How to Write a Cookbook

Professional Advice for Cookbook Publishing

Happy chef working at a restaurant
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The best selling cookbooks aren't just books of recipes — they're expressions of the author's culinary viewpoint. Whether comprehensive books of instruction like Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or a highly personal collection of your great-grandmother's hand-me-down recipes, if you intend to publish a cookbook for public sale, make sure you, the author, have "mise en place" — and are set up with:

Good Cookbook Organization and Balance

You probably already know that the chapters of a cookbook need to be organized — maybe according to a course (appetizer, entrée, dessert, etc.) or maybe according to seasonal menus.

You need to organize your recipes and chapters in a way that makes sense in terms of the theme of the book and, more importantly, to the reader who will be cooking from it. A reader should be able to skim the table of contents and/or the index and pretty quickly find a recipe that suits his or her cooking or baking needs.
Also, the chapters should be somewhat balanced in terms of length, and consistent within as to recipe order. Are you going organize according to ingredient (for example, main dish recipes according to their proteins — poultry, meat, vegetarian, etc., then dessert recipes according to type or main ingredient — cake, pie, pudding; or chocolate, fruit-based, etc.)
There are options, and you should see what order makes sense for your book. For example, if it's a "Quick Weekday Meals," you might order the recipes in terms of timing (make ahead, 15-minutes, 30 minutes, etc.) Again, think about how it might make sense to the cookbook user.

Meaningful Recipe Titles

Ideally, recipe titles should be both descriptive and evocative, so a reader glancing at the page understands what's the dish is all about. While we all like occasional whimsy, too many recipes like "Sunday Surprise Hash," or "Uncle Bill's Favorite Casserole" don't make your recipes very "discoverable" (to use an online term) to the unfamiliar cook or baker.

Engaging Recipe Headnotes

Headnotes are the little bit of copy before the actual recipe instructions in a cookbook (or in any publication where a recipe appears). While it's expected that the recipe might be straightforward, most cookbook editors want to see personality in the headnote.
In the best case, recipe headnotes will reflect the unique voice of the writer and the tone of the cookbook, and engage the reader with a bit of the recipe's history or lore; a bit more about a particular ingredient or an additional recipe tip or variation; or even a personal anecdote that relates to the recipe in some way shape or form.

Recipes That "Work" for Everyone

This seems obvious, but many aspiring cookbook authors don't understand that the handed-down, often-improvised recipes need to be strictly codified for the general cookbook reader.
Writing a professional level recipe means diligent recipe testing and tasting, not only by the author, but often by an unbiased party or parties, as well in order to see if the recipe makes sense to a cook or baker who has not used the recipe before, or who might have a different skill level than the recipe developer. In order for them to "work," the recipes must also be diligently proofread.

Original Recipes — Never "Borrowed" from Other Sources

Because there are so many "classic" recipes, and other recipes are so often passed down and passed around it's easy to forget that there is a lot of work that goes into the development and testing of the recipes that culinary professionals publish in magazines, books, and online (see "recipe testing" in the paragraph above.)​
Copyright law does not protect the list of ingredients in a recipe. However copyright protection does extend "to substantial literary expression — a description, explanation, or illustration, for example — that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook." In cookbooks, that literary expression would include headnotes and likely any techniques developed by the author or those working on behalf of the author.

Further, the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) has a code of ethics and standards for properly crediting recipes. 

If you're looking to publish a cookbook for the public and you're including a classic recipe in your book, make sure you bring something new to the potluck. And for the sake of ethics and your good cookbook karma, be careful that your recipes don't infringe on the copyright of others.

A Vision for the Finished Cookbook

How do you envision the finished cookbook? How many recipes? How many photographs? Will you be planning the cookbook food photography yourself? Will they be technique or plated dishes or both? Budget constraints may affect your food photography plan, but it's good to have an idea of what you want the finished book package to look like. 

Of course, there's more to publishing a cookbook — a platform, a book proposal, a literary agent, a publisher... but having professional-level cookbook content is a fantastic way to start.