Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Dos and Don’ts of Buying a Cookbook

The backbone of your kitchen, they stand at attention on the countertop like so many colorful soldiers, straight-spined and ready for employment at their commander’s behest. They are your cookbooks, and by gum, eating well would be dang near impossible without them.

Today, we’re discussing those culinary/literary stalwarts, and how to buy the best possible tomes for your needs (or someone else’s). And by “we,” I mean CHG and Casual Kitchen. CK creator Dan asked Meredith from Like Merchant Ships, Hannah and Phoebe from I Heart Kale, and yours truly to name their favorite tomes and describe why they deserved a special place on the bookshelf. He included his own picks too, and the final group of 12 makes a solid starter collection.

Over here, we’re listing the Dos and Don’ts of purchasing a cookbook, whether it’s one Dan mentions or another volume entirely. Now, you don’t have to follow ALL these rules every time you crave a Martha Stewart baking collection. (That would be a tad obsessive. Insane, even.) But heeding one or two guidelines could save a few bucks in the long run.


DO get recommendations from friends. There’s no better litmus test for a cookbook than hearing the good word from previous purchasers - ESPECIALLY ones you love and trust in the kitchen.

DO read reviews. Second only to the all-important friend referral, reviews let you know how a cookbook is being received by the general public (a.k.a. the people who have no stake in promoting it). Amazon and the Chowhound message boards are two spectacular destinations for (generally) unbiased evaluations.

DO match your needs. Are you a vegetarian mother of 67 who eats Italian food exclusively? Are you a young British dad who can’t get his three-year-old to swallow a single carrot? Are you a swingin’ CEO who has exactly four minutes and 15 seconds to make dinner each night? Whatever your situation, there is a cookbook to match it. If you can, take a few minutes to browse some bookshelves, message boards, or online libraries. Odds are you’ll find that 2nd edition of 30-Minute Indian Pork Desserts. (You know, the one with the Bacon-wrapped Galub Jamun?)

DO consider health concerns and dietary restrictions. This goes doubly for cookbook gifts. Case in point: the “HI Y’ALL!” cackle and planet-sized diamonds aside, I secretly love me some Paula Deen. For a brief time, I even considered replacing my blood with her Chocolate Bread Pudding. Alas, as my days of full-fat desserts and “FAHVE STI-YUCKS OF BUTTUH!” are over, a Lady and Sons hardcover might not make the best birthday present. It’s the same idea with diabetics and candy instructionals or vegans and barbecue cookbooks.

DO see the cookbook at least once in person. If you’ve ever used a color-challenged computer monitor to make online purchases, you know goods can be very different in real life than how they appear onscreen. Nothing beats seeing the dimensions, hues, and layout of a cookbook with your own beautiful blues. Take a gander next time you’re at the local Borders.

DO scan the inside flap. This excellent tip comes from’s Fiona Haynes, who observes that the front and back covers provide, “a snapshot of the author, their philosophy and credentials.” If you’re concerned with authenticity or qualifications, the bio is a great place to start.

DO read the index and a few recipes. Ingredient lists, equipment availability and mastery level are three vital factors in matching a cookbook to your needs. Can you find all the required foods? Do you own (or can you procure) the appropriate utensils? Do you have the necessary skillz? Gift-wise, this step also ensures Junior doesn’t receive a Daniel Boulud collection and “30-Minute Meals for Dummies” won’t go to your gourmand grandma.

DO practice the 7-day rule. If you see a book in a store and like it, wait a week. Then, if you’re still craving its sweet, succulent food after seven days, go nuts. You can even use the downtime to check for discounts and comparison shop.

DO try out a library copy. Test driving a loaner is a failsafe method of ensuring it gels with your cooking style. Those 21 days (or 25 if you’re delinquent with returns … me) provide plenty of opportunity to experiment with recipes. And? If you’re not satisfied? You haven’t blown $20 on a waste of precious shelf space.

DO check if you can find the same recipes online for free. Why fork you’re your hard-earned cash for something you can procure for no money down? Tons of magazines and authors publish their work on websites now, and a ten-minute search could save you 30 bucks. Of course, sometimes you just want the book, and that’s totally fine, too. Even though Lidia Bastianich posts a ton of her dishes on the ‘net, I prefer having The Italian-American Kitchen around because of the convenience and extras: cooking tips, food descriptions, pictures of her hands, etc.. (Seriously, I love her hands. They just look so … capable.)


DON’T be seduced by design. Too many cooking guides look gorgeous next to your backsplash, but come up short in the recipe department. If a full-color strawberry 8x10 is what you want, photography books might be a better option.

DON’T fall for too-good-to-be-true discounts. The 75% off sales at Barnes and Noble … the bargain basement prices at CostCo … the clearance markdowns at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. When it comes to cookbooks, it’s tempting to dive right into the BUY 1 GET 1 FREE bin. Unfortunately, those costs are often slashed for a reason: the recipes are duds, the layout doesn’t work, etc. You might strike gold on occasion, but it’s always safer to research first.

DON’T gift a cookbook if it will go unused. Once upon a time in her early teens, my friend S mentioned to her extended family that she liked cows. Henceforth, for a full decade, nearly every single present she received was cow-themed. Now, she wasn’t ungrateful – it’s just that she had approximately 48,000 pieces of bovine paraphernalia and had grown out of the phase by age 15. Even today, at 30, she’s occasionally given a porcelain heifer for her birthday. Similarly, I’m sure there are folks with 38,000 cookbooks who’d rather chug olive oil than get another one. (I’m also sure there are collectors with 138,000 who would like nothing better.) If you’re buying a gift, consider carefully whether the intended recipient falls into the Too Many Cows category. (Beware of giving cookbooks to non-cooks, as well.)

DON’T jump at a celebrity cookbook. A-list endorsement doesn’t always equal good eats. You might end up instantly horrified (Paris Hilton cooks?) or pleasantly surprised. By all accounts, Patti LaBelle’s soul food and the late Linda McCartney’s vegetarian dishes are solid investments, but others … who knows?

DON’T buy into suspicious gimmicks. I have no idea if all-tea diets or worm head dinners are nutritionally sound. I’m not a health professional. I DO know I wouldn’t purchase a cookbook that made shady promises about accelerated weight loss or tapping the inner mind through lemons. There are snake oil salesmen everywhere, even in the usually classy cookbook world. Doing the research and trusting your instincts can help you avoid these charlatans.

And that’s our ballgame. If anyone out there would like to add to these OR suggest a cookbook for Dan’s list, write us an e-mail or go crazy in the comment section. We look forward to hearing from you.

(Photos courtesy of lollyknit , suzysputnik, ulterior epicure and maltphoto.)

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Meredith said...

Great advice!

I have far too many cookbooks sitting on my shelf, unused.

Many of them were bought because of the eye candy or for sentimental reasons.

Little Miss Moneybags said...

I definitely agree with trying cookbooks out from the library before spending money on them. I checked out Small Batch Baking on a whim and loved it so much I ordered it before I had to return it to the library! Some of the recipes inside have become staples.

I would add to your list: Do try to find the cookbook used, on Amazon,, or even Let someone who hasn't read this list take the hit of paying full price.

Sunday Librarian 2 said...

I would like to add that if there is a cookbook you covet, but you are low on cash, you might try one of the book swapping sites. I use, but there are others out there as well. You have to be willing to list some of your own unwanted books and pay the postage to send those to others, but you can get much desired books sent to you for free! If no one is currently offering the book you want, you can add it to a wishlist and an email will be sent to you if anyone adds them. I know I have several cookbooks on my list right now!

Kris said...

Little Miss and Sunday Librarian - those are GREAT suggestions. Buying used and/or swapping can save a ton of dough.

Heather said...

Fantastic advice. I've found much of the same advice holds true for cooking magazines, as well. I love to flip through Bon Appetit, but I won't pay for it when Taste of Home is what my growing family eats.

Sharon said...

One more thing, and this is when looking at the unused cookbooks on your shelf, is to plan a week's worth of recipes from one cookbook, unless it's something like the cake bible or such, then, maybe a couple of desserts you actually will make. If you really cannot find 5 to 7 meals out of the cookbook, that you think you and your family will like, or cannot find the ingredients, or some such thing, then send it off to Goodwill, or such. There are too many good cookbooks out there to allow a dud to suck up shelf space.

Dialectically_Yours said...

Another way to trim your cookbook shelf is to COPY OUT the dozen or so recipes you use most from one cookbook. If you're having trouble cutting the list DOWN to twelve, it's a keeper, but if you're having trouble padding UP to twelve, it's better to copy out the recipes you DO use, AND NOTE THE SOURCE, then pass the book along.

Cooking is as much about memory and tradition as it is about nutrition, so DON'T gut your shelves over a new diet, ESPECIALLY if it's a result of health issues.

I remember borrowing my grandmother's recipe box at around age nine and copying out four or five recipes (from the most handled cards, of course) onto my own 3by5 cards. I literally CANNOT use two of the five cards I still have due to food allergies, so I mounted the cards in my photo scrapbook along with a photo of my Grandmother the year I copied out the cards.

If you're looking for a 'starter' cookbook for a family member or friend, why not present a cookbook *you* made from your collection? I always use Dijon mustard in my sweet-and-tangy burgers, so when my cousin's teenager makes the recipe in his first apartment, he'll *recognize* the taste, if not the recipe name. Using email and computer layout makes it easy to assemble a recipe book within your circle of family and friends, with only a little time expended by each person.

Nicole said...

Unbiased reviews? Don't forget then! They have everything! (well, almost)

Anonymous said...

Under the heading of "DO read the index and a few recipes" may I suggest in addition to looking at the ingredients list--

look at how the ingredients are measured!!

I already own a couple cookbooks that I basically can't use because they measure ingredients w/metric, by weight, and whatnot.

Sure, I could spend the time converting everything (and I have for a couple recipes that really looked interesting) but who has the time for all that??

Anonymous said...

I have the Sealtest cookbook that is shown above! I got it and a few other older cookbooks from an old boss for when I got my own place. Good advice on checking out a cookbook at the library - I have done this. Also, yardsales - nothing like getting a nice cookbook for a buck or two!