What's the Number One thing you look for in a cookbook?

Those of us who collect cookbooks are seekers.  We must be, because not one of us could argue that we need another cookbook -so we must be looking for something when we acquire another.

When I think about the cookbooks I've been happiest to add to my collection, I see that they've appealed to me in many different ways.  Some, like Japanese Soul Cooking, have opened up a whole new territory of food to me so that it's not "only in restaurants" cooking any more.

Some, like Modern Sauces and All About Braising, have consolidated things I sort of knew already into a better, more coherent form, and taught me new things in the process.  Some are thorough, some tell tales, some simply charm their way into the kitchen and then stay there for decades. 

But if there's a single theme, a Number One thing I'm attracted to in a cookbook, it's probably simply this: a new combination of flavors.  Not insanely new, like I have to go track down caribou antler skin or green juniper cones or dehydrated Arctic sea kale.  And not superficially new, meaning somebody substituted lime zest in a common recipe that usually uses lemon zest.  For me, there's a just-right place where an author takes an assortment of not-too-hard-to-find ingredients and does something truly novel with them that my mouth can never forget.  Like the pistachio-chaat masala lamb chops in Smitten Kitchen or the roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds and Greek yogurt from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now that's such a favorite among us EYBers.

It's hard to narrow it down, when there are so many things we all love about cookbooks...but still, I'm gonna ask: What's your Number One thing?

10 Comments

  • Jane  on  3/18/2014 at 2:10 PM

    I completely agree about looking for new flavor combinations - one of the reasons I love Ottolenghi books so much. That cauliflower recipe from Cook This Now is alone worth the price of the book (and it has tons more great recipes). When flicking through new cookbooks in a bookstore if I don't see recipes that surprise me, then back it goes. I also look out for my trigger ingredients - those that I love to cook with and eat.

  • sir_ken_g  on  3/19/2014 at 11:07 AM

    If you like flavor combinations try ethnic foods. The spice mixes of the Middle East, the hot/sour/salty/sweet of SE Asia.

  • lesorelle  on  3/19/2014 at 11:54 AM

    The cookbooks that are most appealing to me are the ones where I can imagine the flavors just from the title of the recipes, and, as you mentioned, those flavors are both familiar and new.

  • Christine  on  3/19/2014 at 1:47 PM

    I have to agree with Jane about trigger ingredients -- if I'm browsing a book and finding interesting recipes that incorporate some of my favorite ingredients, it's destined to end up at the checkout counter. Bonus points are awarded if I find multiple interesting recipes incorporating ingredients both my husband and I like. He's quite a bit pickier than me and I've been known to grumble that most everything he likes is boring, so I'm always on the lookout for that common ground we can both be happy with.

  • hillsboroks  on  3/19/2014 at 2:06 PM

    I agree with the earlier comments that a new cookbook has to have the element of excitement that comes from seeing the same old ingredients combined in new and interesting ways. I also love cookbooks that give extra tips and tricks and teach you why you have to do something a certain way. Even though I have cooked for many years and have lots of cookbooks I love learning new techniques and cooking science. These past few years I find also myself increasingly drawn to cookbooks that tell stories of the cultures of faraway places. EYB just introduced me to Diana Henry. I picked up a couple of her books this week at the local bookstore and have been loving just reading them. I know I will enjoy trying her recipes too.

  • ellabee  on  3/19/2014 at 4:48 PM

    Depends on the book, but right now the strongest pull of my wishlist short list is a book that offers a new skill: True Brews by Emma Christensen. True Brews is aimed straight at me: someone in a small household who's done a little lacto-fermenting and is eager to try brewing, and who doesn't want to commit to much new equipment. It covers a wide range of brews for complete beginners, and all the recipes are for gallon batches. Also the writer is someone whose work I've seen regularly (on The Kitchn) and trust. Because she's a starting-out food writer I want to support, and because it's not an expensive book, there's no impetus to wait for remainder sales or the second-hand market. Plus, I want to get started! (It's also Indexing Now.) Will order at the bookstore in town tomorrow. Thanks for the push, Susie!

  • Kerrey  on  3/20/2014 at 11:43 AM

    I love to travel through my books, so a book from a faraway land that talks about the culture, has beautiful photos, and interesting new flavors is a must have. I am super excited about North, which I have preordered. It is from one of Iceland's finest restaurants. I will probably never travel to Iceland, but can explore through my books. I have to agree on the Japanese Soul Cooking book. I recently received it as a gift, and every recipe looks amazing.

  • Rinshin  on  3/20/2014 at 7:39 PM

    Perhaps because I come from Japanese culture, I tend to collect and love specialized cookbooks the most. The ones that concentrate on single subject matter. I learn so much from those. I like to read stories about recipes being presented. And since I am such a visual person, I am drawn to beautiful food photos.

  • tsusan  on  3/25/2014 at 10:09 AM

    When I read the comments, I agree with every one! Maybe I don't have a single most important cookbook priority after all. I guess that explains why the piles just keep growing....

  • boardingace  on  3/30/2014 at 8:29 AM

    I'm still a (sort-of) new cook, about 5 years now, so I look for very consistent cookbooks that will give me reliable, very tasty results. I don't like low-fat or quick recipes, unless they are really yummy, and I do like detailed instructions where I am learning how to cook as I prepare the recipe. It's fun to see what more experienced cooks look for in a recipe, and looking for innovation and inspiration makes a lot of sense, once you know cooking inside and out already.

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