November 5, 2015

The Other Culinary Arts: Cookbook Writer


Cooking Up Cookbook Success: One Woman’s Recipe

Everyone knows who Sara Moulton ’77 is. Starting in 1996, she was the face of the Food Network on her daily show, Cooking Live. Her goal was always to be the “kitchen shrink, the fixit person” for home cooks, helping them get dinner on the table for their families. Her name became synonymous with excellence, warmth, and accessible recipes. Her show was so successful that she was approached to write her first cookbook. “They told me, ‘this is your time, make the most of it,’” Sara explains. “And I was plunged into the world of cookbook writing.”

[youtube][/youtube]She certainly had the culinary chops to write a book. Sara had spent seven years working in high-end kitchens in Boston, France, and New York City. For 25 years she worked at Gourmet magazine, first in the test kitchens and then as executive chef of the magazine’s dining room. She started her television career working on the PBS show Julia Child & More Company. Her friendship with Julia Child opened the door to a stint on Good Morning America. From there, it was on to the Food Network, where she produced 1,200 episodes of Cooking Live and then 300 episodes of Sara’s Secrets. She is now in the fourth season of her PBS show, Sara’s Weeknight Meals.

Sara believes when writing cookbooks you have to consider your audience, your topic focus has to be crystal clear, and your organization has to be akin to mise en place on steroids!

Here’s Sara’s recipe for cookbook writing success:

  • Insist on a full year to write the book so you are not rushed.
  • Make sure your focus is clear in your mind and you don’t stray.
  • Keep track of the ingredients you use and how often you use them to make sure you don’t overdo it with one ingredient in the overall book. If your book has recipes from all over the world, make sure there is a balance of cuisines. Make a chart to keep track of the ingredients and the cuisine types.
  • Don’t work on a chapter from start to finish because it can stifle creativity. Chip away at the book as a whole, adding a recipe to one chapter and then another recipe to a different chapter.
  • Write the recipe on the computer the way you think it should work, then print it and test it. Note changes you’ve made to the recipe for each round of testing you do. Print out new versions and keep them all together as you progress.
  • Finish the recipe, then write the head notes and sidebars once you are satisfied.
  • Keep a list of user-friendly sidebars you want to add as you finish the recipe. It might be a technique, discussion of equipment, or introduction of an ingredient.
  • Writing is key. Cookbooks that don’t give guidance aren’t useful. You want to help people learn to cook.


This approach has served Sara well. She has written three cookbooks—Sara Moulton Cooks at Home, Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals, and Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners. All have been hugely successful with her loyal audience.

Sara believes that the traditional reason for buying a cookbook is long gone. “People can choose from thousands of recipes on the Internet,” she says. “The cookbook of today is more of a book you read, peruse, and enjoy in much the way you do a novel. That is why telling a story and writing well is so important.”

Article originally published in the CIA Alumni Magazine, Mise en Place.