Look beyond the recipes
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?
Mario Batali of #metoo shame, wrote several great cookbooks (character is not always a requirement in the food world), thoroughly tested and offering most of the good things found in great cookbooks. But even his recipes had flaws.
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
Jamie Oliver has a TV series called Ultimate Veg, that follows his quest to raise vegetables to entree status. Watching, I found his often innovative techniques and mashups of various food cultures fascinating, so I bought the cookbook from the series. And there many thought and tastebud-provoking recipes. But I have a serious problem with all of them. Every recipe has at least a dozen ingredients, many of which are not pantry items (and I have a lot of spices, herbs, international flavorings, etc. in my cupboards). So, a fairly complex shopping expedition is required for every recipe, meaning I’ll rarely cook from this book. It has enough interesting ideas that I’ll use it for inspiration but not for the recipes.
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
I’m single. I often cook with a friend who is also single. But many recipes make too much for us and a lot of things do not freeze well. But you cannot simply scale recipes down proportionately because of the aforementioned chemistry. For me these recipes become starting points for a smaller version. Recipes are basically concepts, not formulas (baking is an exception- much more chemical interaction going on). At least that is how I view them. To downsize a recipe I have to reimagine the interactions involved and do some improvising. For me that is fun.
If technique is lacking be wary (and what happens when there is too much!)
I prefer cookbooks where the technique required is explained, including the why and how. Why high heat vs low heat? Why assemble in this order? Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking books were the pioneers in this ‘teaching cookbook’ approach and they are still the best example.
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
Oliver is a master at mixing cultural ingredients and techniques from around the world. But the opposite is the cookbook that clumsily offers things like ‘Asian-style’ this or that. To call something Asian-style, for example, is to ignore the complexity of a whole family of ancient and complex cuisines, each of which deserves respect. When learning other cuisines I try to find an entry cookbook that explains the cultures and techniques from their perspective.
Try something basic you’ve never done before
The real payoff in reading cookbooks is when you try something you have never done before. We all have our fallback dishes we make variations of on a regular basis. Having a selection of cookbooks around and browsing through them when planning a meal around a new ingredient is the way we move to the next level as cooks. We fail but learn, or we get it right and we learn. With the best cookbook it is the latter. Start with a basic dish from the cuisine and work your way up from there. In her Mastering books, Child structures the recipes as a basic ‘master’ recipe that you learn and then offers variations.
Celebrity cookbooks- how to identify the real thing
I have a pet peeve with certain TV chef cookbooks. I won’t name names but they are usually cooks known more for their personality and fame than their actual credentials. The recipes are usually dumbed down and likely were developed in a test kitchen for easy consumption. For some this is fine but that is not why I buy a cookbook. For me it is a tool like a good knife, that I will look to for years.
The pleasure of browsing a cookbook just for ideas
The theme here is that great cookbooks are the writer’s experience distilled into its essence. When this is successful they become lifelong reference resources. But often they transcend that when the passion comes through. Cooking is both an art and a visceral thing, a three dimensional combination of the cerebral and the physical, which may be a good definition of passion. The best make for great reading and seed you with ideas.
(There are no affiliate links in this article)