Creating a cookbook can be a really rewarding experience for people who love their time in the kitchen. It can also be rewarding to get your hands on a beautiful cookbook, with no-fail favorites created by a friend or someone you follow. Cookbooks inspire us, teach us, and ultimately feed us. To make sure your cookbook turns out as well as your food, here are 10 tips for getting that pro-look and saving time and hassle once you leave the kitchen.
LAYOUTS AND DESIGN
1. Choose the right trim size. This has everything to do with the purpose and content of your book. A small collection of cupcake recipes might not need a full-sized Portrait book, and a book of 50 family favorites might benefit from the lower page cost of a large Trade Book. Consider a small 7×7 photo book for those cupcakes and larger pages for recipes with more complex instructions and long ingredient lists. Whatever you choose, make sure you choose a trim size that will leave plenty of room for white space on the page around your content.
2. Create your layouts in advance. Before you shoot your photos, create your layouts or choose your template. If you know you’re using a portrait-orientation book, you’ll want to shoot the majority of your photos in portrait format. If you know which recipes you plan to feature, you’ll shoot those as landscape-format or detail shots because you’ll create full-bleed spreads or small, inset close-up shots for those important recipes.
3. Know your chapters/sections/theme in advance. Every book benefits from a good outline. Before you begin gathering and developing recipes, before you begin shooting photos, create an outline. This will save you from spending time on content you won’t use, but it’ll also give your work focus. It will make shooting your work more efficient because you might consider making and shooting similar recipes at the same time because there is ingredient or equipment overlap.
4. Test, re-test, and proofread. One lesson learned the hard way is that just because you make a great dish, doesn’t mean you’ve nailed the recipe. You know you have the recipe when you’ve made a great dish, and then it turns out great a few times. Each time you make the recipe, keep careful notes about what you’ve done, and watch for any variation in your technique. Make notes on these and observe their effects in the test. An editor might catch a misspelling or a typo, but only you know what should be a teaspoon and what should be a tablespoon. Proofreading is especially important with recipes because tiny errors can ruin a dish. Recipe proofreading is best done with the help of a friend, who can cook your recipe exactly as it says, and you can work together to see where the errors were and what made the difference in how it turned out. Finally, you’ll want to double and triple check that all of the ingredients in your list show up in the steps of your cooking instructions.
5. Be consistent with your names and measurements. Maintaining consistency in an entire book can be tricky. If one recipe spells out “unsalted butter”, but in the next recipe you just call it “butter”, your reader is in for some real trouble. You’ll also want to be sure you say exactly what type of each ingredient you use, and say it the same way every time. You’ll also want to stay consistent in your measurements. Do ALL your recipes with Imperial Measurements, or ALL your recipes with metric measurements. Consistency is key when it comes to saving your reader confusion.
6. Follow common recipe structure. All effective recipes have the same components, which is what enables readers who aren’t in your kitchen to create this food you love. Consider the following elements:
- Introduction or special instructions
- Equipment list
- Ingredients and measurements
- Pre-heating or preparation instructions
- Step-by-step method, written in a logical order
- Time estimate
- Serving suggestions
- A footer that repeats the recipe title
7. Write engaging recipe headnotes. This is what makes this cookbook yours. Headnotes refer to the recipe introduction where you tell the story about why it’s special, techniques peculiar to the dish, the lore of the ingredients—anything that reveals why you make this food and why you make it this way and why this recipe would matter to your reader. This is where having your favorite cookbooks handy would help. Take a look at recipe headnotes that compelled you to cook something, and mimic those in your own writing. While food photography may draw your reader to a dish, these headnotes create your relationship with the reader, and they help make a case for recipes that don’t have show-stopping photos and illustrations.
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY AND STYLING
8. Use less food than you would serve. Good food photography relies on negative space to emphasize the stars of the shot. While an overloaded plate might tantalize those at the table, leaving space on the plate helps frame the food and affords more opportunity for balance and symmetry in food presentation. This is also true for table set-ups. If each and every object in the shot isn’t working hard, take it off the table. You don’t need a knife to tell the story of a soup, so it doesn’t have to clutter the place setting. To make food grab your reader’s attention, you have to ruthlessly rid your shots of distractions.
9. Take photos with natural light. The most appetizing food is typically shot with a single, natural light source from the side. Side lighting helps reveal texture and form, and light from a flash can have a deadening, flattening effect. Shooting with natural light may mean taking your photos in places other than your kitchen and dining room to find the best light, or shooting your evening meal foods in the morning if that’s when the light in your space is best.
10. Vary your locations and backgrounds. Shooting your food at the same table by the same window may help to create a cohesive look for a food blog, but in a cookbook, it can work against you. The more places your food appears, the more relatable your shots. Try changing up your dishes and tablecloth. A festive table can help a festive recipe look that much more inspiring. All the variation will keep things interesting across dozens of photos and pages as your readers thumb through. Finding enough tables with enough variation might be its own creative challenge. Think of friends who have well-lit spaces and ask to borrow them for a day to shoot recipes, maybe in exchange for the meal you plan to shoot. Take as many shots as you can, at as many angles as you can, in as many situations as you can for the strongest visual content. What you don’t use for the book, you can use in marketing your book.
Don’t forget that finished is better than perfect—this applies to recipes, page layouts, or anything you pull out of the oven. There comes a point when you just have to let it go and get it to the table, and make notes for next time. Many people who create cookbooks say that it makes them better cooks, and they feel really accomplished when it’s done. All those sessions of taking careful notes and measuring carefully translate into both food and a book where you can be really proud.