Food for thought: the expanding universe of cookbook indexing—Gillian Watts (ISC conference 2014)

Gillian Watts, a past president of the Indexing Society of Canada, is an avid cook who’s always been drawn to cookbook indexing. Frustrated by not being able to find what she needed in a Time-Life series of cookbooks she owned called Foods of the World, Watts began cataloguing the recipes and ingredients in the series using index cards. She has since indexed about 140 cookbooks on a variety of topics, from breadmaking to gluten-free recipes to Indian cuisine.

Why index cookbooks?

There’s a big market for cookbooks today, particularly those focusing on healthy foods or cuisine from other countries, as well as those written by celebrity chefs.

Cookbooks are also comparatively easy, if you already know how to index. They’re “not a strain on intellectual faculties,” said Watts, and you can make “quick bucks, though not necessarily big bucks.”

What’s more, cookbooks are fun: every book has a different challenge, a “different world of sensory delights,” although, warned Watts, they “can lead to frequent snacking.”

Indexing approach

As with any index, know your client’s preferences before you begin, although sometimes the publisher doesn’t know what they want. In cookbooks there seems to be a preference for letter-by-letter sorting, and generally you need only one level of subhead. “Only once did I have to go to two levels,” Watts said.

Some publishers ask indexers to use special formatting, such as italics or bold, for main entries, particular techniques, or images.

“As a matter of practice,” said Watts, “I over-index. It’s easier to cut stuff out later rather than add it back in.” Watts keeps the main headings lowercase singular, to take advantage of her indexing software’s autocomplete function.

Bear in mind that the cookbook author had a reason for giving the recipes the titles they have, so try to preserve the original syntax when indexing. Also, Watts will index any ingredient in a recipe name, even if very little of it is used.

Knowing how to cook is a huge asset to a cookbook indexer; it’s important to understand the flavour profile of ingredients. An experienced cook, for example, would recognize that 1/4 cup of cilantro has more flavour than a 1/4 cup of parsley—and that it would have more influence in 2 cups of sauce than an 8-serving stew.

Cross-references are also important: often fresh and dried ingredients are used very differently.

Watts keeps a “staples list” that sets the threshold for which certain ingredients (e.g., beer, breadcrumbs, butter, carrots) make it into the index, but, she emphasized, you need to be flexible. In books for parents or for people with health problems, foods normally considered staples (e.g., flour) may become important to know about—and hence important to index.

For common cookbook terms, Watts has added a series of abbreviations to her software that autocorrect to the longer word—e.g., ch will render as chocolate. This trick saves her keystrokes and is especially useful for terms with accented characters.

The metatopic can be tricky for books that focus on a particular ingredient. For a book about quinoa that Watts worked on, where every recipe included quinoa, she indexed special forms of quinoa, such as “quinoa flour” and “quinoa flakes,” and implied that anything not listed simply used quinoa.

In cookbooks that have a health component as well as recipes, the index entries sometimes make “awkward bedfellows.” You may end up with “unappealing juxtapositions of symptoms and recipe items” and may need to get creative with wording. In one project she recommended using two separate indexes in order not to ruin the reader’s appetite.

Editing and trimming

Once you’re done data entry, edit the index, eliminating all one-entry headings. Check all cross-references.

The number of entries isn’t the same as the number of lines; some recipes have long, descriptive titles. The number of entries should be about 85 per cent of the lines available.

If space is at a premium, get rid of entries beginning with cooking techniques; people look up food, not techniques. Staple products and flavourings are also good candidates for cuts. “Sometimes you have to cut your pet entries,” said Watts, and “it’s important not to clutter the index with trivialities, even if they sound yummy.”

You may also want to group similar ingredients, such as berries, nuts, seafood, and so on, for space. “Sometimes I cheat and use the flavour profile rather than the actual food,” said Watts. For example, the entry “apple” would include applesauce, apple juice—basically anything that tastes like apple.


If the universe of cookbook indexing appeals to you, Watts recommends the following resources:

Watts also suggests looking at indexes in your own cookbooks. Which are useful? Which are irritating? And makes them so?


(Related: See my post about cookbook indexing using Microsoft Word.)

Cookbook indexing in Microsoft Word

I’ve just wrapped up a cookbook index, and while I was putting it together I found myself referring to notes I’d made a while ago for a friend who wanted to do cookbook indexing but didn’t want to invest in indexing software. When I worked in house, I’d prepared several cookbook indexes using only Microsoft Word and figured out, through trial and error, a reasonably efficient system. I figured I’d share my notes here for anyone interested. If you have a client with a specific house style, you might have to adjust the approach a bit.

What follows isn’t a guide for writing a good cookbook index. For that kind of information, I’d suggest “A Piece of Cake? Cookbook Indexing–Basic Guidelines and Resources” by Cynthia D. Bertelsen and Recipes into Type by Joan Whitman and Dolores Simon (relevant excerpt about indexes here). The notes below are just a step-by-step system you can follow to take advantage of Word’s functions when creating a cookbook index even though it ordinarily isn’t a great program to use for indexing.


Specialized indexing software is invaluable if you’re indexing most nonfiction titles, but a cookbook index has a straightforward structure that Word can easily accommodate.  The key is to keep the following in mind:

  • As tempting as it might be to sort as you go along—as indexing software allows you to do—don’t. You’ll have a much easier time if you alphabetize near the end.
  • The pages may not be final when you start data entry. Be prepared to adjust your locators if they move around.
  • Microsoft Word does not sort letter by letter; you may have to go through your index at the end and tweak the ordering of the entries.

1. Data entry

a) Start with the first recipe. Key in the recipe title verbatim (or copy and paste from a PDF), along with the page range. If the recipe has a photo, add that page number in italics.

Type the title in as it appears if it starts with a descriptor:

Deen’s Buttered Bacon Rolls, 108–9, 109

If the title starts with a main ingredient, state the main ingredient category first, followed by a comma. Keep everything on the same line for now.

chickpeas, Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55

b) Copy the recipe title and locator (the highlighted part):

chickpeas, Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55

c) Paste the recipe title and locator after keying in all other main ingredients and broad categories (like “beef,” “fish,” “salads,” “sauces,” etc.) on separate lines:

green onions, Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55
quinoa, Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55
salads, Chickpea, Green Onion, and Quinoa Salad, 54–55

d) If the recipe title starts with more than one descriptor, add entries for all possible inversions that readers might look up. Add a special mark like an asterisk, which indicates that this entry could be considered for cutting if space is tight:

Buttered Bacon Rolls, Deen’s, 108–9, 109*

e) Key in any subrecipe titles and page ranges, under an appropriate category if necessary. If the subrecipe title is generic, you may also have to add the full recipe title for clarity. Append a double-asterisk, indicating that this is a subrecipe:

dressing, Special Dressing, for Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55**

f) Index special ingredients or techniques only if they are defined/discussed in detail. If the book contains many definitions, you may want to indicate these by setting the locators in boldface. Again, append a double-asterisk:

cold smoking, 56, 56–59**

g) Repeat steps 1a to 1e for all recipes in the cookbook, proceeding in order. Apply 1f as needed, as you go along.

h) Add any logical cross-references.

beef. See also veal

i) Run a spell check on the index.

j) Save this file as index_v1.

k) Once the cookbook’s pages have been finalized, confirm locators, making any necessary adjustments. Save index_v1.

2. Structuring

a) Alphabetize: select all, go to Table → Sort… → Sort by paragraphs, ascending.

b) You’ll have lists like these:

beef, Chinese Five-Spice Beef Short Ribs
beef, Curried Beef and Vegetable Skewers
beef, Grilled Garam Masala Burgers
beef, Wine-Marinated Prime Rib Roast
beef. See also veal

Move the general category and any cross-references to the top, then replace the category in all other entries with a tab indent by selecting that segment of text and using Word’s Find and Replace function.

beef. See also veal
     Chinese Five-Spice Beef Short Ribs
     Curried Beef and Vegetable Skewers
     Grilled Garam Masala Burgers
     Wine-Marinated Prime Rib Roast

Go through the index and repeat this step for all categories that have two or more subentries.

c) For main ingredient categories that have only one recipe, just invert the recipe name to showcase that ingredient first:

quinoa, Chickpea, Green Onion and Quinoa Salad, 54–55


Quinoa, Green Onion and Chickpea Salad, 54–55

d) Add line spaces after the end of each section that begins with the same letter. Add group headings “A,” “B,” etc. before each section only if there is enough room.

e) Add a headnote mentioning that photos are referenced in italics and definitions in boldface.

f) Save as index_v2.

3. Cutting to spec and finalizing the index

a) Save as index_v3.

b) If the index is too long, consider first eliminating whole categories that readers are unlikely to look up or that are redundant. For example, if the book itself has a section devoted to desserts, having a dessert category in the index is not needed.

c) If the index is still too long, consider combining some categories and adding cross-references. For example, if you have divided “fish” and “shellfish,” consider combining them under “seafood” and adding cross-references to the new category under both “fish” and “shellfish.” Doing so will allow you to cut duplicates of recipes that include both fish and shellfish.

d) If the index is still too long, consider cutting all subrecipes and special ingredients/techniques, which you’d marked off earlier with double-asterisks.

(If the index needs a lot of cutting and you’re confident you will need to cut all entries marked off with double-asterisks, you can use Word’s Replace function to get rid of all of them at once. If you’re comfortable with wildcard searches, place your cursor at the top of the document, then, in the Replace dialogue box, put [!^13]@\*\*^13 in the “Find what” field and nothing in the “Replace with” field. Make sure “Use wildcards” is checked. Clicking “Replace all” should get rid of any lines that end with a double-asterisk.)

e) If the index is still too long, evaluate for cutting or abridging only those entries that have an asterisk. (Never cut out or modify an entry that matches the recipe title exactly.) If it makes sense to cut the whole entry, do it. You could also cut part of the title if it refers to sauces and garnishes that aren’t a fundamental part of the dish.

f) Delete all the asterisks. (Using the Replace function, put * in the “Find what” field and nothing in the “Replace with” field.)

g) Edit the index as outlined in Chicago 16.133, in particular double-checking alphabetization, then save index_v3 and submit it.

Versioning system

  • Index_v1: This version makes it easier to update locators if pages—especially if spreads or larger groups of pages—are moved around.
  • Index_v2: Go back to this version if the publisher decides to add pages to allow more room for the index.
  • Index_v3: Your final submitted index.

East Meets West VIP launch

I just got back from the VIP launch for Stephanie Yuen’s cookbook East Meets West at Lin’s Chinese Cuisine, where Chef Zhang and his staff treated us to delicious snacks, including Lin’s signature xiao long bao, as well as a tan-tan noodle demonstration. It was great to chat with the ol’ D&M crew and meet the author in person, and each of us came away with a swank gift bag from Sunrise Soya Foods and Hon’s Wun-Tun House.

East Meets West event at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks

Over the course of two years food writer Stephanie Yuen scoured Vancouver’s Asian food scene for the best dishes from some of the city’s most acclaimed Asian restaurants, and the result is East Meets West, a gorgeous, full-colour cookbook featuring not only eighty-eight mouth-watering recipes but also an introduction to the ingredients commonly used in Asian cooking and a directory of where to find some of Vancouver’s best Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Filipino, Indian, and Nepalese cuisine. Stephanie will be signing books at a free public event at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks on Saturday, April 28, from 11 am to 2 pm. Call 604-688-6755 to RSVP.

Awards news

Thanks to Grace Yaginuma for reminding me that this past week Flavours of Prince Edward Island by Jeff McCourt, Allan Williams, and Austin Clement (Whitecap Books) won Gold at the Canadian Culinary Book Awards in the Canadian Culinary Culture Category, English-Language and Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij (Douglas & McIntyre) won Silver in the Cookbook Category, English-Language. Congrats to all authors! The awards were announced November 7; see a list of all of the winners here.