What makes a good cookbook?

“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
Laurie Colwin


Julia Child’s personal copy of the Joy of Cooking

Sometimes I look at my cookbook collection and think – do I own too many? The short answer is yes – I probably do. At my last count I owned around 50 cook books and that doesn’t include all my Cuisine/Donna Hay/Dish magazines. Although my food magazine collection is a lot smaller these days as when I moved house I gave most of them away to friends – reluctantly.

And if I’m being truly honest with myself – there are quite a few of the recipe books that I rarely use or have never used at all. Some of them are gifts from people who perhaps were stuck for ideas and thought – “I know! Sophia likes cooking! I’ll buy her a cook book!”. There are cookbooks that I’ve picked up at second hand book stores purely because of the price and at the time, tried to convince myself that this cookbook was exactly what was missing from my collection.

There are however, cookbooks that do deserve a place on my bookshelf. These cookbooks all share what I considered similar characteristics. They must inspire, teach and connect.

On my 21st birthday I received two of the best cookbooks I have ever owned. Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion from my aunt and Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking from my mother.  These two books in my humble opinion meet the criteria I outlined above.

At a fundamental level, a cookbook must inspire. Cooking can be hard work – some recipes require immense effort and time to be spent – keeping an eye on a sauce so it doesn’t go lumpy, or constantly stirring to that the food doesn’t burn. And this hard work creates inertia. A cookbook must overcome this inertia – it must sell itself to you.

A Cooks’ Companion and The Joy of Cooking do this differently. It’s hard to describe in an elegant way how the Companion book does this. The best way to describe it is the feeling that you get from it – it’s like Stephanie Alexander collected all her favourite, tried and true recipes, organised them by ingredient and then put them in one huge colourful book. It’s like browsing through someone’s curated personal recipe collection where you know every single recipe will be simple yet not ordinary. There is always a twist, or a hook to the recipe that draws you in.

Joy is a bit different. There is a history behind it (it has been in print since 1936) that gives it a sense of authority and confidence. It inspires because it is the authority on home cooking. It inspires because chefs like Julia Child have trusted it. It inspires because it is simply the go-to book on anything – be it sauces, meats, cakes, drinks – everything. In old additions for example, they used to have recipes for bear and whale meat.

At another level, a good cookbook should teach. Joy was the first cookbook I ever used because my mother had it (as did her mother). Some of the first recipes that I remember using were the griddle cakes (American style pancakes) and french toast – recipes that I still use today. None of these are particularly difficult to make but they do teach you some basics of cooking. As I’ve become a better cook, whenever I want to learn a new skill I always go back to Joy.

My personal cookbook copies

Companion is a modern cook book, so while Joy teaches the basics. Companion is much more cosmopolitan. Joy teaches you more about technique and process, whereas Companion is more focused on understanding ingredients more fully. Not surprising that Companion is organised by ingredient – like beef, cumin, and oranges as opposed to Joy’s chapters – vegetables, beverages, meat. It provides a much greater understanding of the nuances and history of each ingredient. By cooking the recipes that are connected to each ingredient, you get a much better understand of the variety of ways that a certain spice, or fruit or piece of meat can be used in a dish.

The final characteristic that I think a cookbook should have is that it should create a connection.  I’ve always been of the view that a well-loved book is one that is bent, wrinkled and slightly tattered. It shows that it has been come back to over and over again, or passed along from one person to another.  Cookbooks are similar. My most loved cookbooks are ones that have food stains on them – especially on my favourite recipes where you can instantly see how well loved they are.

Joy is particularly special to me. Not only was it the first cookbook I can remember cooking from, it’s also a cookbook that every woman (and man) has in my family. It connects me to the wonderful cooks in my family. I know that Joy is a household favourite across many American households so there is also something special about being part of a wider community that has grown up with this book like I have and understands the specialness of it.

While Joy connects me to my past, Companion is much more future focused. I received both at my 21st the same time I moved out of home, but I associate Companion much more with growing up and making my own way in the world.  It’s a modern, Antipodean take on Joy. If you could only have one cookbook in your collection – this would be it. It’s not surprising that Companion is the type of book that my generation in my family now receives for 21st presents.  It’s a wonderful recipe book, written by someone who clearly loves and respects food and is able to share this in a simple, elegant and encouraging way.

I have other cookbooks that meet some of the above criteria but none of them do it as well as A Cooks Companion and The Joy of Cooking. If you’re building up a cookbook collection, these cookbooks would make an excellent foundation   to start from.


One thought on “What makes a good cookbook?

  1. Pingback: Hush Puppies Y’all | In The Gateaux

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