How to Pick a Winning Cover Recipe

October 14, 2022Content Strategy Tips, Food Photography

When it comes to choosing a cover recipe, readers eat with their eyes. How a dish looks is as important as how it tastes.

People often ask me where recipe ideas come from. Truth is, they can come from anywhere – a restaurant dish that can easily be recreated in a home kitchen, a tasty trend, a smart technique. Sometimes, a recipe needs to highlight a specific ingredient or look a certain way. That’s often the case with a cover recipe.

When I’m working on a cover story with an editor, how the food looks is part of the discussion from the beginning. Whether the recipe is something we’re sourcing from a cookbook or a dish I’m developing, I’ll snap test images to share along the way.

Sometimes, the concept of a dish sounds great but is D.O.A. after the first test.

What Is Recipe Development? Here’s What a Recipe Developer Really Does>>

Hellooooo, Bacon!

That was the case for the bacon-topped pie on a Parade Magazine holiday cover. It began with the overall story concept my editor had in mind: spin the flavors of Thanksgiving into a lineup of savory and sweet pies (yum!). And for that, we needed an eye-catching savory “hero” pie because savory cover dishes tended to outperform sweet. We also thought something that could be baked in a skillet would look homey and approachable.

I started with a pot pie situation, a natural direction to go for a savory main-dish pie. The first version, a pastry-topped casserole adapted from a cookbook, turned out to be a dud for our purposes, delicious as it had looked in the book.

“What if we did a lattice top out of bacon?” my editor texted, half-jokingly.

Yes! A couple of tests later, and I’d moved the filling in the direction of quiche for our Turkey-Cheddar Pie with Bacon Lattice Top. It looked great and held its shape for a nice, clean slice. It also worked in a standard pie dish, as well as in a skillet — we had our cover recipe!

Bacon Turkey Pie Test Image
Test image for our pie with a bacon lattice top. Because there’s no such thing as too much bacon.

For the cover recipe, ace food stylist Teresa Blackburn made it look gorgeous in a white vintage-style skillet. Martha Stewart’s cranberry tartlets play a supporting sweet role and lent an extra pop of color, along with some puff pastry bites:

Parade Magazine Cover Bacon Turkey Pie
The cover — didn’t Teresa make it look amazing??

Readers loved it, and the cover performed very well. It might have been the combo of dishes, but we were pretty sure we had that bacon to thank.

Noodle This

A few months later, I was working with the magazine on another cover story. This time noodle dishes from around the world were the focus. We zeroed in on ramen as the most likely cover candidate since it’s a trendy dish that can have lots of eye-catching components. A ramen cover image had done well a few years earlier, and we were hoping for a repeat performance.

(When something works, you bet editors will revisit the subject again — and again. When I worked at Cooking Light, there was a stretch of years when chili was the September cover recipe because it was such a consistent success. It wasn’t a matter of if chili would be on the cover, but which kind.

The first version of our ramen was a nice start, and we felt like it was a good cover recipe option, but it needed work for both flavor and visual punch. The broth looked good but tasted blah. The meatballs tasted good but needed more color. And we wanted eggs with creamier, runnier yolk:

Ramen Recipe Test No. 1
Ramen test #1: on the right track, but needs work.

For round 2, I changed up the broth for richer flavor and color, pan-fried the meatballs, and opted for a soft-cooked egg with a toasted sesame seed garnish. I also cut the egg crosswise instead of lengthwise, I dunno, just for something different.

Ramen Recipe Test No. 2

Get the recipe for Spicy Ramen with Pork Meatballs & Eggs>>

For the cover, Teresa did her magic for a very inviting bowl of ramen, and readers agreed. What do you think?

Parade Magazine Cover Ramen Noodles
The final ramen cover recipe!


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