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Who needs cookbooks?

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Andrew Webb Andrew Webb | 11:35 UK time, Thursday, 8 September 2011

As a food journalist I own a lot of books about food. What often surprises people, however, is that I don’t own too many cookery books. Recently on this blog Dan Lepard asked what we wanted from such instructional tomes, the gist being we seem to want lifestyle, not recipes.

Rick Stein


Indeed, the recipe count in most cookery books seems to have been falling of late. Rick Stein’s ‘Spain’ contains 140 recipes on 320 pages, while Jamie Oliver’s forthcoming ‘Great Britain’, has 130 recipes also on 320 pages. Compare this to around 180 on 250 pages for his debut ‘The Naked Chef’ way back in 1999. Going back further sees ‘Restaurant Dishes of the World’ by Margaret Fulton (published in 1983) containing around 190 complex recipes on 140 pages, and in the likes of Mrs Beeton there are over a 1000.

But is it always about quantity? Would we ever attempt to ‘complete’ all the recipes in any given cookbook anyway? A quick straw poll of my friends on twitter asking ‘what was the last cookbook you bought and how many recipes have you cooked from it?’ revealed the following:

karen_loasby: Madhur Jaffrey, Curry Easy. Zero recipes
miss_ingredient: Ottolenghi’s ‘Plenty’. 4 recipes so far
BigSpud: Jamie 30 min meals, about 20

I reckon on average we attempt around 10 to 15% of the recipes in any given book, which rather begs the question why are we buying them?

Perhaps the problem is too many cookbooks spoiling the broth? When we want a pork recipe, we have to open each book and search its index. That’s rather time consuming when you’ve got even a moderate collection of books. So much so in fact that a service called has sprung up which lets you search online in the indexes of books you own for $25 a year.

Many sources
These days we get recipes from a myriad of different sources, not just cookery books, and the biggest provider is the internet. Recipe searches make up such a large part of Google’s traffic that they launched a dedicated recipe searching page – arguably a good or a bad thing. Smart phone and tablet apps are another area of growth. Nearly all Food media personalities have some form of cooking app out now.

Another approach is to catch us when we’re doing our weekly shop. The Delia & Heston campaign for Waitrose goes for the retail jugular with wipe-down cards right next to the ingredients you need. The rise of the food blogger has shaken things up considerably too. Plus there are the food magazines from both the BBC and other publishers.

Is the cookery book doomed?
So facing old enemies like TV shows and glossy magazines, as well as new foes like e-books, smart phone apps and websites, it would seem the writing is on the wall for cookery books. And yet... Jamie Oliver’s ‘30-Minute Meals’ was the fasting selling non-fiction book ever.

Silvia Crompton, Senior Editor at Random House Books thinks there is always a place for big names in the cookery book space. Like the top of the Premiership, it’s the familiar faces out in front, the ‘first name only club’: Gordon, Hugh, Nigella, Heston, Delia... The gap between their books and other food books is huge.



"However that’s not to say that new books can’t break through" she adds. "Hummingbird Bakery did well without TV show support", catching as it did the perfect cupcake wave in 2008. Silvia believes that lifestyle will remain big part of cookery books. "When you read something like Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, you’re buying into Nigel’s philosophy, not just following a recipe."

Most cookery books seem to have left the kitchen table and taken up home on the coffee table. They’re almost too big or precious to use in the kitchen now. Chef Andrew Pern’s lovely book ‘Black Pudding & Fois Gras’ has a suede cover, while Heston’s ‘The Big Fat Duck Cookbook’ costs over £100. No splashes of grease on these beauties!

However publishers, such as Quadrille, are signing up food bloggers for their ‘new voices in food writing’ series, proving that a book deal is still something to covet and that there’s still a market for it.




As to what the future will look like, well maybe we’ll all become publishers in our own right using services like Lulu to print our own cookbooks as some people are already doing. Or perhaps we’ll all have e-book readers in the kitchen, and the printed book will go the way of the illuminated manuscript? Maybe future TV shows will let your smart TV talk wirelessly to your wi-fi printer and print all the recipes out as the credits roll. Who knows? I do know however that the future rarely turns out as people predict.

In the meantime, let us know if you prefer cookbooks, apps or recipes printed off the internet. Also have you ever cooked everything from one cookery book? Please write in the comments box below.

Andrew Webb is a writer and food journalist.



  • Comment number 1.

    After a lifetime of loving cookery books, I'm afraid the internet has become my sole source of recipes.
    The problem with cookery books is that by the time you've taken your household's likes/dislikes and dietary requirements into account, there's only a handful of recipes that can be used. My husband is lactose-intolerant and doesn't like fish, so that's knocked two out of every three recipes on the head. Dinner parties pose similar problems, 'Amy doesn't like vinegar, so that dressing is out, Bob doesn't like fruit with meat, so we can't have that lovely lamb dish with apricots...'
    With the internet I can type in the ingredients and go straight to the dishes I can cook.
    It's a great shame because cookbooks are often things of beauty, wonderfully produced. I spent a great deal of my life designing and preparing books for print, so I feel a traitor to now confess that it's the internet for me every time.
    Food blogs - that's the way ahead.

  • Comment number 2.

    Looking not too far into the future, we might see a time where the word “book” will mean a digital app, in the same way that words like “video”, “radio” “television” now describe something different to 20 years ago. So I don’t think old style cookery books will die but rather morph into something else.

    So…this might mean that in the future digital “books” could also be recipe aggregate windows. So a digital “book” on chocolate could also seamlessly pull in recipes from the web but still delivered within the “book” format, restyled so they seem part of the one digital book experience. Paper printed cookery books will then be just for the specialist and perhaps free to be even more creative.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have seen the is 'app', how horrid. Could we be saying goodbye to the future passing down the family of treasured well used books with little inserts, additions and sub notes left by dearly departed Mothers and Grandmothers.

    I recently gave my Larousse Gastronomoique to my teen-age nephew as he left to start a new job in a Michelin starred Cumbrian restaurant. I have no further use for it and feel happy it has gone to a good home.

    The internet is very handy though and I am happy to embrace both formats!

  • Comment number 4.

    My mum's rule of thumb was that if you could get three good recipes out of a cook book it was "good". I've cooked from recipes on laptops and smartphones, but nothing beats paper (preferably in book form) for ease of use. A good reference cookbook (e.g. Delia's complete cookery) is an essential to any kitchen and there are a few good ones to choose from. Cook books have more authority that many internet recipes as they are more likely to be tried-and-tested, and a beautiful cookbook can be full of inspiration.

    The best cookbooks aren't just about recipes with lists of ingredients and instructions - they include passages on cooking, buying food and eating which add hugely to my knowledge and understanding of food. Nigella's How To Eat is particularly good at this; it's like having a conversation about food with an experienced friend or relative. A good food blog can give you that but I'm struggling to find many that suit my tastes. So far I have two I like: and

  • Comment number 5.

    Nowadays I find myself normally looking at the internet before my cookery books for inspiration. But I do like cook books and browsing through them as well. Also my box full of ideas from magazines and my own notes. I think we are now using more and more different sources for our inspiration, for example supermarket "ideas", blogs on the internet and of course, our good old cook books. I can't imagine books being totally replaced - anyway, I hope not!

  • Comment number 6.

    I have several dozens of cookbooks, and have never cooked anything from many of them. I rarely follow recipes except when baking or making desserts, but instead use the cookbooks to give me ideas for flavour and ingredient combinations which will work well, or adapt recipes to suit my family's tastes.

    I also really enjoy looking through cookery books as a relaxation - I don't find browsing the internet quite as therapeutic. I tend to use the internet if I'm looking for ways of using a specific ingredient, or finding a new baking recipe, whereas I read cookbooks just for the pleasure of it.

    However, I agree with Harriet's Mum that even one or two recipes (or ideas) from a book makes it worth paying for - you don't need to 'cook the book'. Nowadays I rarely buy brand new cookery books, but browse the shelves of charity shops for old or unusual books, or books which I find interesting, but wouldn't want to pay full price for! It's a great way of extending the range of books I have - if I had to buy them new I would only buy books with baking recipes.

  • Comment number 7.

    I get my recipes from books, google serches, food blogs and friends. The thing I love about a good cook book is that you can browse through it for inspiration. If I'm trying to work out the menu for the week, and i don't know what I want, then I usually grab a few books and spend a happy hour or two immersing myself in them, getting ideas for new dishes, and rediscovering old ones.

    Getting recipes off the internet generally means one has to be searching for specific ingredients or a certain dish, and i do that sometimes, but for me, you just can't beat a proper book.

  • Comment number 8.

    I love my Be-Ro cookbook! It taught me everything I know about the perfect victoria sponge, biscuits, fancies, pies, sauces, pastry and batter-making. Not cooked everything in it, but a good 50%.

    Having said that, for recipes, it's the internet every time. I own a few books, but often can't afford / find / recognise (!) some of the ingredients, and the versatility of the internet means you can always find something to suit you. I love a real book, but tend to only use them for inspiration. And the pretty pictures of course!

  • Comment number 9.

    The general opinion here is shared by me. When starting up in the kitchen, one relies upon a cookbook to assist with the basic techniques, but after acquiring a modicum of experience, a cookbook becomes more and more of a hindrance in the prep area. Accomplished cooks and chefs, therefore, rely upon their experience and basic expertise in tasting, in order to prep standard recipes and experiment for themselves. Whilst I am always willing, nay eager, to try out new ideas and tastes in the culinary art I practise, I must confess to following, generally, the modern trend of using the vast internet library of recipes. It is far quicker, and if one desires an ethnic alternative...well, there it is.

  • Comment number 10.

    I love buying and looking through cook books, its not just about making the recipes these days, many of the books are visually very pleasing to browse through. I have had to stop myself buying more though, I have a whole shelf full and don't cook that many recipes from them.

    For recipes, I use a mixture of cookbooks, the internet and food magazines. The book I have cooked the most recipes from is the little BBC Good Food 101 Low Fat Feasts book - lots of quick and easy recipes in there.


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