NOTE: This is not my usual post about fiction writing, but about recipe development and food blogging–another form of writing I love. I have a blog with my family history stories and recipes on Grit.com – Country Cooking. This is being simultaneously published with Grit.com.
If you’re an avid cook you’ve probably made up your own recipes, then tried to duplicate them, and find you can’t! Or maybe your cooking is good enough that others want your recipes. Either way, it’s time to start developing your own recipes in written form.
First, two key points. The first should be obvious, the second might not.
1. If you find a recipe you like and change one ingredient, you really haven’t developed a new recipe. There are copyright battles about this, and it’s hard for anyone to claim a recipe that is exclusively theirs. But have integrity and come up with something that really is yours.
2. You don’t have to start every ingredient from scratch. You can review other recipes and create your own version. The trick is to use similar recipes from a variety of sources, and create a recipe that is notably different from the others.
People think I have hundreds of cookbooks, but actually I only have 106 (at present). Since I’m interested in rural cooking, culinary history, and side dishes, I’m selective about what cookbooks I buy. Almost all of them are out-of-print or rare cookbooks. As a result, I have some recipes that are unusable. For instance, I have an entire book on how to make aspics and vegetable salads with gelatin. In this era, people really don’t want to eat those.
I write in most of my cookbooks. I’m not going to re-sell them and I want to keep notes on when I made it, how it turned out, and flag any steps that seem wrong. For the last reason, I almost never use “community cookbooks,” which are not vetted by editors. I have two – one that includes a recipe from my mom, and another that includes a recipe from my “great aunt” Georgia Ruth.Yes, community cookbooks are fine for fundraisers, but are a very general set of recipes and often contain mistakes and omissions.
When I start with an interesting idea I’ve seen in a cookbook, I find similar recipes in other cookbooks and compare. There is a crucial first step here in developing a recipe, even if you are starting from a recipe in your own mind.
That step is “editorial testing.” Read through the recipe and ask if it makes sense or if there is something missing – just like you should do before you try a new recipe.
1. Are any ingredients vague? What is a “box” of gelatin? At least one major brand has two sizes. While a “pinch” of something usually won’t throw off a recipe and can be understood, other simple-sounding ingredients could derail the cook. A “cup of green beans” could be a cup of canned green beans, or a cup of raw green beans. If the recipe doesn’t simmer for a long time, that makes a huge difference. Also, think about how a cook who is not your age would interpret your ingredient. Since I’m not a spring chicken, a recipe that calls for “gelatin” to me would mean powdered gelatin. A college-age cook might think it means a plastic container of pre-made “snack pack” type gelatin.
2. Does it have one or more highly unusual ingredients? Some cooks cannot find the same ingredients you can. Often I find myself wanting to include an ingredient like kimchi or banana leaves, then I remember people from Grandma Hamilton’s small town could not get those unless they drove over an hour to a city grocery store. That points to the next step.
3. Who is your audience? Are you writing your favorite recipes for your children? Fine, they know you and likely can interpret some things. Since I write about rural Midwest cooking and publish my recipes, I avoid unusual and foreign food ingredients. In some places – and you might have foreign readers if you’re a food blogger – some ingredients are not available or understood. Could you add vegemite or arepa?
4. Be suspicious if a brand name is used. There are many recipes out there from food companies. Does your recipe call for “Bisquick”? I don’t use Bisquick. It’s easily combined from homemade ingredients – flour, baking powder, salt and oil or butter. Does the recipe suggest adding “Country Crock” for margarine? People tend to substitute, and butter is quite different from margarine. Why use a box of “Duncan Hines cake mix”? Why isn’t another brand OK? Make your ingredients as broad and basic as possible.
5. Are all amounts, containers and temperatures specified? Some old family recipes do not have a baking temperature. Everything seems to have been cooked at 350 F or was made on a wood-burning cookstove. To fine-tune more, do your instructions make sense in the order they are cooked? If you assemble most of one dish, then list a sauce that must be simmered for hours to go with it, start with the part that will take the most time. What is a “loaf pan”? There are at least five sizes. The ingredients should be in order and logical.
I start with a written rough draft, and make notes on it while I cook, such as “the batter will be thin.” Often I consult my go-to cooking book, Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee. I have read this cover to cover, highlighted the “good parts” that pertain to my style of cooking, and refer to it at least weekly. Knowing the science behind cooking can save you from many mistakes.
Usually a recipe takes at least a couple of tries before I get it right, and sometimes more.
Occasionally I throw out the attempt altogether, as when I tried to cook a savory dish with bananas.
When I first started trying to make my own recipes, it was hard to fail and throw away a bunch of food. But if you’re going to develop recipes, you must. Just have a compost pile to “save” what you can. Unless you’re a master baker, or have worked in a creative bakery, do not start with baking. It’s tricky.
Here are three great sources:
Cookbook Style Sheet – This is for the serious recipe writer, though it’s worth a look for anyone.
Here’s a great piece from a cookbook editor, showing how a recipe is edited.
And if you want to write or blog, go for it! Sure, the cooking/food world is crowded and popular now, but if you do what you love, you can’t go wrong. I wanted to write about my ancestors, since I love genealogy and have all kinds of old family photos. Since I liked rural-style old-time recipes, the ideas meshed and “Country Cooking” was born.