Thursday, April 9, 2009

How To Select The Perfect Cookbook

I was reading a post recently by the author of Get Stuff Done about wanting to try Vegan cuisine. I started to write a loooooooong comment about how I started with a Vegan cookbook and then how I went about selecting that cookbook, when I realized that it would be better suited for a blog post. So, I made a short comment that actually related to what she had written and then set about writing this. First of all, I am not a Vegan. However, I love trying new cuisines! I also love cookbooks, but I keep them to a minimum. Even if I made a new recipe every day for a year I couldn't get through all the recipes in most cookbooks, so having hundreds of cookbooks just doesn't make sense. My parents had a huge library of cookbooks and then made one or two dishes from each one. I prefer to find a few really good cookbooks and work my way through them.

Here are a few of my favorite cookbooks and why I love them:

Photos - I love trying new cuisines, but whenever I am dabbling in something I have a limited amount of experience in, I look for cookbooks with photos. Not every recipe in this wonderful book by the multi-talented Madhur Jaffrey has a photo, but most do, and that makes it a lot easier for me when I am in the kitchen. I don't expect that the first time I make a recipe it will come out picture perfect, but it is handy to have that photo when reading statements that seem a bit ambiguous. I mean, what does "the sauce should be soupy"really mean? Is my "soupy" the same as hers? This is when I check the photo!

Ingredients you know - This is the cookbook I bought when I was trying Vegan dishes. I totally lucked out on this one, because frankly, this cookbook violates a lot of the rules that I now use when selecting a new book. I am happy to try new techniques and buy new spices, but I want to have a fairly good idea of what I am getting into. This cookbook has a few ingredients I had never heard of - nor had my grocer. Apparently they are available at most health food stores, but I didn't know that at the time. I'm pretty adventurous, but I still want to know where to shop for things! Actually, I love all the recipes I have tried out of this book, and with a little help from the internet was able to find substitutions for those couple of ingredients I didn't know. This cookbook does take a little skill though.

And that brings me to another point...

Know what you are getting into - We all have
different skill levels when it comes to cooking. Personally, I think everyone should at least have at least one basic cookbook with all the terms explained and cooking times for common foods. I couldn't find a photo of my old Betty Crocker cookbook, so this will have to do. It's my "go-to" book when I need to remember how long to cook an acorn squash or what the best temperature is for a rump roast. I have to admit, I don't make many recipes out of it anymore, but I use it as a back up all the time.

When shopping for a cookbook, try to keep your skill level in mind. I'll tackle the cuisines of the Middle East with gusto, but Japanese dishes are still outside of skill set. (I did try making sushi once... let's just say I still have a long way to go on my rolling technique!) Here's the thing, if you are looking for a challenge, that is one thing, but if you are looking for a cookbook you will use time and time again, browse through the pages and look and see if the recipes have directions that are clear and use techniques you feel comfortable with. If not, you might want to look for something else, because it will probably just end up collecting dust on the shelf.

When in doubt, ask a pro -
You want to learn how to cook a steak? Ask your neighbor - the one who grills in the dead of winter. Want to learn to make a perfect pie crust? Ask someone's grandmother. Want to learn a new cuisine? Ask someone from that background to help you pick up out a cookbook. My Lebanese friend gave me this wonderful cookbook and it is one I go back to again and again. He tells me it is one of the more authentic Lebanese cookbooks he could find. I might not have picked this one out on my own, so I am grateful that I got his personal insight.

Most of us know people who love to cook, and in my experience there are two types of cooks - those who do it all out of their heads, and those who use a recipe. I'm a recipe gal. Then, once I have it down, I'll tinker with it. If you are shopping for a new cookbook, find folks whose opinions you admire and ask for their help - and hope they are a recipe person! In a pinch, I will even read the reviews online, but I don't follow those too closely, I would rather trust my gut.

Make sure it has recipes you actually want to make - Okay, I know this sounds basic, but this is actually the most important thing of all. How many people (myself included) buy cookbooks because they thinkthey want to be the kind of person that would use that cookbook. Maybe it is a health cookbook when they know they really are a couch potato. Maybe it is a book on French Cuisine because you think it would be sexy on the shelf. I have a grilling cookbook because I thought it would be great to cook outside on a summer night. There is only one problem. I don't own a grill.

Sometimes what we want our outside appearance to be doesn't match realty. Buying things that aren't true to who we are is a problem in many areas, not just cookbooks. To solve that problem in this area I have a hard and fast rule now when it comes to cookbooks. The first thing I do is open it up at random and look a recipe. Then I ask myself, the following questions:

1.) Is this something I want to eat? Does it sound delicious?
2.) Is it something I want to make? Would it be fun to cook?
3.) Could I make this? Do I have the equipment, skill, ingredients?
4.) Do I wish this was on a plate in front of me right now?

I do that up to 10 times - just flip through and scan the recipe for these questions. If it scores 9 out 10 or better, I know I have a winner. This cookbook by Mark Bittman was missing my beloved photos, but it scored high in every other category, especially on these last questions. It is my number one cookbook right now, and has been for a couple of years. It is my absolute favorite. However, it isn't for everyone. It is a fairly meat-centric cookbook and it does require some skill in the kitchen. Yet, if I had to take only one to a desert (or should that be dessert) island, this would be it. It still rings true on question #4 almost every time I open it.

There is no sense spending money on cookbooks you won't use, so make sure you do a little research. Other great options are checking them out from a library first, or borrowing them from a friend. Also, when you go to buy, check out and see if you can get a used copy online. Check the condition first (I like to buy Very Good or better,) but many times you can save a fair amount of money that way, and let's face it, books in the kitchen will get spilled on or stained anyway, so a little wear on them when you get them hardly matters.

One more quick tip - if you are looking to try something radically different or have a specific ingredient you would like to use, there are thousands of recipes online. Talk about a frugal way to get new recipes! My favorite websites are Epicurious and

I don't know how many cookbooks I have in total, but I would say I have about 7 I use day in and day out. I use them to make weekly menus, and from there make my grocery lists... but I'll leave that for another post.


Miss M said...

I'm a cook out of my head girl for the most part, but I do like cookbooks. They give me ideas I would not have had otherwise. Whether I need a recipe depends on what I'm making, many dishes are flexible and are not ruined by experimentation. Baking on the other hand has to be fairly precise or it won't come out right at all. I have several america's test kitchen cookbooks and I used to watch their show on PBS. They go into a lot of the how and why of cooking, the science and the technique. It appeals to the geek in me. Happy cooking!

Bouncing Back said...

I love my old copies of The Joy of Cooking, Jacque Pepin's La Techinque, and almost anything by Julia Child. You are spot on, we all need a cookbook or two that teaches us the basics or can be used as a reference guide. Sometimes you just can't boot up the computer to find out the answer you need.