What Makes a Good Cookbook

Recently, there was a discussion in The Cookbook Junkies about the marks a cookbook must hit to be defined as "good" or in other words "what do we look for in a cookbook". This discussion has been rehashed several dozen times and I feel, at times, as if my life was the inspiration for the movie, Groundhog's Day. To be fair, I remember a great deal, much to my husband's dismay but that's another story. Each time the topic is posted - we find that we all basically have the same desires in a cookbook: recipes that work, photographs (including step-by-step process photos), and wonderful story telling.

We all possess different levels of cooking experience and our wants and desires for what a book brings to our table are reflected in those experiences. Some of us want more than just a recipe that works or a nice photo.

I, personally, want a title that provides inspiration and unique recipes that will stretch my culinary muscles. Indeed, photographs are lovely and desired but they are not a deal breaker for me. For instance, All Under Heaven, contains no photographs and was my pick for best cookbook of the year tied with Breaking Breads which is adorned with stunning photographs. Both books are prized in my collection for the same reasons which include unique recipes that challenge me, recipes that work and wonderful writing. The gorgeous photographs in Breaking Breads are gravy but are more necessary in a baking book to show technique or shaping of dough. In All Under Heaven, Carolyn Phillips provided her own artfully done illustrations for various techniques - i.e., folding a dumpling.

There are cookbooks, in my opinion, that can over do it with the photographs - a dozen photographs to showcase a chocolate chip cookie recipe - not nececessary. We all know what two sticks of butter or what our mixing bowl looks like with all the ingredients contained within. My reason for not caring for the plethora of photographs is that the space used for all those photgraphs could be filled with other recipes which are hopefully more unique than chocolate chip cookies (although a great chocolate chip recipe should be in everyone's arsenal). Step-by-step process photographs do have their place and are much appreciated for difficult techniques such as pleating dumplings or braiding a loaf of bread.

There are also books that I know I will most likely never cook from but provide inspiration to me. The French Laundry, for example, is on nearly 2000 bookshelves here at Eat Your Books including my own, but will I cook from it? Probably not. Do I like to read it and be inspired? Yes.

There are books in my collection that are here for the beautiful writing and photographs - Far Afield is an example. Any of Naomi Dugiud's or Fuchsia Dunlop's books provide the same experience along with fantastic recipes. Books that are conduits to better understanding another culture or land are also favorites of mine - Palestine on a Plate, The Aleppo Cookbook, Saffron Tales, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, Samarkand, The Indecisive Chicken, Five Morsels of Love and Istanbul Cult Recipes are all examples of books I love to open up and cook from but still afford an escape from everyday life.

What makes a cookbook for you - all the reasons above - or is there anything else you look for specifically?

Happy New Year to you and yours! I predict 2017 to be another great year for cookbooks.  Reminder here is a link to all current giveaways and links to other information that can be helpful here at Eat Your Books.

19 Comments

  • laureljean  on  12/31/2016 at 11:26 AM

    The new cookbooks are very spectacular and yes, I do have some favorites, but I still love the style of the old Workman Publishing books, in particular, The Silver Palate Cookbook. The little asides, the illustrations, artsy, less glitz. I'm not a fan of cookbooks with lots of photographs, particularly of the author and her husband posed in various positions around their homestead. Many books have 50-80 recipes and many, many more pages due to these photographs and commentary about the author's life. In books that are above basic cooking/baking levels I don't need several pages devoted to information I already know or should know...pan size, ingredients (eggs, types of chocolate, butter, etc.). And I want straightforward recipe text. I don't want to jump back and forth. That's about it. In other words sometimes less is more.

  • FaithB  on  12/31/2016 at 11:33 AM

    I don’t need a ton of "procedural" photographs either, and am much more drawn in by good writing, clarity of recipes, and interesting flavors.

  • Jane  on  12/31/2016 at 12:10 PM

    Photos aren't important for me except maybe for desserts when I like to see the finished product. Well tested recipes that taste good and an interesting writing style are far more important. Little vignettes from the author's experience, opinions, where the recipe originated from, history of the cuisine and dish - these all make a cookbook much more than just a collection of recipes.

  • Cubangirl  on  12/31/2016 at 12:59 PM

    For me there are reading cookbooks and recipe cookbooks. For recipe cookbooks, I like having procedure photographs that show how finely vegetables are chopped or how much to mix a dough, a picture is worth a thousand words. I also appreciate ingredient notes such as unless noted all recipes use kosher salt, extra large eggs and unsalted butter. I want weight and cups. I want finished product photograph with the recipe, not in the middle of the book. At this stage, I don't need a lot of technique explanations except for those that clearly explain why I need to fold chocolate into beaten eggs as opposed to the other way. However 40 years ago, I needed every detail, so a book such as Joy of Cooking was essential. I find that for different cultural and ethnic recipes looking online is more effective than buying a whole cookbook. FWIW, my most recent cookbook purchases were Ina's newest (making the brisket tonight) print and French Laundry for my iPad.

  • Rinshin  on  12/31/2016 at 1:57 PM

    I'm with Cubangirl on what I consider to be good cookbooks. I want well tested recipes and for that reason I tend to gravitate towards Cook's Illustrated for American style recipes. I do want to see finished photos of recipes and I love challenging myself to presenting them my way. Food is very visual thing for me.

  • marvymer  on  12/31/2016 at 3:28 PM

    For me, I want recipe books to include weights in grams (not just volume measures). This is especially true for baking books. And most importantly, I expect to see well-edited recipes. Nothing makes me crazier than seeing mistakes such as "1 cup of chopped nuts, chopped".

  • sir_ken_g  on  1/1/2017 at 9:46 AM

    I do a lot of ethnic cooking. I prefer an author who is deeply familiar with the subject culture, but also specifies ingredients I can actually get with names I know. Separate indexes in both English and the subject languages help. Background of the recipe and how it fits into the culture.

  • FrenchCreekBaker  on  1/1/2017 at 1:52 PM

    I can relate to your post. I like cookbooks for different reasons. Foremost, the recipes must work but that is a given although they are some that fall short due to poorly written instructions or incomplete info. I recently bought "Fika", a lovely small book of Swedish baking recipes. I am really enjoying reading about the culture and cooking traditions of Sweden and the line drawings are homespun, matching tone of book. I look forward to buying "Persia", Naomi Duiguid's latest. Yes, it too will be chock-full of cultural info. However, in Naomi's books the photography is worthy of Nat Geo. As a photographer, I appreciate beautiful, artistic food photography. A book with gorgeous images AND superb recipes with original recipes or twists on old standards ranks highest with me. I have to say that "Marbeled, Swirled, and Layered", a new book my Santa cats delivered, is a stellar gift. I have learned new things right off the bat (and with over 2,000 books, finding new tips is a wow moment). And I love the way Irvin Lin gives both a recipe and variations to try. And then there is my weakness category: anything baking and bread has strong appeal and may land on my bookshelves for no other reason than I have no willpower to resist! For whatever reasons my shelves are full of cookbooks, I do know all of them are like true friends---I may not visit them regularly but they are always there for me when I need them, ready to provide comfort, inspiration, and food for the mindy, body, and spirit!

  • DragonWell  on  1/1/2017 at 9:42 PM

    I love armchair travel and reference types of cookbooks -- I'll even tolerate a preachy book which forces you to "hang" with the cook (i.e. Family gatherings, or anything with David Chang's named attached) but, will deeply scoff any books that stink of ghostwriting (i.e Dorie's Cookies, or anything by Giada de Laurentiis).

  • lkgrover  on  1/1/2017 at 10:32 PM

    I also like "armchair travel" cookbooks, especially when they have photos of both the recipes and the geography & culture. The best ethnic cookbooks make me want to both cook & buy a plane ticket! Recipe photos are inspiring for choosing a particular recipe. I am also interested in food anthropology (how food and culture are connected). I appreciate process photos (or drawings) when something is unusual or complicated. I also like photos of obscure fruits and vegetables, so I know what to look for in the grocery store. ("Dandelion and Quince" is a good example of a cookbook featuring unusual produce, which I purchased last week.) I appreciate when authors give substitutions for unusual local ingredients so I can find an local equivalent. And a good index is essential -- which includes the particular cut of meat, not just "beef" or "chicken". ... Some recent cookbook purchases have been Samarkand, All Under Heaven, and three of Naomi Duguid's titles. Favorite European cuisine authors include Colman Andrews (Irish & British titles), Hillary Davis (French), Claudia Roden (Food of Spain), and Trine Hahnemann (Scandinavian).

  • lgroom  on  1/2/2017 at 6:44 PM

    Great comments!! I love armchair cookbooks too. My favorite type of reading is food writing (for example Laurie Colwin) and I love learning how food and culture influence each other. As a librarian, I appreciate a good and thorough index -- I don't think you can over index a book.

  • NikkiPixie  on  1/5/2017 at 7:56 AM

    Actually, I have no idea what a "stick" of butter looks like. To me that is an incredibly bizarre unit of measurement!!

  • RogerP  on  1/6/2017 at 7:42 AM

    I'm so pleased to see at least a handful of people in this thread expressing their indifference to photos! For me, I'd actually prefer a book without pictures - they are a poor guide to the kind of end product I will produce, I prefer to alter recipes my own way, and -- most of all -- the photos take up far too much space. The size of books these days really bothers me, especially as my partner doesn't want any more shelves of cookbooks in the apartment. My paperback edition of Claudia Roden's Food Of Italy, published in the late nineties, weighs 425g and is 21cm tall. There are as many recipes in it as in Roden's more recent Food of Spain, but that one is only available in hardback, weighs 2300g and is 27cm tall....

  • eliza  on  1/8/2017 at 9:52 PM

    I'm another who doesn't need photos in my cookbooks. The exception is a book that introduces a new way to do something such as "My Bread" by Jim Lahey that taught me how to make no knead bread. I tend to go for British books since they avoid long introductions and descriptions of ingredients (I hate those!), and they measure in grams. And I never knowingly buy a cookbook that measures butter in "sticks".

  • Hellyloves2cook  on  1/22/2017 at 5:47 AM

    What do I look for in a cookbook? Obviously the recipes are the draw card. I am lured by new titles all the time. I love different cuisines but if I see a cover that grabs my attention thats the one I will pick up first in a bookstore. I prefer hardbacks to paperback if only for the fact they sit open easily when using , whereas paperbacks tend to self close on the kitchen bench or on a cookbook stand. In short of bending the spine and causing damage , the only way to keep them open is to weight each side down with a heavy object, usually my mortar & pestle.!! To be honest pictures are not essential for me. I wouldnt write off a cookbook because of an absence of photos. I have lots with text only and I love them just as much as the ones with beautiful photography. I am fussy about the texture of the paper. Dont ask me why! ... I have dismissed books that may have been great but I just was unable to move beyond the the feel of the paper. Overly flimsy paper or even glossy thick paper is just not doing it for me. Also those books that are too busy on the page with colourful borders and multiple fonts that are distracting. Or conversley those with wishy washy pale tones of texts that make it hard to read because it has no contrast to the paper ... Yes, I find all this a tad annoying. In terms of content I like the index to include not just the title of recipe but also the core ingredients. My bugbear is recipes that do not state serving size... and then you have to wade through the introductory pages to find the info. One book I had to contact the author to get the information- and then it was variable depending on the recipe. I like books that tell a story and little blurbs about the recipes, almost gives that friendly feel which I think is wonderful. I like the book to have a soul and a purpose. To hear the authentic voice of the author is what I enjoy. Fancy or basic recipes? I do regard myself as a very competent home cook. Over the years I have changed. I used to love cooking fancy recipes and challenging myself, but since having children the time factor has meant that this is rarely possible. Now I prefer using less ingredients and making them the stars. Less can often be more. I use my books for inspiration. Having said that I will follow recipes to the letter from time to time .. But am pretty good with adapting or tweaking if necessary. I believe in flexibility - it builds confidence. Some of the books in my vast collection never get used simply because my style has changed or they are more at the high end of the culinary spectrum. I adore books that transport me back to my travelling adventures and the foods I enjoyed whilst visiting different countries. These tend to be my coffee table books - like Tasting India by Christine Manfield and all Luke Nguyen's books. Food memoirs... I adore. I love Elizabeth Davids works and Jane Grigson but anyone who writes about food can win me over ...pretty much!

  • slimmer  on  1/23/2017 at 1:27 PM

    A friend recently considered getting rid of her paper cookbooks because so much is available online and in eBook form. To me that's heresy! I love my cookbooks, and I read them as I would a novel. They have themes, tell a story, transport me to another place or time. Like other commenters above, I agree photos have their place but aren't mandatory. When I print out recipes from online sources, I include the photo only if it's yummy-looking and fits on the page. But those binders full of printouts aren't cookbooks; they are simply recipe collections.

  • goodfruit  on  2/21/2017 at 2:09 PM

    I too love both practical-full-of-recipes cookbooks and armchair cookbooks and have a variety of both. My Go-To's are Fannie Farmer, James Beard and ATK's Family Cookbook. I particularly love to read James Beards forwards to each recipe. Sponge Cake: Few People make a plain sponge cake nowadays. This is a pity, for it is a very versatile cake, excellent served plain with fruit, surprisingly good when a little stale if moistened with rum or liqueur and topped with a rich custard sauce. After reading all that about the humble little sponge cake, you too might be motivated to make one! My armchair cookbooks feature the likes of David Lebovitz, My Paris Kitchen or Joanne Harris, My French Kitchen, or Jamie at Home. The pictures are so evocative and I am inspired to jump up and make Winter Sausage and Bean Soup because it is a cold and stormy day and that suddenly looks like just the thing!

  • kitchen_chick  on  3/4/2017 at 9:48 AM

    Good recipes that interest me are number one. I also like good authoritative cultural information. One thing I've not seen mention: layout and readability. If I can't comfortably read the recipe, I won't cook from the book. That includes poor font choice, funky column widths, patterned backgrounds that obscure the text, etc. I've gotten rid of and not bought cookbooks for this reason. Other considerations: I do appreciate a good pantry section like Fuchsia Dunlop includes. In Chinese grocery stores it's been incredibly helpful to be able to show the Chinese names of ingredients to staff with limited English. It's a big turn off to me when the author doesn't include the recipe name in its "native language". It's terribly frustrating if I know the, say, name of a dish in Vietnamese, but the author has only used their translation of the name. Again Dunlop models what I like to see: translated title, title written in Chinese characters, and romanized title. Diane Kennedy's books are also really good about including recipe names in both Spanish and English. (Though I do have some favorite cookbooks that don't do this. Sadly.) And a good index can't be emphasized enough. Photos are nice, but not necessary. And too many are annoying, especially if they are unrelated. Does a photo of an empty beach chair facing the sea really improve a cookbook? Seriously. And I don't need a bazillion pics of a celebrity chef or blogger in various posed shots.

  • Debkelliemember  on  3/18/2017 at 4:16 PM

    I'll buy a cookbook at the drop of a hat if I'm visiting somewhere, or if its a fundraising-type of venture.. so some for me are mementos of places and times... but as to utility, give me non-glossy paper; well written instructions; measures in weights; and temperatures for "done-ness"; ordinary kitchen equipment required; pictures not at all necessary - my most used book is a Stephanie's Kitchen Companion (1996) - not one photo!

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