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.)

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