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What do you want in a cookbook?

Sandra_'s picture

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You could probably argue that the world doesn't really need another cookbook. But given that there are going to be more cookbooks, I'm wondering what people who buy them want from them. Hard and fast, never-fail recipes? Ideas and guidelines? Sheer, Martha-like fantasy? Specific subjects like entertaining, or health-related foods? Or plain and simple, anybody-can-do-it? Or something else altogether?
BTW, this is serious market research. Your help is much appreciated.

Cleaver's picture

(post #53687, reply #1 of 35)

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I want a cookbook that has recipes that work! That should go w/o saying, but there is alot of published crap. I love my cookbooks that tell me why things work, (alot like F.C. do-ups. ie. silkening chicken) That way your results are consistent. I also want a book that makes the food LOOK heavenly. I love the rustic look but there are times when you want artistic, beautifully created food. So throw a few garnishing/presentation ideas in too. I made Martha Stewarts "chicken pita" because it looked soooo good; it tasted like hell. I want a combination of gourmet-impress-the-hell-out-of-your-friends and mom-and-dad-are-comin' recipes along w/ some don't-have-time-don't-care recipes. That is just my idea of a great at home cookbook.

Gerard's picture

(post #53687, reply #2 of 35)

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Many cookbooks seem to offer the same false promise as their diametricly opposite cousin ,diets. I've never bought a cookbook but seem to have acquired escoffiers and joy of cooking.
I buy pastry books because its my trade but I don't think I'll be buying any cookbooks, especially current ones.
On a related subject, its odd how all the TV chefs and cooking channels never demonstrate how to safely use a knife, how to prevent cross contamination and hygene in general is very poor.

Regards, Gerard

Cissy_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #3 of 35)

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* Poorly-organized cookbooks are a turn-off for me. Group appetizers together, put soups in a separate chapter, salads by themselves, etc.
* I like suggested menus that feature recipes in a cookbook, but only if all of the recipes use foods that are in season at the same time.
* If it's a specialty cookbook, like one on breads only, keep the muffins in one section and the yeast breads in another.
* Flying in the face of all the above is one of my favorite cookbooks -- "The Victory Garden" by Marian Morash. It is sorted by vegetable and this book is a godsend as each crop in our small garden (and the specials at our Farmers' Markets) arrive.

PMace_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #4 of 35)

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Technique - most of cooking, and especially baking, is in the method of doing something, not necessarily the formula. The author should explain the technique in detail and convince me that his/her way of doing things is the best way to do it.

Pictures - cookbooks are woefully short on pictures because they are expensive to print. "A picture is worth a thousand words" is meaningful when trying to explain something complicated or prove a point.

I've got maybe 20 ft of shelf space devoted to cookbooks and cooking magazines. The best is an old series by Time-Life that is 90% pictures and techniques with the formulas in the back of the book.

Rebecca's picture

(post #53687, reply #5 of 35)

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I agree with the responses so far except I personally don't care too much how the food looks (presentation & garnishes don't matter much to me). However, when my husband cooks something, it is usually because he saw an irresistable photo of it. I think this is why he's made more desserts than anything else. Presentation matters to him.

I'd like the recipes to be thoroughly tested so that they work, of course. Is it possible for recipes to be tested by people who don't even cook every single day?

I really enjoy recipe "introductions" that explain where the recipe is from and/or how it came about (anecdotes), what it is supposed to taste like, what to serve with it (possible menus /accompaniments)including garnishes or whatever else that would make it look good.

Which steps can be made in advance & how far in advance.

Brand recommendations for ingredients.

Photos. As many as possible.

Keeping information. How long will leftovers keep at room temperature, in the fridge, and/or in the freezer. This information is almost never given.

Good luck w/your research, Sandra!

Cherry_Vanilla's picture

(post #53687, reply #6 of 35)

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I know what I like when I see it. Ha Ha. Just thought I'd provide a little levity. "Gourmet" food that can be prepared quickly from natural ingredients - that's the kind of cookbook I like. Fresh 15 Minute Meals is one example of a cookbook that I use constantly. I glanced through some of those cookbooks that limited their recipes to a specified number of ingredients (4, 3 etc. or less) and wasn't too impressed so never bought any of those.

I understand that the prevailing trend is toward more anecdotes and less recipes. This is because no one cooks anymore (opening up cans is not cooking) so they buy cookbooks primarily for their story-telling value. Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Cookbook is a good example. Some of her recipes use Jack Daniel's! (She was related to the family).

Let's face it, very few people take or have the time to experiment and adapt a recipe to get it just right (for their local ingredients etc.), when they and their family have to eat the failures. And especially when there is a fast food place or restaurant around every corner. If people haven't gotten into the mode of cooking when they're very young, then by the time they reach adulthood it becomes too burdensome to develop the skills - because there simply isn't the time when you're trying to make a living. Ordering pizza is much easier. (Unless you live in the Marshall Islands. On Majuro, it is easy to order, but getting what you order is impossible. They make what they feel like making, regardless of what you order. And each pizza ALWAYS includes pineapple. Better pineapple than anchovies, I guess.)

kai_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #7 of 35)

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Gosh, I agree with everything! But here is just one more tidbit. I love a cookbook that is one or more of the following:

* beautiful to look at
* easy to use
* full of new concepts
* explains the "why" of things
* looks good on the coffee table or in the living room

and my favorite part is an *extensive* index!

fussy,
kai

kai_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #8 of 35)

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Gerard! This is so important! The only show I can *recall* explaining this is the early Jacques Pepin ones...

Folks, are there others I haven't seen?

tia,

kai

Rebecca's picture

(post #53687, reply #9 of 35)

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In defense of recipe introductions/anecdotes, for me they are a big reason to try a recipe. They are why a new cookbook would even be justified; they put the recipe in context for me. They can also be a jumping-off point for variations that may be viable. This would help "sell me" a book and I think Cherry Vanilla's point about story-telling value will also help sell books to people who don't cook very often. So, on this point, whether the recipes get made or not won't matter for selling a book. There are millions of recipes in cookbooks already. Maybe what we need is to make more sense out of what we are cooking and accompanying prose will help with this along with more of the "whys & hows" of technique and food "science" to encourage success in the kitchen.

Basically, books that just list recipes without these kinds of explanations don't do anything for me. They don't "speak" to me, dahlings. Anyway, what do I know...apart from people in my immediate family, I'm the only one I know who owns more than a handful of cookbooks. I'm sure Cherry Vanilla is right in that so many people don't cook at all. Most people I know don't. I guess that is one reason we all enjoy sharing & soap-boxing on this forum. Most people don't care about cooking. And maybe this is another topic but, a lot of people I know think it is a big deal that we cook a lot and also it is almost a point of honor that they don't (and hate to) cook. They think it is humorous that we cook - I even get the impression that they feel they spend their time (not cooking) far better than I spend mine. As for me, I'm with MFK Fisher (was it her?), I don't exactly love to cook but I want to eat well so I want to cook well and I think some of the most important things I can do for my family are to feed them healthful foods and have an enjoyable & delicious meal together every night. I'm grateful that I'm not too busy to provide this.

Back on subject, my most recent cookbook purchases (8) were based on recommendations/reviews that specifically stated the recipes worked well. I bought the Complete Meat Cookbook (Aidells) (thanks for telling us about it, MC) because it promised good techniques for cooking "today's leaner cuts of meat". Supposedly, not just another meat cookbook. I have quite a few Italian cookbooks by now so wouldn't buy another unless there was something "new" or really unique like the meat book promises (or promised interesting reading). BTW, I've enjoyed Recipes 1-2-3 (3 ingredients recipes) and my young kids have been able to easily help make some of the recipes from it - very unintimidating for them.

The pizza-makers on Majuro sound pretty mellow...in the U.S. they'd be sued for not providing the correct pizza toppings.

Also, here's something for you, Carolina and the other Southern (U.S.) cooks here: "In fact, cookbooks [in the South] outsell everything but the Holy Bible." (Jack & Olivia Solomon, Cracklin' Bread and Asfidity, 1979). Have things changed since this quote and what is Asfidity?

leaf_lady's picture

(post #53687, reply #10 of 35)

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"Asfidity" is asafetida. It is a resinous substance that comes from a plant in the carrot family, and smells TERRIBLE! People used to put peices of it in little bags around their necks to ward off colds. I think it warded off colds by warding off people whether they had colds or not. Nineteenth century cookbooks mentioned it sometimes.

Rebecca's picture

(post #53687, reply #11 of 35)

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Hi leaf lady, I just made some fantastic Indian (Bengal) chicken with cilantro and a pinch of asafetida - it does smell bad but I do use it in a lot of Indian food. It ends up good, usually. I thought maybe asfidity was another thing - something different for Southern cooking! I guess its not some kind of Divinity! I never heard of the cold remedy or even knew that this part of the world used it back then. Thanks for the info.

Cherry_Vanilla's picture

(post #53687, reply #12 of 35)

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Rebecca, I love the anecdotes and stories in the cookbooks, so I hope I didn't imply otherwise. But I have found that I get so fascinated reading them that 2 hours later, when a meal is supposed to be on the table...well, there I am still reading the anecdotes!!

Rebecca's picture

(post #53687, reply #13 of 35)

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A big reason I get more cookbooks is to just read them - sounds like you do too! I assumed from your post that you wished the extra writing would always be backed up with good recipes and that many times it isn't.

My problem w/getting dinner done on time is that I'm just plain slow - its ALWAYS late.

Gerard's picture

(post #53687, reply #14 of 35)

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Cherry vanilla,

Anecdotes, yup.

I opened a baking book that started a recipe like this, "we descended the winding country road to the village, passing wildflowers and ..."

I dropped the book in the trash.
I inherited hundreds of books when my partner died, she didn't read them either and by the time I got through I don't think there was 4-5 left.
PS, the book turned out to be Carol Fields Italian something or other. I gave away cases and cases of these sort of books.

Theres simply too many people writing books who can't cook. Its a business I guess.

dixie_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #15 of 35)

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Rebecca, I would not think it "divinity" since synonym is "Devil's Dung". Wow!!
smelly stuff

mebird's picture

(post #53687, reply #16 of 35)

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I like pictures and more pictures.If it shows technique,all the better.I also like to here the story behind the recipe.A detailed glossary and an easy to read index are important.It also matters a great deal that the recipes are tested over and over again.

Cherry_Vanilla's picture

(post #53687, reply #17 of 35)

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Gerard - yes, the proliferation of these mostly unhelpful tomes is mind-boggling. I suspect that a large number of these books (1)are bought as gifts or (2) are part of a devious plot by the restaurant industry to keep all of us eating and ordering out...

leaf_lady's picture

(post #53687, reply #18 of 35)

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Dixie, THANK YOU!! for the great Botanical link. Aside from "Devil's Dung," did you notice that another name for asafetida was "food of the gods?" Doesn't that make you wonder about the gods?

Chiffonade_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #19 of 35)

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I like clear instructions which are easy to use and color photographs of what the dish is supposed to look like when completed. If there is a difficult instruction, I like an illustration (drawn) of what the author wants you to do. One drawn picture of the proper use of hands or a utensil can eliminate a page of wordy instructions.

I like a book that focuses on the cuisine of a chef or a restaurant or a country. I think books on one ingredient are pretty worthless.

No matter how many glorious, expensive books I have, I find myself reaching for my Joy of Cooking (the release previous to this one - they modernized it too much). It's a quick handy reference to just about anything except the most esoteric ethnic cuisine. But I have other books for that.

dixie_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #20 of 35)

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Leaf Lady, I DID notice that and reminded me of old joke about priest asking a dying man repeatedly to denounce the devil and his evil ways. The man refused and when the priest asked why - Answer "Until I know for sure where I am going, I don't want to offend anyone". So "food of the gods", Devil's Dung".....maybe covers all bases.

Peter_Goulding's picture

(post #53687, reply #21 of 35)

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This is an interesting topic - thought provoking and there are some good ideas already posted.

One feature that I really like to see in cookbooks is the ingredient list using weight measurements where feasible. This may not be a popular thought in the U.S. and I'm not suggesting that only weight be used - just included.

I see the latest Pastry Bible (that may not be the full tittle) lists the ingredients by three alternative measuring scales side by side.

Grams are particulary helpful because they are so easy to work with when you want to change the amount produced.

Peter

Cherry_Vanilla's picture

(post #53687, reply #22 of 35)

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I love Peter's suggestion about weight measurements!! I would also like to see those provided in recipes especially for baking. It can only improve upon our successes, I would think.

Peter_Goulding's picture

(post #53687, reply #23 of 35)

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If a cooking publication is dealing with technique, and most do, with today's technology I think new publications should be multi-media or have a multi-media component, e.g. a CD-ROM with it.

For instance, take a look a the film demonstrations here on the Taunton site. The one on risoto makes good use of the technology. The demo shows the consistancy of the risoto that the demonstrator is trying to achieve. I can't think of another effective means of showing that - only a moving image could do that.

Although the quality of those demonstrations is just barely acceptable - on my computer anyway - the technology will improve quickly, I'm sure.

So it seems to me that videotape, CD-ROM or online film as a component is the way to think about new publications.

Peter

Sandra_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #24 of 35)

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This has been a very valuable education. Thanks, everybody, for your thoughts and ideas. I hope I'll get to implement them all someday!

Gerard's picture

(post #53687, reply #25 of 35)

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A few yrs ago I hung out on CIS cooking forum, getting fed up with having to type out long instructions explaining simple methods I started making video tapes of various stuff I make, it beats a book but theres a limit to how much you can get on a tape.

I don't mind food history but when I'm working I need the info too quickly for stories.

Joy of cooking, one the best books.!
They have equivelent in England but with odd ingredients.

Andrew.S's picture

(post #53687, reply #26 of 35)

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I like cookbooks with information about the recipes. Anecdotes, ease of preparation, variations of the recipe, and any interesting problems that might turn up and solutions to those problems if any exist. I also like detailed instructions if the techniques or ingredients are rare.

I'd also like to see a bit more about the author and his or her credentials. The back flap is not usually enough to help pick out a book. I usually go by friends recommendations when I pick up new books or pick up books by my favourite authors who already have great books out. Recommendations by well known chefs who are good cooks are also a great help.

kitschin's picture

(post #53687, reply #27 of 35)

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I agree with many of the statements already made. I would only add that clear chapter and recipie headings, and easy indexing are crucial. I have a cookbook in which the recipies are great, but the labeling is extremely unclear--the chapter headings don't appear on each page. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but when I am flipping through trying to find a recipie I vaguely recall, it is a nuisance.

FlavourGirl_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #28 of 35)

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I agree with most of what has been previously said here. But I have a different idea. Since I have a great many cookbooks, when I use a recipe that I like, I enter it into my computer for MY cookbook. This can be time consuming so why not have the cookbook on CD-ROM? This way I could import a specific recipe without the time cosuming job of keying it in.

The CD can be an add on to the book, not everyone who buys the book need buy the CD.

Sandra_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #29 of 35)

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I almost bought the CD-Rom of Joy of Cooking, but decided against it because I can't really see the sense in it. Am I missing something? Do other people have CD cookbooks that they actually use? Swear by? Would cheerfully burn their hard-copies for?

StevenHB_'s picture

(post #53687, reply #30 of 35)

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Rebecca:

Continuing your aside about how others react to your cooking...

As far as the reaction of others goes, I find many people who enjoy it when them come over for dinner, but then never reciprocate. I don't care if they don't make chicken stock from scratch, I enjoy the social experience. Sometimes they say they're intimidated. I think that I need to find a "gourmet club" in my area (suburb of Boston). I know such clubs exist and I know that they're in my area - I just don't know how to find one that would be looking for new members who were strangers. Any ideas?

On cookbooks: I do particularly enjoy the introductions which put a dish in context. If all a book contains is ingredient lists and techniques for combining them, then you cannot read it. The question for each reader is, "Do you enjoy reading cookbooks?" I liked Todd English's and Sally Sampson's
i The Olive's Table
in this regard.