Reading Cookbooks

My mom started having me help in the kitchen when I was about 8. A frequent early responsibility was reading the recipe and making sure she followed it correctly. Like any child bored with the pauses, or fascinated that there could be so very many cookie recipes, I tended to flip ahead. This was the beginning of my reading cookbooks.

There was a history to most of my mother’s collection -“passed down from my grandmother”, “the only recipes that came out right in Jamaica”, “Didn’t you and your brother give me this for Christmas?” And my mother often made notations near recipes -‘James’ favorite’ or ‘Yucky!’ and I took more pleasure in these glimpses into our family than I ever did in flipping through a photo album.

My parents got divorced, I got older, and because my mother was working I was arriving at an empty house after school when I was blindingly hungry with the ‘three-thirties.’ Though I was tremendously fond of a bowl of hot corkscrew pasta tossed with butter and a cloud of finely grated sharp cheddar, I was also very fond of variety so I returned to reading recipes to get ideas.

I got serious about reading cookbooks in college. I read Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s Becoming A Chef. I don’t actually recall if they said that a budding chef should read cookbooks or if it was just a common thread among the chefs they talked to in the book. But I thought, “Well that’s something I can do!” And I picked up the Joy of Cooking and never looked back. I’ve been reading cookbooks off and on ever since.

I can state with authority that reading cookbooks alone will _not_ make you a chef. But well-written cookbooks are an incredible kitchen education and worth every moment you spend at it.

So, why read cookbooks and how? They aren’t page turners in the traditional sense. There’s little plot and no dialogue. Though in some there are some fabulous pictures!

Reading cookbooks teaches you a number of things. First, that there are general cookbooks and specialty cookbooks. Both types of cookbooks have a progression. Typically from lighter fare that might begin a meal moving through entrée options to dessert. Cookbooks written around a particular food like eggs might start with breakfast and work through the day. Bread books often move from simple loaves to more complex, or group by ingredient. The theme is organization. This tradition in cookbook writing subtlely emphasizes that there is an order to cooking.

General cookbooks often have explanations of terms, ingredient substitutions, equipment suggestions and variations on a basic recipe, as well as tips on how to care for you ingredients or stock your pantry. Speciality cookbooks often have details and history about the topic (tomatoes mole, tacos!) that when not invaluable, at least give you more appreciation for the dish. And the more you know the better you cook. Cooking well is 9 parts preparation and 1 (vital) part intuition. You can build that intuition by cooking anything and everything all the time or you can build it with knowledge. Preferably you will do both. Reading cookbooks helps you on the building knowledge side.

Cooking, however, is part of how to read a cookbook. If you tried to read every cookbook you were interested in cover to cover, you would be bored, ravenous and probably out of work. I’m currently working through The Gourmet Cookbook (Reichel, 2004). The blinkin’ thing is 935 pages long. And when you’re in the chicken section, well you know at least one of the ingredients in every single recipe!

When I read a cookbook, I do start at the beginning and make eye-contact with every page right through to the end. Depending on why I am reading a cookbook I will linger over different sections. But I am trying to absorb the following things as I go:

  • Vocabulary – “Hey! I saw Clams Casino on a menu last week. Now I know what it is.”
  • Flavors – This is where the page by page eye-contact comes in. I try to look at the ingredients list for every recipe. Once you have seen hundreds of recipes that call for chicken and green peppers, you can safely assume that chicken with green peppers is pleasing to multiple people.
  • Techniques/Tricks – Cookbooks vary widely in their explication of the actual cooking process. Every now and then someone goes that one step further to say “Thick enough that the whisk leaves marks.” And suddenly you can make your lemon curd perfectly every time.
  • Ideas – Feeling confident in your sense of what goes together, or even having a vague recollection of a favorite recipe can be a life saver when your grocery list goes AWOL (or never got written!)
  • History – Not only do I care about getting a recipe to taste good, I like knowing what it means to the person who wrote it.
  • Is the cookbook any good? – When I recipe catches your eye and seems too good not to make, try it -then and there if you have the ingredients. You will be able to tell in just a few recipes if you enjoy the cookbook author’s palate and if the directions are clear enough.

Though I am still making my visual pass through The Gourmet Cookbook. I have already made several recipes. I am a long time fan of both Gourmet‘s palate and the way the recipes are written. I have also picked up storage tips for fresh greens and a thorough enough description of the pleasures and pitfalls that I plant to try making fresh pasta.

So pick up a cookbook or food magazine. Look at all the recipes. Cook the ones that make your heart (or stomach) leap. You’ll only get better.


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