Top 5 Lessons Learned Writing Cookbooks – Lesson 2

This a segment from Top 5 Lessons Learned Writing Cookbooks – a piece that I wrote and read aloud at Litquake 2011 at San Francisco’s Mission Cheese.


Lesson 2:
Cooking reproducible food requires cooking like you’re in a laboratory. Take really, really, really careful notes.

If you cook, and I’m assuming you’re here because most of you do, then you’ve grown quite complacent in your kitchen pouring salt from the box into your palm until you have “enough”, squeezing an untold amount of lemon juice until you like how your soup tastes, or adding some unknown quantity of flour until a dough just “feels right”.

When you think of a dish you made three months ago, you might not recall if you used AP flour or white whole wheat, red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar. But when you’re developing multiple recipes over the course of a year that are blueprints for others, these careless omissions can happen. The work food writers do in their kitchen needs to be translated first into their own writing – not always an easy step. That writing is then handed to the reader whose brain must process while standing at their own kitchen counter, and the words are they only thing they have to dictate both how much and how it’s done.

Like a road map, food writers need to provide critical street signs and signals that all too often aren’t always there – verbose details on sourcing ingredients, accurate measurements by weight as well as volume, precise temperature ranges, the length of time a project will take to complete, a better-than-ballpark yield, and doneness clues galore. These are the details that require the kind of tracking and attention that we are rarely in tune to when we’re just throwing dinner together on a Tuesday night. But this, I believe, is one of a food writer’s many responsibilities to their readers.

When I was learning to cook, I would ask my mother to show me how to make her signature dishes, and I remember that frustration I felt when she would give me her uncalculated, and irreproducible, instructions: add SOME seltzer water to make matzo balls fluffy, pour in ENOUGH citric acid to make the stuffed cabbage tangy. It is my goal to do my best to alleviate this frustration for the people who buy my books. I quickly learned that being a good cook and being a good recipe writer are two related, but entirely different skills, the latter of which I learned on the job.

If you’ve never done so before, go home tonight and try to write out the methodology for make a peanut butter sandwich. I have a finely honed food writer’s anxiety about total respect for my reader’s time and their hard-earned ingredients. I can easily make myself crazy with a list of questions on every recipe that might look something like the following:

Is it safe to assume that the audience knows to start with sliced bread, or should I specify? And I really want them to use natural and organic peanut butter; does it go without saying that a new jar needs to be stirred first? Hmmm…better include a tip in the headnote that removing the lid and microwaving it for 30 seconds really helps the stirring process. Or, then again, the flavor of homemade peanut butter is so delicious and the process is so satisfying – would my readers hate me if I ask them to make their own peanut butter? I prefer peanut butter and honey on my sandwiches, but of course I need to address the whole jelly conundrum – is this an optional variation within the recipe or should it stand alone? Of course we’ll need to get an exact measurement on the amount of peanut butter needed – which means restraining myself from just smearing willy-nilly. Best to start with two tablespoons or so and then increase, teaspoon by teaspoon, until I have the right ratio of nut butter to bread.

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