How do you read a cookbook?
I've always wanted to be a person who used cookbooks, but I just don't know what to do with them sometimes and they end up collecting dust on my shelf. How do I stop relying so much on the Internet for recipes and start using cookbooks?
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The whole notion of a cookbook for household cooks is largely a 20th century, post WWI concept. It really didn't catch on until after WWII. In the late 19th century most cookbooks were written for professionals, typically institutional cooks. For example the War Department published cookbooks for army cooks. Cookbooks written for housewives (like Fannie Farmer) were an exception to common practice.
Most of history had people passing down culinary knowledge from one generation to another by in-person training, not by books.
I would say 98% of my cooking does not use recipes (I don't bake anymore).
I get the most out of reading cookbooks for their non-recipe content. These books include the aforementioned Bertolli book, maybe some of Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe cookbook, some of the Chez Panisse cookbooks (unsurprisingly the ones co-authored by Bertolli were the best), the head notes in various Julia Child cookbooks. For online content: Kenji's Food Lab articles, maybe some of the Russ Parsons things.
I have a handful of cookbooks written by famous French chefs that I consider historical documents from a period when "nouvelle cuisine" was in its infancy. It is interesting to see how those maverick chefs thought.
I never use cookbooks for presentation/plating ideas. Just a tangential rant, I find the current fad of taking photos of food directly above the plate to be ridiculous. You lose almost all of the height perspective; in a way, it's like looking at an aerial photo of the land: no notion of elevation or height. Photos of food should primarily be taken from the same distance, angle, and perspective as a diner. After all, that's what they are going to see and that's how they are going to appreciate it.
There are different motivations for picking up a cookbook. Are you interested in Fifty 30-Minute Weekday Meals or 100 Crockpot Recipes? A detailed treatise on sourdough bread? How to cook using your microwave oven? How to weld your own BBQ grill from an old water tank? How to impress some chick by baking a super pretty berry tart even though you don't care for desserts?
I know what *I* want from cookbooks and it works for me.
No one can tell you how to read a cookbook because no one here know what *YOU* want from them.
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Well, it depends on the individual, what you are trying to get out of a cookbook, and the cookbook itself.
Many cookbooks are just an anthology of recipes, so they are more helpful when you have a dish in mind and are just looking for instructions on ingredient acquisition and preparation steps. It's a reference guide, not a menu planning tool. The Fannie Farmer cookbook is an American classic that fits this description.
Some cookbooks give more insight into the dish itself, its history, cultural significance, regionality, etc. If you don't care that a particular cake is baked on a particular day in a particular town to celebrate that town's patron saint, well these may not be the cookbooks for you.
There are a handful of books that explain *WHY* something is done or *ISN'T* done. They cover things like "we use Ingredient A from Place A not Ingredient B from Place B because Ingredient A is more _____ than Ingredient B. Some of these rare cookbooks even say what *NOT* to do. They might cover strategies in preparing in advance, how to preserve leftovers, etc.
For example in his cookbook "Cooking by Hand," Paul Bertolli dedicates an entire chapter on pasta, commencing with 11-page overview on his philosophy of pasta: the importance of flour, how to choose flour, various flour types, equipment, before getting to his 7 steps of cooking pasta which include: measuring ingredients, moistening the flour, extruding/laminating, cutting/shaping, cooking, considering pasta types and sauces to match. All of this before printing a single recipe.
"Cooking by Hand" has a very informative section on sausage making which shows Bertolli's enthusiasm and deep respect for this ancient craft. Shortly after the cook's publication, Bertolli unsurprisingly walked away from his restaurant Oliveto (Oakland, CA) and started Fra'Mani salumeria.
In this case, you are probably buying the book more for its thoughtful reflection of various things that happen in the kitchen, more than the recipes themselves. It helps that Bertolli is probably one of the finest American food writers -- in terms of wordsmithing -- in the past half-century. This prose is elegant and precise, character qualities that you'd want from a sausage maker.
"Cooking by Hand" has zero photographs of the dishes. That's right, if you need pictures for plating/serving inspiration, this is not the book for you.
Today, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats is the online spiritual successor of the Bertolli style of in-depth analysis, although Kenji is a more contemporary voice and proudly wears his kitchen geek badge.
Sometimes cookbooks are meant to be read from cover-to-cover because they have a loose linear story, especially within a given chapter. It's the author who decides to write his/her book this way.
Then there are cookbooks so unusual, they stand head and shoulders above the others.
"Le ricette regionali italiane" (1967) by Anna Gossetti della Salda is one of these. It is an in-depth survey of regional cuisine in Italy. Rather than create chapters by course (appetizer, fish, meat, dessert, etc.) she chooses to create chapters by region and within those chapters group by course. She starts at northwestern Piemonte/Val d'Aosta at the Italian Alps and sweeps down the peninsula before hopping over to Sicily and finally Sardinia.
Her recipes indicate the locality of origin (specific town) and often contains notes like variants in other towns or even variants between families that live in the same town. Ingredient substitutions, modern interpretations are mentioned, as well as related dishes from other regions, cultural significance, etc. There are no pictures in this Italian-only book (no English translation) of 2100+ recipes.
Perusing this book feels like a culinary roadtrip down the Italian peninsula, what you might be served if you stopped in a farmhouse in one town for a couple of days. This is a unique cookbook reading experience.
Let's say you browse the chapter on Lazio and select the anchovy gratin as a dish; it is easy to find other regional dishes to pair with rather than serving with spaghetti alla bolognese or risotto alla milanese both of which wouldn't be on a traditional table.
I will point out that many recipes online are poorly written, missing ingredients, have steps out of order, have no concept of multi-tasking, or are downright odd. I've seen recipes that combine Imperial and metric measurements for no explicable reason.
Here at Food52 and other food websites, a ton of reader-submitted recipes can't even get the ingredient list right. At least deadtrees cookbooks have recipes that have been heavily tested and the recipes are carefully copy edited. There's almost none of that online.
Ultimately, *YOU* need to decide what *YOU* want out of a cookbook and add to your library accordingly. Let's face it: if you have thirty cookbooks and you almost never open any of them, well, you have chosen poorly. Or maybe you have Fannie Farmer and you refer to it once a month because you know it's a reliable compendium of American classics that dates back to the late 19th century and has been battle-tested for well over a century.
You don’t know how to read a cookbook because you have yet to figure out what you want from a cookbook and because of this lack of awareness, you haven’t put any cookbooks that you might actually read on your bookshelf. What do you want? History? Theory? Science? Pretty pictures?
No one here can tell you how to read a cookbook. It’s *YOUR* call to decide what you want out of life and not just cookbooks.
I still buy record albums, mostly used. My musical interests are mostly classical (including baroque and opera) and I focus more on the composer and performers. Pianist Andras Schiff playing Bach? No brainer. Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic? Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonic? James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera? Same.
Yeah, sure, I like my "best of opera" playlist, but I'm also capable of enjoying a 4+ hour Wagner opera, but it's what you want in each situation.
I have cookbooks that I think are best appreciated reading cover-to-cover. Others are just a reference or mnemonic device.
One thing for sure, I'm going to trust an old cookbook printed on paper far more than any random Internet upload.