HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


A Well Constructed Cookbook & Recipe

We've heard a lot of pet peeves about recipes & some gripes about cookbooks in general, so why don't we just get down to basics & see how we can reinvent the wheel?

Cookbooks - how would you like to see the table of contents & index? Paper back/ spiral/hardback? Color background, pictures, details?

Recipe - how would you like to see it - ingredients first, grams or ounces?

Do you currently own a cookbook that is laid out just perfect? If so, what is it?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Not going to attempt to address all your points, I'll just start with the cover of the book. One thing I love is a hardcover book with a wipeable cover and no dust jackets. A lot of the British books are coming out this way. Fuchsia Dunlop's new book, for example. Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty is another example.

    3 Replies
    1. re: MelMM

      Agreed - and no spiral binding. I like to be able to see the title when it's on my shelf.

      1. re: thursday

        I have a love/hate relationship with spiral cookbooks.
        Love the spiral when I have a lot of stuff on my too small table - folds in half & saves room.

        Hate the spiral when I try to tuck it in the bookshelf along with another spiral
        cookbook...spirals get hung up on each other & next time you pull it out, you have a tangled mess, besides not being able to see the title of the book.

        Oh well, guess I will opt for no spiral.

        1. re: cstout

          No spiral for me either, though sometimes there are covered spirals, which are a bit more manageable both from the perspective of not getting caught on other spirals, and also because these have a title on the spine.

    2. These are all excellent questions, cstout.

      I would love to see indexes that are cross referenced between ingredients and recipes. For example, Miniature Pecan Tassies, which are a recipe in a book I own, are listed under Miniature, but not under tassies or pecans! I finally bookmarked the bloody thing.

      One thing I hate is light colored type. The Gourmet Cookbook is famous for that one, with its hard to read light yellow headings in the index.

      I prefer photos to be on or near the page of the recipe, rather then bound into the center of the book, which I know is a more inexpensive way to to produce a book.

      I love ingredients listed first with the measure, then ounces then grams. I can take my pick for all of the ingredients that way. Clearly, I prefer to measure a tablespoon of something rather than weigh it.

      1. I'm in total agreement with "roxlet" on the issue of index cross referencing.

        I prefer the spiral binding so the book can be laid flat and cover page finishes that can be wiped clean in the event they become soiled. Whether the cover itself it hard, paper, or hard paper makes no difference to me as long as it's durable.

        Again quoting "roxlet",

        "... photos to be on or near the page of the recipe, rather then bound into the center of the book..."

        "... ingredients listed first with the measure, then ounces then grams..."

        Temperatures should be listed in both "F" and "C"

        I do prefer to weigh ingredients for baking but for general cooking tasks the bulk measure works fine so I'm a fan of seeing the ingredients presented in both ways.

        I have perhaps a hundred cookbooks. Some have some of the features I like, most do not.

        One point you didn't include - proof reading.
        I hate to spend money on a cookbook and find that the proof reading didn't include careful testing of all recipes, including ingredient and ingredient measurement accuracy as printed. When I find a cookbook that has had to publish page after page of errata and I have to spend time making corrections in the book I'm unlikely to buy another book by that author, especially if he/she used the same publisher.

        2 Replies
        1. re: todao

          Just to clarify, todao, it really isn’t the proofreader’s job to test recipes. What the proofreader is paid, often very little, to do is to make sure the printed copy agrees with the manuscript. It is the author of the book who has received the advance and will be paid any royalties who is expected to deliver an accurate, fully tested manuscript. Often a good editor or copyeditor will catch and query the most obvious errors such as a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon of salt or a clear imbablance of liquid to dry ingredients. But it is the author’s job to get the information correct in the first place, so you are right to be wary of both author and publisher if a cookbook contains an unacceptable number of errors.

          1. re: JoanN

            Thank you, JoanN; as they say, you should learn something new every day. I appreciate that lesson very much.

        2. Page numbers should be large enough and dark enough -- and at an *outside* edge of the page. The book (close at hand just now) "Planet Barbecue!" has the page numbers in a sort of khaki -- too light against the white page, especially in artificial light. Readable, but what good is an index if you can't see the page numbers readily!
          If the page number is deep inside the book, not at an outside corner, you can't flip through easily, the book has to be opened all the way, or set down on a table. Annoying when your hands are wet / foody.
          Pages with pictures should clearly show where the pictured recipe can be found.
          And everything else that everybody else says!

          1. Most cookbooks I own are in volume measurements and I have a particularly difficult time if I only have one set of clean measuring cups/spoons available, otherwise I end up washing and drying. Since I like to do all my mise en place ahead of time, I would like an ingredients list designed for a person like me. Starting with dry ingredients, then semi-wet, then wet, etc. This is probably best illustrated by an example.

            Say an ingredients list is:
            1/4 cup milk
            1 Tbsp honey
            1 Tbsp yogurt
            2 Tbsp flour
            1/4 cup cornmeal
            1 tsp sugar
            1 tsp salt
            1 tsp cayenne
            1/4 tsp nutmeg
            1/4 tsp cornstarch

            I would reorder this:
            1/4 cup cornmeal
            1/4 cup milk
            2 Tbsp flour
            1 Tbsp yogurt
            1 Tbsp honey
            1 tsp salt
            1 tsp sugar
            1 tsp cayenne
            1/4 tsp cornstarch
            1/4 tsp nutmeg

            The thinking is that the 1/4 cup measure scoops up the dry cornmeal and then I can pour milk into it, but if I measure the milk first, I have to rinse and dry the measuring cup before scooping the cornmeal. If I measure the flour first, I probably still have to rinse the Tbsp measure, but at least I don't have to worry about drying it before I dip it in the yogurt, and then pouring sticky honey into the Tbsp measure should obviously be last. Salt usually never sticks, and even if some sugar sticks, it's okay for a granule or two to end up in my cayenne, versus the other way around. And cornstarch might not shake off supereasy, but I definitely don't want any nutmeg residue or wetness (from washing and not drying well enough) in my cornstarch.

            I have hundreds of notes with reordered ingredients lists stuffed in my cookbooks, but it really makes life easy for me in the long run. If I try to reorder in my head as I go along, it's so easy to skip something. This is a very personal sort of thing, I guess. I know weighing solves this problem, but I feel with volume measurements I get a better sense of the recipe and by the tenth time or so I don't even need to measure most ingredients any more.

            3 Replies
            1. re: bmorecupcake

              I much prefer, and it's pretty standard cookbook practice, to have the list of ingredients in order of use. But to solve your wet/dry problem, I have two (actually, three) sets of measuring spoons--elongated for dry ingredients so they can reach into spice jars, and oval and round spoons for liquid measure, and two sets of measuring cups--both level for dry ingredients and the standard Pyrex cups for wet. Much easier than having to reorder the ingredients in all my recipes.

              1. re: JoanN

                I have multiple sets, too. It's just I have limited counter space, cook away from home a lot, and often only have one clean set of measures. But I appreciate the wisdom behind the standard "order of use" method, too.

              2. re: bmorecupcake

                Ditto, bmorecupcake. I don't need ingredients in order of their introduction to the recipe. That's what mise en place is for. Once I've measured out the ingredients using mise en place I can arrange the little containers in order of their intended introduction and never miss a step.

              3. I prefer listing by weight. In reality, in the US volume measures will always be given. And I think the weight measures, if given in metric, should not simply be conversions of ounces. The recipe should be adjusted as if it were originally written in metric.

                What I don't get enough of in cookbooks is general principles and theory, The kind of stuff Rulhmann wrote about in Ratio or details Jamie Oliver puts so nicely into Food Revolution. You come away not tied to that recipe and able to improvise. For the truth is I move from what is available to what I cook, not from a recipe most of the time.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Father Kitchen

                  Ditto on the "I move from what is available to what I cook, not from a recipe" and the suggestions are right on target.
                  And please don't give me avoirdupois. If you can't provide metric data I'd just as soon stick with dip/level/pour and take my chances.

                2. Agree with what's been posted already, and PLEASE make a hardcover that stays open wherever you open it, so you don't have to jam it under the microwave or find out that you're making langues de chat when you were embarked on the madeleine recipe because the page has turned over of its own accord.

                  1 Reply
                  1. Hardcover for me. There are a number of different ways they can do the stitching so the book lies flat without needing a spiral binding, though they are more expensive than the common way to bind. Make the cover have a kind of dimpled surface, so the book is easy to grip if hands are wet. If it's at least semi-waterproof, that's a huge plus.

                    Index by recipe name and ingredients.

                    Pictures on the same page as the recipe. Color is nice, but not really necessary. Decent drawings are also ok, especially if the book has a retro style (see the Betty Crocker and King Arthur commemoratives).

                    I prefer volume measurements, though having volume and weight both listed is better.

                    1. When I suggested that I prefer spiral binding, I didn't mean those little coiled springs that tend to tangle with one another. The spiral binding I prefer are those wide plastic spirals that are woven through oblong holes in the edge of the covers and pages. I also prefer that the pages be printed on paper that's heavy enough to hold up to the rigors of years of page turning without coming apart at the seams.
                      That said, as long as the book will remain flat at any point, regardless of which page I'm looking at, I'm OK with any kind of binding that will work.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: todao

                        Ya know, this and all the other suggestions should be CLEAR LIGHT OBVIOUS by now to the book designing people / world!

                        1. re: blue room

                          But in cookbook publishing, as in so many other things in life, it all comes down to finances. Would you be willing to pay $60 or more for a cookbook with a specific kind of spiral or sewn binding, color photos on pages next to the recipe, washable covers, heavy coated paper? Probably not. These are all wonderful things to wish for, but take a look at the most recent "What Cookbooks Have You Bought Lately" thread and see how few of us have paid full retail for a cookbook. Much as we'd like to have some of these features, I doubt we're willing to pay what they cost.

                          1. re: JoanN

                            I totally agree about the price being very high for all the suggestions posted here, but I would think the cookbook people could incorporate at least a few of the obvious ones, like doing away with cream colored paper with very light printing, etc.

                            As long as we keep buying the books, they will keep churning them out however they can to save a penny.

                            As for a "retail price", to me it's kinda like retail price for a car. They know it looks good on paper to say 30.00 retail price for 15.99 plus free shipping over 25.00 purchase.

                            The book more than likely was never worth 30.00 to begin with, but I will admit it has trapped me more than once.

                      2. 1. Hardcover that lies flat or *covered* spiral binding
                        2. Semi-gloss pages with pictures close to recipes
                        3. iPad/Kindle/Nook bundles
                        4. bmorecupcake's suggestion of measurement listing

                        This may be picky but many cookbooks are written with the assumption of a family of 4 or 6. I'd like to see a footnote of the ingredients for 2 servings. For one, I'm single; two, I have a small kitchen. Yes, I know I could convert and no I do want to eat that same meal all week or freeze it. So it would be nice. :-)

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: cityhopper

                          Amen to that! I usually cook for one or two. Given that one-person households are a rapidly growing demographic sector, I believe we'll see more interest in this. Witness the many "Cooking for Two" magazines that pop up on racks.

                        2. Number one thing, good contrast between the text color and the page background. I never want to see another another cookbook with creamy beige paper with pale green text ever again. Also, no teeny tiny font.

                          1. Necessary:

                            -GREAT photos
                            -Complete index - don't just put 3 out of 4 blueberry recipes under "blueberries" - !
                            -both volume and weights
                            -perfect editing - I find mistakes in cookbooks WAY too often
                            -please test the recipes before publishing the book!!!!
                            -large/clear enough type that a 50+ can tell the difference between 1/3 and 1/2 without a magnifier

                            1. You know, I like that little cloth ribbon that serves as a bookmark.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: nofunlatte

                                Especially when it's fuchsia as in the new Fuchsia :)

                              2. I like a cookbook to be a size that's manageable to hold and read -- the shape and size of, e.g., Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday* vs. the huge and unwieldy Around My French Table. I would own AMFT if it were physically smaller, and frankly think the photos would be more attractive if reduced.

                                The pages should be almost as wide (or even a little wider) than they are tall; this helps them stay flat when open on a table.

                                With some rare exceptions for comprehensive references, a cookbook doesn't get more appealing because it has more recipes; I'd much rather have 150-200 presented well than 700 jammed in.

                                It's very helpful to have a list of all the recipes in the book in some location -- ideally in an overall table of contents, or at least at the beginning or end of each chapter.

                                I don't really need or want photos in abundance, unless the focus is instructional (techniques, unusual ingredients) or the topic is presentation. The cookbooks I use most have few or none (Vegetarian Epicure, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Joy of Cooking, The Art of Simple Cooking).

                                Plus a million on the type being large enough, dark enough for good contrast with the background, and in a readable font, with page numbers near the outer edges of the pages. Chapter headings on every page are useful, and don't have to be as assertive as the recipe text (designers: if you must indulge in pale colors and decorative typefaces, do it here).

                                Recipes should be contained on one or two (facing) pages for the most part, with exceptions only for the most involved preparations. It's really unacceptable to make the user turn a page for the complete process for the sake of long, chatty headnotes or a decorative photo.

                                I appreciate ingredients being listed by volume _and_ weight, and expect them to appear in order of use.

                                A thorough, accurate index is essential to the function of a cookbook, period. PUBLISHERS: the index is NOT the place to save money in cookbook production. Yes, I'm shouting.

                                If, throughout the book, there are special small sections on background or techniques or ingredients or equipment, list those in a table of contents as well as including the topics in the index.

                                When the author mentions other recipes found elsewhere in the book, the page numbers should accompany them; don't make the reader go to the index unnecessarily (even if it's an excellent one).

                                *This is a cookbook nearly ideal in size, readability, and organization.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ellabee

                                  I really appreciate cookbooks that have recipe lists either in the table of contents or chapter headings.

                                  And agree with everyone on indexes. Indexing cookbooks is an art. Cookbook indexes, like those of other reference books, will be consulted often and are not a good place for authors (who will often have to bear the cost of the job, as with recipe testing) or publishers (who must supply the page space) to stint.

                                2. My favorite construction is Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book circa1950. I will try to describe it, because I am certain that posting a pic would be compright infringement.

                                  The top of the page has a master recipe and then modifications at the bottom. Pictures are small and imbedded in the recipe and or next to it.

                                  The recipe is an ingredient list WITH the basic directions listed Next to the ingredients as they a needed. brackets are used to indicate which ingredients to do what to. Other general directions are listed at the bottom of the master recipe . The index lists by category and major ingredients.

                                  1. Q) How would you like to see the table of contents & index?

                                    A) Tables of contents are most often fine, but sometimes go way awry. The book should be divided into intuitive sections: appetizers, poultry, vegetables, desserts, etc. The appropriate breakdown will vary from book to book. For example, an Indian cookbook may appropriately have a legume section and a paneer section.

                                    The table of contents (and more basically, the organization of the book) should allow the reader who wants to make, say, a fish entree to sift through all the recipes for fish entrees in one place. Books that are divided in other ways invariably get on my nerves.

                                    Indexes serve many purposes, but I can identify two important ones. First, an index should allow someone to search for a recipe by the name of the dish. Virtually all cookbooks have acceptable indexes in this regard. Second, an index should allow someone to search for recipes by an ingredient he would like to use -- for example, a certain vegetable or spice mixture. Typical indexes are less useful than they could be in this regard.

                                    Q) Paper back/ spiral/hardback? Color background, pictures, details?

                                    A) Hardback is best. It should lie flat. It should not come apart with use. Dust jackets are annoying. Pictures of the dishes are very, very desirable. There should ideally be a picture alongside every recipe.

                                    I think very few cookbooks provide enough details. The best cookbooks are pedagogical. Tell me why you chose a certain ingredient; what is the purpose of each step; what can go wrong and how you avoid it; what makes the dish a winner. It is impossible to provide too many details.

                                    Q) Recipe - how would you like to see it - ingredients first, grams or ounces?

                                    A) Every recipe should have an introduction. Fuschsia Dunlop's books are exemplary. Information about the background of the recipe can be enjoyable. More importantly, the introduction should discuss what you are trying to accomplish with the recipe.

                                    Then the ingredients should be listed. The ingredients should be grouped by when and how they are used. For example, sauce ingredients should be listed together.

                                    Finally, the recipe should set forth a a clear step-by-step procedure with as much detail as possible.

                                    Q) Do you currently own a cookbook that is laid out just perfect? If so, what is it?

                                    A) Fuschia Dunlop's books, Raghavan Iyer's 660 Curries, and Ottolenghi Plenty are good models.

                                    1. Hey everyone - you all can really pull it together - amazing Too bad we can not send these ideas to the major publishing houses & ask them to consider some of the things on this post

                                      Sorta like writing to the President.

                                      1. A good index is very important. I kind of like some seasonal breakdown - but I don't care if it is in the index or TOC. If the TOC is broken down by season, then I expect good lists of apps, poultry etc. in the index (this I tend to see). If the TOC is split into sections I would appreciate a 'summer dish' section (but I don't' think I've ever seen this). An index by main ingredient(s) is the most important thing, besides recipes that are easy to read and work.

                                        1. I hate gimmicky pictures, I would rather have an illustration than a pretty picture. I also like to have good introductions and concise and clear ingredient list. I still love my Joy of Cooking book, and a hard cover is a must.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: Ruthie789

                                            This thread is funny to me (in an interesting way) because it so clearly highlights the problem publishers have, I guess - I LOATHE illustrations in a cookbook, unless it's a very specific technique like trussing a chicken in which step-by-step drawings might be helpful. Otherwise, I don't want to see artist's renditions of what my cake is supposed to look like, I want to see what my cake is supposed to look like! =) Not faulting your opinion at all, Ruthie; you just can't please all of the people all of the time...

                                            1. re: thursday

                                              I understand. I don't mind some pictures, but some books have picture upon picture with less recipe explication.

                                          2. I would like the book to have an accompanying cd with all the recipes on it. Just add that to a lot of the suggestions already listed.

                                            I think it might be time to consider self publishing either in paper form or ebooks.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                              Accompanying cd with cookbook - just curious, if you had the cd, why would you need the book?

                                              1. re: cstout

                                                The book would be of limited use but some cookbooks have reference material and instruction material as well as recipes. The cd would, probably, only have the recipes.

                                            2. Book holders can eliminate any problems with books that don’t lay flat. There are several varieties. But this one from Staples or Business Depot costs $4, works well, and holds almost all sized books. I’ve included the link below.


                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: VitalForce

                                                Except for the behemoth cookbooks like the Duguid/Alford SE Asian cookbooks which take up most of my available counter space.

                                                And lavish use of black ink throughout the recipe is welcome. I too am tired of peering at low-contrast text at critical preparation moments.