The philosophy behind cookbook organization

 bookshelf

If you have a collection of books that is larger than one shelf, you've probably spent time categorizing (and re-categorizing) your library. When it comes to cookbooks, there are a wide variety of organizational methods you can employ: arranging books by author, by genre, by nationality, and so on. Inevitably, no matter how much thought you put into the scheme, you find yourself facing a conundrum: where does this particular book, which defies your carefully reasoned categories, properly belong? 

Bookstores aren't immune from this dilemma, reports John Sherman. He reminisces on the time he spent reorganizing the cookbook collection at a small independent bookstore in New York City. The exercise led him down an organizational logic rabbit hole. 

Sherman changed the store's basic eight categories into seven, in what he felt were more sensible groupings: reference, general, celebrity (including restaurants), baking, cooking method, special diet, and ethnic/regional/national (alphabetical by demonym). Naturally, a few books challenged these rules. Should Mark Bittman be shelved in reference, general, or celebrity? In the end, Sherman put Bittman into the reference section, "partly to stick it to his "Everything" and partly because a true celebrity cookbook has a photograph on the front."

Management quickly abandoned this system and resorted to something different entirely. The task led Sherman to question the whole premise of book categorization, prompting him to determine that "the task of organizing books is one that grows in complexity the more one tries to simplify it." You can read more of Sherman's musings on this topic at Literary Hub.

Have you found a satisfactory method for organizing your cookbooks? I currently use four categories: baking, reference, cocktail, and other (this system makes it plain to see where my passions lie). It is crude but it works for now, as my library isn't too voluminous. Share your cookbook organization successes--and failures--in the comments. 

20 Comments

  • SilverSage  on  4/2/2017 at 6:57 PM

    I recently reorganized mine, and found I have about 60 books on different countries. I broke them out to a separate section, further organized by continent and country. I also created a section for all modernist/sous vide/food science books. Single topic books (bread, chicken, etc) have their own section.

  • Megoola  on  4/2/2017 at 8:52 PM

    I have two broad groups: vegetarian and not vegetarian. Then they are alpha by title with spiral bound to one end and extra large on the other just for aesthetics.

  • lkgrover  on  4/2/2017 at 10:37 PM

    My system is: general cooking; by cooking method (slow cooker, grilling); by ingredient (meat, vegetables); by course (breakfast, appetizers, soup, salad); by region (American, from East to West; South American; European; Asian -- ordered by country within each continent); general baking & dessert; by recipe type (cakes, pies, cookies, custards/puddings), by ingredient (chocolate, fruit); by nationality. For all categories, proceed from general to specific: 1) meat, then beef, pork, chicken; 2) general Italian, then different Italian regions (north to south). I have 136 cookbooks, with an emphasis on exploring specific countries (and regions within countries).

  • salskitchen  on  4/3/2017 at 2:10 AM

    As most recipe books contain several different categories (e.g. starters, mains, desserts, cakes) I have resorted to sorting my books by size. This also solves the difficulty of having a bookshelf with shelves of different heights. When I am well organised I then sort each shelf alphabetically by author, but most of the time I just spend ages hunting for the book I want, and can't even remember what the spine looks like!

  • vickster  on  4/3/2017 at 7:56 AM

    I have general cooking, vegetarian cooking, ethnic/regional (individually alphabetical), general baking and dessert, and bread.

  • annmartina  on  4/3/2017 at 8:59 AM

    I break mine down pretty finely but I usually don't have much trouble finding what I want and I have 600-700 cookbooks. General Baking; Desserts; Breads; Cakes; Cookies; Pies; Pizza; Ice Cream; Dairy. General Asia; General Indian; General Middle East; Mexico, Germany; Poland; France; Britian, etc. U.S. is broken down by my home state; Southern; BBQ; Southwest; Rest of the US. Also vegetables; vegetarian; dairy; eggs; appliance; Jr. league,; soups/stews; rice/grains, etc.

  • sir_ken_g  on  4/3/2017 at 9:55 AM

    Asian on the right side, the rest on the left side. EYB cover photos help - alot.

  • Jane  on  4/3/2017 at 11:45 AM

    My very large collection is organized quite precisely which definitely helps when finding a book. Though I have two locations, 600 or so in my kitchen/dining room and another 1,200 in the basement. The kitchen ones are my favorites but books get moved from there as new faves arrive (always a tough decision). I generally know whether a book is upstairs or down. The organization is - Favorite authors for whom I own every title are all together regardless of subject - Nigella Lawson, Diana Henry, Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater, Dorie Greenspan, Melissa Clark, Jamie Oliver - Country, organized by continent then country then region - Baking & desserts, organized by topic - Restaurants, organized alpha - Single subject, vegetarian/vegan, grains, breads, pasta, cocktails, grilling, fish, etc - and then General, organized alpha by author. It works for me.

  • Cubangirl  on  4/3/2017 at 4:48 PM

    Before I gave away most of my cookbooks they were organized by near the kitchen and in the back of the house first, then by height and then by topic within, with books by same author together. Now that most of the ones in the back are gone, the remaining ones are organized by top shelf chocolate, then other baking books and Cuban books by size. Second shelf has old favorites/reference by author, e.g., Julia, JOC, NYT, ATK, etc. There is another pile on top of a dresser which are newer to me and from which I expect to cook soon e.g, Dorie's, Flavor Flours, Ina's latest, etc. I seldom actually cook from books anymore, prefer to have the recipes in my Living Cookbook.

  • DebTx15  on  4/13/2017 at 2:16 PM

    I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who could stock a small specialty bookstore singlehandedly! I've transitioned to mostly electronic versions, but for my collection of physical books, my seven categories (broadly) are: Baking; Cultural (shorthand for virtually anything that focuses on a particular country's cuisine); General (comprehensive books without a specific theme, celebrity books); Heritage (my own); Holidays; Regional (US; i.e., southern, southwestern, civic groups, etc.); and Vegetarian. Older cookbooks from my mother that are mostly of sentimental value reside in a guest room for occasional reminiscing. Works pretty well for my cooking interests. New subjects like gluten-free or paleo reside on my Kindle. But then there are those loose pages of printed recipes or clippings shorn from old magazines...let's just say they vary between hyper-categorized (fruit-based desserts anyone?) to sitting in a leaning stack waiting for re-discovery. Like the blood-orange almond cake from Smitten Kitchen I'll be making this weekend.

  •  on  4/19/2017 at 7:23 AM

    I use general, ingredient ( I have one bacon cookbook), cuisine (Italian, Cuban, Southern etc), strategy (freezer cooking, meal planning), breakfast/brunch and dessert.

  • nicki.williams  on  4/21/2017 at 10:51 PM

    I often reorganise my cookbooks (currently about 210 of them). At the moment they are by cuisine, baking, healthy/wholefoods & reference. But sometimes I want secondary indexing such as those I haven't used yet or those that aren't indexed in "eat your books" so that I don't forget to refer to them. But as soon as I add a secondary system it gets too complex.

  • Nichill  on  4/22/2017 at 5:01 PM

    In the kitchen, I have four shelves: short height ones on the top shelf, then a shelf each of methods/bibles including meat, fish, baking; key authors (Nigel Slater, Simon Hopkinton, Shaun Hill, Nigella, Jamie, etc.; and then foreign cuisines from furthest away to closest. Other short height ones are just outside the door. Other relegated ones are on the storey below, again separated into the 3 shelf categories.

  • JGB  on  4/25/2017 at 8:02 AM

    Size.

  • Ambrosia  on  4/26/2017 at 1:23 AM

    While I own the actual dead-tree versions (I don't like to use electronic readers for cookbooks), I organize my cookbooks and books about food electronically. They are listed according to five primary topics: cooking, baking, antiquarian, food writing, and beverages. Within the cooking and baking categories, they are further broken down by sub-category. The other categories are alphabetical. Cooking: general, technique, ingredient (books about a single ingredient), dish (books about a particular type of dish, like fondue), fresh/sustainable, health, vegetables, by denomyn, and restaurant/celebrity. Baking: general, whole-grain/low sugar, bread, cake, chocolate, cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, desserts, French, gluten free, ice-cream, pie, Scandinavian, soufflé, tea, technique. It's a bit arbitrary deciding whether to put something in the "general" or "desserts" categories. But the advantage of an electronic catalog is that it's easily searchable. Each entry in my catalog has an indication of where the Cookbook is located within my place. So I can actually find it when I want to make something!! (Though the antiquarian books tend to be in one place and are do not have a location specified.)

  • Food101  on  5/1/2017 at 7:45 AM

    Mine are alphabetical by author except if they are part of a collection of books (e.g., Short Stack books).

  • goodfruit  on  5/1/2017 at 2:41 PM

    My method is simple: Top shelf is the most used cookbooks, and they become less used as we go downward on the bookcase. Food Memoirs with Recipes slot in, as well as ATK (America's Test Kitchen) because I have a weakness for both of those. Yes, I have a bookcase worth of cookbooks, magazines, pamphlets and binders full of recipes.

  • LMKeckler  on  5/7/2017 at 1:49 PM

    I recently re-organized mine by color. It was great fun to handle them all and remind myself of some old favorites. It works well for me because I have a strong visual memory.

  • RaySadler  on  5/11/2017 at 2:01 PM

    My general organization is: Most used - in kitchen Reference - in outside annexe (former doctor's surgery) More valuable - in drawing room To save endless reorganization (cf CD collection) - each book is entered on a spreadsheet with a reference to the bookcase/shelf it is on - e.g. AC4 - annexe- bookcase C - shelf 4. Some shelves are deeper than others for the big books (why are there so many different heights?) (CD's are simpler as they are all the same height - each gets a consecutive number and is entered on the spreadsheet by composer or genre if it includes many short pieces, then it goes onto the end of the row). Ray S

  • Alowishs  on  5/16/2017 at 12:53 PM

    Vintage: two shelves Baking & Desserts: two shelves Health, Nutrition, Juicing, & Smoothies: two shelves Grilling, BBQ and Meats: one shelf International Cuisine: One large shelf Restaurant, Cafe, Retail Store: one shelf New Mexican: shared shelf Specialty Topics: shared shelf General Including Celebrity: one large shelf Italian & French: shared shelf Garage Annex: Junior League Northern States: one large shelf Junior League Southern States: one large shelf American Regional & Local: one large shelf Magazines & Annuals: one large shelf Holiday Books & Zines: one large shelf = over 550 books. Whew.

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