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What I do NOT want in a Cookbook

Inspired by my visit to the bookstore the other day (and helpful hints for anyone who wants to get me a cookbook for Christmas!)

I do not want a cookbook that's so heavy I have to call over my son to carry it from the shelf to the countertop.

I do not want a cookbook so tall and wide that it can't fit onto the bookshelf.

I do not want a cookbook dedicated to your mind-blowing "discovery" trip through Italy. It was interesting and entertaining the first time it was done (Jamie Oliver?) but by now I really don't need to know about the ancient Nonna in the tiny village who taught you how to make pasta just right. I only want the recipe, thank you very much.

I do not want a cookbook where the photos are so colorful as to be distracting. I don't need to see you looking ever so the hipster on a scooter. And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be looking at, the dish or is that just a table centerpiece? I also really don't care about seeing you with your best friends and families and impossibly behaved toddlers sitting around a rustic farmhouse table.

I do not want a cookbook where the list of ingredients are spaced 1 inch apart on a sparse, minimalist page (and the list is always either too brief or too long). My inner toddler will only be tempted to smear tomato sauce all over that precious, beautiful page.

I do not want a cookbook devoted to the cuisine of a country but is divided by regions. So all the desserts are scattered throughout the book instead of bundled together at the end.

I do not want a cookbook that has several recipes crammed on one page, interspersed with anecdotes, while the opposing page is wasted on yet another beautiful photograph of a beautiful countryside or urban square. Again. And again.

And I hate to say this as I love to bake but I do not want yet another baking cookbook featuring identical brownie, cheesecake and macaroon recipes. I'm sure you're a wonderful baker but I'm looking at the shelf and there's a dozen of identikit baking cookbooks, beautifully illustrated with lovely photographs but offering nothing better than the heavyweights already on my shelf (Berenbaum, Carole Walter, Nick Malgieri etc). You may have fabulous hair but that's not enough to persuade me to swap my Berenbaum or Malgieri for you.

I do not want another cookbook on how to artfully stuff lemon up a chicken's bum. Marcella Hazan beat you to it thirty years ago.

You may have a world-famous restaurant. I'm sure it's brilliant. But I do not want your cookbook. Why? Because I know no matter how hard I try or how much time I take or how much money I spend, it'll never be as good as from your kitchen and there's a reason for it. I don't have my own sous-chef nor do I have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of high end kitchen technology to make the perfect green foam with the right amount of bubbles.

What about you all? What don't you want in your cookbooks?

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  1. Good post! You touched on a lot of pet peeves, but here's another one: Make it accessible for me, my kitchen, and my grocery store. (I knew what I was getting into when I bought the Alinea cookbook/coffee table book - I mean come on.)

    But for the rest, I can't get fresh picked heirloom tomatoes in January, never-frozen Alsatian sea scallops, or sometimes even quality meat. I might not have whatever percent Dutch cocoa - I might have a can of Hersheys. Teach me how to work around these issues.

    12 Replies
    1. re: NonnieMuss

      what city do you live in NonnieMuss?

      1. re: NonnieMuss

        I agree!
        Vanilla beans are my big pet peeve in recipes! They are pricey, dont keep as long as extract so I dont stock them at home. Would be nice to have a conversion index for things like that in cook books. Fresh herbs as well. I love them but they are expensive to buy and i do not have the exposure or space to grown my own, info for reasonable substitution of dried herbs.

        1. re: Alurna

          I know you're talking about including this information in the cookbook, but I think it's generally 1/2 tsp of a dried herb for every 1 tsp of fresh. Right? That's what I was taught.

            1. re: herby

              So 1:3 instead of 1:2. Fair enough.

              1. re: Kontxesi

                Ahhhh! That makes alot of sense....and I feel quite the dunce for not thinking to look it up honestly. But I rarely use recipes unless I am baking which I don't care for and have little skill for. Ty Knotxesi and Herby

        2. re: NonnieMuss

          I am actually tired of cookbooks that always try to simplify dishes and "work around issues". I want cookbooks that are written as cookbook authors / chefs were originally planning each dish without any shortcuts. Everybody should be able to develop own shortcuts if necessary

          1. re: honkman

            I agree with you, honkman (though all opinions are valid, of course). I'd never buy Hershey's anything, and if I do buy cocoa, it will be good quality (I don't have children and rarely use it). I adore reading Ottolenghi, though even here in Montréal with sizeable Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern populations, some ingredients would be hard to find. Of course I use substitutions and shortcuts - that is part of knowing how to cook.

            1. re: lagatta

              I am surprised that you have trouble finding ingredients for Ottolenghi dishes in Montreal. I am in Ottawa and have found everything I needed for Plenty and Jerusalem dishes.

              1. re: herby

                I haven't. I'm just saying some of them might be a challenge. I am thinking more of some of the recipes I've seen in the Guardian. We are blessed with large Middle-Eastern communities (and other Mediterranean ones, if he drifts outside the Levantine area in his inspirations).

                We have the Lebanese Adonis supermarket chain, for one thing. They have a new supermarket in the west end of downtown Mtl, near Atwater metro, though it is smaller than the ones a bit farther out. I do we also had a T&T for East and Southeast Asian foods (we do have good supermarkets, but none as large as that one).

                1. re: lagatta

                  We have T&T also but no Adonis. Lots of small ethnic shops sprinkled around the city and I must say that I prefer those to huge supermarkets. A friend and I have been planning a 'food' trip to Montreal - maybe in spring after the snow is gone :)

            2. re: honkman

              I'm not looking for shortcuts, just how to use ingredients I have available to me. I try to buy the best quality I can, but I also live in a land-locked state with fair-to-middlin' grocery stores. My local store stopped selling bulbs of garlic for pete's sake. I have to drive across town when I need it fresh. Organic/free-range chickens that have been sung lullabyes and massaged with aromatherapy oils are going to taste better than the frankenchicken breasts I get at the grocery. I'm not looking to make Beef Wellington with ground chuck - just keep it realistic! Something in between feshly-dug tartufi bianchi and cream-of mushroom soup casseroles.

              Would also like to chime in with agreements on the physical aspects of books - fit on shelf, no dust jacket, stay open on the counter, etc. Those are all great points.

          2. I do not want ingredients that I have to order on line.

            Please have a beginner check your recipes in their own kitchen. A degree of difficulty is some times nice to know.

            I appreciate how the recipes correlate with the populace. I do not need a 500 year history on how chicken is roasted.

            I will probably never eat in your restaurant. So how do I know if the book matches what you served? Have gone through a number of local fails in that regard.

            If you are a diet or philosophical book with recipes, be upfront about it. I was burned for $29.95 on an herb book that turned out to be vegetarian. I wanted a source book for all applications. Last time I bought a book by the cover.

            If it doesn't fit on the shelf, you are an automatic pass.

            1. There are recipes cookbook (more or less useless in these internet days) and there are coffee table cookbooks.

              I have not bought a recipes cookbook in a very long while, and bought only a few coffee table cookbooks in the last 10 years.

              Ok, now to answer the question:

              I want cookbooks to give me inspiration, have them show me different presentation ideas and/or ingredients combinations.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Maximilien

                Great way to classify! I prefer recipe cookbooks...I consider them reference books. Not interested in someone's landscape photography or tales of foreign lands. I go to the book for information on using a list of ingredients to create a dish that impresses. IF, however, historical information is needed to best understand the dish, then I'll read that for a greater appreciation.

              2. Photos should focus on food or technique as much as possible.

                Ingredients that are to be divided should mention that in the list.

                5 Replies
                1. re: melpy

                  "Photos should focus on food or technique as much as possible"

                  And truly I would most of the time prefer line drawings for the technique illustrations. I have some favorite cookbooks with lovely food photos, but the heavy paper those photos are printed on weighs down the books something fierce, and the photos don't help me cook any more effectively.

                  1. re: ratgirlagogo

                    Line drawings are fine. I love the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook from 1980z great job with a small photo index and line drawings in te recipes.

                  2. re: melpy

                    This is why I love so many of the "bargain" cookbooks I've picked up from Barnes & Noble and elsewhere through the years (a lot of them are I think Parragon Books). They tend to have photos of nearly every recipe that are just that: the food in the recipe! With sometimes handy preparation pictures as well. And they tend to be accurate photos as well. I've bought too many designer/celebrity chef books where the dishes in the pictures don't even match the ingredients listed in the recipe or were clearly plated by a fancy stylist.

                    1. re: sockii

                      I have found many of the bargain books to be "stock" photos that the publishers use and reuse for serveral different books. I find a lot of these from British publishers.

                      I have actually requested that my husband stop buying these for me because I don't trust the recipes. He responded that he just won't buy any more cookbooks.

                      1. re: melpy

                        Yes, I think most of them are DK publishers. I look on the back and if the price is a US price and then a UK price, I usually pass. Lovely books, but yes, repeat of photos and recipes and often times no conversion from metric to imperial.

                        I have taken to checking cookbooks out from the library to give them a really good whirl. With the internet now, a cookbook has to be really special for me to want to spend my bucks on it.

                        I think the OP summed it up very well. Another thing I'd add is that I don't want to have to turn the page for the end of the recipe unless it is absolutely necessary. So irritating to have 3/4 of the recipe on the left page, an illustration on the right, then have to turn the page to get to the end. I love a good illustration, but make the whole kit and kaboodle fit on a two-page spread.

                        By far the best cookbook I've bought in the last few years (and really the only one) is the Smitten Kitchen one. It's pretty near perfect...and the fact that my blogging friend was able to get me a signed copy was quite the bonus.

                  3. This is gonna be one of those different strokes for different folks kinds of posts...

                    I don't want:
                    - Lame descriptions telling me I have to make something because it's 'fast,' 'easy,' 'yummy,' or 'beautiful.'
                    - Cookbooks from people who aren't good cooks, but think their philosophy of food makes up for it.
                    - Cookbooks from people who aren't good cooks, but think their celebrity or notoriety makes up for it.
                    - Cookbooks that lie to you ("caramelize onions for 3 minutes")
                    - Cookbooks that are merely a list of recipes, with a few pictures added.
                    - Cookbooks that assume I'm a wimp ("have your butcher debone the chicken")
                    - Cookbooks that leave out all the actual technique that makes a dish good in order to streamline its recipes and/or not scare away the uninitiated.

                    What I do want:
                    - Insight.
                    - Inspiration

                    That's it. If a book can make me a better cook or make me excited about something new, I'm happy to read it. I can get recipes on the internet or cook without one.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      No cutesy names! Tell me what I am eating unless that is the traditional name for the dish.

                      Ants Climbing a Tree
                      Ants on a Log
                      Rocky Mountain Oysters
                      Angels on Horseback
                      Clams Casino
                      Pigs in a Blanket

                      Yummy, fast and easy don't need to be mentioned in the name at all!