I live and breathe cookbooks. Every week, the UPS guy leaves another dozen or two. I recipe-test every day of the week. My four-year-old eats octopus. My nine-year-old's favorite food is Turkish börek (filled pastry). I am as smitten with cookbooks today as I was the first day I ever hefted a spatula, and that is why I wanted to have a word with all of you: the publishers who feed the habit I share with millions of American home cooks.
I currently review cookbooks for NPR, the Boston Globe, AOL's Kitchen Daily, and the cookbook indexing site EatYourBooks.com. Although I don't see every last cookbook, I see a wide spectrum, from the spectacular to the half-baked. At the end of every year, I make up best-of-the-year lists, and it invariably pains me to see many books fall out of the running for what are essentially silly reasons. But I also come across books so bewitching, so un-put-downable, that I have to ask myself: what is it that makes them so special?
Here you'll find my attempts to answer those two basic questions: What makes a cookbook awful? What makes a cookbook great? The answers may surprise, nettle, or disturb you--but I hope you'll give them your attention nonetheless. Before my life as a cookbook reviewer, I worked in publishing myself as an acquisitions editor, so I know how hard it is to keep your eye on everything. Some of these tips are for your copyediting and production departments; others are for editors and authors. And marketing, publicity, and sales people should be mindful of all of them.
Five Common Mistakes that Make a Cookbook Unusable
Cookbooks remain a non-replaceable, hard-copy artifact in a digital world. They are used as physical objects in a way other books are not. Every time a cook tries a new recipe, she returns to the page at least a dozen times. Format matters, as do details and specifications. The good news is, these mistakes are easy to fix.
1. Page Format. There is nothing worse than a cookbook printed in a miniature typeface. Bear in mind, we're not reading these books in a comfy chair or on the beach. They're often on a messy kitchen counter, three feet away from our eyes and our steamed-up glasses. Often we have to find our place in a rush. Too-small type is a nightmare. Turning a page with sticky fingers is also a problem, so double-page spreads for longer recipes are ideal (even if it means not including a photo). Is the book too long for big type? It's better to cut a few recipes to make your $35 price point than cram them all in in a way that makes them hard to use.
2. Measurement. I know, it's not fair, but American cooks just don't use liters and grams. We work with cups and tablespoons for volume, pounds for weight, and ounces for either. Whenever possible we'll use volumes rather than weights. If you're publishing a buy-in for the U.S. market, make the conversions, or you will have an expensive flop on your hands.
3. Ingredients.American cooks--a great many of us anyway--are adventurous, and we're not afraid of obscure ingredients. But if it's not available at your average Midwestern supermarket, don't be a snob. Tell us how to get it! Tell us what to substitute! Name the online source! If only one chile paste will do, and there's not a word of English on the label, include a picture, preferably in color.
4. Equipment. This one's for authors who happen to be chefs. Don't assume anyone has a restaurant kitchen. If most of your recipes demand a Paco-Jet, a Hobart mixer, or a full set of ring molds, don't bother trying to retail your book. Just give it out free to other chefs, who don't buy cookbooks anyway. Also, if you scale your recipe down on paper to feed four to six instead of 40, actually test it at that scale, and remember the aromatics and spices don't scale down the same way.
5. “Turn to page 578.” Often people like to clean up a cluttered page by nesting multiple sub recipes in the ingredients. “Spicy Tomato Reduction (see page 247).” “Oven-roasted Peppers (see page 135).” Then you get to the end of the recipe and it's “Serve with Eggplant Coulis (page 446), toasted Sourdough Crackers (page 394) and Cucumber Trifle (page 752).” Have a heart, publishers! Incorporate them as extra steps in the main recipe, or if you must, reprint the sub-recipe just after. Our hands are sticky, our glasses are steamed up, and we can't be rifling through a cookbook for hidden recipes.
Five Things that Make a Good Cookbook Great
Design plays a role in making a great cookbook, but for the most part, it's the content that separates the wheat from the chaff. The author of a great cookbook has passion to spare, and a vast fund of knowledge. That shows up in the details, whether they’re technical, historical, scientific, or anecdotal.
1. Great headnotes. Headnotes are what make me fall in love with a cookbook, because that's where the author tells us what this recipe is doing in this book, and why they love it so. It's a place for stories and helpful tips ("if you can't find banana chiles, serranos will do"). Headnotes aren't just decorative--they can give you vital clues. If the author describes how she first was captivated by this recipe because of the smell of perfectly caramelized onions wafting out a window, that gives you a sense of something to watch for in the cooking.
It's always disappointing to buy a cookbook and then find it's filled with recipes for things you already know how to make because they're commonplace: meatloaf, spaghetti carbonara, roast chicken--or a scarcely altered variation on those themes. I always look for "instant classics": recipes that aren't overly familiar but are good enough and straightforward enough to adapt as a household standard. Two Dudes, One Pan’s baked penne frittata and Dorie Greenspan's Chicken Tagine with Dried Apricots are two examples.
2. "Instant classics."
3. “What to Look For.” This is perhaps the clearest indicator of a great cook and, more importantly, a great teacher. The halfhearted cookbook author might merely say, "Fry for five minutes over high heat," maybe adding a perfunctory "until golden". But gas and electric burners are variable, and times vary. Tell us how the spices should smell when they're toasted, how big the bubbles in the sauce should be when it's simmering properly, how salty the curry paste should be. There's nothing wrong with a wordy recipe--it just shows someone cares.
4. Sidebars, glossaries, indexes. Although we don't use them while we're actually cooking, these peripheral materials distinguish the cookbook that stays on your shelf for years from the one you give away after a season. It's not just the useful information, like how to shop for Japanese groceries, or the equipment you need to make your own pasta. It's the quotes from other cooks, the story about Nana and the fishmonger, the lore that makes your cookbook different from anyone else's.
5. Art. Good design is essential; good art can make a buyer fall in love with your cookbook right there in the store. But don't let your food stylist go so crazy with the shot that it no longer bears a relationship to what the home cook can reasonably produce. Nothing's more infuriating than seeing perfect grill marks on a piece of meat when you've been told to run it under a broiler, or having beautiful little heirloom cherry tomatoes not mentioned in the recipe prettying up a beige risotto under false pretenses. Honest photographs, preferably facing the recipe page, are great. Drawings, whether whimsical or realistic, can work, too. (And type can be every bit as powerful as art. I am partial to the mixed-typeface designs you see more and more these days--they punch up a page and often help me parse a recipe at speed.)
Of course, these are just my opinions. To some extent, they're arbitrary--yet I've heard cooks here, there, and everywhere echo these thoughts. Of course, the single most common refrain you hear among cooks is "I already have too many cookbooks!" But superior content, captivating design, and thoughtful editing will overcome that lament every time.
As for my favorite cookbooks: It takes a few years to know whether a cookbook is going to end up being a favorite. I have many, so it's hard to choose. But here are a few I find myself returning to again and again.
The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter)
Filled with good things to read, not just to eat--fascinating food quotes, sidebars, and anecdotes in a punchy type design that makes them easy to read. Many easy, instant classics.
Tasty by Roy Finamore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Finamore is a model of clarity as a recipe writer, and his cuisine is comfort food that works every time. His recipes are perfectly balanced, flavorwise--often with thoughtful, unexpected ingredients. This book is chock full of instant classics.
660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer (Workman)
Abundant, well-tested recipes with clear instructions, good background introduction, and an excellent glossary for hard-to-get ingredients.
A Passion for Ice Cream by Emily Luchetti (Chronicle)
Beautiful photographs and perfectly triangulated flavor combinations.
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop and Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop (Norton)
Both of these do a fantastic job with hard-to-describe, hard-to-find ingredients. Expansive headnotes that instruct and amuse.
Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A course in baking unto itself. Very strong theoretical basis, clear explanations, pristine photography.
And my worst ever cookbook? I'm not going to name names, but I reserve a special place in my library for the most preposterous cookbook I have ever seen, from an otherwise terrific publisher. It's an extremely high-end book whose most striking feature is the 6-point type laid out diagonally in four different directions on each page. This is illegibly imposed, in turn, on a background of black-and-white photographic negatives. The ingredients, while on the obscure side--micro-amaranth greens and peppercress, pig cheeks, pumpkin seed oil--would have been okay if there had been any instructions as to where you could find them. While the equipment required isn't outrageous (fine sieve, charlotte molds, that sort of thing), simultaneous recipes often require different oven temperatures, which only works if you have multiple ovens. There are no headnotes of any kind. In short, this book is a very pure example of a genre of cookbook I like to call Don't Try This At Home.