Food & Drink

Making a recipe ‘yours' requires more than just a pinch of salt

Q. What makes a recipe your own? Cooking contests usually require that the recipe be yours, but there is always a chance that what you think is “your” recipe has been published somewhere. Does changing one ingredient in a published recipe make it “yours”?

That's a complex question, and copyright law doesn't help much. You can't patent or copyright a recipe, but you can copyright printed text. Most sources interpret that to mean that you can't copyright a list of ingredients, but you can copyright the text that accompanies the list. In other words, “1/4 teaspoon salt” isn't creative material, but explaining how you use the salt is.

How's that – clear as mud? Welcome to copyright law.

Here in the food writing world, many of us follow an informal standard that you need to make at least three changes before you can claim credit for a recipe. Those changes need to be more substantial than changing 1/2 teaspoon salt to 1/4 teaspoon, although the changes don't have to just be in the ingredients. You also could make changes in the technique.

In my case, even if I change three things, I usually give a nod to the originator, using the headnote to explain where the original came from and a little about what I changed and why. When you see a recipe that says “adapted from X book,” that's what it means.

In the contesting world, it gets harder. The people who run contests usually are looking for originality, inspiration and innovation.

The Pillsbury Bake-Off, for example, is famous for all the effort the staff makes to weed out recipes that aren't original. They look for “several significant changes,” according to one of their spokespeople, and they do extensive research to rule out copycats.

They're looking for innovative ideas, so just swapping ground turkey for ground pork in your grandmother's stuffed peppers isn't going to make the cut. Stuffing the ground turkey into chayote squash instead of peppers might.

I've seen it written that contests aren't for recipes, they're for recipe writing, and there's something to that as well. If you write the directions in a way that shows you've made this repeatedly and your way gets a result that's better than anyone else's way, then you probably can start to call it your own, too.