The case for cookbooks without photos

Images of food are a huge component of many people’s Instagram and Facebook feeds, and most cookbooks today feature amazing photos that are close to works of art in and of themselves. It is difficult to imagine a cookbook without lush images, but they used to be the norm. Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen thinks you can learn a lot from them, and she makes the case for cookbooks without photographs. 


Photos can show what the finished dish should look like, but there is a lot that images alone can’t portray. Pictures can’t tell you if you have overcooked your protein, for example. Relying on pictures doesn’t help us develop our instincts either. Nguyen relates a story that reinforces the latter notion, recalling when she first attempted a classic recipe from Marcella Hazan, pork loin braised in milk.  The three-hour recipe from the entirely photoless “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” called for simmering the pork until tender and letting the milk coagulate into “nut-brown clusters.” Not having a photo to reference gave rise to many questions, says Nguyen, such as “What nut was Ms. Hazan referring to?” Without a go-by, Nguyen said “I had to cook with my gut and all my senses.”

Not only does a lack of photos make you pay more attention to your own senses and judgment, styles can change, and a dish that would be perfectly lovely can be ruined by out-of-date aesthetics. You can generally tell when a cookbook was published by the table settings, plating, and food styling in its pages. Without photos, you can imagine the dish in whatever style you desire instead of being turned off by a dated image. 

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  • Rinshin  on  July 18, 2019

    I think Marcella Hazan was especially good at explaining what to look for in her recipes. For example, her famous tomato sauce with butter ie “The sauce is done when the butter has separated from the tomatoes and there is no remaining liquid.” This was so helpful to me. Not many authors are that good at this type of guidance so photos help with those authors.

  • matag  on  July 18, 2019

    I may glance at the title of a recipe and say eh. But give me a mouthwatering picture and you have my attention.

  • MarciK  on  July 19, 2019

    One thing I like about recipe books without photos is that these are often the most simple to prepare with minimal ingredients, making them practical for a busy cook on a budget.

  • hquiggins  on  July 19, 2019

    I like the idea of cooking with all senses —

    Even though I read cookbooks like novels and don't have to have pictures. Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words.

    Describing the difference between rare, medium, medium well, well done and doing that using your hand and fingers… much easier with pictures.

    Describing the different colors of a roux… much easier with pictures.

    What's difference between minced, fine diced, diced, medium chopped, rough chopped… easier with pictures.

    Of course these days there are always YouTube and Google to help.

  • sir_ken_g  on  July 19, 2019

    I often download or print recipes and avoid the photos is I can.
    On the other hand some cookbooks are more about the photos than the recipes.

  • FJT  on  July 19, 2019

    I'll happily cook from books without photos, but I recently indexed one of my cookbooks and I would have been completely lost without them! I only bought the book for one recipe for something I'd eaten at the chef's restaurant (so I knew what that was supposed to be like) but the rest was so conceptual that had I not had the photos I would have been lost when it came to categorising the recipes (or indeed trying to cook the food!). Sometimes a photo really is worth a thousand words!

  • Esylvia  on  July 20, 2019

    I'm totally with her! I'm so sick of cookbooks full of photos. But even worse than photos of food? Pictures of the ingredients. I know what an egg looks like, for Pete's sake!

    My absolute BIGGEST food photography pet peeve is when the finished product is styled with the ingredients. Like, oh you just pulled that pie out of the oven and then put it on the counter that you did not clean up? No. No, you didn't.

  • darcie_b  on  July 24, 2019

    You must be reading my mind, Esylvia!

  • Loriltx  on  July 29, 2019

    I won’t buy a cookbook without at least some photos. It is the photos that provide the temptation to try the recipe.

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