So You Want to Write a Cookbook? Part V

Writing, Testing and Photographing Recipes

Alright readers…here we are. Part five. The last post in my, “So You Want to Write a Cookbook,” series. We’re almost at the end of this exciting, grueling, rewarding process—I hope you’ve managed to stay tuned! As I write this post, I'm in the midst of my latest cookbook project. I recently signed a cookbook deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which means I’m knee-deep in developing a fresh batch of recipes—so what better time to coach you through that very process?

Chef Jenny McCoy is a pastry chef and culinary school instructor in New YorkCreating Your Recipe Roadmap

As a first step, I drafted a working list of the recipe ideas I’d like to feature in my cookbook. My new book is contracted to have six chapters and 80 to 100 recipes in total. If you do the math, that’s about 13 to 16 recipes per chapter.

So I started by creating a list of 15 ideas per chapter. Why the extra work? Once I begin to test these recipes, I know that some will be tossed, others will morph into entirely different ideas, and a few will remain exactly the same.

My list will constantly evolve—and even more recipes ideas will pop into my head during the testing process—but I've found that having a game plan at the outset is the best way to start.

What’s more, when it comes time to write my cookbook, this list will be a roadmap, helping me to prevent too much repetition in flavors or techniques (or the opposite, too many flavors and techniques). You always want to make sure that your cookbook, throughout the entire course of its development, has a consistent focus. Lists are the way to go, my friends.

Testing Recipes

If your cookbook is written for the home cook, I highly recommend you enlist your non-chef friends to help you with the recipe testing—especially if they’re the types who never cook. If you can write a recipe that someone who doesn’t know how to make toast can complete, then you’ve done a good job.

Moreover, where you test recipes makes a difference. Even if you have access to a professional kitchen, I highly recommend you test your recipes at home. It’s not as efficient, but you must keep in mind, a restaurant-grade convection oven is not the same as the oven I have in my Brooklyn apartment. (For comparison: you’ve got my temperamental gas stovetop at home versus the 12-burner range I’m used to working on at ICE.) Pastry chef Jenny McCoy teaching her students how to prepare petit fours

In short, tailoring your recipes to work in a typical home kitchen is pretty important. What takes two minutes to boil on a professional induction burner will take five minutes on a home cook’s electric burner.

Most novice home cooks follow recipes “to a T,” meaning that these little details can make all the difference. (Believe me—you really want to make sure your recipes are fool-proof, because people love to vent online about how recipes in cookbooks never work.)

For consistency, when I test my recipes, I try them myself first. If they pass the test, I give them to someone else to try. From there, if they pass again without a hiccup, they are edited and go into my cookbook. If there are any issues with the outcome of the recipe during the second round, I analyze the problems, tweak the recipe, and pass it on to a third person to test.

If it’s a go, into the book it goes. If it fails, I strike it from the list and move on. This is a critical lesson: unless the recipe is instrumental for your topic or is your favorite dish in the book, learn to let it go and come up with a new idea. If you have to force the recipe to work, imagine how had it will be for a novice to tackle.

Recipe Testing Template

Below you’ll find a nine-part list of criteria I use when testing recipes. If you include all of this information, you will have enough information to write a complete recipe that should be easy to follow and give clear instructions to your readers.

Keep in mind that your writing must be consistent. Create a style guide that is specific to your writing style. If you prefer abbreviations in your ingredient list, go for it. Just make sure all the ingredient lists are the same. If you tell a reader how to sauté onions in more than one recipe, be sure to use the exact same language for each recipe that calls for sautéed onions. (Cutting and pasting copy is the best way to be sure.)

And don’t forget—communicate with your editor throughout this process. The last thing you want to do is turn in a manuscript that is riddled with grammatical errors and inconsistent language. A good editor will give you all the guidance and tools you need to succeed in writing great recipes, but you usually need to ask for such assistance.

1. Recipe Title (no abbreviations)

2. Entire Recipe Yield

  • Weight in grams
  • Volume in cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc
  • Number of pieces/servings yielded by recipe

3. Ingredient List (no abbreviations)

  • Weights in grams
  • Volume in cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc

4. Directions (provide explicit details)

  • Cooking temp; cooking time (Example: Simmer on low heat for 3 minutes)
  • Bake temp; bake time (Example: Bake at 350°F for 10-12 minutes)
  • Visual indications of doneness throughout recipe stages and final product (Example: Stir until ball forms; bake until deep golden brown, etc.)
  • List all tools used at each stage of recipe (Example: stir with a wooden spoon)

5. Flavor Notes

  • Comment on taste, consistency, visual appeal, etc.

6. Yield Notes

  • Do the amounts yielded by each section of the recipe match up to create the final product? (Example: Is 1 quart of marinara sauce enough for 1 pound of pasta?)

7. Finished Product Storage

  • Can recipes be prepared in advance? If yes, how long can they be stored?
  • What are ideal storage conditions?

8. Misc Notes

  • Can the recipe be improved? How?
  • Any time saving tips?
  • Any potential ways to make recipe more user-friendly for the home cook?

9. Photos

  • Document each stage of the cooking/baking process
  • Photograph each finished product (Example: finished dough, frosting, chocolate shavings, etc.)
  • Photo of fully assembled/plated dish

cookbook photoshootThe Photo Shoot

This is the fun part. Once you’ve tested all your recipes and have them in working order (or as close to perfect as possible), you can begin planning your photo shoot. With your team in place, the next step is to determine the look for each photograph. Just like the variation in your recipes, you will want to make sure you have a range of colors and textures—different surfaces, props, camera angles, etc.

I prefer to plan this final phase of my cookbook by reviewing all the snapshots of tested, finished dishes with my prop and food stylists. Based on the needs of each recipe, we decide on the plates, baking dishes, pots, etc. and overall style that should visually represent each recipe.

We come up with multiple options for items that are difficult to shoot (for example: heat-sensitive items like ice cream, physically flat or brown-colored dishes that can be challenging to present in a way that is visually appealing). This gives the prop stylist a shopping list and the food stylist time to prepare his or her tool kit.

Once the styling for each shot is determined, I then prepare my shot lists. Each day of your photo shoot, you will have a certain number of photos that you need to complete. Talk to your photographer about setting reasonable goals. (Many first time authors don’t realize that each photo will likely take over an hour to stage and shoot!)

My best advice is to organize the shots by how they are produced in the kitchen. If you have items that can be made in advance, shoot them all on the first day. This allows your photographer and stylists to jump right in, while your kitchen staff preps the food for images that require à la minute cooking.

Also, finish each day with one or two recipes that are easy to prepare. (Photo shoot days are long, and everyone will run out of creative steam if you schedule the most complicated dishes at the end of the day!)

Also, remember that your dishes don’t have to be eaten, so if your pound cake is stale because you baked it a week before your photo shoot, that is perfectly fine. So long as it looks moist (and your food stylist can help with this) then you are good to go. And remember to be flexible—sometimes you will need to change the order of your shot list to keep the momentum going. chef styling a dish for cookbook photoshoot

Here are a few additional tips for a successful photo shoot:

  • Consider putting more than one dish in a shot. Often times your publisher will give you a very low budget for images. Including multiple dishes in one photo can vary the visual appeal of your book and make the most of your time with a photographer.
  • Double or triple your recipe. You typically will need 2-3 times the amount of food in the original recipe to be properly prepared for a photo. If a dish starts wilting, gets dropped or burned, you’ll need to have more ingredients on hand to swap out.
  • Bring lots of extra raw ingredients. Your food stylist may want to use some of the ingredients from your dishes as props. Reserve the freshest and best looking produce you have for this purpose.
  • Set aside a few days in advance of your shoot. If you have a 5-day photo shoot, you’ll need a few days to shop or prepare as much of the food in advance as possible. Also, make time in your shoot schedule to prepare some of the components of the next day’s dishes.

Like I said earlier, the days will be long. But they will result in the culmination of all your hard work, and there is nothing like a cookbook photo shoot to make your months of writing and testing feel worthwhile!

Wrapping It All Up

Once the photo shoot is complete, fine-tune your manuscript to ready it for delivery to your publisher. This is the perfect time to write your acknowledgement page, the resource guide, your introduction and any remaining front or back of book items. And once you’ve got that finished…voila! The first draft of your cookbook is complete. Now it's in your editor's hands, to help ensure you've dotted every "i" and crossed every "t".

Did you miss Jenny’s previous posts? See the links below: