I read cookbooks cover-to-cover. I have an overflowing shelf of them in my kitchen, and I always have stacks of them out from the library. Cookbooks make me happy. But how do you decide which cookbooks to buy? Given limited space, which ones do you choose?
First of all, I should admit to some biases. After years of making many of my own foods from scratch, I don’t prefer recipes that call for opening a can of this and a box mix of that and sticking it in the oven. I like whole ingredients – corn, flour, berries, buttermilk, chicken – prepared as simply as possible before incorporating into a recipe. So I definitely look for cookbooks where the author’s definition of homemade, “scratch” cooking matches up with mine.
That said, I’m definitely a baker at heart, and I love to experiment with baked goods that many people wouldn’t think to make themselves. I make all my own bread products. So I definitely favor cookbooks about homemade breads and other baked goods. When choosing these, I look for how the author bakes: do they mention how they measure flour? Are they clear when describing something that is essential to a recipe’s success? Do they highlight possible pitfalls, and explain how to avoid them?
I particularly like King Arthur Flour’s baking books, as well as those from America’s Test Kitchen. I have rarely had fails from these books, and when I do, it’s often because I don’t prefer what the recipe author was going for. And they usually tell you that in the head notes! Now I know to avoid the recipes for crisp chocolate chip cookies, because I like mine soft and chewy. I also appreciate how much of the science behind the baking they explain.
I like Beth Hensperger, both for her various baking books, and for her slow cooker cookbook. I use the Artisan Bread in 5 series of books for make-ahead breads. And I have a number of bread machine cookbooks, because sometimes that’s all I have time for.
I also have some classic general cookbooks on hand, which I refer to mainly for reference or comparison: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, Joy of Cooking, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both volumes. I also have a Betty Crocker Cookbook (technically my husband’s only cookbook), which I use for cooking times and temperatures for meats and vegetables. These volumes are tried-and-true.
The rest of my cookbooks fall into three categories: DIY, family cooking, and healthy cooking. When purchasing these kinds of books, I again make sure that the recipes match up with how I like to cook. I don’t buy cookbooks that are half seafood recipes, for example, because I don’t often serve fish. I prefer my family meals to be relatively fast prep and healthy, but I also want them to have more than LCD (lowest common denominator) foods. In other words, I don’t want them to be all chicken nuggets and pizza. I like Cooking Light cookbooks, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, Weelicious books, and Jessica Fisher (Good Cheap Eats, Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead & Freeze Cookbook).
One of the most important ways that I decide on a cookbook to buy is to see it. So I strongly prefer checking a book out from the library first, if possible. (Or borrowing from a friend!) I like to sit down with a book that I’m thinking of buying. I skim through the introductory pages to get a sense of how the author cooks. I look to see whether they call for lots of specialty ingredients or things my family doesn’t like. I read through the recipes and write down the page numbers of those I could see myself making.
Sometimes, literally halfway through a book, I stop writing things down because I’m writing down practically every page number! Those times, I know that I will buy the book. Other times I may go back through my list quickly afterwards and realize that I only wrote down a small number of recipes. Somewhere in the middle, I consider whether the recipes would be a unique addition to my recipe collection, or a repeat of recipes I probably already have. I do pay attention to head notes for recipes, and if they are particularly well-written or helpful or explain things well, that does factor into my decision. I do also consider photography, though I have been known to buy cookbooks with barely any photos because they were full of recipes I knew I’d use.
One word of caution: I do feel that sometimes people buy cookbooks because of the photographs. And while the photos can certainly help explain and entice, I feel that there is a point at which they become more about making you hungry than making you cook. So if you flip through a book and feel hungry, rather than inspired to get into the kitchen, give it a second look before you purchase it. Some books are better as coffee table books – which is fine! – than as recipe books to actually cook from.