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What Makes A Good Cookbook?

Do you love reading a cookbook like it’s a novel?  Do you crave food porn, those deliciously irresistible pictures that draw you into the kitchen?  What makes a good cookbook?

My Shelf of Favorite Cookbooks

This post started as an attempt to share my Top 10 Favorite Cookbooks, but I stopped to ask myself what makes a cookbook “good?”

Here are a few criteria to start:

  • Recipes that work – Too obvious?  Why waste time making food that will fail?
  • Useful photos – Designed to instruct me or inspire me, please!
  • Proper instructions – Too long or detailed and you get lost. Too short and the author assumes you’re already the gourmet?
  • Teaching Value – Do you learn new skills?  Are you introduced to new flavor combinations?
  • An Index – Find the recipe by Category, Ingredient, Title, Season

Other Things to Consider
Do you like recipes and just the recipes?  Perhaps you enjoy learning the story behind the recipe, the setting where the author first discovered the secret ingredient?    Is your top criteria based on your cooking audience? Does it always have to be practical or economical?  What about specialty cookbooks on a single topic?

When my mom was the food editor of our local paper, she received hundreds of cookbooks.  I spent the summer of my Junior year organizing her cookbook library.  Numbering the books, creating categories and typing her notes into some archaic library-style software so she could remember which recipes she’d used and when. Who knew there were over 1000 cookbooks in the world? And this was before the Food Network!

Only a few books on my mom’s shelf still have their Amy Decimal System sticker.  Yes, she’s thrown away a cookbook.  Have you?

I understand.  Only a few cookbooks can earn their spot as a Keeper.  Here are some cookbooks that meet the criteria above –

For Basics – Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book – I still pull this out for the Meat Cooking Table (Cut of Meat x Cooking Time) or for traditional recipes like Cream Puffs.

Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook - A Classic Since 1930

For Healthy & Tasty – The Annual Cooking Light Cookbook is a great way to get a year’s worth of the magazine in hard cover.  Pretty pictures, helpful tips in the side bar, menu ideas, low-fat but highly flavorful recipes PLUS recipes by season that use easy-to-find ingredients.

For Inspiration – Any cookbook with cakes or cupcakes.  I remember dreamily reading  The Cut Up Cake Party Book as a kid.  Every birthday was a chance to bring the bunny or the rocket ship to life!

Cut Up Cake Book Example Easter Bunny Cake

Regional - I love cookbooks from regions I’ve visited so I can remember the taste of my visit (Jackson Hole Cooks).

Jackson Hole Cooks Cookbook

Neighborhood – I’ll always contribute to a neighborhood cookbook as I love to remember old friends by their recipes (Oak Hills Neighborhood Cookbook, circa 1995).

Specialty - When I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll read through a specialty cookbook to learn all there is and see if I can add to my skills or conquer a fear (Meringue).

Restaurant – Cookbooks by a favorite restaurant can seem risky to share if you’re the chef, but can also endear readers to the place by letting you recreate your favorites in your own home.  The Ivy Bake Shoppe Cookbook is from the lovely cafe in Fort Madison, Iowa.  Make the trip and tell Martha and Sue hello!

Ivy Bake Shoppe in Fort Madison

What are your favorite cookbooks and why?

Know what?  I think all these questions can be asked of food posts as well.  As I make my Food Posting Calendar for 2013, I’d love your input.  What features do YOU like in food post? What types of food do you love? What can I do better?

Who knows, a stack of great food posts may one day be a great cookbook! Thanks for all the comments and corrections in 2012.

More Thoughts on Food

The 150 Best Cupcake Cookbook – A Review

Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Healthy Living for Mom – Leftover Cake is My Kryptonite

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Comments (2)

  1. Brooke Barker 01/06/2013 at 10:42 am

    One of my favorite cookbooks is ‘wichcraft. I love how easy and useful having a sandwich recipe can be. I probably use it at least a couple times a month… for when I can’t go to NYC and get one made by someone else :) I also have a recipe book made with friends that I love having. There’s nothing like food to remind you of good people and good times.

  2. Erica Fehrman 01/03/2013 at 9:10 am

    I love “The Best Recipe” by the editors of Cooks Illustrated Magazine. It’s full of all the necessities (how to boil each veggie) and then how to twist it into something simple but gourmet. Also explains the why and how they narrowed down to each “Best Recipe” versions.