Are most cookbooks bad? One blogger thinks so

I stumbled upon a post by Tim Mazurek at his blog Lottie & Doof in which he makes some bold assertions about cookbooks. Mazurek thinks that most cookbooks published today are bad, stating that “the reality is that most cookbooks are not very good and very few people actually read them or cook from them, especially industry experts.” He feels that “nobody really engages with cookbooks critically” and that awards programs like the James Beard Awards are not transparent or rigorous.

I found this diatribe interesting because it seems that Mazurek didn’t always feel this way about cookbooks. Back in 2018 he discussed his favorite cookbooks with Maggie Hoffman at Serious Eats. In that article he claimed that “great” cookbooks were hard to find, but he was not as generally dismissive of them as in his recent column. He heaped praise on many books, including Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course (deservedly so, it’s a fantastic book), and wondered “why nobody is reprinting that book.” As did a lot of other people: it was reissued in 2019.

There are thousands of cookbooks published every year, and I will agree that not all of them are great. However, cookbooks are just like any other kind of book: some people prefer different genres, writing styles, etc. There is no one-size-fits all cookbook. If Mazurek thinks cookbooks aren’t being critically reviewed enough, maybe he should start reviewing them. As someone who has participated in cookbook judging, I can tell you that it takes a LOT of time and effort to critically assess a cookbook – a lot more than to judge a novel, for instance. You can’t just go by the words on the page, you need to cook from it, ideally several recipes, so an in-depth review is an investment of both time and money. Even then, it’s amazing how one recipe can turn out so differently for one person than it does for another, even when both people are accomplished cooks! Read the Recipe Notes on EYB and you’ll often see that one person’s perfect dish is another person’s nightmare meal.

Someone might say that we aren’t critical enough on EYB because our monthly reviews are usually positive. However, that is because Jenny is highlighting the gems from the releases, not because she is blindly praising every book that comes along. We don’t do in-depth reviews of particular books not because we lack rigor but rather due to the reasons stated above: it takes considerable time and effort to do a comprehensive review, and even if we don’t like a book someone else might love it. Choosing which of the dozens to hundreds of books released each month to dive into would be a dilemma in itself. Limiting ourselves to writing about a handful of books would not be that helpful for our Members anyway because they might not even be interested in those particular books.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from trying a cookbook that might be perfect for them even if it is not right for me. This is why we try to get EYBD Previews for our Members for as many books as possible, so they can judge recipes for themselves before committing to buy the whole book. This is also part of the reason we have the Eat Your Books Cookbook Club.

Is every cookbook published today great? Of course not. Sometimes I am disappointed with a book that I think could be better. But are cookbooks mostly bad? I don’t think so, even though I think some could stand to have a little more rigorous recipe testing. But writing cookbooks is not easy, because again, they do more than tell a story or have pretty photographs. They are instruction manuals that must convey a significant amount of information on each page, and most cookbook authors are not given carte blanche to hire multiple recipe testers to help them nail down a recipe. Most author advances are modest and have to cover not only recipe testing but also photography and design. I think it’s amazing how well most cookbooks perform given the constraints the authors face.

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  • JaniceKj  on  April 7, 2024

    I totally agree. Many recipes can be a winner for some, a total flop for others. Sometimes, on the second try, the recipe also has winner/flop situations. Then, the doubts come in… temperature, altitudes, brands of products… oh my. I’ve even done charts comparing the recipe by ingredients and amounts in an excel chart style. I still continue to enjoy all my books. It’s a peaceful haven for me. Keep doing what you do. I sure do appreciate it.

  • corsentino  on  April 7, 2024

    It’s all about finding the gems. Mazurek seems to be throwing the baby out with bath water here. I think those of us who are long term serious collectors have developed a finely tuned ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re like me there are trusted voices you’ve been turning to and learning from for years. As to whether people actually cook from their books, I do. But more importantly I learn from them how to cook without them.

  • cookingbychapter  on  April 7, 2024

    This year, for the first time in my life I returned two cookbooks. I am a collector and I normally want all the books. However, the problem then becomes that when I was flipping through these very anticipated new releases that I was incredibly disappointed to see “banana bread” and “blueberry muffins” and “roast chicken.” This doesn’t make them bad books by any means, and for someone with far less books, it would be a great book to own, but you get to a point where you dont need 500 recipes for banana bread. You want different and a lot of them lack that I am finding.

  • Jenny  on  April 7, 2024

    I read this piece earlier this week and was going to write about it. I’ve decided that some folks like to stir the pot to get everyone talking about them – so I decided to not add to his 15 minutes of fame.

  • matag  on  April 7, 2024

    If the shoe fits , wear it. Not everyone wears the same size shoe. If the cookbook fits you, buy it.

  • kestypes  on  April 7, 2024

    I often find the disappointment lies in the editing, not with the ideas of recipes in books. Cookbook editing is very particular and too many ingredient quantity typos get through, often with the first time cookbook writer where a junior editor is assigned… and don’t get me started on back of book indexes. ‘Fluffy doodads with marshmallow’ should not be indexed in back of book under F! 🙂

  • averythingcooks  on  April 7, 2024

    I read the linked article & had to stop part way through the comments…I got so tired of the negative comments re: published books. I have a small but varied collection of popular & higher end & probably based on the author, “discard, who the hell does this person thinks they are” books AND Canadian books that don’t seem to collect much attention on line AND I cook from them all. I live in a small town with 2 grocery stores (everything else is maybe 2 or more hours away) and sometimes I am thrilled with a “regular person author” giving me simple ideas that I can use in my kitchen. To the the critics…”if you don’t like them then don’t buy them…but please know that some of us love them”.

  • KatieK1  on  April 7, 2024

    Graphic design has taken a tumble in quality since the age of personal computers and nowhere has the negative impact of this been greater than in the world of cookbook design. Cookbook design epitomizes the concept of “too clever by half” these days. Otherwise, I for one enjoy access to world cuisines that never existed before in English language cookbooks as well as the inspired food combinations in the newer books.

  • SheilaS  on  April 7, 2024

    Many cookbooks aren’t for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bad. I do agree that well-written, balanced reviews from people who have actually cooked from the books are hard to come by. A lot of people just want a thumbs up or down so maybe there’s not a big audience for those thorough reviews.
    And review space is always limited. Heck, we can add comments to books here on EYB, but it’s hard to fit a careful review with pros and cons into the 1000 character limit. I’ve tried and given up!

    • Jenny  on  April 8, 2024

      SheilaS: Just do several notes – Note1, Note2, etc.

  • leilx  on  April 7, 2024

    Interesting article. I also read the one the prompted this piece, and the Stained Page one he mentions. I have noticed in the past year and a half a certain malaise about new cookbooks for myself. I am primarily interested in baking books, although I’ll buy a good cookbook too. Now at around 700, I’m getting much pickier. I actually read several recipes first. I look through it on eat your books. I’ll buy it after the Food52 cookbook club works through it so I can get a sense of problems with it before I buy. I’m starting to weed more. But a lot of it is figuring out my preferences—for example, if they don’t have grams, I almost always say no. If there’s a lot of very specific or fussy ingredients that would be a hassle to acquire, no (there was a bread book I wanted that was specific down to the type of wheat and grind…interesting to look at, hard no for buying because I’m never going to bother to source that if I even can). Sometimes I get them from the library when available. I’m more lenient with books that showcase a different culture, because my goal is to learn more about the culture and maybe have fun baking from it. Each of us has their own priorities in terms of cookbooks and that’s why there is a wide world of them out there and I’m glad of it. The most unusual almost never get the prizes but then become the classic everyone has to have years down the line.

  • EmilyR  on  April 7, 2024

    I’m excited for the day – that may not come in my lifetime – when we can get a read on how many cookbooks are the same recipe through AI. I’m curious about that overlap. Wouldn’t it be nice to type in a dish you had at a restaurant or things you’ve enjoyed to then have suggestions pop up to try tailored preferences? I’ve hit my threshold, too, of mucking through the next next blueberry muffin, banana bread, etc. I want more unique things. Each year I find a book or two that I love and want to work through until the next shiny inspiring one comes along. It’s always the dilemma of wanting to try new things, old favorites, and the stress of knowing there’s simply not enough time to make and do it all.

  • Zephyrness  on  April 9, 2024

    Most cookbooks are likely either mediocre or not for “you”, as are most movies and most books, and most tv shows. So what? The question is not Is it amazing? The question is, Is it worth the cost of my time and attention and money whatever that might be? When I was in college, I bought my fiction based in part on the number of pages. I had $4 and a 500 page book would last me longer than a 300 page book. Is a $30 bottle of wine 3 times as good as a $10 bottle? And who gets to judge? Not to mention that the more experienced you are, the harder it is to find something new, interesting and challenging, whether it is a cookbook, a movie or anything else in your personal field of interest. You can’t unknow what you already know. Books that I love and cook from regularly would drive my oldest son mad. He likes accurate measurements and I like improv. He would hate Ottolenghi’s books and I love them. Which of us gets to say whether those are great books?
    That is part of what made the Piglet wonderful. Different styles and types of cooks, so you got a feel not just for the book, but for how the reviewer handled themselves in the kitchen. The vast majority of reviewers actually did cook from the books. And sometimes they had a hard time choosing, which is ok. I don’t need books reviewed only by a great cook, but by someone who also reveals how they cook.
    I read cookbooks for the voices and the travel as much as for the recipes. I do the same with gardening books. I would rather have 100s to choose from than a very few chosen as perfect by someone else.

  • hibeez  on  April 9, 2024

    We have a very good selection of cookbooks at our library (and also through inter-library loan), and our librarian often buys books based on my recommendations. I use various criteria for selecting cookbooks – cuisine, ingredients, my interest at the time, photos, clarity of directions – but I find by tagging recipes in a library book, and then making 5-10, I can decide if I want to buy the book. I used this method to decide which Ottolenghi book to buy (I don’t have much space for hundreds of cookbooks) and I try to be judicious. And I agree, one person’s joy may be another one’s meh. In part, EYB helps a great deal – as mentioned – with other’s reviews and comments on the book and particular recipes, notes about errors, review of ingredients, etc. And I use a bookmark for books that are at the library that I haven’t purchased, so I can keep track of those recipes I did want to make. And here’s the library bonus: I had checked out “The Joy of Pickling” a number of times, and when they culled that book from the shelf, they gave it to me!

  • earthflesh  on  May 1, 2024

    It makes me sad for cookbook authors when people give low-star reviews due to “obscure ingredients.” This feels more like a “not for everyone” scenario, not one that warrants a poor rating. Trying unique recipes and ingredients is one of my favorite things in life. And then there are those with limited time, ability, or access that may require a different type of cookbook–me too, sometimes! That doesn’t mean such a cookbook is bad, just personally unsuitable. Now, a cookbook with fluff recipes like Avocado With Hot Sauce in a Tortilla or Cinnamon Sugar on a Pre-Made English Muffin (not naming names), on the other hand? Seems like a waste of valuable ink to me.

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