Update on the book situation and ruminating on cookbooks

A month ago, I asked how I should get rid of cookbooks and craft books. There were lots of great suggestions in the comments - thank you! Here's an update...

I posed that question a month ago, when I was just starting the packing-and-purging process. At that time I thought I'd just have say, one box of books to get rid of. But as we went through the zillion books that have accumulated, we realized that there were far, far more. (I don't spend much money on stuff like clothing or shoes...well ok not much on shoes...but books are another story). So, the issue became one of speed and convenience above anything else. Just the idea of listing the piles and piles of books tome by tome became overwhelming.

So, we chose the easiest option and have been carting books every few days to the local charity shops, who happily take them off our hands. So far I think we have gotten rid of about 10 to 12 cartons of books, I kid you not. We've also been able to sell a few (mostly sci-fi stuff and the like). Many also went to recycling (computer books mostly, which no one wants, not even our local Bring-und-Hol (swap meet). I swear I am never buying another computer how-to book again if I can help it.)

Nevertheless, I still have about 2 cartons of books that are sort of too nice to just bring to the charity shop. Most are Japanese cookbooks and craft books, plus a few manga. I'm not sure if I will get around to listing them up before we have to leave (the house may be sold faster than anticipated) but they will be leaving my hands sooner or later, at which time you will mostly likely hear about it.

Thoughts on sorting cookbooks

I've still packed away about 4 cartons of cookbooks so far, and still have about 1 or 2 cartons worth to go. My cookbooks are part inspiration source, partly for research, and to be honest with myself, a security blanket too. Still, I've tried to get rid of as many as possible. Here's how the sorting has gone:

  • Themed cookbooks (cookbooks for movie lovers, book-themed cookbooks, etc.) are the easiest to get rid of. They are mostly filled with fluff and I rarely cooked anything out of them - and when I have, I've found that many recipes just don't work. (There's one called the Nero Wolfe Cookbook that has a recipe for Chicken Fricasee with Dumplings, with dumplings that are just all wrong.) The only ones I kept of this genre: The Star Trek Cookbook (the Guy insisted) and a Walt Disney World cookbook which has a few nice recipes.
  • Regional cookbooks, from regions that are very different to where you live or how you cook, also get very little use in reality. I'm not talking about general cookbooks about a type of cuisine, but those ones you often pick up when you travel somewhere - From Massachusetts With Love, The Celtic Cookbook from Wales, New Orleans Home Cooking. etc etc. I've purged most of these, with a little regret.
  • As you might expect, people tend to give me cookbooks for Christmas and so on. At the risk of alienating most of my friends, it is rare that a cookbook received as a gift fits into my general library. I guess for me, choosing a cookbook is a very personal thing. Also, people do tend to gift big, glossy coffee table type cookbooks...which are mostly quite hard to actually use.
  • 'Diet' cookbooks are on the whole, awful. I got rid of almost all that I had accumulated over the years, about 10 of them with no regrets! I'd much rather try 'cooking lighter' on my own, and I think I'm getting better at this as the years go by. (The only one of this genre I kept is Cook Yourself Thin, mentioned here previously.)
  • Celebrity cookbooks. These vary wildly in quality and usability, even from the same author. Jamie Oliver books for instance tend to be loaded with nice photographs, but for me at least score fairly low on the usability scale. Martha Stewart's recipes and I just do not mesh. On the other hand Nigella Lawson's books are on the whole quite useful. Other TV-personality or famous-chefs whose books are actually worthwhile in my collection include Madhur Jaffrey, Atul Kochhar, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Rick Stein. This is a very personal bias of course. As for cookbooks written by non-chef 'celebrities'...forget them.

What I've noticed is that I only repeatedly use a small handful of the cookbooks I own. Of the rest, I try maybe one or two recipes, but that's about it. With so many recipes available in the interweb, I already see myself getting much, much pickier about what cookbooks I buy.

My most used English-language cookbooks

After all the purging, I realized that I only really use a handful of cookbooks. Here are the general purpose English-language ones that I really use regularly. (I'm excluding baking and confectionery books here.)

  • The Way To Cook, Julia Child. Also used quite a lot by the Guy. No. 1 in our house by far.
  • James Beard's American Cookery, James Beard. This one has lots of good American basics, and is peppered with just enough history.
  • Simple Indian: The Fresh Tastes of India's New Cuisine, Atul Kochbar. Atul Kochbar is the owner chef of a Michelin starred restaurant in London. I need cookbooks to cook Indian cuisine, and this one is my favorite.
  • New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants, Molly O'Neill. I have the hardcover of this, which I bought when it first came out. It has so many and varied recipes and everything I have made out of it has been terrific. (Though I must admit I have avoided a few that that don't sound too good.) One of my favorite ways to roast pork, my favorite blini recipe, my favorite butterscotch brownie recipe, and on and on...all come from this book.
  • The Frugal Gourmet series by Jeff Smith. Remember the Frug? He has disappeared from the media due to some shady business, but the books that accompanied the PBS television series are really pretty useful. The first one, simply titled The Frugal Gourmet, is the best, but the others are good too. They're all out of print but are easily available used (and cheap too).

What are your most-used, most-splattered cookbooks?

Now I have to finish going through my Japanese cookbooks....

Filed under:  books and media essays

If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming my patron via Patreon. ^_^

Become a Patron!


It's really more of a how-to cook book than a recipe book but as a beginning amateur cook and college student, I really like Alton Brown's book "I'm Just Here for the Food." I find myself pulling it out a lot when I'm just messing around experimenting in the kitchen for general ideas.

These days I turn to cookbooks mainly as refreshers on techniques or recipes I rarely make: What's the right temperature for deep-frying? How many minutes per pound should I cook a pork roast, and to what temperature? What are the proper proportions of ingredients for a bechamel? What can I substitute for baking powder when I'm out?

For those sorts of questions, my two oldest cookbooks still get the most use: The 1968 edition of Marian Rombauer Becker's "The Joy of Cooking" my mother gave me when I left home, and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," by Child, et al.

And the heck of it is, the recipes still hold up, too.

I'm like the first anonym, I can let the cookbook I received at school when I was 13 years old. It's called "Menu-plaisir" and it's my reference, my favorite receipt come from that... After I can choose between my three books about vegetarian cook, and it's funny, they have the same name: la cuisine végétarienne...

Now, I think, I have ten others, and I know it's too much, I use it one time every two month and I'm optimistic... but I can let it or give it...

^^ I totally understand about the Star Trek cookbook. I have one themed cookbook ("Nanny Ogg's Cookbook", based on the Terry Pratchett Discworld series). Most recipes are useful and tasty. I mixed my first curry spice mix using the "Genuine Howondaland Curry" recipe, also the soya sauce with mustard is a delicious dip.
A bit less than half of the book is about the (fictional) author's opinions on etiquette, manners, ceremonies and such... since I'm a fan, it's extremely entertaining, but I do wish there were a couple of more recipes, they're such fun.
I definitely wouldn't give it away. :)

After many years, it's still Barbara Kafka's Roasting and Shizuo Tsuji's Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, which I see has a new edition!

And I'm in love with the Culinaria series of international cookbooks. Now if they came out with a Japanese volume, I'd be giddy. As it is, I'm focusing mainly on Germany and Hungary right now.

Good luck with your move!

I too have a large collection of cookbooks, and it doesn't help that I can get a discounted selection where I work.

I only started to cook a few years ago as it wasn't something that I picked up from my mother (who doesn't cook). And something that's helped me from when I was a complete beginner that I still refer to is Marie Claire Kitchen by Michelle Cranston.

Other than that, I refer to Nigella Lawson's Feast a lot too as it's all about cooking for big groups.

Wow, people use books?

I just do a few minutes of google research before cooking something new. (Which is how I found your website, Maki!) I read several recipes and take the median principles of all of them to use as a baseline while in the kitchen, usually ad libbing throughout the process just to make things more interesting.

It works. I'm a notoriously good cook among my friends... and I thought this method would be more popular, but the more I ask, the more outlandish I feel. It can't be that strange, can it?

In response to the first comment, I too am a fan of Alton Brown. I really admire the concept of teaching cooking principles rather than just outlining a bunch of silly recipes, and I confess to squealing excitedly whenever I catch "Good Eats" or "Iron Chef America" airing on the Food Network. I <3 science. I <3 cooking. I <3 Alton. (Maybe I am outlandish.)

To reiterate, the internet is a great cookbook. Especially if you are too poor to buy.. well, anything.

I cook in exactly the same way - I don't think it is outlandish but how most good "home" cooks evolve their repertoire over the years. But as I don't have the internet at home - I just refer to my cookbooks and read a few different recipes and go cook the hybrid one myself without looking at an actual recipe! Same method really?

I suppose you're right. In subjects of the arts, it seems learning from many is much more efficient than learning from one, whether your using books or internet research, and I'm glad I'm not the only one doing things that way. I use the latter mostly because it's what's familiar to me. I'm a child of the vast anonymity of the internet, where information is free. What an amazing phenomenon to bring to the kitchen!

This is something I learned a bit from my parents. My dad and mom will tweak and interpret every recipe that comes through their kitchen. My dad, not being internet savvy, draws inspiration from cooking shows and books. I love the internet and have been known to look up several recipes for a dish and follow none of them. I have also been known to squeal for Alton Brown.

Good luck and happy cooking!

I turn to my old trusty Betty Crocker cookbook my mother has had for ages it was published in 1969 and was the 4th edition... It has the best basic cookie recipes I know of. I tend to find new things online most of the time though.

... have to be:-

  1. My first ever cookbook, given to me when I left home - an old edition of Delia Smiths "Complete Cookery Course". Although not at all trendy anymore it is where I go back to for all my traditional basics of my childhood - from veggies to roasts to cakes. Delia gets me (and my mother) through our Christmas dinner every year, bless her! I don't really cook traditional food anymore so I need the help.

  2. This has been in out of print many times and arrived on my shelf by word of mouth and I have raved about ever since. It is simply brilliant. Charmian Solomon's "Complete Asian Cookbook". It is BY FAR the best cookbook I have (and I have an addiction to them) and the only cookbook where I will follow the recipes to the letter (apart from when I am baking of course).

  3. Larousse "Gastronomique" - I love to leaf through this; partly to teach myself a bit more of the back catologue of French cuisine (yesterday I wanted top know what a Salpicon was) and partly for the serendipity of the more obsurce recipes and ideas. Perfect for when you just want to sit down with a quite cup of tea or glass of wine and browse foodieness.

So those would be my desert island selection... Mind you if I was on a desert island I would probably need just one cookbook specialising in fish and cocounts!

I can identify with so much you say!!

My favorite cookbooks are a couple of books by Jacques Pepin, particularly the Short Cut Cook. Ive been taken in by celebrity chefs...most recently Rachel Ray...haven't found a good recipe yet. I also like the series of cookbooks put out by the Cooks Illustrated people, always a good recipe!

I love the Frugal Gourmet! I own two of his books, the self-titled and Cooks American. The stories about the food, food history, and his experiences cooking are as good as the recipes.

And the shady business was never proved. But it did destroy his career.

Now my big fave is America's Test Kitchen. I agree with what Nigella Lawson wrote about them - obsessive complusive, but in a good way. And the companion show is fun, too.

This post really hit home with me! Books are one of the things we really need to purge here too.

The cookbook I learned on was my mother's 1948 version of "The Woman's Home Companion Cookbook" which she got as a wedding gift.
By the time I as the third child was cooking it had gotten very shabby and stained, lost it's cover and was held together with rubber bands. Even though the recipes were rather basic and a little boring by todays standards, the best thing about it was that it assumed you knew nothing, and I mean nothing, about cooking or a kitchen. It told you how to boil water, how to simmer, etc.
It had chapters on setting up an efficient kitchen, how to set a table for various meals, like a brunch or an afternoon tea, formal and informal. Even how to write an invitation.

I learned a lot about technique from that book. When I got married two of the cookbooks I got were the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, which was similar to my mother's but with better pictures, and I also got the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Lately I've also been enjoying America's Test Kitchen and I like how they do the testing so I don't have to. I've got to say my cooking has improved since watching it. I also got their Best Recipes Cookbook and even though it's a little lacking in variety, every recipe I've tried has come out great.

I have all the types of cookbooks you dumped and I've gotta say I don't use them either. As far as ethnic cuisine, these days I use the internet for most of it.

I think I've got to get some boxes myself for those charity shops!