Updated: Oct 22, 2019
Picking out a novel to read on the airplane isn't all that hard. If you know you like mysteries and thrillers, and hate romance and science fiction, your decision is half-made.
But when it comes to choosing cookbooks, well, that is a lot harder. Having a collection of quality cookbooks can be an indispensable part of a cook’s kitchen. But how do you know which cookbook to choose? In the Internet age, does it even make sense to buy cookbooks when you can find millions of free recipes online?
I'm going to share five reasons why I generally prefer print cookbooks to the internet. Then I give six tips on how to choose a cookbook and build a collection that will (I hope) bring you many years of joy and worthwhile adventures in the kitchen.
The Advantages of Print Cookbooks Over Internet Recipes
The internet is an invaluable resource for cooks. You can find photos of how a finished dish is supposed to look, find ideas for what to do with that strange vegetable you found at the farmer’s market, watch videos on cooking techniques and decorating ideas, and access recipes for any dish you can think of. I regularly cook from internet recipes and read food blogs. But I would never give up my collection of print cookbooks, and I would never rely exclusively on the internet. Here’s why.
1. Internet recipes are not always reliable. All things being equal, I would rather cook out of a cookbook than use an unknown recipe I happened to find online. Why? Because a printed cookbook has been through a vetting process. Publishers take on authors who have credentials – such as being a trained chef, a self-taught expert, or award-winning food writer. And they stake their reputation on producing cookbooks whose recipes have been selected, tested and edited for quality and accuracy.
Yes, I know some cookbooks have errors – in some cases, serious errors, as online reviews are quick to point out. But publishers who take on the expense of publishing cookbooks are going to also ensure that the book is as accurate as possible. Not so with internet recipes. Anyone can post a recipe online, make it look good on the page, and have it appear in a search engine. I can’t always be sure that an internet recipe from an unfamiliar source hasn’t left out an ingredient or a step. This is especially a concern when it comes to baking and confectionery, where exact quantities and accurate technique are crucial. If I use a dud recipe, then I’ve just wasted time and ingredients.
2. Even the blogs of trusted food experts can be a problem. I’ve had the experience of trying recipes that famous food bloggers had just whipped up (after all, they have to continually post new content to hold their readership). It did not turn out so well in my kitchen – presumably because the quirks had not been worked out, or there was no editor or tester to catch errors in the way the recipe was written.
3. Print books let you make margin notes. In my kitchen, margin notes are indispensable. I note whether a particular recipe was good or not worth the effort, whether my family liked it, whether it turned out as well as the photograph shows, and what I would do differently next time. I also make margin notes about what other things would go with it – making it easier to plan a menu next time I’m perusing the book.
4. Print books are durable. Electronic devices risk being damaged in a busy kitchen, whereas a book can be dropped or splashed without rendering it useless.
5. It is easier to compare recipes out of books. When I want menu ideas, I page through a trusty books that have yielded great results in the past. Sometimes I put cookbooks side-by-side, all open to similar recipes, to see which version is going to give me what I’m looking for. For me, this is faster and easier than trying to compare screen versions side-by-side.
How to choose a cookbook
Let’s suppose you want to build your own collection of quality cookbooks. Where to start? There are thousands to choose from, many are expensive, and it’s hard to know which will give you a good return on your investment in the years to come even if you’ve read all the reviews. I’ve come up with seven tips on how to find cookbooks that will be your cup of tea, and avoid those that will be dust-collectors.
1. Before you buy a cookbook, borrow a copy from the library or a friend. Try at least three recipes. Even if everyone is raving about that particular book, even if your favorite blogger has given it five stars, that doesn’t mean it’s the right cookbook for you. For example, one of my favorite cookbook authors announced on his blog that one of his good friends had just published a cookbook. I bought the book sight unseen. Big mistake. The title of each recipe was typeset in an exotic turquoise font that was difficult to read. On top of that, I didn’t think the recipes were all that outstanding. They weren’t disasters. They just didn’t offer me anything that I’d want to go back to again and again, or that I didn’t already have in another book on my shelf. I ended up giving that book away. Even if you ignore the other tips below, following this advice alone will keep you from wasting money on cookbooks you find mediocre at best.
2. A cookbook that suits your best friend may not suit you.Pay attention to what you want in a cookbook – not what someone else wants. There has to be good chemistry between a cookbook and a cook. If the chemistry isn’t there, the cookbook won’t be a wise purchase, no matter how famous and talented the author is – or how talented the cook is. A friend of mine, who is an excellent baker, enjoyed the pies and pastries I made from one of my favorite baking books. I gave her a brand-new copy for her birthday. She discovered that it was not her style of cookbook at all. In her opinion, the instructions were too long, with too much detail. She didn’t feel like deciding what pie crust (out of 17) she should try first. So the book sits up on her shelf, unused and still in its dust jacket. My copy is worn and falling apart, full of margin notes, the dust jacket long since gone. Bottom line: Learn what you want from a cookbook so you can spend your time and money only on those that fit your needs.
3. Find an author-cook who shares your taste, and collect his or her books. For years I hung on to two cookbooks by the same author that were easy to follow, but whose recipes yielded bland and unexciting results for my palate. I’d often consult them for ideas, and then find a jazzier version in another cookbook (or I’d tweak the recipe myself). Eventually, I donated those two books because they just weren’t worth the space on my shelf – or the time in my kitchen. Here’s another example: I’ve had guests request recipes for two or three dishes I served, and the recipes were all by the same author. That is an obvious clue that this particular author shares your taste, so it would be worth your time and money to borrow their books from the library, test their recipes to see whether you also get successful results, and then decide whether you should buy the books. Another good starting point is to ask a cook whose food you enjoy to recommend books that he or she has found particularly worthwhile.
4. Beware of buying a cookbook that is too similar to those you already own. It’s fine to have a collection on the same theme: Italian or Chinese or chocolate. But each book should have something unique, such as varied recipes, or a slightly different approach, or different techniques. I avoid buying a cookbook if it’s a rehash of recipes I already have. That is why it’s important to take the time to peruse a cookbook and test a few recipes (see pointer #1 above) to see whether it offers something your other books don’t.
5. Don’t overlook some cookbooks just because they are old or lack certain elements, such as photos or stain-resistant paper. If you come across a used or rare cookbook that looks interesting, and the price is a bargain, it might be worth adding to your collection. Some of the most treasured cookbooks on my shelf are very old, have stained pages, no photos, and torn bindings. The recipes in these books are so good or so unusual that not having the features I’d normally want (such as photos or weight measurements) is not a deal-breaker. So, if you come across a cookbook at a used book fair or a secondhand shop that you’d otherwise pass up, peruse it anyway. You might find some gems in the pages that make the book worth adding to your shelf – especially if the price is right.
6. In any cookbook collection, some will be workhorses in the kitchen, others will be for reference or daydreaming, and some are in between. All can be valuable in their own way. I have several cookbooks that are stained and falling apart from years of use. Other books on my shelf are rarely taken down, but they bring me a great deal of joy on those occasions when I do have the time to look through them. For example, I have a cookbook by a popular French pâtisserie that is covered in spring-green suede, with gold embossed script on the cover, and a gorgeous photograph for every recipe. It looks more like a wedding album than a cookbook. I rarely cook from it, but when I am looking for specialized, authentic French recipes from a trusted expert (such as cannelés Bordelais or kouign amann), that book is a valuable reference.
Above all, a cookbook should bring pleasure when you catch sight of it on your shelf, or when you page through it on a rainy Saturday – even if you rarely have time or energy to cook from it. If you keep in mind the tips I’ve presented here, you’ll be able to make intelligent choices about which cookbooks will be worthwhile additions to your bookshelf next time you’re shopping. Happy cooking and bon appétit!