Buying a cookbook, asking the right questions...


So this weekend, I was making a quick visit to Manhattan with my son, and we needed a place to rest our sidewalk-weary feet.  We ended up taking refuge in the Union Sq. Barnes & Noble, as I have done so many times before.  As Noah rode the escalators of the 4-story building, I wondered what the cookbooks section would look like, and how it might have changed over the years.

Whether ordered or received as review copies, I've gotten most of my cookbooks through the mail for years.  So it's probably fair to say I was unprepared for the walls and walls of cookbooks that greeted me on the 3rd floor.  Here was a library that could rival an EYB member's for size! I imagined for a moment that I was choosing a cookbook for my aunt or my mother-in-law.  In an instant, I was plunged into a state of indecisiveness and confusion.

It's overwhelming to choose a cookbook these days (if it's not one you already know and have tested), which is why I'm in the middle of developing a cookbook-rating app.  So I'm thinking a lot about these questions.  What do we need to know when we're picking out a new cookbook? What will get us in and out of Barnes & Noble in under 2 hours?  What information will help us spend less than our entire lunch hour surfing the web for recommendations?

Here are some of the questions I think might be helpful - they're similar to the questions I use in judging a cookbook for review, but not exactly the same:

  • Will the recipes work? 
  • Will I want to return again and again to this book?  
  • Can I read it and learn from it as well as cook from it?  
  • Will it be a pleasure to use in the kitchen - what's the typeface like and are there pictures?  Does it make a nice gift?  
  • How is the information organized?  
  • Are the recipes actually really new or can I find ones just like them on the Internet?  
  • Is this author usually reliable?

So, what I want to know is: Are these the same questions you ask? Or do you have a different decision-making process?  The cookbook market continues to be a healthy one, despite the uncertainties of publishing these days.  So all of us probably have strong opinions about what we will - and won't - buy . . . do share!



  • gigihotchkiss  on  3/5/2013 at 11:53 AM

    These are questions I think about when deciding to purchase a cookbook. Another question I ask, which is similar to "Will it be a pleasure to use in the kitchen - what's the typeface like and are there pictures?" - will the book stay open on the kitchen counter? I've been burned a few times on this. I don't understand why publishers would sell a cookbook that won't stay open!

  • sir_ken_g  on  3/5/2013 at 12:25 PM

    I buy a lot of Asian ethnic cookbooks. I prefer books written or co-written by natives - but they have to be familiar with what I can actually buy - and what the local market names it so they have lived in the West. I shy away from overly complex recipes. An example of a good book might be Burma by Naomi Duguid and a "bad" one Thai Food y David Thompson which is a classic reference - but nobody - not even Thai housewives -make scratch curry paste any more.

  • tsusan  on  3/5/2013 at 1:15 PM

    Keeping the book open is definitely key! I use a bookstand that holds it open now, but I know how frustrating "springy" books are. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't cook from "Thai Food". I always feel I should, and then I don't. It's just too involved. I agree, Burma's much better.

  • krusso119  on  3/5/2013 at 1:45 PM

    I make scratch curry paste all the time. It's not that big a deal.

  • aargle  on  3/5/2013 at 4:27 PM

    These are really good questions and ones that I ask when purchasing (which I do far too often). I think typeface and legibility as well as the colour of the pages are not always a high priority with recipe book editors which is a great shame. Often I pick up a book which is beautifully presented but very difficult to read. I won't buy it if I can't read it easily. I think also books do have to have a point of difference now as there are just so many being released. Can't wait for the app!

  • rivergait  on  3/5/2013 at 4:48 PM

    While I do spend time cruising the internet (and Amazon) for good cookbooks with which to treat myself, I frequently buy those shiny colorful magazines right here in my little town grocery store. Fine Cooking, Cuisine at Home, specialty seasonal mags...they're pretty, reasonably good recipes, and cheap. Wait...recently, I figured out that these impulse buys are now costing about $10+ each. When I could buy a really *good* cookbook for not much more at Costco or Amazon/used, those "cheap" magazines are looking less attractive.

  • MMarlean  on  3/5/2013 at 9:08 PM

    I almost always check to make sure it has been indexed on Eat Your Books. I also check EYB for reviews or notes about the recipes, how many own it, whether another book of its type is very popular and seems better. I often check the book out from the library to review to see if there are enough recipes that I'll really use. Sometimes, though, I order a book before its been released because I just have to have it ASAP! Usually because of reviews or the author.

  • FuzzyChef  on  3/6/2013 at 1:12 AM

    If you're creating a cookbook rating app, I urge you to rate cookbooks on a variety of orthagonal indices, instead of just on a scale of 1-10. Like when I'm evaluating cookbooks, I rate them on: 1. recipe quality: how accurate are the recipes? how easy to follow are they? 2. innovation: do the recipes include things which I wouldn't have thought of making otherwise? 3. authenticity: (for ethnic cookbooks only) do the recipes and narrative give me the flavor of an unfamiliar cuisine? 4. depth: does the cookbook explain unusual ingredients and techniques? Does it have sidebars, a glossary, pictoral instructions? 5. stories: is the cookbook a fun read? does the author add color and entertainment? 6. practicality: are the recipes something I'm likely to actually make, or just read about? 7. Value: am I getting a reasonable number of good recipes for the price of the cookbook? 8. Index: does the cookbook have a good index, so I can find the recipes again? It's quite common for cookbooks to do well in certain categories and poorly in others. (1) and (2) in particular, are often at odds. And I'm frustrated by how few publishers put serious work into the index.

  • tsusan  on  3/6/2013 at 8:27 AM

    Thanks for all the good suggestions, everybody! Fuzzychef, it's eerie how many of your points I'm working to address in my app - we think alike. I'm going to use 4 separate rating point scales on each book to try and cover these kinds of questions, and will provide more data (number of recipes, illustrations) at the end. Fascinating to hear about other folks' cookbook-buying decision trees.

  • Chris  on  3/6/2013 at 10:54 AM

    What I always ask: Does it add anything to whats been out there? For instance, who needs the 10th italian cookbook? nobody, I guess. But if there is a cookbook, that uses Italian dishes and make them easier/more difficult but interesting or combine them with other local cusines or use different techniques, or does the book explore different aspects that other books have not before, .. those are questions that are important to me. whether i buy it or not usually depends on this question of adding something new and whether i like the type of cuisine... (sorry for mistakes, i'm not a native english speaker!)

  • Nancie  on  3/6/2013 at 2:53 PM

    I think these are good questions. I also want to know how involved the recipes are. I don't mind involved recipes that take some time or need special ingredients or tools but I'd like to know that. (Sometimes I want a quick recipe and/or would probably look for a book with less involved recipes if it was to be a gift for someone.) I enjoy cookbooks that include a little introductory blub about the recipe and/or alternatives for ingredients. (Not sure how that would fit into a rating system though.)

  • Molly  on  3/6/2013 at 3:31 PM

    One bit of information that I would like to see in reviews is whether the ingredient lists include weight measurements along with volumetric ones. For baking books in particular, the lack of weights can be a deal breaker for me. Something that annoys me with a lot of cookbook reviews is when people rate a cookbook badly because think it should have had more (or better) pictures, and they don't even mention the recipes themselves. I want good, reliable, easy-to-follow recipes in a cookbook, NOT a coffee table book. I want to cook from or be inspired by cookbooks, not just peruse the pictures. Maybe there's some way to have separate ratings for content and presentation?

  • EB  on  3/7/2013 at 7:33 AM

    Do the recipes call for ingredients I can buy locally? Will the recipes stand the test of time or will they become outdated quickly, i.e. is it a "fad" cookbook? It has to have something unique about it - pictures, tips, stories, etc. otherwise it's not worth it.

  • EB  on  3/7/2013 at 7:33 AM

    Do the recipes call for ingredients I can buy locally? Will the recipes stand the test of time or will they become outdated quickly, i.e. is it a "fad" cookbook? It has to have something unique about it - pictures, tips, stories, etc. otherwise it's not worth it.

  • Allegra  on  3/7/2013 at 8:58 AM

    Does the cookbook bring something new to the table? Burma is a really great concept--it's something that hasn't been done much before and it's presented in a welcoming format and really eases the reader into an unfamiliar cuisine. But once that gets mastered, well, it's time for another Burmese cookbook, one that may have different or more authentic (not saying Duguid's books aren't) recipes, or with dishes that are much more time-consuming. I have many Thai books, but the reason I love Thompson's is precisely why some people seem to dislike it--the recipes are very time consuming and detailed. But after spending four hours making a beef laksa and it resulting in one of the tastiest things ever to enter my mouth, is it worth it? Absolutely. I may never *need* a recipe to make my own shrimp paste, but at least I know it's there if the urge ever overcomes me. I also love when a recipe is preceded by a headnote with a bit of info about the dish. Photos are welcome in moderation but optional--if there is good information about what the recipe should taste or look like, then I find a photo unnecessary. That said, I can't stand cookbooks that fling recipe after recipe at you without any write-up at all on the finished product.

  • sir_ken_g  on  3/7/2013 at 9:07 AM

    "I make scratch curry paste all the time. It's not that big a deal" That's why the Asian stores sell plastic tubs of curry paste and every market in Thailand has huge tubs of paste. Can you get kaffir lime peel locally??? I sure can't. Or galangal - 50 miles for that one.

  • krusso119  on  3/10/2013 at 1:13 PM

    Uh, kenny, there's lots of curry paste recipes that don't require kaffir lime peel. And, really, you didn't know that ginger is a perfectly fine substitute for galangal. Sheesh.

  • sir_ken_g  on  3/10/2013 at 6:39 PM

    NO ginger is NOT a substitute for ginger. Any Thai will tell you that. And stop calling me names...reported!

  • PegMallon  on  3/17/2013 at 6:18 PM

    My cookbook collection numbers over a thousand, so I look hard at value: am I willing to purge another book or can I really find two more inches somewhere. I have lots on my IPad but it really isn't the same in the kitchen.

  • Lori  on  3/29/2013 at 3:04 PM

    Pictures of finished dishes are great, but how-to illustrations or photographs are actually necessary to some recipes and it's surprising how often they're not included. Not everyone knows how to butterfly a turkey breast and not everyone has a butcher who will do it for you.

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