How To Read a Cookbook

Look beyond the recipes

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Photo: Martin Edic

I read cookbooks to relax. And for inspiration (more on that shortly). But I’ve learned that some see them as formulas to be followed exactly. I have a relative who was learning to cook and she was very literal about it. If a recipe said bake for twenty-five minutes, she set a timer and turned the oven off at exactly twenty-five minutes, regardless of what the dish looked like!

You can take them literally like this, but you won’t really learn how to cook. Cooking is sensory and scientific. There is improvisation and chemistry involved and a great cookbook helps you understand both. But, like anything else, there are flawed cookbooks, published with celebrity names associated with them, celebrities who often have nothing to do with actually writing them. There are also cookbooks that have been poorly tested. Let’s look at a few things that can help you recognize a really great cookbook, one you can cook and learn from for years.

Does something feel wrong about this dish?

My cooking partner was making sausage and following a Batali recipe that called for a whole pork shoulder, around eleven pounds. After grinding the meat and adding the other ingredients, she did what any sausage maker would do. She cooked off a small piece and tasted it for seasoning. It was wildly oversalted. The recipe called for one quarter cup of salt, about twice as much as necessary. A little homework online found that this was a known error and she had eleven pounds of inedible sausage meat. Fortunately there was a solution. Buy another shoulder and mix in the unseasoned meat. The only catch was she ended up with 22lbs of sausage!

This is why you need to develop a feel for recipes. A likely typo somehow slipped through. Read and imagine how these ingredients interact. And season gradually as you go, tasting constantly. You can always add, but seldom subtract.

The curse of too many ingredients

Interestingly, Oliver has another contemporary series (5 Ingredients) where he limits each dish to five ingredients plus a few staples like oil and vinegar. So he recognizes the issue, which makes me wonder which cookbook came first.

You’re cooking for one or two but it serves six

If technique is lacking be wary (and what happens when there is too much!)

Another place where technique can be an issue is with some serious chef cookbooks. Gordon Ramsey was a serious chef with Michelin-starred restaurants long before he became a TV celebrity. I have a book called In the Heat of the Kitchen by Ramsey. I love this book though I have only rarely made the recipes in it. Why? Because it is restaurant food that requires technique and tools that many home chefs do not have access to, things like whole fish steamers. But I love the book because his ideas are so fresh and sophisticated that they inspire me to reach higher with my own cooking.

This is one cookbook where when I do make one of his dishes, I adhere to the recipe, the plating, and the exact ingredients he specifies. When you do, you get Michelin star-quality food and you advance your own capabilities.

The ultimate example of this may be The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. This coffee table book duplicates the recipes and techniques used in this restaurant that has been named the best in the world. It is notorious for the science lab approach to cooking. I’ve made one recipe from this and it took me a half day to make one entree course. There was so much specialized prep! Really fun to look at but virtually impossible to cook from outside of a commercial kitchen.

A mishmash of cultural appropriation

Try something basic you’ve never done before

Celebrity cookbooks- how to identify the real thing

The pleasure of browsing a cookbook just for ideas

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Written by

Novelist, Tech Marketing Writer, Growth Consultant. I have been a professional writer for over 20 years- 8 non-fiction books and 1 novel, many articles, etc.

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