How To Write A Recipe Like A Professional

updated Dec 10, 2022
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I write recipes, among other things, for a living. It may seem easy, but it isn’t always. It takes practice and adherence to a few rules.

Knowing how to write a recipe is something even an amateur cook can benefit from knowing.

There are two main parts of a recipe, the Ingredient List and the Preparation Method. I’ll take you through some basic guidelines for writing both parts.

This is our own style guide and loose list of rules. Of course, there are endless exceptions and little side-rules. There are also styles that certain publications use that you may be used to and that may be different from what we present here. If you have a question that isn’t addressed in the below guidelines, please ask in the comments.

Before the ingredients, comes the title, number of servings and serving size if appropriate. Then the ingredient list and the preparation method. If the recipes is adapted from another recipe, a credit is due (“Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies”) below the text of the method.

The Ingredient List

  • List all ingredients in order of use, as described in step-by-step instructions.

  • List the most important ingredients first, if it can be consistent with order of use.

  • Spell out everything: tablespoons, ounces, etc.

  • If the recipe has different elements (a pie, for example has a crust, a filling), break up the ingredient list with headings such as “Crust” and “Filling.”

  • When several ingredients are used at the same time (in the case of baking, often all the dry ingredients are sifted or mixed together at once), list them in descending order according to volume. If there is an issue over preparation, list in order, so for example if you need the zest and juice of a lemon, list the zest first and then the juice since that is the order you will do the preparation.

  • Do not use two numerals together. You need to set off the second number in parenthesis. This comes up with sizes of packages. For example, “1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese.”

  • If an ingredient begins with a letter instead of a number, freshly ground black pepper, for example, capitalize the first letter, as in “Freshly ground black pepper.”

  • If the preparation of an ingredient is simple, place that technique in the ingredient list, as in “2 eggs, beaten” or “1 stick butter, softened.”

  • If an ingredient is used more than once in a recipe, list the total amount at the place in the ingredient list where it is first used, then add “divided.” In the method part of the recipe, indicate the amount used at each step. For example “1 cup all-purpose flour, divided” then in the method “Sift 3/4 cup of the flour with the…” and later “Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of flour on top of…”

  • Use generic names of ingredients (semi-sweet chocolate chips, not “Tollhouse chips”

The Preparation Method

  • Where helpful, indicate the size of bowls and cookware. For example, “In a large mixing bowl….”

  • You do not have to write complete sentences. Be as short and concise as possible.

  • With instructions for the stove-top, indicate level of heat. For example, “Simmer over low heat.”

  • State exact or approximate cooking times, with descriptive hints for doneness, if appropriate. For example, “Sear 1 minute on each side,” and “Bake 18-22 minutes, or until crust is light golden brown.”

  • As in the ingredient list, if there are different elements to the recipe, as with the crust and filling of a pie, separate out each element in the method. Begin with the crust and write a header “For the Crust” and give the method. Then do “For the Filling” and give filling instructions.

  • Separate each step into a different paragraph. If you are mixing dry ingredients in a bowl, for example, use one paragraph for all the instructions for that step.

  • Finish with serving instructions including how to plate, what temperature to serve, how to garnish.

  • The last instruction should be regarding storage, if applicable. For a cookie recipe, for example, “Cookies will keep at room temperature in an airtight container for 3-4 days.”

A Final Note

You must test your recipes to make sure they work, the amounts and serving sizes are correct, and that they taste as great as you intend. If you are “testing as you go” make sure to take perfect notes. For beginners, and most of us pros, repeat testing and revision are needed. It helps to have other people follow your recipes to see if they actually make sense.