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cookbook purge: how do you choose?

i am facing a chore of having to cut down my tons of cookbooks. i came upon this little story on a blog, and could relate to the very few so far that were culled -- from hundreds. http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatinga...

how do you decide which ones have to go?

one criterion is that the ones that stay must offer something "special" or be beautiful in some way.

"special" can mean, e.g., sheer creativity in food/ingredient combinations, excellency in describing techniques, unusual ingredients references, encyclopedic references (like larousse and oxford companion), anthropological aspects of food development, cultural/regional cookbooks, beautiful photos with good recipes......

there are not really many categories left. i guess that's my problem.

do you use them all, like i do, to cook, or for reference, or planning and dreaming, or reading in bed, like a novel ?

what do you think about the "culling criteria"?

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  1. I have too many once again, and used to have too many, and then inherited tons more when my mother died.

    To be honest, in the first purge, cracked spines and books with pages turned down, little bits of paper in them, etc. got to stay. Ones that "just looked neat" stayed. A lot of the others got donated. Now I have a few on specialty areas: Breads, Baking, Pressure Cooking, one on how to cook almost any veggie, a vegetarian meal one, etc. etc. Still too many. But I"m trying to pare it down to one essential in each area (eg., have 4 books on Pressure Cooking when I ony need one.....I might copy out a recipe or two from the others before liberating them) Then I have a bunch of "standards" JoC, Julia Child, etc.

    Finally, I have the "gifted ones" that folks have given me over the years. Some of those I'd like to chuck but don't dare - yet!

    I also have 2 nice cork boarded sprial ring binders that I"ve filled with my own ideas or that I have purloined from others and modified. I find I use these the most.

    Now, the next project I gotta start is going through my hard drive for all those luscious goodies I found on the internet! That could keep me busy until the NEXT Millenium!

    1. My rules: a cookbook gets tossed (donated to the library for their quarterly book sale!) if:

      1. I've had it for long enough that I should have made something out of it, but I haven't because nothing has ever sounded worthy of being made, or
      2. I've made a few things out of it and they were all icky, or at least not worth making again

      These tend to work pretty well for me. I only keep a few "reference" cookbooks (hey, that's what Chowhound is for!) and cook out of the rest.

      1. I keep cookbooks signed by the chef.
        I keep cookbooks with favorite recipes.
        I keep cookbooks from NOLA before Katrina.
        I keep my grandmother's Joy of Cooking.

        I donate the cookbooks from my college days: many start with take a can of.... or mix a box of yellow cake mix...

        For some, I've gone in, checked on their version of recipes I use and if it's dumbed down, the book goes.

        1. Oh alkapal...here's my number one rule: If I have room for it, I keep it. This a rule for most books in our house, and I am starting to think of the books as insulaion!

          You being a lawyer, I'm certain that you would want to keep the very good reference books you have in your library. The ones that can win you an argument on alfredo v.carbonara, for ex. (A recent argument with my Hub:-) ) Volumes with good descriptions of ingredients should stay. Volumes with good details on techniques should stay. Volumes with info you can't get elsewhere should stay (reeeeaallly look at copyright dates with your decision-making process, as some of the older books are superb and valuable). Likewise books that give you ethnic instructions that you cannot get elsewhere. If you're like me, then save all the culinary history books (again, for argument settling).

          I didn't read your link, given computer restraints...and perhaps I am arguing for saving more then you want. Let's say this: If you look at the book and love it (even if you haven't cooked from it) keep. it. If you look at the book and ask yourself whyon earth you have it when you don't like it, chuck it off to another home.

          You're inspiring me to chuck a few things (a very few, sadly!). I so wish there was a cookbook exchange in these boards!


          3 Replies
          1. re: cayjohan

            Same here, cayjohan. I am getting better at culling the fiction books and other non-cooking books, but cookbooks, I cannot get rid of. I have weird 60's cookbooks with food I would never make, but I love being able to pull them out and look through for a laugh (good conversation starters).

            1. re: Sooeygun

              Sooeygun, a lot of the recipes in those 50's-60's books make for a great starting point for a retro dinner that people love. Not just conversations, but food from our childhoods...good for you for keeping them! Try crazy molded foods in aspic! It's a hoot! (And, I admit, tasty.)


              1. re: cayjohan

                i'm waiting for the "mold" comeback, as i have several! ;-).

                aspic is coming back in restaurants? or is it not trendy enough? .... maybe if it were micronized aspic beads suspended in a nitrogen bath? ... then served on sous vide veal "carpaccio". lol!

          2. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585613 is a related topic which you may find useful.

            1. If a cookbook has steered me wrong in the past (for example: Bittman's "How To Cook Everything" told me to make hummus with 2 cups of garbanzos and a TABLESPOON of ground cumin; also helped me make plenty of unsuccessful bread & desserts, which I'm normally pretty good at), then it's untrustworthy and should go. It takes up a lot of my limited shelf space, too.

              1. I'm waiting for Cristina (Guadalajara now, Kentucky earlier) to weigh in on this one -she has over 200 cookbooks!

                10 Replies
                  1. re: alkapal

                    Does anyone out there have MORE than 200 cookbooks?

                    1. re: Veggo

                      oh yeah. way more. ball park: 500+

                      1. re: alkapal

                        Extraordinary. I think my local library has fewer volumes, which includes Descartes and William James, who were lousy cooks.

                        1. re: Veggo

                          those are just the COOKbooks.
                          and caralien called herself a geek. ha!

                          but that descartes, he could rustle up a mean cartesian coordinate system, though! and that *cogito ergo sum" business? that was second...after he concluded "i eat, therefore i am."** so don't count him out of the game of food.

                          ** calling all latin geeks: "edo, ergo sum"?

                          1. re: alkapal

                            you got it right - it's an irregular verb. Thank gawd all that expensive education finally pays off..just wish it had been for culinary school instead

                        2. re: alkapal

                          I, too, have more than 500 cookbooks. I have seven bookcases (all large) and three of them are filled with my cookbooks. And that's what's left after I recently got rid of the clunkers.

                          1. re: flourgirl

                            Um. Yup. Just topped 1000. I have read all of them (over the long course of amassing them) and have on occasion gotten rid of some. My daughters are now showing some interest too, so some are going their way. I have cooked out of many, but of course not all. Just cannot part with them. My girls know that when I go, they can take whatever they want and the rest will go to the library. For now, I just love to curl up in a chair and read from some long-forgotten cookbook.

                            1. re: Mothership

                              Holy shmoly! I think you're the winner. :) I doubt I'll every have that many. Space limitations at this point really dictate this reality. I have room for a few more, but that's about it. After that I will be forced to purge if I want to buy more. (Unless we buy a bigger house, and since I am not looking to pay any more in property taxes than we already are in Jersey, that's not happening any time soon.)

                        3. re: Veggo

                          Does anybody can live with less than 200 cookbook :)

                    2. It is VERY hard to decide. I try to start using my brain, ie. when is the last time I cooked from it, read it, etc. But...if I haven't recently cooked from it or looked at it but I LIKE it, just to read, or it's by an author I particularly like, I still keep it, even if it;s for a kind of food I am not cooking much these days (pasta, Italian, carb-y stuff). Because you never know!!


                      1. I suspect that of all the books i have, I have only made recipes out of less than 50 - and many of them only once

                        1. Hello - my name is Will, and I have well over 500 cookbooks...

                          Obviously I don't have a working system, but I need to apply one. It's either that or move to a bigger house! So I'll start off by saying that my priorities are similar to shallots': signed by the chef, favorite recipes, family heirlooms. If I consult them frequently, they stay. If I read them for pleasure, whether I cook from them much or not, they stay. If they are fun to have around, possess an interesting character or point of view, they stay, as do rare first editions and historically significant books. What goes? Books that looked promising and proved disappointing (Nathalie Dupree, whom I love, just broke my heart with one of those). Books that have no point of view, books that drip with the writer's boneheaded prejudices ("Streaky scrambled eggs are disgusting"? Not "They disgust ME", but "are disgusting." One of my favorite foods...bitch!), books that simply have no reason to exist other than to make someone some money or satisfy a desire to cash in on someone's non-food-associated fame.

                          And if I haven't looked inside of it for over a year, perhaps I need that bit of shelf space for something I like. How's that?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Will Owen

                            I just bought the last bookcase I had any space for. For the moment at least, once that case is filled, I have absolutely no more room and can't buy any more books without letting some go. (Moving to a bigger house is not an option at the moment....) I recently culled the obvious clunkers (which there were not very many of - I am very choosy about the books I buy and I usually give them a test run with library copies before I purchase.) And just because I haven't looked in one of my books in over a year doesn't qualify as a logical criterion for me - books are not clothes, and just because I haven't had the time/need for the last 12 months to look at a particular book doesn't mean I won't eventually find my way back to it. For example, I get in moods to cook certain kinds of food and use those books for a while - then I move on to other types of food/cooking and kind of progress around my library in a meandering sort of way as the mood stikes me.

                            I guess the only other thing that would work for me is to try to part with books that, although worthy, are too similar to other books I own and I just don't need so many of the same thing. I'm glad it ihasn't come to that yet though, :).

                          2. i recently purged quite a few in preparation for a move. I am also in a one bedroom condo I will add, so I dont have a ton of room. I got rid of anything that was a one time use kinda thing- ie I had a vegetarian thanksgiving cookbook for a year when a bunch of vegetarians were coming.I also got rid of any book that I had never felt inclined to make anything from ( most of them were gifts). I also got rid of most of my novels as well ( to make more room for cookbooks). I will add that my SOs mom has every gourmet mag since the 60s.

                            1. My personal experience: I am sort of "minor league" compared to many here, in that I owned only 70 or so cookbooks. But when added to other books I own, there were about 900 books in all. I've moved three times in the last 5 years (egad) and had to simplify. Each of the three moves I got rid of books. I got better and better at figuring out what to unload. I kept books that I considered "reference books" - that is, books I referred to time and time again (or simply books I thought about a lot). Another criteria I used was asking myself would I want to purchase a book again, were I to lose it. Finally, I asked myself how much I had enjoyed the book, how much pleasure I had received. At any rate, I got better and better at letting go of books. Now, I have about 40 cookbooks and only 500 books overall. There have been times - fewer than 20 instances - when I regretted a book I unloaded. Mostly, I feel lighter and more focused.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: lifespan

                                I think your suggestion re: the "if I lost it would I want to buy it again" test is a great one. And I hear ya about having to move all those books. We've only moved twice in the last 16 years, and both moves were over 12 years ago. I had a lot of books then, but nothing compared to what I own now (in addition to cookbooks I collect pop up/movable books and I also own a lot of other non-fiction books on various subjects. Not to mention all my son's books...) And I remember just how heavy those boxes were that were loaded with books - we moved ourselves both times...

                              2. I've purged books but inevitably look for that one recipe and the book is no longer here. I'm usually sorry months and even years after I've donated books elsewhere. Sometimes I lose interest in a particular type of cooking (like Spanish in my 20's) but then it makes a comeback and I no longer own the book.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: BelleJo

                                  Yep, this is exactly why I don't purge books unless they are clearly clunkers. Even if I haven't used them in a while. I'm like that about lots of things actually. That ol' "if you don't use it in one year, get rid of it" saw just doesn't work for me.

                                  1. re: flourgirl

                                    Ah, that American way of life! Gotta love it...

                                2. As a Chowhound, we all receive those Borders Clearance rack, generic cookbooks for holidays and I am sick of them. Those GO without a second thought.
                                  I'm not going to keep a book for the one or two recipes that I like, so I make copies (multiple!), and donate.
                                  I try to think of it like this: I am making space in my life for new, better, and more enticing cookbooks by ridding the old.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: stellamystar

                                    I know what you mean, there are a lot of really crappy books on that Border's Clearance rack (I think some of those books are published from the start as bargain books and aren't worth a second look.) I have a small pile of those myself and they are going to the library book sale in March.

                                  2. Yesterday I made it a project to go through the 10 feet of cookbooks occupying all the top shelves in my kitchen, with the intent of giving some to a co-worker who lost all of hers in a domestic dispute. And after I got them all down and divided them all up by culinary classification, it was really difficult to turn loose of any of them. But I picked out 6 or 7, and the rest went back up on the shelves in some semblence of order.
                                    It's not even that I USE recipes all that often, they're mostly just for inspiration, ideas, and in the case of baking, a template for correct measurement. Mostly I just read and re-read them for enjoyment.
                                    Oh, and count-wise, I'm probably only in the 140-150 range, and only that many because my aunt runs out of room every couple of years and sends me a box of her left-overs.

                                    1. Most of my cookbooks live on shelves in my kitchen, but I also have some shelves in the basement. When I buy new ones, I send a couple of the lesser used ones to the downstairs "death row" shelves. I've only gotten rid of a couple of the downstairs ones, but they were ones that I really never used and never had any plans to use. Next time I have a yard sale, I may get rid of a couple more that I haven't cooked from in a few years. One year seems too short, but 5 or even 10 years seems reasonable.

                                      1. I try to toss the ones that I have honestly not used. This usually means 1-2 every year.

                                        1. This sounds like my life! I love cookbooks so much. Whenever I went to the library as a kid (starting at about 12) I would check out as many cookbooks as possible, take them home and pour through them until about 5-6am in the morning copying recipes. Then I remember staying with a man (my Dad worked with him) for a few weeks while we were in the middle of moving (I was 13). He had more cookbooks then I have ever seen in any home. I spent those 3 weeks pouring over his books copying recipes ... I found some great recipes too (it was cookbook heaven). It was during the time that we stayed with this man that I began plotting my own cookbook collection. Then every time I house sat as a teen I practiced my tradition of going through every cookbook in the home. I had also started quite a collection of my own by that time and now I have tons. I can't imagine getting rid of these though because I do use them all from time to time. And yes, I absolutely bring them to bed. I loved that scene in Julie and Julia in which Julia Childs is in bed with her hubby trying to understand a french recipe. I can totally relate.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: DishDelish

                                            hey there dish, i'm still contemplating the cull. gotta get off my tuckus!
                                            but...i go back and forth on some of the cookbooks. i just need a bigger house, with a dedicated library. yeah, that's the ticket! ;-).

                                            i've got one in mind that has the high, rolling ladder that moves along the bookcases, about 15-20 feet high. mr. alka is not happy -- but i'd give him a section for his history books!

                                            1. re: alkapal

                                              lol! I am sure your collection is much larger than mine. My Jonas is ok with my somewhat large collection though because he has a huge collection of theology, philosophy books, bibles etc.... plus he reaps the benefits when I discover some great new dish. We keep buying bookshelves, but then we keep buying books, and then we still have no place for our books. It seems to be a never ending process. I am going to need a library too! ;)

                                            2. re: DishDelish

                                              Its so ironic to me, that growing up my Mom only had a few cookbooks- her really old, covers missing Better Crocker from the 40's, the 1970's BC she finally bought to replace it but hated it (yet it stuck around...the new, smaller recipe sizes didn't work for our large family), her Fannie Farmer CB, an old hard cover canning & food preserving CB, and a couple product manuals with tons of recipes, like for her pressure cooker. Somehow with all that, I still fell in madly in love with CB's, particularly the older ones, in part because that's what I grew up with & because of my food allergy to corn- pre-babyboom CB's, with little processed foods are much safer for me.

                                              I had amassed a pretty good collection on my own, but it really got a boost when MSU sold off unwanted/unneeded cookbooks from their special collections at the university surplus store a few years ago. I was in heaven- especially when in the beginning they were selling them dirt cheap & the more you bought, the cheaper they were. I would say I probably have well over 500 now, possibly much higher. I know I have to start thinning some of them out, but where to start...

                                            3. My secret to culling/purging from the cookbook shelves is:
                                              When a new cookbook mysteriously appears on a shelf, another mysteriously disappears... to a shelf in an upstairs room. Done. BTW: Who counts?

                                              8 Replies
                                              1. re: Gio

                                                aaah, the mysterious "disappearing" cookbook!
                                                (query, how long does anyone haul around the "new" ones in the car trunk before they "escape" one by one into the house?).

                                                1. re: alkapal

                                                  Well, lately UPS is my friend so I get to haul from the porch to the shelf before "anyone" notices.

                                                  1. re: Gio

                                                    tee hee hee. i think i have one of those "someones" in my house, too! ;-D.

                                                    1. re: alkapal

                                                      Mine knows better - we have mutual bookbuying tolerance - I don't say anything about the history book acquisitions, he doesn't say anything about cookbooks. The farthest we go is a slight eyeroll and sigh at each other. Last time we moved we had 172 book cartons. 10 years later I shudder to think how many there will be next time.

                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                        172 book cartons? Holy book bag batman! Are you able to store your books in a way that you can find them when you want/need them?


                                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                          We live in a library, essentially. I have 4 bookcases in the kitchen (the biggest room in the apt), 2 7' or so high, 2 4' high. There is a 7' bookcase in the hall, one entire wall of our living room has 7' bookcases (with some vinyl albums and trinkets from our trips), the spare bedroom/office has bookshelves along 1 1/2 of the walls, and I have 6 piles of books lined up along the wall in our bedroom. The magazines live in the bathroom. Plus we have off-dock stowage: I always have a few at work, and my husband's office at the uni is wall to wall books. It's an addiction. Needless to say we seldom cull.

                                                          1. re: buttertart

                                                            Wow! I'm in awe. I would love to live in a library. :)


                                                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                              marry an academic the next time out. It is very cozy.

                                              2. Last time I purged, I copied recipes that I had used or might use out of a couple of dozen cookbooks, then donated them to the library. I probably won't purge again; I love my collection.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: bayoucook

                                                  That is an excellent idea for those books that have only a couple great recipes. I'll remember this, thanks!

                                                2. Can't purge, can't cull, can't do it! It's way too agonizing. I tried to once, during our last move. I gave three away to one of my room-mates. Just three, I know, but it was HARD! And guess what happened? Ten years down the line, I started missing them. And wouldn't you know it, I bought them all back again (used, at least). I've never counted all my cookbooks-- just the thought is scary! They're overflowing off the bookcases and onto piles on the floor. They're EVERYWHERE. I don't even use all of them, but I still have to hoard them. I hope I don't turn into one of those little old ladies you read about on the news, with a hundred cats and fifteen-foot high stacks of stuff in every inch of space!

                                                  1. OK so I am going to be trying to purge some cookbooks (maybe) and other items around the house because my family is moving in October into a little house. We are currently in an apartment which has a tiny bit more living space than this house, but is is a house (cottage actually). Anyways, my hubby just brought the subject of my cookbooks and his books up to me last night ... I told him if if we can't do it and we can't find room we will do the living in a library thing, or put them in the large attic. I am so excited though as I will now have a huge yard for the kids to play in (they have no yard right now) and lots of beautiful older gardens throughout so my kids can learn to grow fresh veggies next summer.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: DishDelish

                                                      Congratulations and best wishes on your upcoming move - you sound very excited about it. :)

                                                      We essentially live in a library as well. Same problem others here said - keep buying bookshelves to be able to shelve the stacks of books we have all over the place, then I buy more books (most of them being cookbooks) and more piles appear. I'm currently trying to figure out where I can squeeze in some more shelves...

                                                      But I love

                                                      1. re: DishDelish

                                                        Congrats on your move. Purging is very difficult, so, I do not envy you your task of culling through them. I don't know if I can help you decide how to purge the ones you have (don't get rid of any classics or anything with sentimental value or anything that you even sorta like that's out of print that would be hard to find again), but, I have really tried to draw the line in purchasing new ones. If at all possible, before purchasing, I try to check them out of the library first and give them a good test run to see if I really like it.

                                                        If you end up with a good method for culling, let us know. In the meantime, good luck!


                                                      2. First cookbook cull was a forced one, by that *@&^%#%$#&* Katrina. As my sister lifted each soggy bundle and read off titles, I wrote--and cried, heartbroken to see these, my friends and favored companions, who had offered me sage counsel so often in the kitchen, inspired me on weekend lazy afternoons, and lulled me into sweet dreams many a night, in such sorry condidtion. Although I did not lose my entire library, there were 236 items on that list, some irreplaceable, so many of them one-of-a-kind single printing, spiral-bounds that I'll never see again--the charming purple and white cookbook put together by the now defunct K& B chain given to me by a student, a wonderful self-published Mexican one penned by another student.

                                                        But I kept the list. My sister copied it, and she passed it out to family members with a note added in her hand: "You can be sure she wants these." So birthdays and Christmases have meant reuniting with many of my long lost friends, albeit ones looking very fresh and toned, with new "faces" and pristine pages, some with soft spines where they had once been stiff. Many, if not most, of my favorites have been replaced, and I keep getting them as very welcome gifts.

                                                        The whole collection is now pushing 400, and the re-do of our house included a kitchen renovation based on, you guessed it, accommodating the cook book collection, floor-to-ceiling shelves in kitchen and dining room. So a voluntary cull? Probably won't happen so it saves me from the onerous task of developing some workable criteria for the keepers and the losers. (Luckily, DH is an enabler; he gets to enjoy the fruits of my obsession, and, besides, as an academic, voracious reader, and nearly daily book buyer, he would have nary a disapproving leg to stand on.

                                                        And then . . .there are the magazines. I started subscribing to Gourmet in 1983, then Bon Appetit, then Food and Wine, Saveur since its inception, Cooks. I lost only a few of those in Katrina. The rest are in attic, cabinets, huge storage "loft," covering every mantel and coffee table. These I probably can bring myself to get rid of. But what can I do with these? I offered them to two libraries even before digital had taken over, both of whom were not interested. Surely there must be a use for them. All those wonderful recipes and photographs! Any ideas?

                                                        3 Replies
                                                        1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                                          put them on e-bay!

                                                          or have a big house party, where people bring pot-luck, y'all sit around and eat and drink all weekend, and they take some (many?) magazines with them to enjoy at their home.

                                                          hospital waiting rooms want magazines, and not just the "main" waiting rooms, but the smaller, subsidiary ones, like for x-rays, or mris, etc.

                                                          retirement homes and elder-care homes love these.

                                                          salvation army and goodwill can re-sell or give them away. thrift stores for charities can make a little money off of them.

                                                          arts & crafts classes of schools like them for decoupage, etc.

                                                          the old gourmets are keepers! sooooo different than gourmet today. there is NO comparison. some of the saveurs, and cooks, too. food and wine had some nice topical issues. (NOW you see my problem that prompted my original post of this thread! ;-).

                                                          ps my sister had similar problems after hurricane charley. very sad -- and smelly!

                                                          1. re: alkapal

                                                            Ah, Alkapal, after all those good suggestions (although oddly a few offices w/ waiting rooms said they only wanted recent magazines, but the smaller hospital waiting rooms sounds like a great idea) , you've just about talked me into keeping them. I was planning on keeping the Saveurs anyway, but . . .