The one thing I can't abide in a cookbook

Can't abide books

Poivrade artichokes.  Veal kidneys.  Gilt-head bream.  Mastic crystals.

These are a few of the ingredients I've seen as I page my way through hundreds of cookbooks on my long, slow path to holiday roundup.  And, though I try to be level-headed when judging cookbooks, each of these made me see red. 

What is it about unannotated obscure ingredients that's so very annoying?  you may ask.

Well, it's not their obscurity.  As cooks, our lives are enriched and our horizons expanded when we embrace diverse ingredients and unfamiliar cuisines.  When a Caribbean or Cambodian grocer opens in the neighborhood, it's a reason to celebrate.  When you can count on finding guajillo chiles as easily as you can find bananas, that's cause for joy.

So that leaves the other half of the equation: annotation.  A cookbook is fundamentally a teaching tool-you wouldn't need it if you knew how to cook everything in it already.   So when a cookbook author uses an ingredient that's a little tricky to source, I think they have a responsibility to reach out to the reader and help.  There are so many ways to do this-here's the ones I can think of, in order of preference:

  • Headnote:  In that critical part of the recipe at the beginning, authors have a chance to share important tips and insights with their readers-and it's a perfect place to explain where you can buy pig cheeks and what to substitute if you can't.
  • Sidebar:  See above.  A great place to put the information if there's no room in the headnote.
  • Glossary: Some ethnic and regional cookbooks make an extra effort to define their less well-known ingredients.  This is always welcome, and often the glossary is an education in itself.  But it still pays to also have the information next to the recipe.
  • "See Sources/Resources".  "Resources" seems to be the preferred term for bakers; "Sources" for restaurant chefs (I don't know why).  I don't particularly like this workaround, because you have to go look in the back matter to find the Sources/Resources section, and then more often than not order something online, paying shipping and waiting a week before you can try the recipe.  But it's better than nothing.
  • "(optional)".   With that one little word, a cookbook author  demonstrates thoughtfulness, compassion, a sense of shared humanity! with his or her reader.  I can't tell you how many times I've been able to try a great recipe I'd otherwise have skipped just because the one ingredient I couldn't get was "(optional)".

When an author doesn't use one of these easy tools, it sends a message: "if you can't get this ingredient where you live, don't make this recipe." So why am I buying this cookbook?  Or it might be saying, "If you can't get this ingredient where you live, you'll just have to come and eat it here, where it's available."   If I could go and eat it there, you again have to wonder, why am I buying this cookbook?

7 Comments

  • Cati  on  11/25/2012 at 2:59 AM

    I dislike the new trend to print the recipes over patterned designs or on coloured backgrounds. Marie Claire Fresh+Easy is guilty of this eg pages 19,52 164 ,196 and I could do without all the young models that grace many of the pages . I was looking forward to What Katie Ate but I have picked it up on several occasions in the shop and put it down again because I find the old typewriter like characters too irritating to bother following a recipe. Fortunately you can get a lot of her recipes clearly displayed in some magazines and her blog now seems to have changed its typeface .

  • Jane  on  11/25/2012 at 11:03 AM

    With aging eyes, I can't bear it when I have to carry a book to direct light to read if it says 3/4 of a cup or 1/4 of a cup. I wish all measurements were in large, clear type - I think the designers of books should be made to put on glasses that make them see their books through middle-aged eyes. And of course as a trans-Atlantic cook I wish all cookbook recipes listed both volume and weights (grams).

  • Queezle_Sister  on  11/25/2012 at 11:52 AM

    I agree with all these pet peeves, and will add one of my own. A complete index. When I know I've seen a recipe in a book (or identified it here on EYB), but cannot find it using the index, I put the book down. One recent beautiful cookbook on the "surplus sale" shelf at the library had no index at all!!! To me, the quality of the index tells me how much the author/editor actually use cookbooks.

  • Hilaryvu  on  11/25/2012 at 5:22 PM

    Oh, I have three!! I hate it when recipes are indexed according to their description and not the main ingredient - for example, putting five-spice rubbed pork belly under F is only going to work if I am searching for recipes for 5 spice, not pork belly. Also, a recently released much anticipated new recipe book has most of the recipes printed with the ingredients on one page and the method on the back of the page (!!). Finally, having a method, or especially an implement, specified without explanation as to why you should use that particular one - if it isn't obvious it needs to be explained!!

  • AJ12754  on  11/27/2012 at 6:41 AM

    Thanks to Google I worry less about finding obscure ingredients, but I would always like more information about the ingredient from the author who is using it. Completely agree about having ingredients and method on the same or facing pages. And a good index makes or breaks a cookbook as Q-S says. My peeve somewhat minor but I always want measurements (i.e. cup of diced carrot) of chopped vegetables rather than 1 carrot, chopped. Particularly with onions, there's a lot of size variation and I have only ever seen one cookbook that showed me a picture of what size was meant by "one onion."

  • Queezle_Sister  on  12/7/2012 at 2:46 PM

    Oh AJ you are so right! Just this week I doubled a recipe calling for one onion, but when I looked at the two monster onions my husband set out for me, I knew we would be in for trouble. Such a good discussion here!

  • LauraG  on  12/8/2012 at 1:40 PM

    Index! index! index! Rarely do you look up a recipe by its title, unless you've made it before (and I use yellow highlighter on those so I can find them without reading). What you really look up is an ingredient (green beans) or a general idea of a dish you want to make (rice pudding, savory tart). THAT'S what needs to be in the index.

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