The Making of a Cookbook: Recipe Development

January 23, 2019

How Healthy Food Blogger Erin Clarke comes up with new recipe ideas for her cookbook and blog.

It’s hard to believe that I’m wrapping up the recipe testing for my cookbook, which will be coming out in Spring 2020! Leading up to its release (which I know feels far away but will be here before we know it!), I wanted to share some of the behind-the-scenes of what has gone into its creation. Up first: recipe development.

Writing a cookbook is by far the hardest, most demanding project I have ever taken on. Recipe development and testing is its core, and I take both very seriously. When you try one of my recipes, I am humbled and honored. You are choosing to invest your time and resources in something I’ve created, and it is of the utmost importance to me that it delights you in every way.

The recipes in my cookbook? Multiply that importance by approximately 9,743,897,563,9342 and you’ll start to have an idea of just how seriously I’m taking the recipe development and testing for my cookbook.

The recipes in my cookbook are THE BEST recipes I’ve ever produced. I know you are going to adore them, and I’ll feel proud when I see them in print too.

A recipe’s journey from concept floating around in my brain (usually late at night or while I’m somewhere inconvenient—like the shower), to forever-in-print is a long one. After sitting down to think it through, I realized that creating a recipe starts with two distinct categories.

  • Recipe Development. How I conceptualize and plan out my recipes.
  • Recipe Testing. How I take the recipe from concept to reality on the plate.

Today, I’ll be talking about my process for recipe development, a.k.a. how I come up with recipe ideas then turn those ideas into a set of ingredients and directions that you can reproduce at home.

Last week on Instagram, I asked what questions you had about this process, and you had a lot! I’m answering some below today and will follow up in the coming weeks with a post about recipe testing.

OK, let’s dive in! Here’s the scoop on how I come up with my recipes. I bet you’ll be surprised by just how much thought goes into every single component.

Well Plated by Erin—Cookbook Recipe Development

WHERE DO YOU GET THE IDEAS FOR YOUR RECIPES?

This is one of the questions I’m asked most often and the honest answer is…everywhere! I adore eating, and I have a little voice constantly running in the back of my brain, wondering how I can create something similar at home. A few top sources are:

  • Travel. I love to eat when I travel, and I often travel purely to eat. (If you’ve followed me on Instagram, you know this is true). World cuisine (especially Asian and Indian food) inspires me in particular because those cultures use spices and cooking preparation (versus fat alone) to create flavor.

A blue bowl of pad thai and how travel inspires recipe development

That said, I am also inspired by the cuisine of countries that are masters of fat (ahem, the French and Italians). It’s a balance.

  • Local Restaurants. You don’t need a plane ticket to be inspired. I also get oodles of inspiration going out to eat here in Milwaukee.

From street tacos to craft cocktails to honest farm-sourced cooking, we are lucky to live in a city that’s ripe with culinary inspiration.

  • Embracing the Midwest. Another major source of my recipe inspiration is my Midwest upbringing. I have a deep, intrinsic love for the comfort foods of my childhood. I’m constantly looking for ways to make the classics both more interesting and better for you.

a plate of slow cooker beef stroganoff

Beef stroganoff is a fantastic example of one of the iconic midwestern dishes that inspires my cooking. It’s unquestionably nostalgic, but it can also be pretty dull. My crockpot beef stroganoff? TOTALLY DIFFERENT STORY. Small changes, like adding Worcestershire, dill, and Dijon make it remarkable, and I lightened it up with Greek yogurt too.

  • Seasonality. While my blog features ingredients that change throughout the seasons, I based my cookbook recipes primarily on ingredients you can find all year long. I want you to be able to open to any page, anytime, and be able to cook what you are craving!

For the select recipes that do lean heavily on seasonal ingredients, I also included ideas for alternative ingredients you can swap in at different times throughout the year.

  • Above all, I think about YOU. What do you need? This is the driving force behind every recipe I create.

A few top meal categories on my mind:

  • Easy, healthy dinners you can cook in a flash AND that taste fabulous. My book is loaded with these!
  • A few special-occasion recipes that are good enough for company. Yep, my book has these too.
  • Sides that don’t feel boring, healthy desserts that taste like the real deal, and wholesome breakfasts. Yes, you can find them all!

Once I have a core list of ideas in each meal category, I look at the mix of proteins, veggies, and cooking techniques to ensure that you have a reliable assortment and recipe to suit any situation.

THEN, I take every recipe up a notch. For my cookbook, I want to make sure the array I am offering feels fresh and differentiated from what you can already find on my blog.

This cookbook is a level above. Every recipe offers something unique!

^^Truth: I am dying to tell you so much more right now, but I want to leave some of it a surprise. I promise, you are going to LOVE it.

DO YOU EVER DREAM ABOUT FOOD AND RECIPES WHILE YOU SLEEP?

All the time. I finally installed app on my phone (it’s called Wunderlist) where I can quickly type in my ideas in the middle of the night. This helps my brain quiet back down so I can fall asleep (and dream about more recipes).

HOW DO YOU CREATE A RECIPE FROM SCRATCH?

Once I have the concept for a recipe, I break it down into individual elements. Things I think about:

  • What purpose does this recipe fulfill (easy dinner, party appetizer, etc.)?
  • What ingredient do I want to be the star?
  • What supporting ingredients will boost the flavor of the star ingredient and make it taste its best? (I pay attention to this when I eat out too.) The Flavor Bible is a fantastic resource when I’m deciding which spices to add or looking for complementary flavors. If you are interested in improving your cooking, check it out!
  • How can I add texture? (Another great component to consider when you are eating out.)
  • How many ingredients is it? I never add ingredients for the sake of it. If an ingredient is listed, it’s necessary to make the recipe taste its best.
  • Can I find the ingredients at a basic grocery store? <—Answer YES, or it doesn’t make the cut.
  • How long does the recipe take to make from start to finish? Unless a recipe goes into the slow cooker or needs time to rest or refrigerate, my goal time is 1 hour, usually less.
  • Will this get too many dishes dirty? I hate dishes, and I’m guessing you do too.
  • Is it worth the effort? Spoiler: Yes. ALWAYS.
  • What can you do with the leftovers? Will it reheat? I want you to have max enjoyment for your efforts, and leftovers pay dividends.
  • And SO MUCH MORE.

I also ask: What does this recipe mean to me? What will it mean to you when you try it?Food is intensely personal, and each of my recipes has a bit of inspiration or a story behind it.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE A RECIPE?

  • 1 to 2 hours per recipe. This is just writing the recipe out, not actually testing it. (Testing is another beast, which I’ll be covering in my next cookbook post.)

By the time I’ve sorted through all of the questions above, writing a recipe is time consuming. That said, it is time well spent. *Usually* the more well thought out a recipe is, the more successful it is. The up-front investment is worth it to me.

I type out all of my recipes and thus have spent a lot of time in coffee shops this last year. I think every barista within a one mile radius of our house knows me.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE RECIPE IS WRITTEN?

  • Time to hit the kitchen!

Once I’ve taken the recipe from idea in my brain to words on the page, it’s time to actually test it. I’ll be covering RECIPE TESTING in my next cookbook post. To make sure you don’t miss it, you can sign up to receive new blog posts in your inbox here. It’s completely free, and I’ll send you a free e-cookbook with 10 of my favorite easy, healthy weeknight meals as a thank-you!


MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT MY COOKBOOK? Feel free to leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to address them in a future post.

Thanks for following along, and stay tuned for more details about my cookbook’s release!

This post contains some affiliate links, which means that I make a small commission off items you purchase at no additional cost to you.

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