By Faith Aeriel
If a cookbook is going to stand out in this world of Pinterest recipes and successful food blogs, it really needs to go above and beyond a list of ingredients and dry, clipped instructions on how to prepare them. Whether it is an all-around cookbook or focuses on a specific meal or ingredient, a good cookbook should have great photographs, simple (and delicious) recipes, an intuitive system of organizing those recipes.
This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen far too many cookbooks that have great recipes, but terribly pixilated or unappetizing photos. As a visual learner (and most certainly not a natural born cook), I depend on the photographs to make sure I know the recipe is supposed to turn out.
The photographs in a cookbook serve a purpose, just like the diagrams in a physics textbook. They should help you to reach the end goal (a delicious dish) and should complement the written instructions, rather than demonstrate something that is not included in the recipe itself.
I recently ran across a dim sum cookbook (The Dim Sum Field Guide) that had black and white illustrations. It seems that these overly simplified illustrations were a stylistic choice, but they serve no benefit to the home cook, nor does it add anything to the book itself. I think it goes without saying that there should be no reason to illustrate a cookbook in this day and age, and certainly not a vague generalization that may or may not resemble the end goal.
Heaven forbid a recipe don’t have any photos at all. I’m looking at you James Beard’s All-American Eats: Recipes and Stories from Our Best-Loved Local Restaurants.
Simple (and Delicious) Recipes:
It’s pretty easy to recognize a simple recipe when flipping through a cookbook at the store. It’s a little more difficult to know if a recipe will actually taste good.
A good cookbook should have recipes that use a variety of ingredients, but no one recipe should call for too many ingredients. One of the most common complaints home cooks have about cookbooks is that they call for ingredients that aren’t readily available at the supermarket. If a cookbook does feature a lot of unique ingredients, there should be a section dedicated to where these ingredients can be bought and what can be substituted. Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook does a fantastic job setting aside a section at the front of the book that outlines ingredients that are commonplace in Chinese cooking, but won’t be so familiar to the average home cook. Chin also gives ideas of where to find these staples and why they are important to the recipes.
I was so excited when I got my hands on The Chocolate Lover’s Cookbook and so sorely disappointed when my family and I had to reluctantly nibble our way through mediocre dessert after mediocre dessert (I was too stubborn to give up after the first failed recipe). I spend a lot of time with my oven mitts on and I’ve never had to throw out so many sweets for a lack of eager after dinner audience – no one wants to waste precious calories on a dessert that isn’t satisfying.
Because it’s nearly impossible to tell if recipes are going to be good before you make them, the best proactive step you can take is to read reviews of the book before you fork up some cash. The great thing about cookbooks is that they don’t go out of style, so don’t be afraid to go with the tried and true cookbooks all your friends have been bragging about for years.
If you’ve already bought a cookbook with not-so-great recipes, the best thing to do is ditch it. Don’t waste your time and money hoping the recipes will get better.
System of Organizing Recipes:
This is a rather subjective quality of a good cookbook – which is likely why there are so many different approaches to organizing recipes.
There are the failsafes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert; hors d’oeuvres, soup/salad, main course, dessert; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter; etc.
However, these certainly aren’t the only successful ways of organizing recipes. Some – like Dinner Made Simple – have been extremely successful at sorting recipes with common ingredients into sections. Have a handful of apples and not much else? No problem. Page 18. Butternut squash? Corn? Mozzarella? Rotisserie chicken? Pages 66, 98, 154, and 210 have you covered.
And then there are cookbooks that don’t follow any particular system and instead are broken into arbitrary chapters, which I personally find only incrementally more helpful than plain chapter numbers.
If you though these factors were subjective before, buckle up. This is where opinions just start to become white noise – this is also why publishers can churn out so many different cookbooks without cutting into the sales of any particular cookbook: everyone, ultimately, is looking for something different from a cookbook.
- What is the format of the book? While it’s not a deal breaker, I usually prefer hardcover cookbooks. It’s way easier to keep them open to the right page, which means that I have to flip through the book with cookie dough covered cookies much less often.
- Does the cookbook have an index? The index is going to be your best friend if you have a certain ingredient in mind or a particular recipe you’re looking for. Otherwise you might waste valuable cooking time just flipping through your book.
- Is the text large enough to read? You want to make sure that the text is large enough to reference on the go. Was it half a cup or a whole cup of chicken stock? If you have to stop what you’re doing to squint your way through the whole recipe again, it’s really going to slow the process.
- Do you have all the equipment you need? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have mandolin (Don’t know what this is? Neither did I), onion googles, or bench scrapers. So Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101, while it met all of my other criteria, wasn’t the best fit for my kitchen.
- Are these recipes something you would actually make? There’s not a more subjective qualification than this. I’m notorious for collecting cookbooks that I’ll never use just because I saw one recipe that I might make for a holiday dinner (but really I forget long before that day comes) or the photos were especially well composed. So honestly ask yourself: Do the recipes sound delicious to you? Or just mediocre? Look at the cook time. Do you have an hour and a half to dedicate to prepping dinner? Or are you going to get all your ingredients set out, realize the monumental amount of work you have in front of you, and then order a pizza?
What else do you look for in a cookbook?
Faith Aeriel is a freelance writer and journalist. She has formerly worked as Associate Editor for Manhattan Book Review, San Francisco Book Review, and Kids’ BookBuzz, during which time she was responsible for writing articles, blog posts, and interviewing authors, as well as editing and managing incoming content for the websites. Faith loves books, cinnamon rolls, and cats.