5 mistakes famous cookbook authors made (and how to avoid them)

Avoid missteps and wrong assumptions that could foil your first cookbook.

By Jody Shee

As chefs in a media-focused world, you might have felt driven to publish your recipes in a cookbook. We asked a few authors to
share the mistakes they made and advise others how to avoid similar blunders.


Don’t assume your readers know how to cook. Jennifer Hill Booker, a Lilburn, Georgia-based culinary educator and author of two Southern cuisine-themed cookbooks, feels she assumed too much of the reader at first. “You have to spell everything out, like the size of the bowl, how much water to put in the stock pot and how long to boil it,” she says.

Don’t make your recipes too unapproachable. Gale Gand, Chicago-based pastry chef, cooking teacher, TV personality and author of eight cookbooks admits that the ingredient lists of the recipes in her first cookbook were too long.

“Each recipe included every ingredient as a chef would use in a restaurant, but it wasn’t how someone at home wants to cook,” she says. Her new thinking is to keep recipes to eight ingredients or less.

Don’t take a shotgun approach with your recipes. Pick a theme or a hook for your cookbook. It’s not good enough to simply fill a book with recipes, says Michael Ruhlman, author/co-author of 25 books, based in New York and Providence, Rhode Island. The theme of his first solo book was Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes A Cook’s Manifesto. Due out in October, Ruhlman’s next book is also organized around a theme: From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes and Dozens of Techniques You’ll Use Over and Over.

Don’t slack on professionalism. Whatever your cookbook theme or concept, don’t assume you already have all the knowledge. Delve into aspects with which you are unfamiliar and do the research, says Brian Polcyn CEC, culinary instructor at Schoolcraft College, Livonia, Michigan, and co-author of three charcuterie-themed cookbooks. “Validate everything you say. Once you put it in words, it better be right.”

Professionalism also means getting others to test the recipes and potentially hiring a writer. To find one, contact local newspaper food writers, Ruhlman says. “Chefs are cooks and usually are not great writers, and they are busy.”

Don’t expect publishers to be interested in your cookbook. They are inundated with book proposals. “Be able to answer why this cookbook needs to happen. What does it add to an already overcrowded field of cookbooks?” Ruhlman asks. Find a book agent to help you with your proposal and pitch it to publishers.

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