Q&A: Cookbook Author Julia Turshen

The 'proud home cook' on recipe philosophy, pandemic photo shoots, and much more.

Howdy cookbook fans!

Today I am joined by Julia Turshen, author of four cookbooks and co-author of many more. Julia is out with a new book this week, Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food, which I shared a recipe from in Tuesday’s issue. Below, the industry veteran discusses her philosophy of recipe testing, what makes for a good cookbook, how she handled a cookbook shoot at the dawn of the pandemic, and honoring the skill of home cooking:

I'm glad that I can provide something that I do believe to be very useful, that very much acknowledges the relentlessness of home cooking and is not afraid to name that. I proudly identify as a home cook. And I think all of my fellow home cooks—which so many people have become if they weren't already—I think they are so undervalued.

Here’s Julia.

Let’s talk cookbooks! How do you come up with the idea from a book? And how do you go from that idea to actually writing the book?

For both Small Victories and Now & Again, before I even wrote a single recipe for either of those books, I could see the books in my mind. I knew what I wanted the title to be. I had a sense of what I wanted the covers to be. I had an idea of what I wanted them to look and feel like. It was very clear to me from the beginning. And, when I compare those two books now next to the proposals I wrote for them, they match very closely.

But with Simply Julia, it wasn't exactly that. It was a little bit more ambiguous at first. I'm really, really happy with the final book, and proud of it. It's incredibly personal, and it's very, very practical. I think I knew it was going to be that practical from the beginning, but it became more personal over time. And I'm glad it did. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to share so much of myself in it. I do that not for the purposes of ego, but more importantly the purpose of connection.

It's been out one day, but I've already felt that connection with readers. So, that feels pretty amazing. For the last few years, getting to work on and promote so many different books, I had been in a long and really interesting conversation with so many home cooks, whether it's people I've met on my book tour or people I speak to on Instagram or my family and my friends. I am always listening to the questions people are asking, and that's where all the chapters came from from this book. Because I get asked often about things like, "What is the one way to make chicken on a Tuesday night that is just tastes good but without so much effort?"

This is a journey that so many people have been on this past year, when we're all sort of isolated and at home trying to figure out—not everyone eats out every night under normal circumstances, of course, but this past year really put into stark relief that the work of home cooking can be really heavy, just constantly answering the question of “What am I making for dinner tonight?” This book feels so timely, in its sympathy to that work.

When I sent out the proposal, it was about a year before the pandemic. I had no idea that it would be coming out on, basically, the one year anniversary of the pandemic. I think easy recipes for healthy comfort food is a pretty evergreen concept, and I wish these circumstances weren't what they were. But I'm glad that I can provide something that I do believe to be very useful, that very much acknowledges, as I write in the introduction, the relentlessness of home cooking and is not afraid to name that.

I proudly identify as a home cook. And I think all of my fellow home cooks—which so many people, as you mentioned, have become if they weren't already—I think they are so undervalued. All of the work that we do, which is the planning and the budget and the cleaning up, it's an enormous amount of work, and it's always keeping track things in your mind. It's a lot. It's exhausting. I was already feeling that before the pandemic, and here we are.

So yeah, the timing of the book is pretty interesting. I'm grateful that I wasn't done with it before the pandemic started. The past year, as I was finishing it and now getting ready to promote it, it's helped me just put a lot of things in perspective, and it's helped me feel how much I missed cooking for my family and friends. How grateful I am that I can use cooking as a way to connect with my community, and just feel useful, let alone share some of this with readers and everything. I was done with the manuscript in February of 2020, but I hadn't done the photo shoot yet. And I ended up shooting it basically in April 2020.

April was... People were still figuring out how everything works. What does “safe” even mean? That kind of thing.

So, the book was all done in February. All the writing, all the recipes were tested. All that was missing were the photos. And I, in the past, have usually shot my books pretty quickly or done them in about a week. I shot Small Victories and Now & Again both at my house and my kitchen. I really want it to feel like from my kitchen to yours. I've always had a few other people helping me, like a photographer, maybe they've had an assistant. I had people helping me cook, and I've used a lot of my own dishes and family stuff, but also had prop stylists drop off stuff. It takes people, especially to do it that quickly.

I was in the middle of planning that, and I was going to shoot it in March, and that all quickly became just totally not feasible and not safe and completely not necessary, not a priority. I was ready to just put the book on hold—I’ll do this one we figure this out. And then I just remembered that there's this amazing photographer, Melina Hammer, who had moved to the same town I live in, which is sort of amazing because not a ton of people live here. She is just a multi-hyphenate, multi-talented person. Because she's a great food photographer, a great food stylist and a great prop stylist. She's all those things, which is pretty unusual.

That’s like a unicorn in the cookbook industry.

Exactly. It's hard to find someone who does two of those things! So yeah, I know this person who does all three, and she lives right near me. I reached out to her: "Hey, are you doing anything right now? And do you want to try and do this together? And what would that even look like?" And she was so game, and we proceeded with the most unusual photo making experience I've ever had. It was pretty amazing.

It took a month to do the photos, so much longer than I've done in the past, because it was just the two of us, no other people, except our incredibly supportive spouses who were really helpful. And we were never in the same room together. I would put together everything at home, I'd put it in containers that were clearly labeled. I made an incredibly detailed shot list. I gave her reference images and photos. Kind of like how I write recipes, I thought through the photo before we took it. Sometimes in that box of food I also put in my grandmother's dish, or something that no one would ever know what it is, but it's important to me, that kind of thing.

And I would drop it on her doorstep, and then she'd take it inside, and then she'd take it from there and put the finishing touches on things. And we would text all day like, "Do you want the yellow napkin or the orange one?" All that. And that's how we did it. I also never went into a grocery store. I felt like I was on a reality show or something. But it was ultimately the most amazing exercise in just very clear and direct communication.

Time for some brass tacks. What’s your recipe development process like?

My process, which has been consistent with all of my books, is that I start everything on the page. I write my recipes before I get into the kitchen. I imagine how I'm going to make them, I make approximations in my mind about how much of each ingredient and everything. I print out these pieces of paper and go to my kitchen with a red pen and test them until they feel pretty rock solid. And then I share them with friends and family to cross test in their own kitchens. I send the recipes with a bunch of questions to find out how it goes when I'm not there.

What changed for me in this book was, as I was finishing writing the recipes, it coincided with my wife shutting her business of 15 years, and she had some free time, and she tested every recipe in the book. And that was an amazing experience. I don't know if I'll do another cookbook, but if I ever do, I can't imagine not doing that, because it was so helpful. I don't want to put that free-labor expectation on her. But Grace made everything in our kitchen, and I got to see what it looked like to have a home cook follow my recipe for the first time. And each recipe was changed after she worked on it. It was just invaluable. Testing your own recipes is a little bit like editing your own writing, and I think her support [helped make] the recipes in Simply Julia the clearest recipes I've written.

What’s interesting to me about your wife testing the recipes is that she was also doing it in your kitchen, the same kitchen they were developed in. She had access to all the same equipment you did, all the same groceries. And still interpreted things differently, which I think speaks to how people interact with recipes differently.

Yeah, that was really interesting to me, to see things like—we have, because of what I do for a living, I don't think the following is necessary for everyone, but we have two food processors. I bought a mini one, but I have, I don't know how big the other one is, like eight cups or something. And I would say, "put it in the food processor." And to me, I had in mind which one I would use, but sometimes, Grace would take the other one out, and I was just like, "Whoa." And that was surprising to me. So yeah, something that seems really clear to me, even when the variables are fewer, like when I know exactly the equipment I have.

Maybe even just a better example would just be, when I say to dice something, what does that mean? Is it important that it be a specific size? I don't know. There's a carrot soup recipe in the book. So, the carrots in that, then we chop them, the soup gets pureed. If they're small pieces or big pieces, I don't care if it's an inch, or two, or half an inch. It's going to go in the blender, whatever. It helped me figure out when it matters to be more specific. And when it doesn't.

That's also part of why I really value sending recipes out to family and friends, and not professional testers. Sending it out to a big group and a wide range of home cooks who are working in different kitchens across the country, all with different equipment. I ask them questions like, "Did this call for a piece of equipment you don't have?” "Did it call her an ingredient that's hard to find?"

My rule for myself is I don't include anything in my recipes that I can't get within half an hour of my house. And if I make an exception to that rule, I will tell you where you can order it online, what you can substitute for it if you don't have it, and other things you can use it for. So if you're opening a jar of whatever, you don't have to wait until the next time you cook a recipe. But what's available within half an hour of my house is different than where other people live. That's why it's important to me to not have it just be tested in my own kitchen and figure out those variables, but try my best to make recipes that can work pretty much anywhere.

That's a goal that can't always be reached. There are just so many variables. But that's why I try to keep my recipes just as simple as possible, and I try to add just a ton of description. I will never tell you the amount of time to do something without telling you what should happen within that time, that's really important to me.

You mean like, "Sauté three to five minutes, or until golden."

Yeah. Like that. And I will specifically say, "Saute until golden, about three to five minutes." I'll give you the description first. So you're looking out for that. I don't know how many people are looking at the clock when they're cooking. I don't, unless I'm testing recipes or writing them.

I think the reverse can be true too, that some people feel more comfortable with the timing guidance. Not that they need it because they’re not good cooks, but that they feel more comfortable following a recipe to the letter.

Totally. And that’s why include both, instead of saying, "Saute until golden, period."

What do you think would surprise people about the process of writing a cookbook?

Over the course of making a cookbook, which is a very time consuming thing, it would surprise people that—I don't know, it just may be for me and my own tastes, just how much cereal and toast and peanut butter and jelly I eat on a regular basis. I don't eat things I would necessarily take the time and money to photograph in a cookbook every single day. I also think the everyday things we eat deserve that validation, too. I really love simple food. And I do not seek to be wowed when I'm eating, especially at home. I just want to feel like I'm eating exactly what I want, exactly when I want it, which is not always possible. Life is busy and whatever. But that's what I aim for. And usually what I want is really, really simple stuff.

Also just the amount of details. A cookbook is just a mountain of details. From the measurements of ingredients to how you word them to just all the details that go into the photos and the design. It's a lot of details. I really push against the people who just… Anytime I've posted a picture of food on social media, and someone just says, like, "Recipe?" I just am always like, "They do not grow on trees." They take so much time and work. And time and work and ingredients, all these things cost money.

And organization, and forethought. I always think of cookbooks as this big spreadsheet, until the moment they’re not. Until a designer gets their hands on everything and makes sense of it.

Yeah, totally. Oh my God. I love that. That is very accurate. It’s funny you say that, because—this is something I've done on all my books, but it was extremely helpful for this book in particular, with the photo shoot. Usually, from what I have understood from collaborative books, they work on the recipes, write the book, take the photos and then the designer puts it all together.

I have always had whichever publisher I'm working with do a rough layout of the book—after it's written but before it's photographed. Which has been sometimes hard to convince people to do, because that's not the way things are "done." But I truly don't understand why everyone doesn't do this, because then you know exactly where all the photos are going to go, you know exactly how big they need to be or how small, you know how many you need.

It just makes things so much more efficient. And you're not on set being like, "Well, I don't know if it's going to be a double-page spread, or it's going to be just a small picture, part of a whatever." Photography is the most expensive part of making a book, or at least it has been for me. And the amount of wasted time, which is wasted money, shooting something 10 different ways because you don't know how it's going to be used, you just eliminate that.

Wow, that’s brilliant. It must save so much time! And money!

I hear that from so many colleagues. They talk about like, "Oh, I have enough photos for three books." Photography is so exhausting, and it's so expensive. Not that it's been so cheap, by any means, to photograph my books. I spend a lot of money on it. But I feel like I've spent way less money than the books look like they cost—based on what other books that have really high quality photography look like.

I share that information with anyone who asks me about the process. And I'm always like, "See if you can get your publisher to do this. They're going to say no, because they don't usually do it this way. But explain why it's worth it." And you can still be spontaneous and be like, "You know what? I actually think this would look great this way. Let's try it." Of course! But you just save a lot of time and money, and I look for that everywhere. Whether it's what I cook, or how I make my books.

Big picture. What do you think makes for a good cookbook?

A number of things. I think one is just very thoughtfully written recipes that are well-tested.

Books that have, whatever type of cook you're writing for it, you're really keeping that cook in mind. So if you're a restaurant chef writing a book for other restaurant chefs, great. But if you're a restaurant chef writing for home cooks, that's a different exercise. I think being really, really clear about who you're trying to reach with the book, and who you're trying to serve is really important.

What do I love in cookbooks? Not everyone does, but for me, it's just a really clear voice. And I really like the feeling of when I open a cookbook, feeling like that author is with me in my kitchen. That is something I look for and I try to do in my work.

I think always the feeling of just only write the book that only you can write is something I think about a lot. And because I've had so much experience doing my own books, but also collaborative books-I help other people do that, which is kind of cool to have that perspective, do that for themselves. So, I think just having great stories and told with really great writing with a clear voice: That's definitely something I look for.

Last question: I won't ask you what your favorite recipes in the book are, because when I was promoting my book I always had trouble picking one. But what are a few recipes you're really feeling from this book right now?

Off the top of my head, not overthinking it, I love the white pizza kale. I love it. It's so good. It's so easy. I love the coffee cake recipe, which is in memory of our friend Georgine who made great coffee cake. It's so good. And actually the other day, I was like, "Ooh, I haven't made that in a long time. I need to make that soon." And, what else? I love the Brunswick stew, my mother-in-law's recipe. I love it. I love it more than my wife loves it I think, which is funny because it's my mother-in-law's recipe. Yeah, those are three that come to mind.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food by Julia Turshen is out now.