In the Field

So You Want to Write a Cookbook?

By: The Local Palate

The Lee Brothers
walk you through it 

Many Americans are spending more time at home than ever thought possible and cooking with more frequency, intention, and creativity. Perhaps that’s why we’ve fielded more inquiries these past few months from friends asking: should I gather my recipes into a cookbook?

Our answer is always yes. But whether your aim is to create a photo-laden hardcover on to share with a large community of friends and neighbors or a twelve-recipe laser-printed booklet for children and grandchildren, creating an enduring cookbook takes heroic amounts of time. Since 2013, we’ve been helping chefs, food historians, pastry chefs, and beverage professionals begin the journey to publishing their own cookbooks, in a curriculum we developed called Cookbook Boot Camp. But much of our advice is the same whether you’re a professional or a passionate home cook, and mostly it boils down to this: bring consistency and quality to your recipes! There is no other way to ensure that your book is beloved, cooked from, talked about and treasured.

Here are the top three questions that would-be cookbook authors ask us, and our answers:

How long does it take to write a cookbook?

The time it takes depends on a number of factors, principally your ambitions for the book, but also: what state are your recipes currently in? Are they all kept in your head? Or written down on neatly typed cards in a recipe box? One way to gauge how much time the project will take is to choose several recipes you consider your “signatures”—the ones friends and family most enjoy—and render them on the page in the format you envision (whether borrowing elements from cookbooks you admire, or taken wholesale from a cookbook template you find online). Laying out a sample recipe will answer a lot of ancillary questions regarding content, as well: do you plan to write headnotes? Ideas for leftovers and notes on perishability? The more of your cooking consciousness you can add to each recipe, the better!

What if I’m not such a great writer?

The most effective cookbooks aren’t simply collections of formulas; they include well-crafted headnotes that bring to life for your reader the “world” of the recipe: how will this fit into my life? On what kind of occasion would I make this? The more compellingly you can convey in words how each recipe fits into your own kitchen repertoire, what it’s meant to you over the course of your cooking life, the more likely it is your college roommate in Honolulu or your granddaughter in Iowa City will be inspired to cook it. If writing doesn’t come easily to you, rest assured that many award-winning cookbooks have been made by chefs working with a co-writer. Perhaps there’s someone in your life who might consider being your collaborator on this project? Finding someone who can take what you say about your recipes and transform it into words on a page may make all the difference and propel you forward.

Do I need to test my own recipes?

Yes, you do. Because the recipes need to work. And it’s a great exercise, carving out blissfully uninterrupted time to cook through a recipe, taking care with measurements and volumes, jotting down the time processes take, and noting how the recipes looks, feels, smells like (even sounds) at every point in the process. You’ll have a wealth of information to draw from when you go to write the recipe’s steps. And the more of the sensual cues (as opposed to purely temporal ones) that you provide your cousin in Detroit, the more likely it is he’ll achieve the result you intended. Consider the following recipe step.

Sweat onions in butter 2 minutes. Add broth.

Now consider this description of the exact same process:

Add the butter to a large saute pan over medium-high heat, and when it melts and becomes frothy, scatter the onions in the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and fragrant, but not brown, about 2 minutes. Pour in the broth.

The reason to bring as much sensual texture as you can to even a simple recipe step is to remove all doubt in the mind of the recipe reader. Remember that not every one of your readers may be experienced cooks, and you want your recipes to work for everyone who picks up your book. The more you can dramatize what’s happening in your recipes as every moment, the more you can eliminate any doubt that a novice cook may bring to the task. Being a generous recipe writer is essential to making a book last!


If you do plan to use photography, it helps to create a visual storyboard or recipes, chapter-by-chapter as seen in this behind-the-scenes shot of The Lee. Bros. Charleston Kitchen photo shoot.

Another behind-the-scenes shot of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen photo shoot. It takes a small village to produce the photo shoot for a 125-recipe book in a week’s time, but if you don’t have the emporal (not to mention financial!) pressure of producing “food-porn” for a hardcover cookbook, you can create and style the photos yourself—or forego them altogether. Plenty of wonderful, useful cookbooks have!

Cookbooks need not be lavish productions to be valuable and lasting. One of our most beloved “cookbooklets” is Hominy Grill Recipes, a compendium of a couple dozen of the restaurant’s signature dishes. The two-color, text-only design is simple, but the spot-on recipe writing and tight testing (in home-cookable quantities of course) makes this book a treasure—especially now that the restaurant is closed.

Document as much of the recipe-testing process as possible—not only on paper, but photos and videos, too. This image, from an early test of Flounder in Parchment with Shaved Vegetables included in The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (2013) shows us thinking about ingredient substitutions, eg. what other fish might work well with this recipe? The more information “around” the recipe you can give readers, the more likely they are to cook it!

To read TLP’s special digital edition filled with a collection of our favorite summer recipes from chefs, mixologists, and more across the South.

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