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A Piece of Cake? Cookbook Indexing–Basic Guidelines and Resources

by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Key Words, Vol. 7/No. 1 (January/February 1999), pp. 1, 6-12. Reprinted with permission

Cookbook indexing? Piece of cake, you think? Not so fast! Cookbooks are a special genre of literature (yes, literature!) that demand a certain expertise among writers and indexers. There are actually books available on how to write cookbooks1. So yes, there is an art and a science to it all, both cookbook writing and cookbook indexing. Contrary to popular belief, not just anyone can index a cookbook well.

Why not? A cookbook index is just a list of recipes, isn't it? Well, no, not really. Let's look at what cookbook indexing really demands. First, subject knowledge is important here: you, the cookbook indexer, should also be a cook, not of the Swanson's TV-dinner caliber, but rather of the Julia Child or Alice Waters type. First-hand knowledge of cooking is indispensable, and not just of American or English cooking. Working knowledge of ethnic cuisines is also becoming vital for the cookbook indexer, since many new cookbooks deal with ethnic and cultural aspects of cooking. Memoir cookbooks, becoming more popular in the last few years, infuse an historical flavor to the genre, too.

So what is indexable in a cookbook? Obviously, recipe titles need to be indexed. But here you can run into a number of distinctly different cookbook index styles. Next comes the need to index the recipes by the types of dishes (cakes, etc.), main ingredients, exotic ingredients, and ethnic and cultural origin; and possibly health parameters (low-fat recipes, etc.), meal types, holiday dishes, and cooking methods. Mixed into all of these concerns lie a variety of problems such as foreign words in recipe titles, multiple entries and synonymous terms, cross-references, how to recognize proper names in recipes, and how cooks use indexes.

To summarize, a good cookbook index should include the following indexable items:
    * recipe names/titles
    * types of dishes (cakes, etc.) or recipe category
    * main ingredients
    * exotic ingredients
    * ethnic dishes under cultural or geographical location headings, where appropriate
    * health concerns (low-fat, etc.), where appropriate
    * meal types (breakfast, brunch, lunch, snacks, appetizers, supper, dinner, picnic)
    * holiday dishes
    * cooking methods

In addition, the cookbook indexer must also be concerned with a number of other issues:
    * styles of capitalization and pagination in indexes
    * alphabetization
    * illustrations
    * personal names in recipes (e.g., Aunt Helga's Sugar Cookies)
    * proper names in indexes (e.g., Newburg, du Barry)
    * multiple entries and synonymous terms (e.g,, duxelles = mushrooms)
    * cross-references
    * foreign words and sorting of foreign articles (e.g., à la, aux)

The first three items in the list above do not demand any knowledge of cooking on your part, but the rest of the items do. Let's go through the cookbook indexing process now, step-by-step.

Indexing the Cookbook: The Step-by-Step Process

The cookbook pages have just arrived and you, the indexer, are eager to begin. But where should you begin? A glance at the title page will usually remind you of the overall focus of the cookbook. A perusal of the table of contents may illustrate the scope of the text. Since many cookbooks generally contain little more than the recipes and a brief note under the recipe title, reading the entire cookbook before starting to enter terms into the computer is not always necessary. However, several passes through the book will be necessary in order to glean the most from the book.


Before a single term is entered into the computer, you must decide (with your editor) what index style you will use2. Cookbook indexes are generally arranged in letter-by-letter sorting and in indented style for entries:

    Black beans
        frijoles negros
        Oaxaca tostada bites and rice
    Black cherry soup
    Black currant duck breasts
    Black-eyed peas and barley
    Black Label
    Black sea bass baked in salt crust

Aside from these two predictable pillars of cookbook indexing, there are other aspects that vary according to the wishes of the editor and the author. Capitalization may be as given in the example above, called modified lowercase style, in which only the first word of the main entry is capitalized. Another possibility includes a formal style, in which all words in main entries (except for articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions) are capitalized, as are all subheadings that are recipe names. Information about a recipe or food is not capitalized:

    Black Beans
        Frijoles Negros
        Oaxaca Tostada Bites and Rice
    Black Cherry Soup
    Black Currant Duck Breasts
    Black-Eyed Peas and Barley
    Black Label
    Black Sea Bass Baked in Salt Crust

Another possibility is the modified uppercase style, in which all recipe titles are capitalized, but other main entries are not:

    black beans
        Frijoles Negros
        Oaxaca Tostada Bites and Rice
    Black Cherry Soup
    Black Currant Duck Breasts
    Black-Eyed Peas and Barley
    Black Label
    Black Sea Bass Baked in Salt Crust

The next option is the informal style, in which only proper names are capitalized:

    black beans
        frijoles negros
        Oaxaca tostada bites and rice
    black cherry soup
    black currant duck breasts
    black-eyed peas and barley
    Black Label
    Black Sea bass baked in salt crust

Last is the currently popular style which lists the recipe names/titles as given, with no inversions:

        Lemon Curd
        Spicy Lemon Oil
        Whole Preserved Lemons

The problem with this style is that it takes up more space in the index than other styles; it also ignores the need to put like ingredients near each other in the subheadings. Another example of this style is:

        Apple-Cranberry Pie
        Aunt Jenny's Rhubarb Pie
        Chiffon Pumpkin Pie
        Deep-Dish Apple Pie
        Rhubarb-Raspberry Pie
        Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie
        Warm Apple Pie with Cheddar Cheese

Rhubarb, apple, and pumpkin are scattered throughout the subheadings. As a cook, I do not find this style useful, and when editors ask me to do an index this way, I point out its shortcomings in terms of index space and usability.

Page Numbers

Whitman and Simon state that using inclusive numbers (for example, 323-25) takes up too much space and that the cookbook user only needs to know the page on which the recipe starts. They suggest that using page ranges is only necessary when text, and not recipes, is indexed3. As a cook, I do not agree with this, because if a recipe is long, spanning several pages, I want to know that before I commit to the recipe. If a recipe is long, it usually means "time-consuming" and therefore won't do for a quick supper. Indexes that allow me to determine this information without taking the time to turn to the recipe are much more useful to me.

In some text-rich cookbooks, such as memoir cookbooks, page numbers for recipes can be set in bold type to ensure that the user does not look up something for which there is only discussion and no recipe.

Recipe Names and Main Ingredients

Indexing recipe names can be straightforward when it is a question of the type of dish and a main ingredient:

    Pumpkin pie

But most frequently, more comes into play. What happens when you index Lentil and Sultana Salad? In this case, there are two equally important main ingredients:

        and sultana salad
        lentil and sultana salad
        lentil and sultana
    Sultanas. See Raisin(s)

(This example points to another style decision, that of the "s" being enclosed in parentheses. Some editors like the style and others loathe it.)

Or take deviled chicken with mustard coating, an example of cooking styles:

    Deviled chicken with mustard coating
        coating for deviled chicken

If there were more than one deviled dish in the cookbook, a heading of "deviled dishes" might be useful if you have unlimited space for the index, not the usual occurrence.

When cooking methods are included in recipe names, the cooking method is usually the subheading, or is inverted if there is only one entry in the index:

        chops, sautéed
    Pork chops, sautéed
        patties, deep-fried
    Lentil patties, deep-fried
    Fennel, braised

Another aspect of cookbook indexing concerns the cooking method and the main ingredient:

        Ginger-Cured, Cambodian
        Grilled, with Dipping Sauce
        Grilled, with Lemongrass Paste
        Marinated, with Lime Sauce
        Stew, Sweet
        Stir-Fried, with Bitter Melon
        Stir-Fried, with Chinese Celery
        Stir-Fried, with Pineapple

If you are lucky, your editor might give you the option of having two levels of subheadings as in:

        Ginger-Cured, Cambodian
            with Dipping Sauce
            with Lemongrass Paste
        Marinated, with Lime Sauce
        Stew, Sweet
            with Bitter Melon
            with Chinese Celery
            with Pineapple

This of course saves the repetition found in the previous example. However, in my experience with multi-level cookbook indexes, this format sometimes makes it more difficult to quickly grasp what it is that is being, for example, stir-fried. There is an extra step there, which is to find the words "Stir-Fried" and then to move the eye over and down. If the print is small, this format can be less desirable. However, in some cases sub-subheadings can be very useful, as in the following:

    Bread soups
            from the Casentino
            with ricotta, from Monte Amiata
            with Wild Mushrooms
        Tomato-Bread Soup

When space is crucial, run-in subheadings can be substituted for the usual indented style.

This discussion must also include a comment on the growing tendency to include many terms in thc recipe name/title that might appear to be indexable but probably are not. For example, in the recipe Baked Mexican Bananas with Cinnamon, cinnamon is a minor ingredient and there is therefore no need to index the recipe under cinnamon. Another example is that of Chinese Dumplings with Chives and Ginger, in which chives are not a major ingredient in the recipe and neither is ginger. Depending on the type of cookbook, however, it might be useful in some cases to index "chives" or "ginger," in the case of an herb cookbook or a book on spices, respectively.

Multiple Entries and Synonymous Terms

This is where knowledge of cooking becomes crucial:

    Dips and spreads
    Garbanzos. See Chickpeas
    Middle Eastern dishes
    Spreads. See Dips and spreads

Here you have meal type (appetizers), main ingredient (chickpeas), cross-references (dips and spreads, garbanzos, spreads), recipe name (Hummus), and cultural or ethnic divisions (Middle Eastern dishes). Knowledge of cultural culinary terminology becomes increasingly important as greater numbers of international cookbooks are published. (A number of resources are listed at the end of this article, which will assist with culinary terminology.)

Personal and Proper Names in Recipes

Personal and proper names in recipes are quite common. Attributions are usually not indexed by name. Toll-House Cookies, Mornay Sauce, and Parker House Rolls are all common recipe names and should be indexed as such. On the other hand, Aunt Helga's Sugar Cookies or Luigi's Bean Soup should preferably be treated as follows:

        sugar, Aunt Helga's
        soup, Luigi's
        bean, Luigi's

If space permits, the titles could be indexed as they are given, but most index users will look for the ingredient or the type of dish first unless they have read the cookbook or used the recipe before.

Exotic Ingredients

Make it a practice to read each recipe in depth, pulling out and indexing ingredients that are considered exotic. Why? If a cook has to buy an expensive special ingredient for a recipe, he or she will want to know how else to use that ingredient before the mold grows on it or it dries up. Exotic can be olives, anchovies, goat cheeses, fresh herbs, tapioca or potato starches, unusual grains like spelt or teff, roasted fish powder (yes!), etc.


Under the section above, "Multiple Entries and Synonymous Terms," the index user is referred from garbanzos to chickpeas, the preferred term. Other examples of the use of see references might include:

        stocks (see Stocks)

Broad entries like "Fruit" or "Vegetables" might merit the following see reference:

    Fruit. See also specific fruits
        choosing fresh

See also references refer the index user to similar ingredients or dishes:

    Cornmeal. See also Polenta
        sauces for
        with three cheeses

Foreign Words and Recipe Names

Foreign recipe names can be italicized, but a simpler method is to leave all index entries in roman type. Some publishers require that both the foreign and English titles be indexed with the translation in parentheses after the main entry:

    Black beans and rice (Moros y cristianos)
    Moros y cristianos (Black beans and rice)

Putting translations into subheadings can get messy, so it is better to choose either the foreign version or the English version and consistently include those in the appropriate subheadings. One way to handle this is:

    Italian dishes
        insalata d'estate
        marinara sauce
        risotto con salsicce e fagioli borlotti

Or, use both English headings and Italian headings with the appropriate language in the subheadings. If the audience for the cookbook is not thought to have language ability and if the recipe names are given in both the language and English, the English version should be given in the subheadings.

Alternatively, recipe titles in the foreign language can simply be written out as such, with the entire recipe name as the entry. Of course, if the language is such that several of the recipes begin with the same term, you may wind up with:

    Bai Domnap Muk B'kong (Sticky Rice Topped with Shellfish)
    Bai K'dong (Crispy Rice)
    Bai K'dong K'tum (Rice Cake Treat)
    Bai Laen B'kong (Shrimp-Fried Rice)
    Bai Laen K'dom (Fried Rice with Crabmeat)

This not an ideal situation, because it would be nice to have a well-structured index in both English and the foreign language (in this case Cambodian). An unknown language makes it difficult for the indexer to be sure that the right term is being chosen, under which speakers of that language would look. Would it be Bai (rice)? Where would the cooking terms go (Laen, etc.)? And what about K'dong or K'dom or K'tum? This is not a common problem, but as more and more ethnic cookbooks get published, more indexers will be faced with this situation.

Another point to keep in mind is the presence of articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions in recipes with foreign names; these function words should be ignored where appropriate in sorting:

        col cavolo rosso e la pancetta
        coi fagiolini verdi e il peperone giallo
        alla friulana col rosmarino e vino bianco
        con salsicce e fagioli borlotti

Other similar such terms include:

    "in the manner of"
        à la (French)
        au (French)
        aux (French)
        avec (French)
        con (Spanish, Italian)
        mit (German)
        e (Italian)
        et (French)
        und (German)
        y (Spanish)

The Process Summarized

Use the criteria given in the previous sections as guidelines. Set up the indexing software to format the index according to the criteria given to you by the publisher. Start indexing by examining recipe names, selecting main entries for main ingredients, and determining recipe categories and meal types (if appropriate). Then select ethnic and cultural headings (if appropriate), make cross-references where necessary, and clarify any foreign words and their alphabetization.

A Last Word on How Cooks Use Indexes

Many cooks shop by the season or the weekly special–in other words, they may not know what they're cooking until they get it home from the market and on the counter-top. Let's say hamburger was on special, so "Ground beef" might be one way to find something new to cook ("I am not going to make spaghetti again this week!") or perhaps some Indian spices caught the cook's eye, so "Indian dishes" would be scanned before "Keema" would be. On a hot day, the main entry "Salads'' might be where the cook would look; I mean, who wants to make Coq au Vin when it's 90 degrees outside and the air conditioner just quit? To put it simply, think about what the cook wants, what she/he needs in a hurry, and in as many scenarios as you can imagine. Then make the index fit those scenarios.

    Thérèse Shere adds:

    A very critical difference between cookbook indexes and other indexes, I think, is that cookbook indexes are used over and over by the same reader to find the same entry. What this means to me is that it is more important than ever not to penalize the reader for knowing exactly what they're looking for. I want to find Red Lentil Soup with Lime under "R" and Upside-Down cake under "U" when I look them up twice a month! In other words, cooks will use an index to browse when they don't know what they're going to make, but more commonly they will be looking up a specific dish they have made before. One implication of this is when you don't have room to double-post, I think it's better to put recipe titles under the most specific ingredient name and then cross-reference from the general to the specific:

        Green beans
            in Mixed Summer Vegetables
            for Saint Anne's Day
        Beans. See Fava beans; Green beans

    and not have

        Beans, green
            in Mixed Summer Vegetables
            for Saint Anne's Day

In other words, "Keema," as referred to above, had better be in the index on its own, and not just under "Beef, ground."

What it boils down to is choices, choices, and more choices. The indexer has many choices to make. Cookbook indexing a piece of cake? Not really, but you do get an early crack at all those new cake recipes!


1. For examples, see Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane L. Baker, The Recipe Writer's Handbook (New York: John Wiley, 1997); Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon, Recipes Into Type (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993); and Judith Comfort, Writing Cookbooks (Bellingham, WA: Self-Counsel Press, 1997).

2. Recipes into Type, pp. 135-37.

3. Recipes into Type, p. 138.


Great and special thanks are due to Thérèse Shere and Elinor Lindheimer, who read the draft of this article and made substantial comments and additions to the text.


Cynthia D. Bertelsen, a nutritionist, librarian, and historian, indexes medical books and journals full-time. Food- and nutrition-related subjects are her preferred specialty, but she also indexes a wide range of other subjects. After 15 years of living and working in various developing countries, she went to library school and learned about indexing as a career possibility. In her "spare" time, she writes articles about indexing and cuisine; cooks and designs menus from her 1,500-volume cookbook collection; and is active in her Catholic parish and in the American Society for Indexing. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband Mike, her son Erik, and two cats, Wags and Jane.


Often the cookbook indexer needs to verify a term, find a series of alternative terms, or clarify a term. The following resources, online and print, can help in those circumstances.

Online Resources

Web sites are constantly changing. These sites were operational and useful as of January 1, 1999. Titles of Web sites are quoted directly. [Note about this version: Dead links could not be found. A few links have been changed to reflect current paths.]

ABC of Arabic Cuisine:  A select number of Middle Eastern food words.

Beer Term Dictionary:  Samuel Adams brewery shares all the beer and brewing words you would probably ever need to know.

Bread and Baking Glossary:  Fleischman's Yeast provides you with an amazing list and definitions of bread and baking terms, including types of breads.

Cajun CookingTerms:  The Times-Picayune's list of words associated with New Orleans food is selective but useful.

Chocolate and Baking Terminology Glossary: http://www2godiva/godiva/recipes/terms.asp  Godiva Chocolate presents a comprehensive listing with definitions of chocolate words.

Cooking Dictionary:  A searchable dictionary with fairly specific terminology.

Cooking Glossary:  Another fairly detailed glossary of cooking terms; not searchable, unfortunately.

The Cook's Thesaurus:  Lori Alden's "The Cook's Thesaurus" is one of the most comprehensive and detailed online resources.

Culinary Terms Glossary:  Cooking styles and terminology featured here; the main page has an alphabetic search capability.

Eating Dictionary, by Gourmet magazine: Gourmet magazine's Epicurious Web site's food dictionary. Quite