Choosing the best cookbooks--the 7 questions

Well, I've just about emerged on the other side of my first holiday cookbook roundup, and this time, I was unusually aware of my decision-making process.  You know how you're standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the store, leafing through cookbooks and trying to figure out which one to take home, and you feel paralyzed and uncertain, and you question yourself, and then when you finally make up your mind you're sure you made the wrong choice?  That's my life as a cookbook reviewer.  The subjective nature of choosing the best cookbooks sometimes overwhelms me, and I question myself into oblivion.  (It doesn't help knowing that the market will move, according to my picks. It always does. No pressure or anything!)

But this time, I paid very close attention to my questions, and I realized that they basically boiled down to a manageable number.  In fact, just seven.  I was so happy to realize that these could be named that I printed up little cards to score the books by my 7 questions and stuck them to all the candidates.  See if you agree with my criteria--maybe your process is a little like mine.

Question 1:  Is it useful?  This means, would an enthusiastic home cook (anyone ranging from a fast weeknight cook to a thoughtful gourmand) be able to find recipes in this book that would satisfy them for a week straight of cooking?  

Question 2:  Is it thoughtful? This means, has the author thought of the reader's needs? Are there hard-to-find ingredients and if so, is there guidance as to where to find them? Are there multiple sub-recipes you have to hunt around for?  Are thereclarifying tips in the instructions?  Are there side essays, helpful sidebars and charts?  Do the headnotes help you cook the recipe?

Question 3:  Is it new?  Are at least a majority of the recipes really new?--i.e. not just another recipe for roast chicken or meatballs or insalata caprese with the exact ingredients you've always made them with in more or less the same proportions.

If I can't say at least a partial yes to all three of those first questions, I don't get to choose it for the shortlist.  After that we get into the refinements.

Question 4: Does it tell a story?  Not everyone likes a story in their cookbooks, but I do.  I like colorful headnotes, reminiscences, and anecdotes--they show me that the author has really put their heart and soul into the book.

Question 5: Is it well-designed?  Design is so important that a lack of it can ruin a cookbook that is otherwise useful, thoughtful and new.  Cookbooks are working books, and they should look like they're meant to help you, not like a postmodern art installation.

Question 6: Is it focused?  A lot of cookbooks are simply collections of everything the author has ever cooked, or cooked in the last year.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and this concern can be overridden by awesome design or thoughtfulness or usefulness.  But in such an overcrowded market, focus is important.

Question 7: Is it the best of its kind?  Or at least, the best that I've seen.  What a hard question this is to answer!  The answer is almost never Yes.  But asking it helps me sort out my thinking.  If the answer is, "It just might be..." that's a vast endorsement in itself.

I also have known biases, which I have to be on rigorous watch for: 1) I'm a sucker for great design.  2) I get annoyed when there are 2 systems of measurement in a book.  3) I am happiest when I see a wide variety of publishers, including underdogs.  These I consider unreasonable biases, and much of my time goes into re-weighting my judgements to counter those biases. 

What questions do you ask yourself when you choose a cookbook?  Are they something like mine?  Or do you have a whole different set of criteria?

12 Comments

  • Jane  on  11/14/2011 at 2:57 PM

    It's so interesting to read what your selection process is, Susie. As we have done the last two years, EYB will be compiling a Best of the Best list, amalgamating all the best cookbooks of 2011 lists we can find. Last year there were 110 lists and 396 different cookbooks, of which 230 only had one vote. I wonder if everyone applied the same rigorous process you do Susie, whether there would be more consistency?

  • Susie  on  11/14/2011 at 3:20 PM

    Hmm, I wonder too! I think there's a lot of room for discussion about what makes a good cookbook. I think the biggest difference between me and other reviewers might be that I so emphasize usability. I notice, on many lists, beautiful cookbooks that I would consider more for reading than cooking. I like reading cookbooks, too, but it's my belief that most of my readers are looking for cookbooks that will pull their weight in the kitchen. I could be wrong!

  • Kathy Kelm  on  11/14/2011 at 6:29 PM

    I am annoyed by irrational instructions: stir in a clockwise direction, (are you supposed to go counter clockwise south of the equator); remove green core of garlic (tastes just like the rest of the garlic); mince, then add to other ingredients in the blender (just what is the blender going to do?) and other stupidity-isms. Sure you can peel ginger with a spoon, but a potato peeler is much sharper and doesn't take all that much off the ginger. And a micro plane can create minced ginger without the peeling. I am a busy working nurse, and I want great food, but spare me the details of camping out desperation cooking. My kitchen has a microwave for toasting spices, a mini processor, a big food processor, a standing mixer, and a pressure canner with a stove to operate it on. I appreciate it when a recipe tells me how to make great food fast, including hints for using kitchen equipment I might not have seen the value of. I couldn't have made 168 pounds of apples into fabulous canned applesauce in one day by myself without the power strainer attachment to my KitchenAid, as an example. So agreeing with Susie's criteria above, I add keep dumb out and add in some modernity of preparation.

  • Jess  on  11/14/2011 at 10:33 PM

    Thank you Susie for sharing your thought process with us! As someone whose job it is to review dozens of books at a time, I always wonder how much time is actually devoted to any one book. Would you mind indulging me and giving some kind of estimation. I ask this because so often I will sit down with a cookbook (or really any book) which was recommended by this person or that person and I find all sorts of irritating things I dislike about the same book a pro reviewer may have given a glowing review. That said, my thoughts to add to your list of book turn-offs is 1) Spelling errors, or other ridiculously obvious errors. If nobody bothered to proofread a cookbook closely, why should I believe that the author took any time at all himself?? 2) I'm with Kathy Kelm, dumb and/or obvoius instructions make me want to heave the book at a wall. If I feel like the author believes he/she is talking to 9 year olds, I won't get very far in that book. 3) I actually enjoy when measurements are given in two different measures. It allows me to be sure I have the correct info, and sometimes weighing a dozen ingredients is easier than measuring them out in cups.

  • Susie  on  11/15/2011 at 7:37 AM

    LOL "stir clockwise!" And if you're left-handed?! Good question Jess about how much time gets spent on a book. For my single-cookbook reviews for the Globe, I typically choose 10 to 12 recipes ranging from easier to hard-ish, and a variety of courses. Nothing too expensive. That's what we eat for a week. The rest of the time I'm testing about 75-80% of our dinners, pulling and flagging as many promising new recipes as I can. (My repertoire of fallbacks increases very slowly because of this.) Because so many cookbooks are published, often I'll only get to test 1 or 2 out of a given cookbook. But if I think it has potential, I'll keep returning to it until I've tested at least 4 or 5. At that point I'll feel competent to say something about the recipes. If I can't test a book, I'll still blog about it--where it fits in a trend, how it's put together, etc., what the recipes look like (as opposed to how they test out). A portion of the recipes I test are posted on the attached page (I don't post everything because then it would be obvious which book was about to be reviewed).

  • Susie  on  11/15/2011 at 7:39 AM

    By "posted on the attached page" I mean Click on "Susie"...

  • Cheri  on  11/15/2011 at 9:37 PM

    The thing that draws me towards the cash register, when I have a new book in my hand is "Do I feel inspired?" Is my mouth watering? Did I open it to find an "a ha"? I have lots of books, and treasure those that give me new ideas or ways to think about a recipe I have eaten or prepared in the past, but find a new twist. I agree, that poor preparation (lack of editing, silly directions, and unattainable ingredients) are immediate turn offs. I'm not looking for glossy pictures, or cutsey names, I am looking for a spark/inspiration from a new book to add to my collection. Sounds like you have a great approach to evaluating each book, and I tend to agree with your initial elimination process, but would add the "temptation factor"...;)

  • Leslie  on  11/27/2011 at 9:24 PM

    Very interesting article. I agree with Jess, though, that having both cups and ounces/grams is a turn ON for me! I also hate having to turn a page when I cook, and I like a table of contents that lists all the recipes - and not have to flip to a chapter for this list. I also agree with the temptation factor!

  • Soupcon  on  11/28/2011 at 6:32 AM

    I love it when there are two systems of measurement in the recipe/book because I know one of them will be by weight.... my preferred method. So I am more likely to buy and use a cookbook like this..... Ruhlman's "Twenty" for example.

  • ellabee  on  12/13/2011 at 6:14 PM

    To buy a cookbook, I have to be confident I'd actually use it in my kitchen. One factor among many, but an important one, is manageable physical size. An example of an otherwise inspiring and useful cookbook that doesn't make the cut on this basis alone: Around My French Table (which IMO would be a better cookbook if all the photos were reduced in size, on esthetic grounds alone -- food is less appealing when photographed larger than life size). Another is Jacques and Julia Cook at Home. Both of these are too heavy and gargantuan even to be enjoyable bedtime reading. Books of an appealing, handy size: Mexican Everyday, Rick Bayless. The 150 Best American Recipes. Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for the Food. Most of these have no more than 300 pages. The NYTimes' recent list contained not one cookbook with fewer than 400 pages, and most were nearly twice that. I just don't pull out and use a cookbook of that size, , no matter how beautiful or interesting, unless it's absolutely the only one for the job (e.g., David Thompson's Thai Food).

  • ellabee  on  12/14/2011 at 1:34 PM

    Susan, I'd join others in encouraging you to try to lose your prejudice against ingredient lists that include weights as well as volume. That's a big plus for me, even in non-baking recipes.

  • ellabee  on  12/14/2011 at 2:20 PM

    Thanks for the importance you attach to good design! Manageable size is part of that for me. A related plus is pages slightly wider than tall, which lie flat more readily when open. There's no excuse for page numbers that are too small, in difficult-to-read fonts, or (a special hatred) placed in the center of the page rather than near the corner. Cookbook authors and editors who permit ingredient lists or instructions to be printed in difficult-to-read colors or fonts deserve to have their books unbought, unread, and unused. Blessings on those who include the [correct] page number of other recipes whenever they're mentioned. Getting that right requires careful review at the very end of the proofing process, just when everyone involved is heartily sick of the project, but it makes a huge difference to users. As does an excellent and accurate index, which publishers are increasingly wont to skimp on (though standards don't seem to be dropping quite as quickly in cookbooks as in other kinds of books). A remarkable number of cookbooks have no complete listing of the recipes within. I prefer that listing to be all together in a table of contents, but grouping chapter contents together at the beginning of each chapter works -- and is a damned sight better than no list at all. If at all possible, recipes should be complete on facing pages, to avoid the cook having to turn a page while cooking is underway. If that means dropping, shrinking, or moving a photo or non-instructional headnotes, so be it. Many of these criteria are hard to meet if the book must include hundreds or (groan) thousands of recipes. Attention, cookbook authors and editors: less is often more.

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