When do we talk about cooking?!?!? I am getting there (next week). Be patient, young padwan. Without the proper recipes and resources as a foundation, no fancy gadgets can save your cooking.
The most important question to ask when buying a cookbook is not “does it have lots of pretty pictures.” This is not a coffee table book. The only thing that you ask yourself is “will I use it?” It doesn’t matter if the cookbook has won awards or is by an amazing teacher or celebrity chef. If it doesn’t fit you, it won’t make it your kitchen.
Using these tricks, you can dig into the book and analyze your own habits to make sure that you are getting the most bang for your buck. Walk through these steps before your next purchase.
Without a doubt, subject matter is the most likely thing to keep you from breaking out your shiny new toy. You may have high hopes of making Indian food, but will your significant other eat it? If not, your book will just become a breeding ground for dust bunnies.
1. Does the topic really interest you?
Or are you just drawn to the cover image? There are fewer and fewer “general” cookbooks these days. Betty Crocker and Fanny Farmer already covered that. Even the larger tomes that you see on the shelves will be narrowed down to a category like baking, easy dinners, or vegetarian cuisine. This holds true even with celebrity or restaurant cookbooks, so make sure that when that Jamie Oliver or Rachel Ray volume catches your eye, you check the title and make sure that the scope of the book pertains to you.
2. Do the recipes require exotic ingredients or utensils you don’t have?
If you are looking to get into a certain type of cuisine, you don’t need to worry about this as much. Just make sure that hard to find or expensive cooking implements aren’t necessary if you aren’t prepared to splurge on them. A cookbook about bread making that presumes the user has a bread machine won’t be much help in your kitchen if you don’t have a bread machine.
3. Would you like extra background on the cuisine?
Particularly in farm-to-table or regional cookbooks, there is an increasing prevalence of sidebars or whole background chapters. For instance, aside from a couple of recipes on radishes in a section on spring produce, a seasonally-focused cookbook could include interviews with farmers or an article on how radishes grow and why they are best in the spring. If this type of information will serve as extra inspiration for your cooking, make sure your prospective purchase has more than just recipes.
Some people will never use a cookbook that doesn’t have pictures, and there is nothing wrong with that. I like to have a picture accompanying every recipe myself, because you can often glean serving or arranging information from the images that isn’t included in the text of the recipe.
4. Does it take a stunning picture to get you fired up?
If you are like me and have a hard time getting into black and white cookbooks, consider how many pictures you need. It is a well known fact that pictures draw a reader into the text; I have heard magazine layout specialist even tell writers that their text isn’t important – only the pictures matter! While I wouldn’t go this far (at least not with recipes), you need to determine how important images are to you personally. If you probably won’t get interested in a recipe unless there is a beautiful picture accompanying it, don’t buy a book without an image on every other page. If you just need to see a few artfully arranged plates to get in the cooking mood, then you can get by with a photo at the beginning of each section or every few pages.
5. Do you like to check in often with a recipe while you are cooking?
Sometimes you are going along cooking something and it really doesn’t look right. I was making these chocolate chip cookies and the “dough” basically looked like powder. The “cookies” had to be squeezed together, not spooned out as the recipe said. After consulting friends and re-reading the recipe five times, I decided that I hadn’t done anything wrong and to soldier on. Had there been pictures accompanying the steps of the recipe, I would have been more confident one and saved a half an hour of double checking. If you often have “is this right?” crises, seek out a cookbook that illustrates intermediary steps, not just the final product.
A cookbook is a tool, an item to be used. If it is uncomfortable or confusing, you will be that much less likely to employ it in your kitchen. It can seem silly to feel the weight of a cookbook in your hands, but you would do it with your kitchen knives (I hope), and these are just as, if not more, important.
6. How does the book feel in your hands?
First, check out the size. Is it too big or too small? Will it fit nicely on a shelf in your kitchen so you can spy it across the room and be inspired to use it? How does it feel when it is open? You want to be sure that it will sit open on a particular page when you are cooking from it. If you have small counter tops, will you have space for it to sit open, or will you be trying to balance it on top of your mixing bowl?
7. Does the layout make sense to you?
Turn to a recipe, any recipe, but don’t read it. Just look at it, like a picture. Are the ingredients and instructions sized and colored in such a way that they jump out at you? Can you read it standing up or do you need to hold it right in from of your eyes? You may be used to recipes arranged in a certain way, and if you buy a cookbook with a radically different layout, you will be annoyed when reading it and be that much less likely to use again.
Only once a cookbook has passed these initial criteria should you get too invested in the recipes. Otherwise, it is easy to open the book to the first picture that catches your eye and decide that you really want to make that dish and thus have to buy it. That’s how lonely, unloved cookbooks end up languishing on your shelves.
8. Do the recipes click with your style?
Flip to a page that interests you and read through a whole recipe. It is extremely important that you can understand the recipe the first time you read it (or at least make sense of it). If the books is full of recipes written in a style that is too verbose, too choppy or not explanatory enough for you, you are likely to get confused and potentially botch some recipes. No one wants that. Home cooks use certain cookbooks often because the recipes speak their language – as if they would explain the dish the same way to a friend.
9. Do more than half of the recipes immediately pique your interest?
Flip to the table of contents, not the index. (The index is an unappealing, oddly worded list which is not meat to be read or really even to intrigue you; it is just reference.) Take a quick scan through the list. Does something jump out at you or does almost everything jump out at you and make you want to run home and start cooking? Aim for the latter.
10. Is the cookbook too high or low level for your cooking?
Although we sometimes want a book that is a reach to get us started with a certain type of cuisine or cooking style, you want your cookbook library to be like a college applicant’s list: a few safeties, lots of solid bets, and a few reaches. It goes without saying that a book that is far too difficult won’t get used frequently, but the same goes for easy cookbooks. There is a difference between easy and satisfying. You need a little bit of effort, excitement, and accomplishment to enjoy your cooking.
When to buy
If the book you have your eye on passes all ten of the above criteria, it’s a no brainer. Even a few sticky items would make me question whether a book is right for my collection, and if the cookbook in question only meets one or two of the criteria, you need to put it down and move on. Don’t buy a whole cookbook for a single recipe.
In a post on the dos and don’ts of buying cookbooks, CheapHealthyGood has some interesting ideas to keep you from buying a cookbook that goes unused (emphasis mine):
” Practice the 7-day rule. If you see a book in a store and like it, wait a week.
Try out a library copy. Test driving a loaner is a failsafe method of ensuring it gels with your cooking style.”
Or, if you are a real food geek like me, you can just pick it up and read it like a novel. If it bores you after a few pages, it’s not for you.
Do you have other tips on picking out the right cookbook?