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What makes a good cook book for you?

What is it that makes a cookbook good in your opinion?

Is it photos of recipes?
Simple recipes?
That it inspires you?
Who it's written by?
That it is a challenge?

Let me know what you think guys. I know I have a lot of cookbooks I rarely pick up out of my collection.

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  1. Simple recipes that inspire me, written by the cook I trust (intuitively :-)

    1. Written by someone who can write and cook well, who has a strong point of view and the courage of his/her convictions, and who can make a coherent, compelling narrative out of every recipe. I don't care about pictures, though good illustrations are always welcome; the drawings in the last several James Beard books are outstanding examples. I abhor sloppy writing, listless writing, words used as filler; some books I have start out strong and then run out of steam. Writers who default to Quick'n'Easy, Marian Burros, for instance, annoy the whee out of me.

      I can get really PO'd at some writers for expressing their personal prejudices as though they were laws of nature, such as Nika Hazelton's pronouncement that scrambled eggs with distinct white and yellow streaks "are disgusting" - not "I think they're disgusting." I remember that one because I happen to like eggs done that way …

      Most of all, I want to hear a voice with personality, intelligence, an active curiosity and a delighted interest in the food itself. Beard could get downright salacious when discussing various pork parts, practically leaving drool marks on the page, but there are plenty of writers able to express enthusiasm a little less vividly.

      James Beard, Julia Child, John Thorne, Richard Olney, Jane Grigson, Helen Evans Brown, Evan Jones, Elizabeth David, Paula Wolfert - none of these ever wrote a less than stellar cookbook, though their styles are wildly divergent, and the books and essays some of these have written about food and food history are splendid as well. Tony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, while as good a bistro-food book as any, is on my keepers list because of the clear explanations of the differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking, followed by some very wise tips for the home cook based on commercial practice.

      1. For me its pictures. I'm a very visual person so I struggle with cookbooks without pictures. Plus, I just feel this need to see what the end result should look like... then I can tweak and change things as I see fit.

        2 Replies
        1. re: mcap

          + 1.

          I rarely follow a recipe even when I'm making something for the first time. But when I see a picture that looks good, I'll hit the net and read half a dozen recipes to get an idea of the ratio of the ingredients, the technique, etc.

          Then I make it my own.

          1. re: mcap

            It's pictures for me too, although I do love the Joy of Cooking and How To Cook Everything because of the vast scope of the recipes.

          2. Ones that put emphasis on technique and ingredients/flavors. That way the reader actually learns how to be a better cook by utilizing the techniques and see/taste how the flavors come together. The good ones make you think about trying things for yourself, based on what you've learned.

            1. Like the OP, we have cookbooks that we never cook from.

              What makes a good one? One that's been proven to work - for example, our Nigel Slater and Delia Smith ones are well thumbed yet our Nigella lawson and Jamie Oliver ones look pristine.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Harters

                Nigel Slater is good not cooked from his books but seen some of his TV shows. I just got Nigel Slater Tender Volume 1 Its all about vegetables then suggest recipes to cook with them. Nigel Slaters style is kind of like throw together a few bits and make it work. Which I like. Cooking does not have set rules. Jamie Oliver I like to watch cooking but his books are just so so. Sometimes too complicated and time consuming.

              2. When I visit the cookbook section of bookshops, my criteria for purchasing a "cookbook" is that while just thumbing through, I have to come across at least 6 recipes I definitely would like to try. I don't care about pictures or the author, or challenge vs. simplicity - just at least half a dozen recipes that automatically interest me.

                Now there are some cookbooks, like the coffee-table-type "Beautiful" cookbook series, that seriously delve into the background & culture of the country/region of each book. With those types of books I'm more likely to buy for reading pleasure as opposed to the actual recipes.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Breezychow

                  I agree with you about the coffee table cook books I have a few of those.

                2. My ideal cookbook has a flexible spine that opens fully and stays put on any given page-a real pet peeve of mine. Beyond a practical element, I like a cookbook that: has high flavor notes but from few ingredients. A challenge for many authors but one not lost on me. 5-6 ingredients is my personal preference. I love photos; but if the ingredients appeal to me even just one of the finished recipe is all it takes to inspire me and provide the visual I need to give it a try. I rarely buy a cookbook because of the author alone though. It really has to work for me and my family first.

                  1. The first cookbook I ever used was the early '60s Betty Crocker. It fell apart, and I bought another copy at an auction. I like it because there are good memories attached to it. I also love the cookbooks that churches, small town newspapers and organizations publish. I love all the notes and comments about where they served the dish and what relative cooked this particular dish.I guess I appreciate the sense of family more than anything in a cookbook.

                    1. 1. Encyclopedic information - I love to learn about the history, culture and origin of unique ingredients. Not just recipes but also food science and technique (i.e. Fat Duck, Larousse Gastronimique).
                      2. Must be a challenge. There are sooooo many basic books out there - give me something new! I really enjoy technical and specific one-ingredient books, such as my books on olive oil, truffles, salts and peppers. Sick of the books that include the usual starters, vegetables, soups and salads, mains, desserts... It is rare that I see a unique recipe any longer. I gravitate towards books with long lists of ingredients that are hard to source and that involve several skills/techniques.
                      3. Luscious photography is a bonus (i.e. NOMA, Fat Duck) but I do not need photos for recipes as I can envision them without.
                      4. The writing style is important - I like a big of humour and some anecdotes but the books need to be intelligently and intuitively written rather than dumbed down. Passion, the ability to inspire me to seek out that ingredient and curiosity are huge points to me.
                      5. For some reason I love heft - a large, hearty book.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: chefathome

                        "It is rare that I see a unique recipe any longer."
                        chefathome-- do you think it's possible that it's because truly just about everything has been done--? I often feel like most recipes are just variations of what went before. Maybe compatible flavors are finite, only presentation evolves.
                        This often happens after I've impulsively bought an expensive new book!

                        1. re: blue room

                          Blue room, I would say that is the case. When I do encounter something new I am intrigued and thrilled. So many recipes seem to be redundant in many books, with just a tiny different twist here and there. I totally feel the same way about recipes that are variations of previous stuff. That is one reason I am drawn to cuisines such as Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Ethiopian et. al. because they are at least unique and different to me and use fascinating ingredients and techniques.

                      2. A good cookbook should include more recipes I will actually use than not use. Usually 10 -15% is all I get. Is 51% too much too ask?
                        Without that, the pictures and geography and history lessons are nice, are wonderful, but not why I want a cookbook. Which makes the Internet (and this site) very useful.

                        1. I am going to answer a slightly different question:

                          What prods you to buy a cookbook?

                          If a cookbook satisfies these 2 criteria:
                          1. Photos of the different steps involved, and
                          2. Using cuts of other than: Chicken Breast, Pork Loin/Tenderloin/Shrimp/Salmon/etc.

                          I get really sick of seeing those same cuts over and over again.

                          Anyway, back on point, if I see lots of pictures of the various steps involved I know that sooner or later I will make that dish.

                          1. I'll talk specifically about recipes. I like a recipe that breaks the ingredients down by steps. Many recipes will say you will need a cup and a half of flour but don't indicate that one cup of flour will be used in one step and the half cup will be in another so separate out the two.

                            1. The recipes must be reliably delicious and successful without requiring that I tinker on the first try. Also, I especially like detailed, useful information, either about technique, ingredients, or managing other things in the kitchen, like planning.

                              I don't like books that fill the pages with the same old thing, like four different grain salads, each with a slightly different set of ingredients in them. I can do that myself. Suggesting take offs, though, of one recipe, that is good.

                              Luxurious pictures and travelogues are not helpful to me. An accurate, detailed index is very helpful! Some books are crippled in this regard.

                              1. I guess i should answer this one as I started the thread. Well I need to have a few photos for a start although I do not need to see one for every recipe it helps me visualise what the food will be like. Although most of the time my food and the photo are not a good match lol. But its the taste that counts.

                                I think for me there has to be a lot of the chef inside the book. I like to know about the chef, his background and why he likes the dishes he puts in the book. If a book is just recipes then I lose interest.

                                I like to be challenged by a cook book but not put off by the recipes.