Anatomy of a Real Cookbook

When I was ten I took a crack at my first recipe.  It was for pretzels, and the instructions came out of a child’s cookbook I had received from my grandparents.  I took one look at the ingredient list and dumped everything I needed into a big bowl.  I stood there, perplexed at how un-pretzel like it all looked and decided to consult my mom.  “Oh, I do that, too,” she politely lied, “sometimes those recipes are very confusing.”

They weren’t, but as a naive ten year old I agreed with her, even after she pointed out the page of directions I had chosen to ignore.  “Why would they put those on the other page like that?” I had asked, “they are so hard to find.”

I have come a long way in the world of cookbooks since then, but have only recently discovered that a true cookbook is a rare find among the current stocks today.  Here’s why.

A stack of some of my favorites for refrencing

A stack of some of my favorites for referencing

1.  Cookbooks should teach.  Cooking is a craft, and some people are craftsmen.  These are the people that should right cookbooks, not people who have made a few cookies and their mom liked them.  When flipping through Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel’s cookbook, Bouchon Bakery you’ll be impressed at the fact that they have their ingredients measured out to the gram.  The beginning of the book is prefaced with a story and peppered throughout the recipes are tips about working clean, using a scale, and the like.  Not only do I walk away with some great cake recipes under my belt, but I understand the importance of the procedures.

From Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc

From Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc

2. Recipes should be tested.  Have you ever followed a recipe exactly and came out with a less than stellar product?  I have, and it is a major disappointment.  A lot of factors you don’t even think about could contribute to this-a different altitude than that of the author, slight change in the flour you’re using, or even a second of overmixing.  It could also be that the author made the recipe once or twice, liked it, and moved on.  Real cookbook authors made their recipes more times than they want to count, and accounted for many discrepancies that might occur, leaving you with a trusted recipe.

3. Provide background.  Most cookbooks begin with a story of the author’s culinary journey to food publishing.  Many stories are inspiring and leave you excited to begin your baking.  Reading these stories can help the reader understand why they should use a certain tool or ingredient.  When I read Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish, I was compelled to abandon my measuring cups in favor of a scale.  Had he not told the importance of using a scale, or the best flour on the market, I would have simply thought he was being a snob.  But, hey, I learned something new (and that fulfills the number 1 requirement!)

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4. Open your eyes to new techniques.  It’s a good thing if you’ve never heard of some of the ingredients or tools listed in a cookbook.  Allow these items to open your mind to the world of cooking and baking, not intimidate you.

5. Focus on basics.  “Give a man a fish and he is fed for the day, teach a man to fish and he is fed for a lifetime,” is a great saying that works well for this rule.  Before you dive into the cookbooks that are purely for inspiration, pick up a few that help you truly understand the art of cooking.

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What cookbook has taught you something new?

-Ashlyn

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