Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday Throwback: The Dos and Don'ts of Buying a Cookbook

Hey folks! We're trying something new for weekends: posting an older piece from the CHG archives. This one originally appeared in February 2008. Hope you dig it.

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.

DOs

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 About.com’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’Ts

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 from Flickr members lollyknit , suzysputnik, ulterior epicure and maltphoto.)

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4 comments:

Harper said...

Here's mine: Do check out vintage cookbooks--carefully. A lot of older cookbooks include simple, easy to make recipes and lots of kitchen/cooking tips. Three of my favorite cookbooks are pre-1950. Of course, it's also wise to make sure that you're not buying something along the lines of "365 Easy Ways to Include Gelatin on Your Table," unless you're interested for the sheer weirdness of it.

Here's an example of what I mean:
http://trialanderrorhomeec.blogspot.com/2009/06/wfmw-old-recipe-books.html

Diane said...

Well, I totally agree with the 7-day rule. But I think buying a cookbook doesn't have to just be practical. Sometimes I read them just like I would a novel. They entertain me and take me places in my imagination. For example, I've not yet cooked anything from my book on Lao fish dishes, but I read it often and mull it over - its relationship to Thai cooking (which I do a lot), what the people are like, what the country must be like, etc...

I am a minimalist in most things, and buy little. But I have a real jones for cookbooks and collect them like other people collect baseball cards. It makes me happy to have these books, although I don't use all of them.

Ducks said...

Oh my, the Too Many Cows rule had me in stitches. I unfortunately became known for liking cows (which I did... sorta... among all other animals.) My husband, for liking chickens (which he did... sorta... among all other birds.)

Boy, do we have a houseful of cow/chicken stuff. We put it all on display for a while in the world's most hideous kitchen, but we found that this had the unfortunate effect of bringing in even more contributors to the Too Many Cows & Chickens phenomenon. I've still got a few for murky sentimental reasons that I will someday conquer, but they hide in the backs of cupboards and stuff.

wosnes said...

I have three criteria for buying cookbooks.

1. Am I going to cook from this book? I have plenty of cookbooks in which the food looks and/or sounds good. For one reason or another, I never use them. I don't want to buy any more like that. If I don't immediately want to add a dish to my weekly menu, chances are I'll never use the book. With rare exceptions, if I don't use a cookbook (or a recipe found online) within a week, it will never be used.

2. Is it a good read? I'm particularly fond of cookbooks that feature the food of the Mediterranean. With those, I don't really care if I actually cook from them or not, I enjoy the introductions, chapter notes and head notes on the recipes enough to keep the books.

3. Are the recipes available somewhere else? This is a new criteria. The recipes in many new cookbooks are also available online. I was reading a review of a cookbook by the editors of Cooking Light magazine and one reviewer said that she liked that none of these recipes were available online. I looked at the book and randomly picked 5 recipes and searched for them online. Everyone was available online.

Over the years I've probably purchased hundreds of cookbooks. I have some in storage now, but I only have about a dozen at home. I'll have to say that with just a couple of exceptions, I haven't missed those that are in storage at all. I've probably sold at least 50 books in the last year!