The first question to ask before I take a fateful plunge off this culinary precipice is “What makes a good cookbook?” After all, I need to have a benchmark before dispensing with relatively useless opinions. Well, first and foremost the recipes have to work. This should stand to reason, but it’s often missed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve “rescued” a recipe simply because I understood techniques and knew what the thing should end up looking or tasting like: and there are a lot of recipes that require you to read between the lines and many more that missed something critical to making the recipe successfully. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the cookbook said on first page, “these are ideas and require an experienced cook to pull them together.” Too many people hate cooking because they’ve too trustingly picked up what sounded like a great recipe from a bad website or a worse cookbook only to have it fail … well, that will rattle the confidence of even the most experienced amateur chef — and I think it is most unfair.
There are off course things like artistry (graphics, photos, and illustrations … even the font) which aren’t always necessary, depending on what end of the pool you’re cooking in, but a picture of a telltale step or finished product can be a huge help. In my opinion, unless you’re cooking a cuisine you know well, with practiced techniques and ingredients, avoid the cookbooks without pictures. And, let’s face it, if presentation is a big part of the dining experience, the same is true of the cookbook experience. A great picture will draw you in, make your mouth salivate and make you say, “I don’t care how many steps there are, I want to make this!”
Similarly, there is the tone of the writer. It can be playful, stuck in the mud, accessible or arrogant. The author can be setting you up to join them on a voyage of discovery or be the trusty wingman who is going to show you the tricks to be successful — or the tone can be akin to a passionless scientific instruction manual devoid of any personality. Worse, there is the cookbook author who can make a reader thousands of kilometres away feel like an idiot for not knowing what a scallion is and where to find it. (Just say green onion, damn it!)
Originality is key as well — otherwise, quite frankly, why not just buy the Joy of Cooking? If you want “standards,” there are many cookbooks that deliver, but few consistently as well. Why? Because the recipes are not only tested — they have been tested by scads (technical term) of chefs who are making sure the author has truly documented their arts. I am not ashamed to say that I have continued to come back to my thoroughly used copy of the Joy time and time again over the years. It’s an invaluable tool. There is no way I’ll blindly cook a recipe off the internet which has a single 5 star review. An original but untested recipe is a bit like eating fugu from a novice sushi chef: not a good idea (I’m just sayin’ …). I’d much rather work with (which doesn’t mean ‘follow’) the recipe that got 4.2 from 1,200 reviewers. And I know — this doesn’t do much to self-promote my own recipes. But truthfully, I don’t know whether I am a good documentarian of my own cooking. I know I can really cook — but can I teach cooking to someone else? I will have to wait for you tell me that ….
Even more key is the ability to provide good instructions, step by step with a delineation of critical milestones. For example, one of my favourite bread books and one of my top favourite cookbooks of all time, Crust & Crumb, taught me the moment of truth when kneading bread: the “window pane” test. A tough thing to know through words alone, but Peter Reinhart made it easy. And, yes, depending on the particular kind of cuisine you’re reading about, the extra “details” are important too: prep time, cook time, yield, and what to serve with it (sides and wine/spirits).
Beyond the quality of the recipes themselves, however, the most important detail for me in picking a cookbook is the backstory to it and its ability to teach me about the recipe’s context. Do I learn a new culture, a new method or technique, new ingredients … heck, even a new philosophy about food or a kind of food. Anyone can follow a recipe and knock out a new dish — but to understand the dish, the ingredients, the backstory behind it, why its famous, where it came from, why it is made … for me, it’s what separates greatness from other ne’er-do-wells and which elevates some cookbooks to the level of real treasure. Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking does this better than any other cookbook I’ve ever read. There are some 40 pages (and few illustrations which I know isn’t a selling feature, but still …) that introduce you to the ingredients and spices and tools you need … and why they’re important. She’s a phenomenal cooking teacher and it shows in her books ….
The same can be said for a great cooking magazine. My personal favourites? Saveur, Ontario’s own LCBO Food and Drink, and Cook’s Illustrated. The latter may not win any prizes for glossy pages or illustrations, but there is pure brilliance to what they publish and it does all the right things in terms of teaching. I bought their 20th anniversary collector’s edition this summer of “All-Time Best Grilling Recipes” and I put it through its paces this summer. What impressed me most is that in two pages per recipe, the author tells you not only what they tried but they also share what they failed … before they found their secret to success. And there is so much to learn in their failures being shared. I can’t tell you how many times I asked “why this way” and began thinking another way … and then to read they tried the other way too and they proceed tell why it didn’t work. Each of these editions is a culinary day at the Institute….
What else can I share? Measurements are important — with baking and bread in particular, I love it when a book gives weights, not just try measurements because with weights and a good kitchen scale, baking gets a whole lot faster and precise. Similarly, you can tell a lot when cookbooks provide notes on appropriate substitutions and/or where to find difficult ingredients — this sets the really good ones apart from the rest of the crowd.
And if you’re looking for a real ‘objective’ seal of approval, the James Beard award is huge. I have several James Beard award winners on my shelves and each one is truly a treasure. And like any purveyor of quality praise, it’s not ubiquitous. I even seek them out and yet they’re hard to find. But if you have one in your hand and you’re wondering whether to make the purchase, don’t doubt it — buy it. Check out the JBF award site or browse Amazon for their own list. Here’s the 2012 list of winners.
And if you’re look for a final bit of empiracal evidence of a book’s greatness — look at the cookbooks on your own or anyone else’s shelf that are thoroughly stained, spines broken, and look like they’ve been through the culinary Battle of the Bulge and back again — those, my dear readers, are the real winners out there.
And with that out of the way, I provide my first review in the next few days. Till then ….