppered with recipes throughout. For example, Cooking for Mr Latte by Amandam, cofounder of Food52.
If you’re still struggling to nail down your cookbook’s raison d'être, ask yourself this: what role do I want this book to play in readers’ kitchens? When will they turn to it? When they’re throwing a dinner party? Preparing their kids’ lunches? After returning from a trip to Italy, convinced that the four major food groups are actually bread, pasta, cheese, and olive oil?
Your cookbook’s idea will likely be based on your personal relationship with food: the kind of food you like to cook, how you like to cook it, what preparing food means to you, and so on.
Step 2. Compile a recipe list
Now that you have a clear understanding of the cookbook you’re writing, it’s time to put together your list of recipes. Just as a novel needs to unfold in a way that makes sense, recipes in a cookbook also need to have a logical flow and structure.
The way you organize your recipes will, again, depend on what kind of cookbook you’re writing. Comprehensive vegetarian staple The Moosewood Cookbook is organized by type of meal:
- Sauces and dips
Whereas single-subject collection The Soup Bible by Debra Mayhew lays out its recipes according to food-based descriptors, such as:
- "Light and refreshing soups”
- “Rich and creamy soups”
- “Winter warming soups”
Once you’ve figured out the order of your recipes, scan through to see a) whether the different sections make sense, and b) whether they fit together as a cohesive unit. For instance, do most of your recipes rely on summer produce, except for one winter dish that sticks out like a sore thumb? Does most of your book include warm, comforting eats, with a fresh, green salad wilting the overall cozy vibe? If something feels like an afterthought, or slightly misplaced, save it for the next cookbook.
That said, you don’t need to worry about paring back your list too far yet. We’ll get to that in Step 4, but first, you’ll need to...
Step 3. Research and draft your recipes
It’s okay if not all the recipes you want to include in your book are fully realized just yet. You might have some ideas simmering away, or want to beef up parts of your book that feel a little light.
This is where research comes in. Go to your local library or bookstore and come home with a number of different cookbooks relevant to yours. Browse your favorite food blogs. Check out the bestselling cookbooks on Amazon and see where yours might fit. All this will not only engage you in market research and give you a concrete sense of what else is out there; it will also offer up a healthy serving of inspiration.
As you research, take note of:
- What kinds of recipes you find yourself drawn to — and why specifically those recipes.
- The common ratios of other recipes.
- How your own recipes stand out from other similar recipes out there. Do you have your own spin on ratatouille that gives it a little flair compared to other French Provençal veggie stews?
- The comments of online recipes: what parts of the recipes do people favor, or what common adjustments do people seem to be making?
As you research, begin drafting out the recipes you want to try. After which you’ll be ready to…
Step 4. Write your recipes
A number of recipe qualities might propel a reader to their kitchen: a mouth-watering image or a delectable title, for instance. But if your ingredient list and cooking instructions are unclear or overly complicated, you might end with readers who’ve lost their appetites.
Let’s go over the basics of writing an ingredient list and preparation instructions.
Ingredients should be listed in the order they will be used. They should also include:
- Generic ingredient names — unless your book is being sponsored by a specific brand, or your recipe really relies on a brand that prepares something in a unique way. So “a can of tomato soup,” as opposed to, “a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.” If you have brand recommendations, you can feel free to include that in the recipe descriptions or an additional notes section.
- Substitution suggestions for any ingredients that are not widely available.
- Measurements, whether it’s as specific as “¼ tsp of salt” or “salt to taste.” Take as much guesswork out of the process as possible. And don’t forget to keep measurements consistent to your target audience: use the imperial system for a US audience, and the metric system for most others.
- Prep info when needed, such as “chopped onion,” “crumbled feta,” “minced ginger,” etc. If the prep is more complex, leave it for the preparation instructions.
Preparation instructions should be presented in chronological order — if an oven needs to be preheated or something needs to marinate overnight, that should be first — and include the following:
- Heat instructions, such as “bring to a boil on med-high.”
- Timing information, as well as clear instructions on when to know something is ready. Such as “simmer for 15 minutes until the sauce thickens,” or “bread is finished when the top is golden and begins to crack.”
- If specific cookware is needed, such as a “large pot,” or a “20” cake pan.”
- Serving and storage suggestions.
Step 5. Develop your recipes
If you’re not sick of your recipes by this stage, you probably haven’t finished developing them yet.
Once you’ve drafted out the recipes you want to include in your book, it’s time to prepare — and sample! — them again and again, tweaking things as you go. Throughout this process, recipes will likely change individually, and you should also be willing to change up your overall list. An idea you originally thought was perfect might morph into something completely different, another might require a lot more prep work than you think readers will want to do, and other recipes may not pan out at all.
Bin the recipes that don't fit the theme
As a number of great writers have been quoted as saying, the ability to “kill your darlings” is a crucial part of any kind of writing process. In other words, no matter how much you enjoy a character, scene, or recipe, if it doesn’t serve the overall purpose of your book, it should get the chop.
There are a number of different places for you to store and amend your recipe drafts as you develop them, such as the Reedsy Book Editor, Evernote, or an old favorite of all chefs — the classic notecard.
Step 6. Get your target reader to test your recipes
Didn’t we just do this? Well, no. While development is more about you refining your own recipes, this next step is about bringing in outside tasters — beta tasters, if you will.
Just as a beta reader will review a book before it’s published in order to offer feedback from a reader’s perspective, a beta taster will prepare your recipes for themselves, taste-test the finished product, and then report back to you with their thoughts and experiences.
Try to get at least a couple of different beta tasters for each recipe, since you want to be sure you’re getting a spectrum of feedback.
Ask the right questions
It’s also helpful to come up with a list of questions to submit to each beta taster. These questions should prompt them to think about your recipes from the perspective of home cooks, and ensure you’re getting the feedback you need. These culinary quandaries might include:
- About how long was your prep time?
- About how long was your cook time?
- Would you rank this recipe beginner, intermediate, or advanced?
- Do you find the recipe title appealing? Self-explanatory?
- Did you already have most of the ingredients? If not, were they easy to find?
- Did you amend, leave out, or substitute any ingredients?
- Were the prep and cooking instructions clear and straightforward to follow?
- How many portions did your recipe yield?
- Did you enjoy the food? Any specifics about what you liked about it?
- Is it something you would make again? If so, would you make any changes to the recipe this time?
As you receive feedback, remember that taste is an extremely subjective thing. While one beta taster might drool over the flavor profile of one recipe, another might offer much more blasé feedback on the same recipe.
You could test a single recipe until the cows come home and still not receive 100% positive feedback. This is why it’s important to determine how many tests you want to put a recipe through before you’re willing to deem it ready, or send it to the chopping board.
Step 7. Finalize recipe introductions
By this point, the actual instructions in your recipes should be ready to serve up. Now, it’s all about plating — putting the final touches on your recipes to ensure they’re as enticing as possible. Which brings us to recipe introductions.
While people often joke these days about the essay-like recipe-prefaces on food blogs, introductions do play an important role in cookbooks. People don’t need to hear a long recount of the ten-year spanning story that led to the creation of the recipe. But a quick and personal paragraph explaining why you like, and why others will like it can go a long way. Would you rather eat just “a paella,” or a paella that someone claimed was responsible for getting their kids to start eating seafood?
Let readers know why they'll enjoy your recipe
Another important part of the introduction is to let people know when you like making this recipe. For dinner parties? In the summer? For busy mornings when you need breakfast you can eat on the go?
Finally, the intro is a good place to state how many servings the recipe yields, the estimated prep and cooking time, as well as any nutritional info you might want to mention. You can also mention other extras such as brand suggestions, difficulty level, whether the recipe is something people can easily make with their kids, or any additional serving/pairing/garnish tips.
Step 8. Edit your cookbook
While an error in any kind of book will certainly leave readers with a bad taste in their mouths, an error in a cookbook can literally give readers an unpleasant taste. Like, for example, if you accidentally tell them to add one tablespoon of salt, instead of one teaspoon.
Thorough editing is not the icing on the cake of your cookbook — it’s the sugar. You can bake a cake that doesn’t have icing, but a cake without sugar is simply a loaf of bland, cooked dough.
If you’re going to edit your cookbook yourself, make sure you comb through your recipes for errors and inconsistencies with a fine-tine fork, and apply both your recipes and introductions with a copyedit. You can brush up on your editing skills with our free online course, How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro!
Consider working with a professional
If you have it within your budget to work, think seriously about hiring a professional editor. At Reedsy, we have over 140 editors who specialize in cookbooks, many of whom have worked for Big 5 publishers and globally-popular Food and Drink magazines, as well as with household names such as Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, and Rose Levy Beranbaum. With their help, you can give your book a professional plating that even Gordon Ramsey would approve of.
You know what they say: food brings people together. And a cookbook written and edited with care can certainly help your readers do just that. Hopefully, this post on how to write a cookbook has you on your way to achieving your culinary-cum-literary goals, and connecting with readers through a shared love of home-cooked fare. If you’re looking for further cookbook-writing guidance, check out our post on How to Make Your Own Cookbook, our free, ten-day course, How to Turn Your Cookbook Idea into a Reality.