New cookbooks come by the bushels. If there is demand for them, there is also a supply. So many people are glued to the food channel you would think there is a cooking frenzy in America, yet for most of those viewers this channel is pure entertainment and most have not even the slightest intention of getting into the kitchen. Cookbooks are different, when you are willing to dish out $30 or $40 for a new cookbook, chances are you are a cook of some caliber and dedication.
How do you decide what to buy? Flipping through the pages of a cookbook online helps but that is still not the same as flipping through real pages, carefully reading a recipe and cooking it in your kitchen. None of us want to waste our money and none of us has infinite amount of cookbook shelf space. Recommendations from trustworthy friend are excellent and reading an unbiased review by a professional is equally good if better.
So how reliable are a cookbook reviewer’s reviews?
Don’t trust reviews if the reviewer is not at least a moderately good cook; one who reads and follows recipes exactly (at least first when testing a recipe) and not one who skips and changes steps and ingredients, and prefers freeform cooking. A good cookbook not only provides you with very good recipes but recipes that are easy to follow, clearly written without ambiguity, lists ingredients in order of the steps of instruction and uses very few hard-to-find ingredients.
Illustrations are helpful as long as they don’t overwhelm the book with copious professional full-page photos. Publishers and cookbook writers know that gorgeous photos sell books. But do they help you with your cooking, or do they simply convert a good cookbook into a coffee table book?
Next, how good and how original are the recipes? Are they simply updated versions of old recipes such as a brownie recipe tweaked with a twist of new of ingredients? Are those recipes written for the home cook?
I have reviewed many cookbooks written by professional chefs and restaurateurs who totally forgot who they are writing for. In restaurant kitchens, commonly used preparations are sitting in the walk-in that a home cook must prepare before starting on the recipe. Many of these professionally written recipes add these previously prepared ingredients. And also ingredients that suppliers deliver regularly even though a home cook would not know how to start searching for them.
How user-friendly is that new cookbook? If the book designer is a cook, the recipes are laid out so that the cook doesn’t need to turn pages back and forth when following instructions. I frequently review beautifully produced cookbooks in which many of the page numbers are missing simply for the sake of artistic impression. Not user-friendly at all.
Head notes that precede recipes are standard and they can be simple fluffy fillers or very good, informative paragraphs. Some tell you about the recipe, its history, ingredients and little tips about them in preparation. Some give part of the writer’s life history you may read them once, then they turn into superfluous unwanted text.
Preparation time in a recipe is useful if it is realistic, often it is not. Experienced cooks and chefs breathe through chopping, dicing and other preps and they may use kitchen ranges boasting high-powered burners. When they say three minutes to sauté, on your range it could be six or eight. Often these recipes don’t translate to a home cook’s skill and equipment, and preparation time could be considerably more.
Finally, the list of content and index. I like to see a list of recipes preceding each chapter. This way a cook can quickly scan, say, the salad chapter, and pick one recipe that’s just right, a good index may make or break a cookbook. I want to see the index extensive and well cross-referenced. If the recipe is a Moroccan Spiced Couscous Tabbouleh, I want it indexed under both couscous and tabbouleh, perhaps even under Moroccan. In a good index you have the page number within 20 seconds.
One final word: when getting a new cookbook, don’t hesitate to discard a few of the old ones on your shelf; ones that you haven’t opened for years.
George Erdosh is a culinary scientist, food writer, and certified cooking teacher with a strong science and research background (Ph.D., McGill University, Montreal). He is the author of 10 published food-related books: a six-book series for young readers Cooking Throughout American History and The African-American Kitchen; Start and Run a Catering Business (in its 4th edition, translated into five languages),Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen andWhat Recipes Don’t Tell You, as well as numerous articles and magazines and newspapers.