Articles and Explorations

What Makes a Good Cookbook?

By Celia Sack

What makes a good cookbook? The answer to this question is the one on which my business depends.

A good cookbook will be your road map, your sherpa, through the hills, dales, and steep climbs a recipe may take you on. A well-written recipe will not only instruct you in ingredients, measurements, and cooking times, but will teach you skills you can use over a lifetime in the kitchen. A great cookbook will explain recipes in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way, without dumbing down the process. Shortcuts are fine once you’ve mastered the longer version, but like hiking, it’s better to gain confidence by taking the marked trail before veering off into uncharted territory.

Aesthetics are important, too, if for no other reason than simple inspiration. I can’t help myself: I always judge a book by its cover. A beautiful cookbook cover calls to me. It seduces me. I can’t resist opening it. Once inside, I look for some telltale signs. Some people only like cookbooks with photographs – fair enough. If that’s what inspires you, go with it. Personally, I get inspired by an author’s headnotes: her father and mother made Devil’s Thighs together every Sunday night while the kids mixed martinis, or an author’s recipe for blackberry jam cake with sherry sauce that begins with the history of German winemakers’ emigration to Missouri.

I also look for recipes that are one page long, two at most. My skill level and time allotment doesn’t allow for much more than that, and if I buy a cookbook I’ll never use, I’ll just get down on myself. When choosing a cookbook, set your goals and know your limitations when you walk into the bookstore.

One of my favorite series of cookbooks is the exhaustively recipe-tested Cook’s Illustrated series. Their Complete Book of Poultry is my bird bible. An entire chapter on braising gives a recipe for the most basic, French-inspired braised chicken legs and thighs, with parsnips, carrots, onions, thyme, and wine. I cooked it over and over again through one cold winter, and once I’d mastered that simple yet delicious recipe, I moved on through the chapter to an Indian-style braise with potatoes, cumin and corriander; a Mexican one, even an African braise with peanuts. With each recipe, I had to look less and less at the page; the basics of braising were now hardwired into my head, and all I needed to know were the new ingredients and measurements I would be using to riff on the basic braise.

Another cookbook I love is Judy Rogers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. With each recipe, she tells the cook why they’re doing what they’re doing, from salting short ribs a day ahead to seal in moisture, to swirling honey and vinegar together to give the perfect sweet tang to a braise of chicken and figs. (Clearly, I have a thing for braises). Learning to plan a day ahead, or why a certain combination of flavors work together, make my trips to the grocery store much easier. If honey and vinegar work well in combination, so might mangoes and chili as a piquant salsa, or candied nuts and green apples in a salad. Ms. Rogers wrote nothing of these sweet-tart marriages, but her explanation about why certain flavors work in unison made me think for myself (and feel like a genius – thanks, Judy!).

A good cookbook is one you’ll use over and over again, that will continue to inspire, teach, and surprise you throughout time.

Celia Sack is the owner of Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco. Visit her website here:

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