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?

Chris Seefeldt


QueenSashy March 14, 2016
Hey, that is a really good question. Sometimes you do not really have to cook from a cookbook to benefit from it. I think that you can read a cookbook in a million different ways and how you read it will depend on the cookbook, yourself and your state of mind. Case in point, there are cookbooks I like to cook from, they provide interesting and reliable recipes (for example pretty much anything Paul Wolfert has written). Then there are the books I like to cook from, but they also shift my mindset a little, because they make me think about slightly different approaches to cooking, something I do not quite do on a daily basis (for me it is The Millenium Cookbook or Vedge). Then there are technique books, I do not quite get them for the recipes, but to improve my cooking skills (say Ruhlman's books or The Food Lab). Then there are really the lavish book I may never cook from, or do so rarely, but they stretch my culinary imagination (Eleven Madison Park or Manresa). And there are books that are like travel, they take me to wonderful places, different countries or different restaurants or to different families (Yukatan, Nordic Cookbook, Jerusalem). So take your pick, and see what appeals to you the most.
Lindsay-Jean H. March 14, 2016
I've found that Eat Your Books ( helps me put my cookbook collection to much better use. There are various ways to filter through your collection, but I'll most often search by an ingredient I want to use and find recipes based on that ingredient.
Patricia March 14, 2016
Borrow them from the library first. New ones, old classics, special interest. Once I re-borrow a book several times ( or re-new five times in a row!) then it's time to buy or request as a gift. Once you own it be sure to pencil in all your personal changes to the recipes in the margin.
luvcookbooks March 12, 2016
I realize I was very concrete in my answer. Sometimes I browse through a cookbook and taste the recipes in my imagination. Sometimes I read for the story and make up a recipe that conjures the story. I like leafing through for the pictures. When I was young and ambitious I spent free evenings looking at Martha Stewart cookbooks and trying unsuccessfully to imagine myself living in her beautiful home in Westport and passing hors douevres on antique china plates. I aspired but it was not me. Leafing through hundreds of cookbooks, I found that I loved family cooking the most. I love all of Jane Grigson because she conjures cooking at home, even though she also has erudition and learned professional cooking skills. Elizabeth David, by contrast, has some chilliness. She cooks at home but when you read her Christmas cookbook, she admits that she would rather spend the day alone, reading in bed, drinking sherry (I think, the book is packed away right now) and eating some small dish. I enjoy reading Peg Bracken's I Hate To Cook Cookbook because it shatters some of the "perfect housewife" cookbooks. Sometimes I search for a recipe in my cookbooks, usually comparing a few to get an idea for best practice, and sometimes a recipe finds me while I am browsing.
SKK March 11, 2016
I read cookbooks like novels, they are so interesting and informative. And I check several of my cookbooks for the same recipe to learn about the different spins that can be put on each recipe. When a recipe is well loved, it is marked for reuse.
louisez March 11, 2016
As I read a cookbook, I often bookmark recipes that interest me, which makes it easier to retrieve them -- and cook them. Since I use a Kindle, it's easy to copy recipes to print. I'm more likely to use cookbook recipes I've saved. Of course, recipes aside, cookbooks can be a pleasure to read -- worthwhile in and of itself.
ktr March 11, 2016
I'll add that you may find that a cookbook you love for the stage of life you are at now doesn't work at another stage of life. And that's ok. The cookbooks I loved when I was driving 90min each way to work aren't the ones I reach for now that I don't spend as much time in the car and get home earlier. And the ones from when I didn't have kids and was able to devote more attention to what I was cooking and make much spicier foods, are not the ones I reach for now that I often find myself cooking while keeping an eye on a baby and a toddler. So with that being said, I do have cookbooks that right now collect dust on my shelf but I know that my kids will grow up and they will get used again.
702551 March 11, 2016
It's worth pointing out that you can live happily and make great food without cookbooks. That's the way it has been done for thousands of years.

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.

Voted the Best Reply!

702551 March 11, 2016

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.

Good luck.
scruz March 11, 2016
for day to day cooking, i don't use a cookbook. if it is something i have never cooked, or uses ingredients or techniques i've never used, i will refer to several of my cookbooks and the internet usually for the ratio of ingredients. there are so many ways of doing things and combinations of ingredients that i tend to pick and choose, borrow or combine recipes for what intuitively sounds the best to me. usually i write the combinations down with the options to include or exclude and then prepare. if it is successful and is what i consider a "classic" recipe to be repeated for a special occasion, i will then write it down and slip the page in my joy of cooking (which is stuffed with bits and pieces of paper and is my recipe file drawer). but i do spend a lot of time on the internet reading recipes which is a good thing because i could never afford all of those books and magazines nor have the space to store them. one other thing, cookbooks have become like record albums used to be (remember those cv?) only like one or two selection. nowadays if someone recommends a truly great cookbook, i will buy used. you can find really almost new books for a minimum price.
Smaug March 11, 2016
The trick to buying record albums is to buy albums by quality musicians, who can generally be depended on to come up with 40 minutes or so of good music- you buy an album based on a song on the radio, you take your chances. Pretty much the same with cookbooks.
702551 March 11, 2016
Yes, I remember record albums. For books, I look at the author first.

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.
Smaug March 11, 2016
I don't know that there's any real "how to" to it- the recipes are there, just do them. The advantage to cookbooks-well, one of them- is that they give you an opportunity to get to know a single person's tendencies and how they correspond to yours, as well as any quirks to their methods (though it is evidently common practice for celebrity chefs to have their books- including the recipes- ghost written). They also will usually contain a section detailing such things as the writers preferences for measuring methods and that sort of thing. And the big advantage- avoiding the randomness of internet recipes; there are a zillion people posting recipes, and they're not by any means all to be trusted. With a book, you can get to know how you feel about the author's work much better.
luvcookbooks March 11, 2016
Maybe look through a book for recipes that you might want to cook. I bookmark the page or pages that I like, make a shopping list and voila!I
Recommended by Food52