A classic cookbook is built from a thousand details, right down to paper and font choices. Cultural issues can be a factor in book design. For example, there is a marked difference in cookbook presentation for UK and US markets. The British, don’t require a literal treatment of the subject on a cookbook’s jacket. It’s an inside joke among cookbook lovers that UK editions often undergo an ugly makeover for their North American debut. The British first edition of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty has a soft, padded, pristine white jacket with coloured line drawings of fruit and vegetables and the title emblazoned in gold lettering. If you happened on it out of a store's cookbook section and knew nothing of the brilliant chef behind it, you might not know it to be a cookbook. Those more sensual elements—the soft padding and line drawings—were stripped for its US release and replaced with a flat hard cover and a photograph of one of the recipes, Aubergine in Buttermilk Sauce. On this side of the Atlantic, there is no mistaking that it is indeed a cookbook.
The current formula for cookbook size seems to be based on the idea that the greater the chef's public profile, the bigger the book (although there are wonderful exceptions, thank you very much Alain Passard). Books can be so big and have such elaborate production values that they seem more suited to coffee table than kitchen.
A cookbook's projected financial return will influence whether it is published in paper or hard cover. First-time cookbook writers lacking a celebrity profile will have little choice but to produce in paperback. A reasonable cover price can encourage sales. As beautiful as the current paperback cookbooks can be, they still feel less substantial in the hand.
Organization is demonstrated in countless ways and, in cookbooks, two influential mapping tools are the table of contents and the index. They’re like the roof and the plumbing of a cookbook's structure—unsexy to produce or maintain but skimping comes at a dear cost. It’s not the place for a cookbook writer to lose heart. A user will be happy if they can easily find what they’re looking for.
Most frequently a cookbook follows the progression of a menu beginning with appetizers and ending with dessert. But the seasons are also a popular form. In LaVarenne Pratique, Anne Willan follows the teaching spirit of the book and divides it into five fundamental subject units, or lessons. It’s a book that demands exacting standards in indexing because recipes are but one element of the content. Technique and ingredients must also be documented and there’s no shortage of opportunities to cross-reference.
Any information that enhances the user experience needs to be included up front. This is the place for a glossary of ingredients or to offer an explanation for adopting a particular system of measurement. A reader should not have to search secondary resources. Knowing the market helps a great deal here. Any cookbook for a beginner that includes exotic ingredients or challenging techniques must include clarification up front. Cookbooks created for restaurants by chefs often include a section, usually at the back of the book, for basic recipes. Authors of these books are confident their readers already possess good basic recipes for stock and pastry, but offer their own as an alternative.
Issues related to measurement should cause any cookbook writer a few sleepless nights. This is particularly true if the cookbook is a compilation of recipes from several sources, whose measurements are standardized (a head-spinning undertaking). Any good cookbook will include some discussion about measurements. Nancy Singleton Hachisu tips her hat to Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, the book that influenced her approach. Chad Robertson faces head-on the notion that, “Traditional, intuitive bread making does not lend itself naturally to a written recipe.” Measurement will often reflect the predominate system of the country of origin but a great cookbook should be "bilingual," with recipes including both imperial and metric measures. But, whatever the system, consistency is imperative.
Thornier measurement issues will arise out of a book's subject. Bread making according to Chad Robertson requires weight or ratio measurement—as will any good bread or pastry book. Multiple forms of measurement may need to be used in a single recipe. Weighing minute quantities of spice can be tricky, so measuring by spoonfuls may be a better option.
Recipes have their own formatting issues. It can be confusing for example, to have recipes embedded within other recipes. Professional chefs sometimes adopt this tactic but the average cookbook user will be frustrated if made to flip back and forth among its pages. Restful white space on a page creates a sense of clarity and simplicity in a recipe. Ingredients should be organized according to use, methods requiring the most time given priority, and the language should be active and engaging.
A meaningful recipe introduction is a place where an author's intelligence can shine and a greater intimacy can be created with the reader. It may explain the inspiration for the recipe, expand on ingredient knowledge or emphasize a watch point in the method. In his cookbook Chez Panisse Cooking, Paul Bertolli shows great mastery. The introduction to his recipe for Risotto with Tomatoes, Shrimp, Garlic, and Parsley includes this: “Most of the preparation for this risotto resides in making a flavorful fish broth. You will note that the shrimp are not added until the last minute and are intended to retain their flavor and juice rather than render them to the rice. The quality of the broth is crucial in providing a foundation for this dish and should be rich in flavor—thus the use of chicken stock instead of water. The chicken flavor will subside with the addition of fish bones and seasonings, yet contributes invaluably to the strength of the reduction. If the final broth is not strong or satisfying enough to sip by itself, it will not do much more for this risotto.”
Photos and pictures can add much to the character and content of a cookbook. Contemporary cookbooks place a high value on their inclusion but it adds to production costs. For a beginner cook, or if the books subject is considered exotic, photos are essential.
Cookbooks created by restaurant chefs (which have the advantage of a ready made market) often contain few pictures, and those that are included may have a broader, more suggestive focus. Danny Meyer’s The Union Square Cafe Cookbook has almost no photos food, with most focusing on intimate details of the restaurant. They are also in black and white, which costs much less than colour photos to reproduce.
Judy Rodgers uses a traditional approach in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by photographing strategic recipes and clustering them in sections. Her emphasis remains on the content of the recipes and the work of the cook.
A more artistic approach is seen in Martin Picard’s fantastical Au Pied de Cochon. The rich design gives the reader a real sense of the character of the book's creator and his wonderful and unique restaurant. Picard’s recipe for Tomato Tart includes a photo of the finished tart, a strip of photos arranged like an old fashioned negative detailing messier elements of the tart's production and two small, comical, sexually suggestive drawings. The whole is a design dream, the product of a lusty, confident cook with little desire to compromise or censor and achieved because Picard assumed all production responsibility for the cookbook.
Cookbook creation is like preparing a feast. There are so many opportunities to subtly express care and consideration. But you won’t need any of this information to determine if a cookbook is good—its stained and spattered pages will be recommendation enough. A cookbook well used is one that is well made.
 Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Japanese Farm Food, (Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2012) p. XIII
 Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010) p. 11
 Paul Bertolli, Chez Panisse Cooking, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1988) p. 168
 Martin Picard, Au Pied de Cochon, (Montreal: Restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, 2006) p. 136