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What do we want from our cookbooks?

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 12:55 UK time, Tuesday, 21 June 2011

One famous cookery writer I know, when I grilled her about another famous cook’s latest bestseller, just rolled her eyes and whispered, “I just couldn’t get into it. It has sat by my bedside for a month now and every time I try to read it I give up and go to sleep. Too syrupy and more than I ever cared to know.” But there’s a distinct pressure to write those sorts of books, simply because they sell so well. One agent told me, “forget recipes…no-one’s interested. They can Google for that. What readers want from a cookbook is lifestyle, an enviable homely lifestyle that they might in their dreams aspire to one day”. Ouch.

Woman rolling out biscuits following a cookbook.

Instructional or aspirational?

Is that reader you? It was me in my teens and twenties, before the harsher realties of life and its obstacles became glaringly clear, before I’d learned to have patience for my own emerging style. I’d look at Robert Carrier’s Food, Wine and Friends, the grand daddy of all enviable-lifestyle cookery books, and wonder what it’d be like to have both Bianca Jagger and Tina Turner around for lunch - "would they fight? What about their diets?" - thinking that one day, surely, cooking the dishes in Carrier’s book would at the very least put me in the running should they ever find themselves in my suburban hometown with a spare afternoon. Back then life was full of those possibilities…

Today, though my life does have some glamour (despite that Jagger and Turner still haven’t called), the recipes I turn to are more about finding answers than living up to some aspiration. And many of you feel the same. Years ago I wrote a chapter for The Cook’s Book, for a publisher called Dorling Kindersley known for their how-to manuals. You probably haven’t heard of it, there was no TV-tie in, very little magazine or other press, no celebrity names involved. If there was a stealth cookery title that avoided mainstream press detection, that was it. Last month I got the sales figures through: over 440,000 copies in hardback worldwide, for a book that does nothing else than explain, step-by-step, how to cook and bake.

TV chefs Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo

TV chefs Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo

Now that’s not meant to happen, but it does and fairly often it seems. Browsing though Amazon’s bestselling cookbooks there are - bobbing just under the big TV names like Antonio Carluccio, Rick Stein and the latest diets - are many steady selling cookbooks that do little more than teach you how to cook or bake. Books on slow-cooking, BBC Good Food magazines’ brilliant 101 series, The River Cottage’s dinky little specialist handbooks... This is at a time when it’s easier than ever to go to a website like this one and pluck a free recipe from the archive.

So what’s it to be? Do you shun celebrity or authority? Do instructional cookbooks seem too hectoring, or are lifestyle-centred books for anyone but you? As more website and blogs offer free recipes, have you discarded books entirely in favour of that online bonanza, or does the paper and glare-less reading make traditional recipe books essential in your kitchen?

Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.


  • Comment number 1.

    I've found that the latest Celebrity Cook books are about how clever and smart the chef is and ultimately contain food that I don't want to cook.

    A lot of people read cookbooks for "food arousal" (I don't want to type the rude word!) but it's for inspiration and something to change up their standard routine in cooking. We all get stuck in a rut and think "what can I make tonight" and it's nice to have someone gently suggesting and enticing us with a good picture.

    I've have a few books from Institutes like Good Housekeeping, the WI and BBC Good Food to help with the basics. Right now I'm looking to expand my collections into books that have the "authority" on a certain subject like Hugh FW's Bread book.

    I do like to read lifestyle cook books - like Nigella's but I realised the other day I've probably made 6 dishes from her book that I have had for over 6 years so it's stopped me buying similar from the likes of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

  • Comment number 2.

    I do like cookbooks although I must admit I google a lot for recipes these days. I am often inspired to buy or borrow a book when I have seen a chef on television and liked what I have seen them prepare. I'd like to think I don't buy into "lifestyle" when I buy a cookery book. I buy it because I am attracted to the recipes and approach to food. These book are usually expensive so I tend to be picky!

  • Comment number 3.

    I love my cook books and the internet will never stop me buying books, although I do often google for recipes now, I just don't feel you can rely on most of the recipes that come up on a search. If looking online I generally go to a site that has recipes from a chef I know and trust, not just any old recipe. Too many are American and as soon as I see things measured in cups I move on. But when looking for cook books I'm the same, I normally go for books from chefs who have a smiliar view on food as me. At the moment the three main chefs I keep going back to are Peter Reinhart, Yotam Ottolenghi and Harumi Kurihara. Sadly Dan your books aren't avaliable where I live :o(

  • Comment number 4.

    I get my cooking inspiration from a variety of places, sometimes I use search engines, sometimes I leaf through a magazine and sometimes I look in a book. Admittedly the cook books are taking a backseat lately to the magazines though, simply because they take up so much space.

    I don't buy a cook book in the hopes that it will transfer my wife into Nigella Lawson (though that would be nice) or in the hope that Ramsay may pop around for a few tips, I simply cook to give my kids some clean healthy food to eat instead of consuming processed garbage. Cookbooks mostly provide the inspiration and some of the knowledge

  • Comment number 5.

    I love cookbooks, do indeed use them as kitchen "porn" and if people are coming to a meal I like nothing more than deciding the style of food I want to cook, selecting the books that are likely to inspire and sitting down with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table to read and plot for an hour or so.

    I don't normally bother with "lifestyle" cookbooks - my definition of those is: too much in the way of personal and family reminiscences around the recipes. I like information about the history / culture / development of the dish - that's pertinent and often sends me off on another track - but "we ate this when I was six and it reminds me how my big sister used to poke uncooked spaghetti up my nose when my mum wasn't looking" style of commentary does nothing for me at all. Except make me cross pasta off the menu. I'm currently in love with the first Ottolenghi book, Sophie Grigson's Vegetables and Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook. Cookery books will always have a place in my life.

    However, if I'm in a hurry and have "something" I want to cook right now, Google is great or, if I have a little more time, asking a question on the BBC food messageboards...
    ...are brilliant for fast, informed and accurate advice and inspiration.

    Foodie blogs are good too - I've mined some nuggets of gold - but they're not where I'd go for fast inspiration.

    And I am one of the 440,000 who bought The Cook's Book. :-)

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm old enough, and experienced enough, to realise I'm never going to achieve any of the lifestyles put forward in aspirational food writing. Most of the books I buy are straightforward 'How to Cook' books. There are a few exceptions - although I'll never achieve Nigel Slater's minimal looking kitchen, his recent TV series have inspired me to buy the two 'Tender' books on fruit and vegetables. They're a good read as well as instructional, but on the whole I want to read the recipes not wordy tracts about why the writer is cooking those particular recipes!

    Books beat the internet for relaxed, comfortable browsing, but it's often faster to find a suitable recipe online, when you need a meal on the table in two hours time, or a cake in the oven in the next hour!

  • Comment number 7.

    One problem with searching for recipes on the net is too much choice. Even within a fairly narrow search I often read quite a few, get some ideas, and this tells me which book to get out. A book is a much nicer thing to have in the kitchen than a computer. There is also something satisfying about getting out an old book with bits of food stuck to it which falls open in all the right places. So called lifestyle cookery books are better off on the coffee table or by the bed than in the kitchen

  • Comment number 8.

    I've got the cook book too, Tatihou. It's a terrific book of choice isn't it.

    No thank you to lifestyle books, I have no interest there.

    But do buy books on a theme basis: bread, Indian, fish, vegan etc.
    It's rather solitary experience too, you're on your own in the kitchen, bedroom reading and/ or cooking.

    As far as internet sources are concerned, this exposes food to you in a different manner.

    It's not recipe and picture based, but more a community activity.
    It's a social club if you like from the comfort of your own home.
    You can email the recipe author, leave comments, talk on forums, and share in general.
    Bake-alongs are the ultimate experience and a joy to take part in.

    That's how it feels my end any way.

  • Comment number 9.

    I just love cookery books...I am more likely to buy a book on a theme...bread, preserves, cupcakes, cookies..than buy a general book because I have a few of those already (including a Delia Smith complete cookery course where the cover is falling off and there are so many pages stuck together with food that it tells its own story). Ideally there are pictures for each recipe...I am likely to buy a book if there are extracts on line or in a magazine or newspaper with pictures and the recipe works...but there are other books I will buy just because someone I like reading (Michel Roux Jnr) has written it or someone who I regard as an authority on their subject has written it (short and sweet comes to mind here...). I bought Cresci just because it looked such a beautiful book....sometimes I feel I need a good reason not to buy a cookery book.....

  • Comment number 10.

    Depends on what cookbooks we are interested. For example my wife wants only cakes, lots of cakes. I can't say i want something special, but not only cakes.
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  • Comment number 11.

    I forgot to write this above...the book I really, really need is "delicious, healthy meals in 10 minutes"...with pictures and ideally lots of recipes......

  • Comment number 12.

    For a quick recipe or a new idea, I use Google. I do, however, still buy cookbooks- I don't want to get my phone all gooped-up with my cooking (yes, I'm a messy chef).

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  • Comment number 13.

    I have a huge collection of cookbooks, mostly inherited from my mother, but a small selection of old favourites I return to time and time again. If I'm planning a party, I'll tend to grab a stack of books out of the bookcase that we keep conveniently outside the kitchen and spend an afternoon leafing through them to piece together a meal. For many basic things I will frequently return to Easy Peasy All The Time (a book aimed at children), Sorted (aimed at students) and Clever Cooking for One or Two. These books provide me with simple, basic recipes from storecupboard ingredients that appeal to my creative, experimental style of cooking. For baking, I love Baking Made Easy by Lorraine Pascale. Apart from Delia, she's the only celebrity chef I read. I also keep a binder of recipes that have been given to me by relatives, those I've developed myself and those that I use very frequently and don't necessarily want to look up. If I'm in need of fresh inspiration, I'll hit Google or one of my bookmarked food blogs, but ultimately what I want is recipes, plain and simple, with a bit of tutorial for complex techniques.


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