The Internet really ought to have killed cookbooks.
July 14, 2019 4:15 PM   Subscribe

In fact, as the rest of the book industry found itself in a post-millennial free-fall, cookbooks were selling better than ever. This is because, coinciding with the rise of the Internet, cookbooks reinvented themselves. What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more—a mood, a place, a technique, a voice. Cookbooks of the pre-Internet age remain essential, of course. But, to my mind, the best cookbooks of the twenty-first century are among the very best ever written. [Helen Rosner, writing for The New Yorker, rounds up The Best Cookbooks of the Century So Far.]
posted by nightrecordings (73 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Pure speculation on my part, but I think part of this is also due to the fact that a lot of online recipes being prefaced by the author with 800-word whimsical musings on autumn leaves, their dog, or some quirky neighbor they had as a kid has at this point become a running joke on the internet. This to me tells me that people look up recipes online for entirely different reasons than they buy cookbooks, where such narratives are not uncommon and feel more at home.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:24 PM on July 14 [35 favorites]


I agree, as I almost never read the lengthy prefaces to online recipes but I always want to read the narratives accompanying recipes in printed cookbooks. Some of that is because I'm, admittedly, buying into not just the recipes, but celebrity chef/chef-as-personality culture. I care about the thoughts of a chef I admire, and want to read those thoughts for leisure, but when I'm in a rush trying to find a quick and decent recipe online, I'm not that interested in reading the personal diary of a random food blogger to whom I feel no connection. Not saying that's a good thing.

I'm also curious to hear what others view as the best cookbooks of the 21st century so far. J Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab seems like a big and obvious oversight here, but I don't think I'd enjoy this list as much if it was only the usual suspects.
posted by nightrecordings at 4:32 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


BITCH I ONCE BAKED A SOCK. I BURN MYSELF EVERY TIME I OPEN THE OVEN. MY KITCHEN IS SMALL AND POORLY LAID OUT. THINGS FALL IN THE SINK, OFF THE COUNTER, INTO THE BATTER, ONTO THE HOTPLATES. I GOT BAMBOO CHOPPING BOARDS BECAUSE I KEPT MELTING MY MELAMINE. A DEVICE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN A WOODEN SPOON DOES NOT SURVIVE MY KITCHEN FOR LONG. NO PHONE UNSHORTED, NO LAPTOP UNEGGED.

COOKBOOKS WORK UNDERWATER, WITH BURNS AND FLOUR CRAMMED INTO ITS SPINE. IT WORKS COVERED IN HONEY. IT WON'T TURN OFF ITS SCREEN RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIDDLY STEP OR REBOOT BECAUSE ITS FLASH WANTS UPDATING. IT JUST DOES ITS GODDAMN JOB, EVEN IF I CAN'T DO MINE.
posted by Jilder at 4:34 PM on July 14 [81 favorites]


With the internet you think you'd be able to find an ID for animals and plants, and you kind of can, but I have yet to find an app or website that is as easy to use as a good field guide. Maybe there's something similar about cookbooks? Being able to search is super valuable, but books are kinda better for browsing or scanning still.
posted by snofoam at 4:35 PM on July 14 [7 favorites]


Maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I also don't feel like the biggest of the big-name chefs and food writers have been as quick to shift to putting all of their content on the web as other creators of reference material have been.

We're also still not (yet) at the point where having an electronic device sitting on the counter showing you a recipe is as convenient as a paper source, especially if it has switched itself off while you're up to your elbows in bread dough or handling raw meat.
posted by djlynch at 4:38 PM on July 14 [10 favorites]


I thought it was because every family member of mine keeps buying me cookbooks for every single gift giving occasion despite the fact that I don't read cookbooks and rarely use recipes. I'm the reason the cookbook industry hasn't tanked. You're welcome.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:38 PM on July 14 [9 favorites]


Books work when wet.

just bought a new baking book at a real bookstore and everything, have already spilled yeast filled warm water on it. Did not need to soak it in rice afterword.
posted by French Fry at 4:45 PM on July 14 [12 favorites]


Cooking for me - is a tactile, somewhat messy, usually exhausting, but at the end, one of the most pleasurable things I can do for others - full stop. If I cook for you, it's cause I love you. I need a book to accompany me on this journey - where I can scribble notes, put stars beside the recipes I like, splatter with cooking messes. An iPad, computer screen, or smart phone ain't going to cut it.

And in fact - if its not already a book - I'll make a book. I've been jotting recipes from online sources, with notations and observations into a pad that I tuck into a filofax with my intials on the cover. Not only am I analog when it comes to cooking - I'm meta.
posted by helmutdog at 4:50 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


I am pleased to hear that I am not the only person who has suffered the indignity of their smartphone or tablet turning off its screen in the midst of high-stakes, messy cooking and baking.
posted by nightrecordings at 4:51 PM on July 14 [16 favorites]


If you want to use your iPad while cooking, you can put it in a sealed ziplock bag. It's protected from splatters and whatnot, and you can still use the touch-screen. You still need to set it so the screen doesn't turn off, though.


I don't mostly use cookbooks for day-to-day cooking, but I buy the idea that people buy cookbooks that offer something more than a compendium of recipes. I also think people buy cookbooks for food porn, and maybe also as kitchen decoration.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:56 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


Oh yes! I love Helen Rosner and I love cookbooks and this is wonderful.

My current obsession is Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Tuesday Nights, which is organized in a manner following my own heart into "fast", "faster", and "fastest". It also has gorgeous photography - ArbitraryAndCapricious, to your point about "food porn", seeing a photo of beautiful food gets straight to the heart of what inspires me to cook. I've already cooked several recipes from it and they've all been delicious.
posted by capricorn at 5:07 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more—a mood, a place, a technique, a voice.

This to me is precisely the problem with the kind of 21st-century cookbooks that attract the most accolades; at least with the blogs you aren't paying to scroll past the succinct-but-still-cloying bios and the long-winded descriptions of the author's state of mind before you can get to your Tuesday night sheet pan dinner recipe. In fact, this is also a problem with my other favorite book genre, mystery. Yes, I would prefer to avoid reading gruesome descriptions of murders; no, that doesn't mean that I need the protagonist to be a rare-book store owner and knitter who talks to ghost cats. Is there anywhere to find recommendations for Things That Are Actually About Those Things? Recipe books that are about the recipes, mystery books that are about the mysteries...
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:08 PM on July 14 [7 favorites]


I think that she's saying that the books that she loves are not recipe books. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is not primarily a recipe book. It's a book about cooking, which aims to explain how cooking works so you can cook great food without necessarily consulting a recipe. The Jemima Code is about how black cooks have been erased from the story of American food, and how it's possible to document and celebrate their history and contributions. These aren't books for people who are just looking for a bunch of recipes. You probably can get recipes on the internet, so books have to offer something different.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:26 PM on July 14 [16 favorites]


I would be interested to know what has happened to the market for books that are, like, "500 Casseroles" and "500 More Casseroles". Have they continued to sell well?
posted by jacquilynne at 5:44 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Repeating this passage from the article for emphasis:

This is because, coinciding with the rise of the Internet, cookbooks reinvented themselves. What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more—a mood, a place, a technique, a voice.
I must not have gotten the memo about recipes cookbooks being in service to something more because recipes are online now. The signal to noise ratio out there for recipes appears to be approaching zero. With a physical cookbook, you have at least some expectation that the recipes have all been tested a couple of times and there is an editor involved to catch errors and tweak for readability. With internet recipes, it seems that you are lucky if anyone except the author has made the recipe and the rating gets skewed by all of the commenters coming in to say, "This looks yummy! I can't wait to make it someday! Five stars!" The sites where the recipes are reliably good are the same people and organizations that are publishing cookbooks.
posted by kovacs at 5:51 PM on July 14 [9 favorites]


Books work when wet.

Not only do they work when wet, but if you get the same page damp/floured/encased in Jello enough times, the book will magically fall open to the page you want to read when you leave it spine-down on the counter. Find me the iPad that will do THAT.
posted by Mayor West at 6:12 PM on July 14 [15 favorites]


ArbitraryAndCapricious: "I don't mostly use cookbooks for day-to-day cooking, but I buy the idea that people buy cookbooks that offer something more than a compendium of recipes. I also think people buy cookbooks for food porn, and maybe also as kitchen decoration."
Food porn, yes, and aspirational reasons too. So many cookbooks were on my shelf because I reeeally honestly thought I'd get into making sushi or Brazilian BBQ, etc. (Narrator: He didn't.) I truly believed having them there in sight would inspire habit creation (bwaahahaha...)

Now, three moves later, the only cookbooks still on the shelf are a Favourites binder of recipes I've actually made work, and books of sentimental value or which get genuine monthly usage. The rest are either at Goodwill, or in epub versions, which I store in portable drives, taking up no extra space. So now I can reclaim kitchen real estate and still aspire to be able to Cook All The Things in future (Narrator: He won't.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:23 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


ME: Please, I beg you, just tell me the ingredients.
RECIPE SITE: Sure!
ME: Thank you.
RECIPE SITE: After I explain WHY I love these ingredients—
ME: *Whispers* No.
RECIPE SITE: —It was a crisp, fall evening, and I, a wide-eyed college student, was studying in Rome.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:29 PM on July 14 [62 favorites]


Yes to the bloat prefacing many online recipes.
And yes to the photography.

We moved to a new house this year and some of my cookbooks escaped the storage unit. So I was able to crack open my ridiculously used Beard on Bread and my completely spineless Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook sheaf. So many pages are marked with time.

One Beard page, for Italian feather bread, has a little note. My daughter brought me a feather when I was baking some, almost 20 years ago.

Still, I rely on the digital world for a lot of recipes. It's an efficient way to get inspiration, to compare multiple recipes for the same dish, and to dig up extra info (not to mention falling down culinary rabbit holes).
posted by doctornemo at 6:33 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


"And in fact - if its not already a book - I'll make a book. I've been jotting recipes from online sources, with notations and observations into a pad that I tuck into a filofax with my intials on the cover. Not only am I analog when it comes to cooking - I'm meta."

About 10 years ago, when I was JUST learning to cook and could at last achieve things with more than three steps, I gathered all my recipes that were printed out or torn out of magazines or painstaking copied on cards, harassed my mom until she e-mailed me all the family recipes, and then compiled them all into a 300-page cookbook that I had printed and spiral-bound in a trade paperback size. With some misgivings -- because a lot of the recipes were my go-tos and not necessarily anything anyone else would like/use -- I had one printed for each of my siblings and for my mom, since it had all the family recipes in it (along with my maybe-useful recipes).

This Christmas I mentioned I was going to re-do it (because my copy is tearing and has been spilled on and my kids have colored all over it) and I was going to remove crappy recipes I don't make, add new ones, and everyone LEAPT on me. "YOU HAVE TO ADD MY CHILI RECIPE!" "DON'T TAKE OUT THE CHICKEN-WITH-PEARS, I COOK THAT EVERY WEEK!" "IF I GET MY MOTHER-IN-LAW'S ARMENIAN RICE RECIPE, WILL YOU PUT IT IN?" Everyone uses it constantly, it turns out a cookbook that's mostly everyday dinners that suit our shared palates (from growing up together) is super-useful!

Anyway! Everyone should consider making their own private cookbook, it's super-great. In the last couple pages I got to put all the cooking facts I always have to look up, like how long white and brown rice cook for or how many minutes per pound a turkey needs.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:02 PM on July 14 [34 favorites]


Everyone should consider making their own private cookbook, it's super-great.

This made me think of two things. First, some relatives of mine make a new cook book each year, after testing recipes with family and friends. They get the cookbooks spiral bound and send them off as Christmas presents. Super nice, but I have yet to one (sorry, fam!). Second, when my sister was in middle school, her school was putting together a cookbook, but she forgot to get a recipe from home, so she made one up on the spot. In reviewing it after the fact, it appears to be missing some critical steps, and might make you ill. Still, the fact that she just made it up makes me grin.


I was (and still am, if it's still there) tempted to buy a CD-ROM with something like ONE MILLION RECIPES. It's from the mid-1990s, that magical era when Personal Computers were coming into their own, but the Internet wasn't yet a source of Way Too Much Information, so such CD-ROMs were still viable products to produce and sell for real money. I recently saw it at a local thrift shop, and was very intrigued. Do I need it? No, if I'm reading on my computer from a CD-ROM, I might as well be reading from the internet.

But as Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane noted at the top of the thread, it would also lack the Instagram/ Pinterest ready photos and unnecessary context as to how well this went over at the website operator's last shin-dig or birthday party or whatnot, and, it won't have a million ads and pop-up videos (I swear, looking up recipes on my phone drained my battery faster than anything else I've done on it lately, though I don't do much but bop around MetaFilter and check emails on my phone, to be honest). I recently copied the text from two recipes I found online into Evernote, so I could have the ingredients and directions, without the fluff, so I'm still reading recipes from electronic devices. I'll see if that CD-ROM is still for sale :)


We recently purged about half of our old cookbooks, including some charmingly vintage ones, but I've never actually used them to make a recipe, so why keep them ("because they're charming" is not a valid answer in our house, FYI). But I did keep the ridiculously large Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon (yes, that is her real name).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:11 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


It was pre-iPad etc., when I did, but anyone who worked in a bookstore will tell you what soren_lorensen said. Cookbooks are gifts. Easy to buy. Easy to give. Easy to Marie Kondo when they take over.
posted by Gotanda at 7:16 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


Everyone should consider making their own private cookbook, it's super-great.

I tried to recruit my family members to do a family cookbook about 10 years ago, but the project didn't go anywhere because so few people sent me their recipes. The best set of recipes that I did get, though, came from one of the farming branches of the family, where the matriarch sent me an email that began the first recipe with "On the day that you slaughter the hogs..."
posted by jacquilynne at 7:18 PM on July 14 [8 favorites]


robocop is bleeding: RECIPE SITE: After I explain WHY I love these ingredients—

Something I learned that I thought was really interesting is that there's a reason for that, and it's IP! You can't copyright a recipe but you can copyright your narrative about finding the most amazing heirloom tomatoes at the farmer's market and how they inspired this salad that your kids couldn't get enough of.
posted by capricorn at 7:19 PM on July 14 [20 favorites]


Crescent Dragonwagon is an awesome name.
posted by doctornemo at 7:38 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


Everyone should consider making their own private cookbook, it's super-great.

I've never been tempted to do a full cookbook, but I do have a small notebook where I make cryptic notes (useful only to myself) about things that I cook too rarely to remember key details.

I use the paper cookbooks less now; I tend to google a bunch of recipes, look for sources I trust vs random copy/paste recipe blog, and then mix and match to my own tastes. But I don't bake much, which is where you need to be a lot more precise in your recipes (or at least in your ratios) -- for that, I would default every time to trusted cookbooks.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:56 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Crescent Dragonwagon is an awesome name.
Apparently, Crescent and Crispin Dragonwagon were what happened when people got married at the age of 16 in 1968 and decided that Ellen and Mark were warlike and authoritarian names that needed to be replaced.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:12 PM on July 14 [12 favorites]


Here's my impression of a vegetarian recipe from the internet:
Start with 16oz of cream cheese.

Add two cans cream of mushroom soup.

Pour over the melted butter.

Serve with ritz crackers.
This is technically vegetarian, but not really in the spirit of what I'm wanting. To find creativity and quality AND quantity of recipes in some domains, shelling out for a good cookbook is essential because the internet is a wasteland of recipes that will harden your arteries as you are eating them.

Related: I am still working my way through "The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook" by America's Test Kitchen and it is a goldmine and I have bought copies for many of my friends
posted by slagheap at 8:32 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Melting my Melamine.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:39 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


I prefer looking at recipes online. Not because of the prefaces mentioned above, which I automatically scroll past at high speed because yeahyeahyeahwhatevs, but because my method for pulling together a new recipe involves reviewing a whole bunch of different ones online to determine the fundamental mechanics common to all of them that make a specific dish what it is, after which I start picking and choosing unique embellishment parts from all those different sites that I think would work well together. Then finalize the steps in in a document I print to refer to in the kitchen without the annoyance of coddling my fragile and expensive device or dealing with screen timeouts.

Cookbooks, on the other hand, don't always give you variations on a basic theme, or only limited ones. So to replicate my method you'd have to build a large laborious library of different books to slowly pore through, which I imagine would take something like twice as long to do as doing the same thing online.

That said, I have a book of French bistro recipes I need to revisit, as it's full of quick or quick-ish tasty meal ideas,

In conclusion, leveraging different strengths and weaknesses between the two mediums seems to me to be the optimum approach.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:06 PM on July 14 [11 favorites]


I like reading cookbooks, but... just for the recipes? (And sometimes the food lore; I picked up so much random trivia flipping through the Fannie Farmer cookbook.) I'm not sure what itch it's scratching, since I rarely cook from cookbooks, but probably buy 2 or 3 a year.

Everyone should consider making their own private cookbook, it's super-great.

I kinda kept a recipes notebook for a while. It was the best thing ever. I'd copy down the recipe on the left-hand page, and then make notes each time I made the recipe on the facing page. ("Needs more cayenne, increase next time." "Ugh too much vinegar.") More useful for baking than cooking, perhaps, but it worked for me.

I was a chemistry major so it came pretty naturally.
posted by invokeuse at 9:07 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


I think it's charming how many of you have kitchens that have space for a sizable cookbook collection.
posted by praemunire at 10:02 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


I'm like Neville Longbottom in Potions Class when it comes to cooking. OK maybe not quite as bad but plates of beans are my specialty. In fact Metafilter should sell a bean cookbook.
posted by mundo at 10:50 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


Christ, you can't keep cookbooks in the kitchen, they'd have a layer of permagrease on them within a month.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:07 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


robocop is bleeding: RECIPE SITE: After I explain WHY I love these ingredients—

So true, and he's an amazing twitter follow, definitely has my sense of humor, or I guess I have his?

Regardless in our house we've been loving Abra Berens Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. The corn with salmon is to die for, and if you've never had what's essentially lettuce and parm soup, you're in for an amazing treat. You might think I'm kidding on the last one, but it's one of the best things I've ever eaten and something I'd never have thought of in a million years.
posted by Carillon at 11:47 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


"This is technically vegetarian, but not really in the spirit of what I'm wanting. "

A very close friend of mine has recently become vegan, and it has raised major questions as to what exactly she used to eat before she was vegan. When she comes over it is not a big deal, because while I am not vegan I cook vegetarian and vegan food on the regular, and most of my vegan recipes feature complete proteins from a grain and a legume, and lots of delicious vegetables. She is constantly amazed by this, because everything she eats is a meat substitute made with a soy-based meat alternative, some of which are very good, but she spends a lot of time complaining that the fakeon bits don't taste like bacon and that the scrambled not-eggs don't taste like eggs. and then she constantly calls me up to ask questions like, "Have you ever eaten chickpeas?" And I'm like, um, yes, I fed them to you last week. And she's like, "I had no idea chickpeas were a thing you could eat." And then sometimes she's like, "but why do you eat chickpeas if you're not vegan?"

Basically my point is, I have a whole lot of questions about what her diet consisted of before she was vegan, because as far as I can tell it was almost entirely made of meat with a little cheese. And when I don't want to eat scrambled tofu eggs she gets really grumpy, but if I'm going to eat something vegan I want the vegetables to be the hero, or at the very least the chickpeas. I love a veggie burger, but an awful lot of meat replacements are just not very good, and there are so many delicious vegan dishes that focus on beans and other proteins that I'm not totally sure why you would use bad-tasting meat alternatives, but apparently her whole thing is that she still wants to be eating a meat-based diet but without eating any meat.

(she became vegan because animal proteins cause inflammation and inflammation causes you to die, and it's slightly possible she may now think she will live forever because without the inflammation she will never age, I'm a little unclear on how far down the rabbit hole we've gone.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:04 AM on July 15 [11 favorites]


I buy cookbooks. They are recipe books, for recipes, not, er, moods. While I sometimes use recipes off the internet, I use cookbooks much, much more frequently. This is because:

1) Internet recipes tend to be hit-or-miss stuff no matter what the reviews say, whereas I can get cookbooks by authors I already trust who vet their recipes heavily, or try new ones which have hundreds or thousands of reviews or recommendations -- not a guarantee, but it helps.

2) I wouldn't take my computer into an active kitchen unless it was literally a life-or-death situation, and internet recipes tend to be a pain in the ass to print.

3) I am Old.
posted by kyrademon at 12:36 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Reasons I like cookbooks:

They are aesthetically pleasing objects, sometimes.
I trust the author to write well/give authentic recipes/give recipes that work.
I know the ingredients will be measured in grams and millilitres instead of bloody cups, seriously, what is this, the eighteenth century, and who the hell measures butter by volume anyway, what is wrong with you people?
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:07 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


I always write down recipes on paper. I re-write recipes and stick them into the pages of the cookbooks where they are originally printed.

Why? Because I want the dependency tree. Lists are great for shopping, but the best way to visualise that these five ingredients over here get sautéed together to make something that's needed to combine with this six-part thing over here is to actually draw out the DAG. I'll even jot down preheated ovens as a step, and I'm pretty good at working out the timings for that now that I've written it out enough times.

There used to be a site called like Cooking For Engineers that tried to do something similar with HTML tables back in the Web 2.0 days, but I never found it as useful as my 2D tree drawings.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:48 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


Another reason I re-write recipes is often there's a certain amount of DRAW THE REST OF THE OWL in cookbooks, and I sometimes want to be explicit on how to do something. I was raised by librarians, so our house rule was that only the author may write on the pages of a book. When Post-Its™ became A Thing in the 80s they replaced "P-slips" as our annotation format in codices.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:52 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


Also speaking as a vegetarian, the 'complete protein' thing was USDA propaganda from the 70s. Sure you need a reasonable spread of amino acids over the course of a month or so to stay healthy, but your body builds its own proteins. That's how DNA works.

It's not like meat has "complete protein" anyway: only eggs provide that.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:59 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


With the internet you think you'd be able to find an ID for animals and plants, and you kind of can, but I have yet to find an app or website that is as easy to use as a good field guide. Maybe there's something similar about cookbooks? Being able to search is super valuable, but books are kinda better for browsing or scanning still.

I use Eat Your Books to search through my cookbook collection to find recipes to make. It's helped me use my cookbooks slightly more than I otherwise would.
posted by poxandplague at 3:13 AM on July 15 [6 favorites]


I think it's charming how many of you have kitchens that have space for a sizable cookbook collection.

Christ, you can't keep cookbooks in the kitchen, they'd have a layer of permagrease on them within a month.
I have kept cookbooks in the kitchen because I didn't have space elsewhere in the apartment. One of them is a first-edition copy of How To Cook Everything. It was among the first cookbooks that I ever owned, gifted to me by my older sister when I moved into my first post-university apartment. I agree with the general criticisms that Bittman's recipes are a little underpowered, but it is the book that took me from sauteeing chicken breasts to cooking lobsters and attempting my first ratatouille. In 1998, before the Internet made it easy to search for new cookbooks, much less recipes, the appendices introduced me to Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden, and Elizabeth David. It has acquired a fine patina of grease and battle scars from pureed cherries, smeared butter, and smudged charcoal. The spine has disintegrated, and it is more a sheaf of pages than anything else.

It looks like a book that has labored and I love it for that.

With that said, I didn't want to do any more damage to the book, so last year, I managed to score another copy of the first edition (the subsequent editions removed the appendices, which are admittedly dated, but still awesome as a snapshot of the state of home cooking in the late 90s), and it's interesting having them side by side.

Nowadays, I keep a small number of cookbooks in the kitchen and the others in the pantry. The kitchen books tend to be my working reference and are there when I need to remember how much butter is in the Hazan tomato sauce (it still gives me pause) or what the optimal heat/cooking time ratio is for roasting an inch of swordfish. Yes, an iPad could give me this info as well, but as others have pointed out: turning, grabbing a book and thumbing to a well used reference is much faster than turning, unlocking the iPad, finding Paprika, search type for recipe, etc.

The pantry books are for the quiet morning with coffee, where I'm thinking about the grocery list for the week and thinking of, say, swinging back to doing Turkish again or anticipating when the farmer's markets are going to be deep in summer squashes. There's also a nice sort of browsing and surveying that you can do with cookbooks that you can't really do with targeted Google searches. Sure, it's possible to rabbit hole into Serious Eats or Milk Street, but I like the tactile nature of spreading a bunch of books on the dinner table and assembling a grocery agenda like it's a research project.
posted by bl1nk at 4:22 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]


Christ, you can't keep cookbooks in the kitchen, they'd have a layer of permagrease on them within a month.

That's not grease. That's authenticity.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on July 15 [9 favorites]


I love books and I love the internet, though mostly just a few reliable sites. I am apparently the only person who enjoys the little anecdotes too. The IP perspective is interesting, but I also think bloggers have been inspired by early succesfull bloggers like David Lebovitz and Ed Levine, who are both masters of a good story (and they are probably in turn inspired by all of those great elder food writers who weren't that much into recipes anyway, like J.F.K. Fischer, Elizabeth David, Richard Onley and many more. I like those a lot, and just now am reading an anthology of food essays).
My cookbooks are in the kitchen and they are greasy and it is fine, they are cookbooks. But after I recently discovered that some of them are collectors items, I'm thinking of taking those out. Some of the books have post-its where the favorite recipes are, in some every single page is splashed with whatever is in the recipe on that page. Some are mostly curiosities, I don't use the recipes, I look in them for fun, or for inspiration, and then move on from there. Others are for some rainy day. I have a book on patés that I haven't yet found the time and energy to make anything from, since nothing seems to be doable in less than a day of hand chopping and mincing weird cuts of meat and offal while making doughs and trying to find the actual recipe inside the story of French nobles and clergymen. I still love it.

After I spilled wine in a computer while cooking, I now make a note on a scrap of paper, if I'm using an internet recipe, but I throw out the notes afterwards.

My grandmother made scrapbooks, and we have kept them all. They are filled with stuff she found in papers and magazines, not only cooking stuff. It seems she was really into Out of Africa, for instance, both the book and the movie, and every time she saw a reference to them she would paste it into the current scrapbook. Some pages are almost surreal collages of animals, faces and plants, no one knows why. Some of our favorite recipes are in there, but we can never remember which book they are in, so we go through them all, enjoying every revisit to the weird world of granny's brain.
posted by mumimor at 4:51 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


The public library is a great place to check out those really beautiful cookbooks that I may not want to own but do want to try owning, just for a few weeks. I've purchased several cookbooks after returning them to the library and realizing I needed them forever.

I've recently been reading Ottolenghi Simple, which is a beautifully-photographed book with recipes that are actually fairly straightforward and achievable, unlike, say, the Alinea cookbook. I also really enjoy Prune and was mildly surprised it wasn't on this list. Finally, The Smitten Kitchen cookbook is the best cookbook I actually own. I've never made a single bad recipe from it.

Oh, and it's not from this century, but La Varenne Pratique is an amazing cookbook, full of step-by-step illustrations, gorgeous photos, and epic French cuisine. If you ever see it at a garage sale or similar, snag it--you won't be sorry!
posted by sockermom at 4:54 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


Christ, you can't keep cookbooks in the kitchen, they'd have a layer of permagrease on them within a month.

I think people fall into two categories with cookbooks. People that read them, and people that cook from them*. If you're in the latter camp, you absolutely cannot be precious with them in any way. Yeah, they'll get a thin film of grease. You won't notice though, through the giant olive oil and butter stains/spills, and other general food crud they're stained and coated with.


*There is perhaps a third category for people who do neither.
posted by Dysk at 5:24 AM on July 15 [6 favorites]


When I was in graduate school, I took notes on loose leaf paper, then rewrote them in a notebook. that’s the way my brain works, I used the class notes to clarify my memory.

Same with cooking. After running through the recipe, and possibly amalgamating bits of other recipes, I’ll rewrite. The first section is almost always about special equipment, hints for good mise en place, and preheating if necessary. Something about the bundle of tatty recipe pages burned a hole in mr. lemon_icing’s soul, so he bought me a cookbook binder with big pockets and sturdy paper coloured the softest sea foam green. It makes promoting a recipe to “keep” status all that more special.

I have half the books listed in the article and they are so very helpful. Like nightrecording said, it’s a crying shame that J Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab wasn’t listed. My list would include the two books that taught me how to move beyond basic cooking: The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook and Silver Palate Cookbook. Close behind would be Leiths Cookery Bible.

Why do I like cookbooks? I like the smell of books, I like illustrations, I frequently amend recipes or find errors so scribbling all over the page is the way to go, cookbooks never shut off because it ran out of juice, doesn’t need a plug to work, they don’t require wifi, when I’m reading cookbooks at lunch no one bothers me, I like hugging books.
posted by lemon_icing at 5:33 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


This fits in nicely here: My 12 rules of food (warning: contains butter) by Rachel Cooke, The Guardian.
Cookbooks are in rule no. 10. I agree with all 12.
posted by mumimor at 6:08 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


@capricorn: Search engine optimization (SEO) is the bigger reason I think. Not every Internet recipe is preceded by a memoire - just the ones people actually find when they google stuff.
posted by ToddBurson at 6:28 AM on July 15


I'm in Santiago, Chile, for a while.... and I'm pleased to report that Amazon's lethal tentacles have not yet wrung the life out of the (many) independent bookstores in the city.

When I have a proper kitchen and a couple of shelves at my disposal, I'll be buying this lovely book of lore and recipes.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:45 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


People that read them, and people that cook from them

La Segunda has two different sets of books for these purposes. (I get stuff off the internet or use hers.)
posted by Segundus at 6:48 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Cookbooks (and other food-related books) are just about the only dead-tree reading material I buy anymore. One of the things that drew us to the condo we now live in was the built-in bookshelf in the kitchen; it is full of cookbooks and I really need to sort through them sometime soon.

But I really don't use cookbooks for recipes! If I want a recipe, I'll go to the NYT Cooking site or something similar. I don't really cook from recipes very much anyway, so my cookbooks are mostly used for:
-Quick reference - What's the right temperature for cooking chicken? What's the right ratio for a vinaigrette? I can still flip to an index and get the right answer in a book faster than I can ask Google, even with the voice assistant in the kitchen.
-Absolute basic "recipes" and methods that I can't ever seem to remember completely - how make mayonnaise, caramelize onions (and do it right, none of this "brown for five minutes" nonsense), stuff like that. Online is completely unreliable for this kind of thing.
-Highly specialized techniques or historical information that's either not available online or incredibly difficult to organize - I have four different books on sausage (two of which I accidentally bought twice and had to give away the duplicates), two on preservation, half a dozen that cover historical New England cooking. I also have books on wild game because the internet communities that cover that kind of information can unsurprisingly be kind of toxic. I even have a book that focuses specifically on growing vegetables in New England!

Cookbooks are great.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:42 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


La Segunda has two different sets of books for these purposes. (I get stuff off the internet or use hers.)

She's one of the people who falls into two categories!
posted by Dysk at 7:48 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Nowadays, I keep a small number of cookbooks in the kitchen and the others in the pantry

...what is this "pantry" of which you speak?

(Seriously, guys, people use e-book cookbooks despite the greater difficulty of annotating and the risk of damage to a device because they don't have the space to store a million random-but-usually-oversized-format books.)
posted by praemunire at 7:54 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Back in the 70's when I started learning to cook, my mother bought me The Joy of Cooking. I learned a LOT about food and general advice on how to prepare things, and how ingredients work together. About five years later I added Fannie Farmer and Tassajara Bread Book. A bit later, James Beard on Cooking. Those are the most stained, used books, and I will NEVER 'Marie Kondo' them! Newer techniques and combinations are more fashionable now, but those books are amazing to learn from.
Even today, I'll refer to them when trying something new, just to see if there's a step a new author left out - and often there was.
I *have to* print out online recipes, because I take notes, draw lines to compartmentalize ingredients while I get my mise en place together etc. Plus I can tape it to the cabinet door for easy reference.
posted by dbmcd at 7:57 AM on July 15


The biggest problem with online recipes: they are lies.

They are FILLED with instructions to "heat 1 tablespoon of oil and saute the mushrooms until cooked through" and other bullshit like that.

If a cookbook has a few lies like that, I can throw it away. If it doesn't have lies, I can trust it.

If a gif recipe or random website's random recipe has a lie - I have no way of ever knowing if I will be exposed to that author's lies in the future.

On the internet, no one knows the chef is a dog.
posted by rebent at 8:08 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


As with many others here, I have thoughts re: cookbooks, internet, recipes et al.

My grandmother collected cookbooks, and left behind a room filled with basically nothing else. She also had a card filing cabinet filled with thousands of type-written recipe cards that were cross referenced to ingredients and dishes. Alas, she did not cook. My mother and sisters saved a couple of shelf-meters of the best books, and filled the bed of my pickup with what was left and dropped them off at Powells in exchange for what I recall was like $2000. My culinary-school sister kept the card catalog anyway.

I do a lot of cooking, and dislike recipe books, apart from the aforementioned HTCE and Joy, which are basically reference sources. If I have some random ingredients I want to use, and maybe a thought for a dish, I'll google those keywords and look at the image results until I find what I want, then glance at the recipe procedure and maybe ingredient list. This is so far one example where image search hasn't been destroyed by pinterest: most food images are still linked to some usable context.

What I would really love is an internet recipe aggregator, that collects and compares recipes to give you a general range of ingredients, proportions, and processes. So, like a pastrami brine always contains salt and mustard seeds in this range of proportions, and may include saltpeter, and the mean brining period is 2.65 weeks or whatever. This is something I'm sure a coder could put together in short order, but all recipe aggregating I do manually, looking up 3 or 4 recipes before doing my own thing with what I have on hand or is available in my region.
posted by St. Oops at 8:20 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


The Internet made cookbooks so much better for me, specifically through Eat Your Books, which is a database with many cookbooks indexed so you can search through your physical cookbook collection, by ingredient, dish type, or diet type. It's amazing.

I also love cookbooks although my collection has no overlap with any of the books in the article. (I did read
the library's Salt Fat Acid Heat.) My top cookbooks are:

The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: all these recipes are so reliable, plus I've learned a lot about salting and chopping and doneness. Favorite recipes include the roast chicken, the Thai steak salad, and the broccoli garlic pasta.

Ottolenghi Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi: actually, all the Ottolenghi cookbooks are great but I've made more recipes out of this one. My favorites are the Bridget Jones salmon, the sweet potato mash and the broccoli and kale.

The Oh She Glows Cookbook by Angela Liddon: of you ever need to feed vegans or want to eat more vegan food. She's so reliable and makes good that's great popular. Favorites: life-affirming nacho dip and potato taco crisps.

Dinner by Melissa Clark: a big collection of yummy recipes that will make a good dinner skiing with babe a green salad or some rice. The shredded tofu with Brussels sprouts is a revelation.

Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich. I think this is one of the best gluten-free cookbooks. I recommend the chocolate chip cookies and the carrot cake.

Eyebrows, I think you might have inspired me to put together a book for my vegan parents of all the vegan recipes I've found for them throughout the years.
posted by carolr at 8:27 AM on July 15 [7 favorites]


...what is this "pantry" of which you speak?

Feel free to use dining room or living room or bedroom for whichever room you use for storing books?

Also you may have missed the part in my earlier post where I kept cookbooks in the kitchen because I lived in tiny apartments where there wasn't much room elsewhere.

You do you, I'll do me. If anything of what I said meant that I was somehow telling you you were living your life wrong, I'm sorry but I think there's enough room in this world for all of our cooking reference style?
posted by bl1nk at 9:04 AM on July 15


My husband and I read cookbooks like they were novels, and frequently cook from them. We do not keep cookbooks in the kitchen, as we have too many cookbooks. They take up about a quarter of our 12 feet of bookshelf space in the living-room-that's-really-more-of-a-library.
posted by ersatzkat at 9:27 AM on July 15


I think there's enough room in this world for all of our cooking reference style

I'm fine with people using print, electronic, index cards in an old metal box you inherited from your mom, whatever.
Just pointing out to the people here who are all OMG PRINT IS THE ONLY IMAGINABLE CHOICE HOW COULD YOU LIVE OTHERWISE that it's really not at all hard to understand why people might use ebook cookbooks (or just Internet recipes) once you take away the assumption of a nice spacious suburban home.
posted by praemunire at 9:57 AM on July 15 [1 favorite]


I also really enjoy Prune and was mildly surprised it wasn't on this list.

I was wondering if it would be there too. I would not recommend it for a novice cook at all. But if you know what you're doing and if you ever like to "play restaurant" in your kitchen, it's really fascinating to cook from.

For those who haven't heard of it: the book is written and structured as if it's a copy of the recipe binder from Gabrielle Hamilton's restaurant Prune, in NYC. Spills and smears on the pages. Typed recipes with hand written notes from the chef. ("We use the parsley/shallot butter for weekend brunch too so make extra and freeze. Label with date, please.")

Watch the first 8 eps of Mind of a Chef season 4 on Netflix if you're not familiar with Gabrielle Hamilton. (Her ode to the New York "egg on a roll" is one of my fave bits of food writing.)
posted by dnash at 10:29 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]


I still have my grandmother's copy of The Settlement Cookbook (The Way To A Man's Heart), which I don't think I've ever cooked from and rarely open. But it's so battered and loved and used, I can't imagine not having it. Plus it still has the turkey recipe she cut out of the newspaper sometime in the 1950's that goes into this wondrous new "metallic foil" invention and all the ways it promises to change the way housewives cook.
posted by Mchelly at 11:07 AM on July 15 [3 favorites]


I'll sort of muddle past the WELL REAL COOKS HAVE FILTHY COOKBOOKS YOU PITIFUL DILETTANTE, IN FACT I STIR MY PANCAKE BATTER WITH A HARDBACK to second some love for Gabrielle Hamilton and especially her autobiography Blood, Bones & Butter, one of the best things I've ever read. Watching that Netflix show tonight; when exactly did they start putting out 99% of all cookery shows?
posted by ominous_paws at 11:21 AM on July 15 [2 favorites]


"I would be interested to know what has happened to the market for books that are, like, "500 Casseroles" and "500 More Casseroles". Have they continued to sell well?"

Technology has advanced far enough that we no longer need casserole recipes, we just have a few algorithms to take any set of ingredients and make a casserole.

(1[Cream of Something] + 1 Can of Other Wet + Melting Food) mixed with [edible ingredient] + [edible ingredient], combine in [oven vessel] and bake at "doesn't matter" temp until food is "hot enough to eat."
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:26 PM on July 15 [5 favorites]


I don't have problems propping my pad on a protected area of the counter, but an attraction of a good cookbook vs. J. Random Recipe Site is that all the information in it is relevant; there are not pages and pages of artful photos showing me how piles of chopped vegetables look and how a pan full of them sauteing looks. Also, no one did a global search-and-replace of "extra virgin olive oil" for "oil" and "kosher salt" for "salt" and they never refer to the piece of meat under discussion as "that bad boy."

The article was interesting. I have ordered a couple of the books that sounded interesting to squirrel away as Xmas presents for a couple family members. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:05 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]


> There used to be a site called like Cooking For Engineers that tried to do something similar with HTML tables back in the Web 2.0 days, but I never found it as useful as my 2D tree drawings.

Cooking for Engineers is still around! I baked my first peanut butter cookies from the recipe on the site. It had a big influence on me for a few years; during that time, if I jotted down a recipe from the internet, it followed the table format he used to summarize recipes. I'd be curious to see what yours looked like, rum-soaked space hobo.
posted by invokeuse at 4:51 PM on July 15


oh! I make very similar recipe guides to Cooking for Engineers. I forgot about that! It's so much more useful for seeing recipes at a glance to see how the steps are "chunked" together.
posted by rebent at 5:51 AM on July 16


M.F.K. Fisher weeps for all of the web
posted by Fupped Duck at 7:16 PM on July 16


I have a handful of recipes that after being tested and refined enough I put them up on my blog a very long time ago and will go back to them whenever I need to make them. Then I got fancy and used Pocket to save the pages of recipes I liked. Then I found out that Pocket doesn't actually save the pages and if the original page disappears then so will the saved page. That is how I lost my favourite cole slaw recipe. I really should get back into the habit of saving recipes on my blog.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:47 PM on July 17


I just copy the ones I like into a Google doc, which I have actually broken up into a few docs for different categories as it got too big.
posted by tavella at 4:12 PM on July 17


Why do I like cookbooks? I like the smell of books

This is just to say that I prefer cookbooks to random internet recipes too, but anyone who's ever weeded a public library cookbook collection will forever after put an asterisk next to "the smell of books." Old cookbook smell is not a good smell.
posted by asperity at 11:15 AM on July 22 [1 favorite]


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