Did you know we’re living in a salt revolution when it comes to recipe writing and editing? Long gone are the days where recipes simply state “1 teaspoon salt” and we grab our one dispenser of iodized table salt for every dish. Now there is sea salt, kosher, fleur de sel, pink, black, smoked, flaky, coarse, fine—each necessitating their own vessel. Recipes will sometimes even include specific measurements based on the brand! Personally, I have three different containers on my counter for easy access, not including the salt I use for baking.
This revolution comes from new writers, cooks, and recipe creators who hold celebrity status in the food world and have impassioned beliefs about this fundamental ingredient. My own personal salt transformation can be credited to Samin Nosrat, after watching her Netflix special “Salt Fat Acid Heat” and reading her book of the same name.
In Nosrat’s cookbook you will rarely come across exact measurements for the amount of salt needed in a recipe. Why? Because this book is about how to cook, encouraging the home cook to use their most indicative sense to guide their cooking: taste. Her recipes teach you to use your own taste preferences to guide this fundamental element of cooking. Understanding Samin’s goals as the writer and the expectations of the reader are crucial for editing her recipes.
This concept of salt usage, of course, differs significantly from other books and sources of recipes. AP style encourages being as precise with salt measurements as possible. And recipes from America’s Test Kitchen will provide exact amounts and specific types of salt because they promise tested and proven recipes that will succeed if you follow the directions.
Today, recipes cater to a variety of categories from what makes up the dish (e.g., vegan, gluten-free, keto) to its ease and weeknight friendliness (e.g., 30-minute dinners, slow-cooker meals). As an editor, it is important to understand these different categories and how the writing and editing will be influenced by different types of cooking.
Evolving recipe writing
Recipes and cooking ideas like the treatment of salt continue to evolve. Another example is how we measure flour. While older cookbooks will only list measurements by volume in cups to accommodate American bakers, now recipes will have both volume and weight, such as grams or ounces. And like salt, bakers and recipe writers have strong beliefs about how flour should be moved from its storage vessel to the mixing bowl. Pour straight from the bag? Spooned and leveled? Dug straight out from the storage bin? As an editor, it’s not my role to know which process is best, but it is important to know that writers, creators, and cooks are talking about these details for a reason and that there isn’t only one right way.
As editors, we understand that no two texts or two projects are the same. Expectations, needs, and goals differ for both the author and the reader, which makes each project unique. When it comes to editing recipes, the same concept applies.
Recipes are no longer only relegated to print in cookbooks, magazines, and newspapers. Instead, you can find recipes online in blogs, Instagram posts, short videos that disappear after 24 hours, and subscription-only newsletters. And each of those mediums cater to different audiences.
With so many different ways to find recipes, especially when food photography is at such a high standard, how do recipes stand out? They have to work. They have to be written with a reader in mind and with an understanding of what the reader will get out of the recipe. Whether it is fast weeknight meals or the best-of-the-best Thanksgiving recipes, one thing is for sure: readers expect the meal or dish to work; they expect their time and money to result in what a recipe promises.
Because of this need to have recipes work, editing continues to be crucial. And there are a few things to consider when editing a recipe, whether it is presented in a cookbook, magazine article, or blog post.
First, do you need culinary experience or education to edit recipes? The short answer is no. But does it help? Like any specialized subject, of course it does. There is a language and discourse you learn by spending time with recipes. When you go through the steps of a recipe as written, you quickly learn what works, what doesn’t work, and what other information is needed. While an editor with little experience in the kitchen can read for typos, issues of formatting, and consistency, there is more to clarify when you understand the language of cooking.
They say that reading helps you to be a better writer. Well, I believe that cooking helps you to be a better recipe editor.
What I find unique about editing recipes is that the editor can play a more active role in the reader’s experience. A recipe editor will envision the reader from the moment they pick up and choose a recipe through the cooking process, until the dish is served and the first bites are tasted.
Understanding the language
In addition to the fundamentals of editing, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation, and structure, editing a recipe has a particular set of demands. A well-edited recipe will help the home cook be successful, saving them time and leading them gracefully through each step.
Recipes must follow the standard conventions and usages that have been established. For example, recipes never call for 1/3 teaspoon or 8 tablespoons of granulated sugar because it is not common to have a 1/3-teaspoon vessel and 8 tablespoons makes more sense as 1/2 cup. Reading and using lots of recipes helps with this familiarity, as well as looking to resources like King Arthur Baking Company, America’s Test Kitchen, Bon Appétit, and NYT Cooking.
Recipe editing also includes understanding the different components of a recipe: the headnote of background information, ingredient list, instructions, modifications or variations, and photos. The way in which each of these components is structured is intentional and will affect the home cook’s experience making the recipe.
Because we cannot assume a home cook will read all parts of a recipe prior to starting cooking, each of these components must be thoughtfully constructed so that a home cook can find the information they need in the right place.
Going beyond the text
In addition to understanding the language of recipes, an editor should have a mindset that keeps the home cook at the forefront of the editing process.
A recipe editor needs to think beyond the words on the page, because that is what the reader will do. The editor needs to think in terms of the reader experience and the sequential actions that will follow when a reader selects a recipe. Will the recipe appear approachable, trustworthy, and engaging enough to try?
Are the ingredients listed in a way that clearly tells the reader what they need to buy for this dish? The last thing you want is for someone to choose a recipe, make a trip to the store, and then realize they needed another crucial item not clearly listed.
Is there a step that requires sitting overnight? Rising? Marinating? Is it clear to the reader that they need to plan ahead?
Is this recipe written for a parent with limited time, who skims the recipe and expects a decent weeknight meal? Or are they looking at a recipe that is more suited to a weekend project?
Does the recipe allow for problems to arise? Can problems be avoided through editing or rewriting? Will an inexperienced cook burn themselves on a hot pot handle without a reminder to take caution? Will the reader know to how to handle confectioners’ sugar, to avoid an unnecessary mess?
Does the recipe give off the right tone, one that will build confidence in the reader?
Does the recipe communicate a sense of partnership and care? Will the reader feel a sense of trust, like the writer is looking out for them and wanting them to be successful?
Each recipe or book will have a different type of reader or home cook in mind, such as a recipe written for someone with little experience in the kitchen or a seasoned home cook, and the editor has to take that into account.
One example shared with me was a home cook who was trying a homemade yellow sheet cake. Most of her experience had been making box cakes, where you simply combine water, oil, and eggs into the premade mix with a hand mixer. In the homemade recipe, it instructed her to beat the batter on medium-high in a taller stand mixer. As she began mixing, the batter splattered all over her clothes and she used her hands to cover the sides of the bowl to try and contain the mess. She wished the recipe had recommended putting up the splatter guards, even though an experienced cake baker may know to do that.
No matter the experience of the reader or home cook, the goal is to empower them. They want to create something for themselves or their family, which is a precious act, and the writer and editor can both do their part to support the reader.
This may seem like a lot to think about, or that lots of rewriting is required. But that is not what I am suggesting. Like any editing project, some recipes and books will require and welcome more changes than others. Understanding your role as an editor in each project is crucial, so that the goals and expectations of the writer and reader can be achieved.
For me, it helps immensely to have experience reading and actually making different recipes so that I can envision the steps I would take, questions I would ask, and potential pitfalls another home cook could have when reading a recipe. My editing mindset has developed the more I cook.
What does the recipe future hold?
Within the last six months of COVID-19, cooking and baking have taken on a whole new meaning. From stocking up on pantry items like beans and grains to growing sourdough starters and mastering banana bread, it’s been a return to the kitchen almost overnight for millions of people. I am curious about the ways the pandemic and quarantine will shift recipe writing.
As more people return to their kitchens, home cooks may rely less on written recipes, as they work harder to use what they have to avoid an extra trip to the store, or as they try to figure out how to cook with the mystery vegetable that keeps showing up in their CSA box. New podcasts and social media channels have started to help people through what is being called quarantine cooking.
Perhaps this will lead to more people continuing to cook at home, investing in cookbooks, and reading them like novels. Or more recipe writers will emerge, flavoring the industry with new ideas and impassioned beliefs and sparking more cooking revolutions, ready for the touch of an eager (and hungry) editor.
Header photo by Social Cut on Unsplash.