There’s no right way to use a cookbook

Last week we learned that Prime Minister Theresa May has a rather large cookbook collection, and that she liked to read cookbooks to unwind. I picture her, with myriad important decisions to make, taking a few minutes at the end of the day to open a cookbook and allow it to transport her to another place, free from the pressures of her demanding job. I would really love to know which books she reads, wouldn’t you? 

open books

That is one way to use a cookbook, but some people would find such a notion to be silly. They prefer to use cookbooks as instruction manuals: fit tab A into slot B, and assemble the dish. Most cookbook lovers find that to be cold and dull; we enjoy reading cookbooks as much as we like to cook from them. 

A few of us rarely even cook from our cookbooks. I take great pleasure in leafing through the pages of books – especially those from faraway lands, learning about different spices and herbs, and discovering new flavors and techniques. However, I rarely set out to make a particular dish as written. Usually I crib a flavor profile from one recipe and use it with a different protein or vegetable, and borrow techniques from yet another source. Sometimes my Franken-recipes have elements from four or more books!

On the other hand, when it comes to baking, I follow the instructions more closely, and I frequently take notes about how a dish turned out. Writing down both successes, failures, and improvements helps me avoid being disappointed twice. When I purchase used cookbooks, I love seeing handwritten notes next to recipes. I don’t even mind a few stains, because that means the book has been used and loved. 

A few of my friends are aghast at the notion of “ruining” a beautiful cookbook by writing in it. What one person finds endearing another thinks is dreadful. Whether you believe that notes penciled in the margin are wonderful or are ruinous, you are correct. We each use the books in the manner that works for us, and there is no one “right” way to use a cookbook. But for the love of Pete, please don’t dog-ear the pages. 

Post a comment


  • EmilyR  on  July 30, 2018

    I have often wondered where others fall in with writing in cookbooks. I used to be staunchly in the no way camp – even going as far as to place a leaflet of paper in the cover with my additions / alteration. Then my mom said, “they are yours, you should just use them. Someday youe children will enjoy the personal nature of handwriting in them.” …and so I made the leap with (gasp!) archival pens! Not if they are autographed or out of print, but it’s been liberating.

  • TigClarke  on  July 30, 2018

    Completely agree – I scribble notes in the margins of all my cookery books, even the very beautiful 'work of art' ones. They get splattered, stained and dog eared anyway so I don't see how it matters. They are meant to be pristine museum pieces, but used and loved working manuals. It's so helpful to refer back to my own notes and I hope they might be useful to someone else one day, when I no longer have need of them. It's a very personal thing, a bit like finding someone's diary, it's the history of a family and how they ate – the successes and the failures, the one offs and the keepers.

  • lkgrover  on  July 30, 2018

    I write the date that I first make a recipe (if I follow it closely) near the recipe title, in pencil. (I also add it to the recipe here in EYB.) I make marginal notes if I make any unusual changes, or advice for the next time. Also any Americanizations needed in my British & Australian cookbooks, for metric conversions or ingredient names. Common-for-me substitutions (like jalapeno chiles instead of spicier ones) are not specified. For my other nonfiction books, I often underline & make marginal notes, with a fine ballpoint black pen.

  • leilx  on  August 1, 2018

    I note in my book if I made a recipe and if I liked it or what I would change. I also make useful notes for making it again. I find this very helpful to me. I also treasure my father’s copies of Julia Child’s books because of the notes in them. Another thing I do is tape a paper to the back cover where I just recipes I made that I liked or didn’t like and sometimes that I want to make for future reference.

  • averythingcooks  on  August 1, 2018

    I make lots of notes in all my books. Snippets of info include "x medium broccoli heads typically weighs y grams or should yield z cups of chopped broccoli" or "1/2 the filling actually fills this # of shells" or "make as directed here but follow a different book's cooking instructions". I'd like to think that I can remember that "this was underdone at this cook time, this fits perfectly in the blue baking dish, dividing this sauce into thirds actually means this many cups per layer etc etc etc but sadly – not any more!

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!