Something I get asked about quite often is how I come up with new recipes. I don’t have any formal training as a pastry chef or recipe developer; everything I know I have learned from books, YouTube, friends, and/or trial & error. And since I just recently spent several months recipe developing and writing for my cookbook, Even Better Brownies, I thought it might be interesting to share my process with you.
As a general overview, here are the steps I go through when developing a recipe:
Step 1: Inspiration
Step 2: Visualization
Step 3: Research
Step 4: Drafting and Testing
Step 5: Writing the Recipe
Before I dive into my recipe developing process, however, I wanted to briefly touch on the basic principle that governs dozens of different dishes, especially in baking: the culinary ratio.
You’ve heard it said before that baking is a science— and it’s true. Culinary ratios are the backbone of our favorite recipes for cookies, cakes and more. And to understand the base structures of these items is what separates the pro bakers from the fakers.
A culinary ratio is a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients relative to another. Let's look at bread for an example. The culinary ratio for bread is 5:3; 5 parts flour: 3 parts water. This means that if you combine 5 ounces of flour and 3 ounces of water, or 500 grams of flour and 300 grams of water, you will (if mixed properly) have a good bread dough. Now obviously, you need a small amount of yeast, but the exact amount is hugely variable so it's not a meaningful part of the ratio. You need salt for flavor, but that's a matter of taste. And you need to mix the dough until it has enough elasticity to contain the gas released by the yeast. So while there are rules to follow and issues of technique, these aren't part of the ratio. From there, the sky's the limit on the flavor or type of bread you want to make. You're free to add herbs like rosemary or thyme for an herbed bread, or lemon and poppyseeds for a savory quick bread.
So I’m sure many of you are asking why one would ever care about culinary ratios? Well, for most home bakers you probably won't ever really need it. But for anyone interested in developing and writing recipes or doing large volume baking it can be very helpful. When you understand how a culinary ratio works, it's not like knowing one recipe— it's like instantly knowing all of them.
Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way... let's dive into the recipe development process!
It seems obvious, but you’ve got to start with an idea. It can be anything from an ingredient/ingredient pairing to a dish title to something totally weird that just pops into your head. For me, the inspiration for a new recipe is often organic. For example: I experience a food or dessert in a restaurant, bakery, or cookbook with a certain aspect I can't stop thinking about. Sometimes it's the flavor, sometimes it's the texture, and sometimes it's just the visual appeal of the dessert; like the festively sprinkled Brown Butter Sugar Cookies below.
However, I also try to keep an open mind about developing recipes that don't enter my life organically. On the inorganic front, inspiration for my recipes tends to come from listening to what people want, whether that's through Instagram DMs, recipe comments, or common timely search terms. (Like how pumpkin spice starts trending every September...)
Once I have an idea of the dish I want to make, I try to picture it in my head. I think it’s extremely important to start thinking early on in the process about how your dish will look; after all, I'm sure you've heard the phrase "you eat with your eyes first."
Once I have a hazy idea of how I want the dish to look, I start sketching it out. (I'm no Picasso, so the sketches are always rough... but you get the idea!)
Drawing a dish is a remarkably effective way to wrap your head around not just the look of the dish, but also which secondary components you can add for better flavor, texture, and appearance. For example, these Key Lime Pie Bars below would have looked rather plain without the lime zest and little lime wedges on top.
Once I have an idea of the recipe I want to create and how I want it to look, I learn what's out there. If it's a recipe that's already well-covered, take apple pie for example, I ask myself if my idea is adding something meaningful to the discussion, like a new flavor or texture, fewer or more accessible ingredients, an easier method, or simply better results. If so, then I'll proceed. If not, I try to focus on a way to make my recipe stand out from the rest.
This research phase is also essential because it allows me to take note of ingredient ratios, cooking techniques, times, and temperatures. This step is purely for information, and not for copying someone else's work, of course. David Lebovitz wrote a wonderful article about recipe attribution a few years back, which you should absolutely read.
Drafting and Testing
This is where the magic (or failures) happen. This process can depend a lot on the recipe. Sometimes a recipe or technique I’ve used in the past can be re-used… so when I can, I'll grab bits and pieces from my other recipes to build something new.
Example: These Chai Spiced Cinnamon Rolls use a half recipe of the vanilla bean brioche dough from my Cardamom Cinnamon Rolls and the filling uses a chai spice mixture that I use for numerous recipes in my cookbook, like the Vanilla Chai Cheesecake Bars pictured below.
Based on culinary ratios for the dessert I'm making, the proportions I notice in my research, and the flavors I like together, I piece together a recipe that I think will work. Before I start cooking, I'll write down ingredients, quantities, and a few key words (i.e. "cream together").
Things change once I start cooking; if a batter looks surprisingly wet, for example, I’ll adjust accordingly and make sure to make note of it. *Keeping a pen and notepad on your workstation at all times is SUPER important!
I test each recipe an average of 3 times (some as many as 6 to 8), making any necessary tweaks to ensure that the recipe is as delicious and easy-to-follow as humanly possible. Once I've created and tested a recipe myself, I give it to someone else and see what they think. If I know right away that something is missing or off, I'll ask my fellow recipe developing friends to help me troubleshoot a specific aspect of the recipe if needed. (Shoutout to Erin from Cloudy Kitchen!)
If the recipe needs more work, or just isn’t right then I’ll amend or redraft it completely, before taking it back to the testing stage. This is why sometimes you might see me working on a recipe on IG stories but it's a long while before the recipe hits your screens. It’s not often I’ll give up on a recipe completely, but sometimes recipes need more than just a tweak before I decide they’re ready to shoot and share.
Writing the Recipe
Then comes my least favorite part... taking my flour and chocolate covered notebook to go over my scribbled notes and actually write the recipe out. The rules for recipe writing are pretty intuitive and straightforward. Yet, if you don’t practice them, you can leave a cook confused, hopeless, and with a batch of inedible food.
The following are a list of questions I like to run through/reference as I'm writing my recipes out:
- Are the instructions brief, clear, complete, and easy to read/understand?
- I never assume that people have the same cooking skills that I, someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen, have. So, I try to explain what to do in the directions as explicitly as possible and write like I'm talking to a friend. Beginner cooks want and need clarity, so I try to avoid being vague.
- Are the correct words used to describe necessary steps?
- Ex. "stir" or "fold"
- Are recipe yields and number of servings included? Are they accurate?
- Are any recipe idiosyncrasies explained?
- Ex. "batter will be thin" or "mixture will look curdled"
- Are there any tips or warnings?
- Ex. If something should not be overcooked or if a dish will continue to cook after it is removed from the oven
- Are there any alternative techniques that can be used to get similar results?
- Ex. melting chocolate in a double boiler vs. melting in a microwave
- Can information be added for advance or partial cooking?
- Are there any storage or freezing directions?
- Etc, etc, etc.
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list; just an idea of things I like to think about as I'm typing out the full instructions for any given recipe.
Tips to keep in mind when writing recipes:
- List ingredients in chronological order. The ingredients list is one of the most important parts of a recipe, and it should be listed in the order that it will appear in the directions list. Make sure to be specific and list exact amounts needed; and include the state of ingredients (i.e., frozen, softened, melted).
- Separate ingredients for major steps in a recipe. If the recipe is a donut with a glaze, for example, it will be easier to follow if you include a subheading for “donut” and one for “glaze” with the respective ingredients grouped in their categories. This should follow through to the instructions list when possible too.
- List steps in order, keeping instructions short and to the point. The instructions should match the same order as the ingredients list. And they should be as short and simple as possible. Try to describe the easiest way possible to accomplish the steps in the recipe.
- Give specifics about doneness. Avoid using terms like “cook until done”; how does one know when it is done? Provide a cooking length and indicator for doneness, such as “when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs”.
- Include storage suggestions. Include directions on how to store leftovers, such as temperature and containers.
- Offer extra methods or substitutions (when tested). For extra credit, offer additional information, such as gluten-free and vegetarian methods or substitution ideas for ingredients, but only if you've tested them yourself and know they will work.
- Include nutritional information. It’s always a good idea to include nutritional analysis using the USDA database based on the serving size of your recipe. Many nutrition software programs can perform this function.
Having a recipe fail – or several recipe fails in a row – can be a blow to your confidence. Trust me, I've been there. Try not to let it get you down. Remember that cooking is a skill, and like any other skill it takes time and effort to be proficient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your recipe creations won’t be either.
As you practice and hone your instincts, your mishaps will decrease and your wins will skyrocket. Plus, you’ll be able to whip up new recipes more quickly and efficiently because experience has taught you what works and what doesn’t.
References & Suggested Readings
Below are books that I found to be super helpful in my recipe developing journey if you're looking to learn more about the food science side of things. (Just threw up in my mouth a little bit typing “journey,” but I couldn’t think of an appropriate synonym; Sorry.)
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas
How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula Figoni
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt