The Heartbreak of Cookbook Overwhelm

The Heartbreak of Cookbook Overwhelm on

The publishing industry is on its ear, but while book sales are lagging overall, sales of cookbook titles are on the rise. We could hypothesize about the ‘whys’ all day: people are broke and cooking at home more, American food culture has gained in momentum over the past decade, people are returning to a ‘back to basics’ way of eating that involves cutting out restaurants. Whichever theory you subscribe to, the facts are the same; cookbooks are as popular as ever.

With so many cookbooks titles on the market, which are worth their salt? I know I’ve stood at my local Borders and gawked at the rows upon rows of colorful spines within the culinary section, wondering which to pull down and flip through. When faced with a selection of hundreds to choose from, overwhelm sets in and I just give up and walk away.

For me, it always ends the same way: with the sense that there are just too many damn cookbooks in the world right now.

The Heartbreak of Cookbook Overwhelm on

Thankfully, we’ve got a few pros to help us separate the wheat from the ass. Small specialty shops, such as Omnivore Books in San Francisco, are filled with more cookbook titles than any single large-scale chain bookstore can possibly hold. You might think that it would be more difficult to make a selection when confronted by literally thousands of cookbooks, but here you’d be wrong. Because in a store like this, you have a pro at hand who can walk you through the vast majority of the books before you.

Today we’ve got Samantha Tackeff back again, sharing with us her favorite cookbook selections. You might remember her from Food Blogger Spotlight a few weeks ago, where I introduced her and explained that she had the best job ever – she works at the afore mentioned Omnivore Books, where she spends her days getting up close and personal with more cookbooks than you can possibly imagine.

So if you’re like me and find yourself prostrate before a throng of cookbooks, gaping wildly and drooling on yourself in confusion, you’ll appreciate Sam’s advice about which are worth your pennies and ingredients. Some of her recommendations might surprise you.

Finding Fun Cookbook Titles

You work in a store that sells only cookbooks (best job ever!!). Can you name ten books, new and old, that are must-haves for any serious cook?

(ed note: Omnivore doesn’t have an online shop, so I’m linking through Amazon.)
People come into the shop and routinely ask me what my favorite cookbook title is, to which my response would be… well, I could tell you my favorite four in each section? Even that’s difficult!

You know, this question is a tough one, mostly because there is such a huge range of what people are looking for in cookbooks – one of the best parts about working in a bookstore is getting to talk to people and figure out exactly what they might like – and it’s so incredibly satisfying when they come back and tell you all about how in love they are with their choices. Ultimately, even though there are books that are “classic” – I want people to come out with a book that they are really going to use, so my list sways a little bit on the modern side.

On my own shelves I have almost every Jamie Oliver, and generally recommend any of them, but ‘Jamie at Home’ and ‘Jamie’s Italy’ are the ones that have gotten the most use lately. Like Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall “River Cottage” books are all stellar. He writes these big encyclopedic books with clear titles like “Meat” and “Fish” and has this brilliant series of handbooks, on bread baking, preserve making, mushrooms, seafood, and vegetables. This is a guy who is so passionate about food, and reading any of his books is [dare I say it] life changing. He also has a great cookbook I recommend for families: “The River Cottage Family Cookbook”.

I also recommend Mark Bittman’s ‘How to Cook Everything’ and ‘How to Cook Everything Vegetarian’ to almost everyone who comes into the shop. He writes the New York Times column ‘The Minimalist’ and generally shares my philosophies about food. His books are slightly encyclopedic, and have master recipes with dozens of variations. They are also very well organized so you can easily look up odd ingredients in the index and flip to the page and get a myriad of ideas. Most of all, they encourage some spontenaiety in the kitchen, which makes things so much more fun!

I really love Nigel Slater – his book ‘The Kitchen Diaries’ chronicles his year in dinners – it’s great because on some days he has really detailed recipes, and on other days, he might have picked up a japanese bento box, or maybe this great peach is in season and he eats it with a wedge of cheese and a nob of good bread. I’ve read the book through several times, and love going back to it for seasonal inspiration.

I also collect every Donna Hay book, which is generally my recommendation to food bloggers – her simplicity, innovation, and beautiful food photography is so inspirational. For baking, you can’t go wrong with either Flo Braker’s ‘Baking for All Occasions’ or Dorie Greenspan’s ‘Baking: From My Home to Yours’. They both have cult followings and recipes that turn out so well.

For Vegetarian cooking, I love Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’, and for vegan baking: any of Isa Chandra Moscovitz’s books. My coworker routinely bakes vegan things out of her books that make me swoon. Edna Lewis’ books are the best for Southern cooking. Believe me, it pays to have some really great southern things in your repertoire.

For classic Chinese, Fucshia Dunlop has written really great books – she was the first foreigner to take classes in the Chinese National Cooking schools, and is a great writer. I’ve always used copies of Madhur Jaffrey’s books for Indian cooking, with lots of success. I’ve also been reading through Luke Nguyen’s ‘Songs of Sapa’ – he’s an Aussie chef who went to seek his roots in Vietnam. It’ll make you hungry and empowered in about 30 seconds.

Finally, every good cook should have a copy of Harold McGee’s ‘On Food and Cooking’. It’s a mix of food science and history and technique that is a great resource.

And I’d highly recommend a copy of ‘Mr. Boston’s’ or ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’ for anyone with a desire to learn how to mix a good drink.

Wow, Sam, thanks for all of this! I know I’ll be digging through a few of these titles in the very near future.

To everyone else – remember the old adage, “don’t just a book by its cover,” no matter how gorgeous that dish on the front might look. Do a little homework before buying, and your cookbook title collection will thank you.

What are your favorite cookbooks, and why? What makes a particular cookbook stand out for you as a good egg?

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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. debbie says

    Great post, Steph! I didn’t think I needed (read: had room for) any more cookbooks, but there are a few on this list that are quite intriguing. I’ve been eyeing those River Cottage books for a while now; may have to buy some.
    .-= Check out debbie

  2. Almost Slowfood says

    I can’t stop buying cookbooks!! I am currently obsessed with Karen DeMasco’s Craft of Baking. And I have a new found respect for Jamie Oliver’s books. Don’t know why it took me this long to realize what a great cook he is!
    .-= Check out Almost Slowfood

  3. AlchemistGeorge says

    With regard to cocktails, I’d pass on both Mr. Boston and the Savoy Cocktail book. Neither will teach you much about how to make a drink, and while the recipes from the Savoy are dated (people’s tastes have changed since the 1930s) the ones from Mr. Boston have a reputation for being, well, bad recipes. Neither has recommendations, they are just long lists of drink recipes without much further information.

    You are much better off with Gary Regan’s “Joy of Mixology” (which actually explains some of the theory of cocktail tastes) or Dale Degroff’s book “The Art of Classic Cocktails.”

    The Savoy Cocktail book is a treasure trove for serious cocktail researchers, but not for beginners.
    .-= Check out AlchemistGeorge

  4. emvandee says

    I read this during my break from writing my own cookbook pitch, and laughed out loud accordingly. Great post, and it’s true – the good books are few and far between. I am in love with the new Gourmet cookbook, and as far as books I could not live without, I’d say The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, Jamie at Home, The New James Beard Cookbook, and The New Moosewood Cookbook are my faves, books I return to time and time again. All epic, all delightful, and all practical for everyday use, even the James Beard one, if you can believe it.
    .-= Check out emvandee

    • steph says

      Heh, you know, I’m working on my own cookbook proposal, so we’re all in the fray – though this post is probably timely for us, as we can research what makes some stand out while others fall into the background.

  5. Sonndapond says

    Nigel Slater’s “Kitchen Diaries” is timeless. He cooks and eats simply, in tune with the seasons and whatever takes his fancy on a given day. A book that puts you in touch with your inner food soul and reminds you that every meal should be a pleasure. And can be with no fuss at all. My kind of guy.
    .-= Check out Sonndapond

  6. Patricia says

    So many cookbooks, so little time. Great post, Stephanie! A few of these have been on my list and some I’ll be adding to the wishlist. My cookbook purchases definitely spiked last year and though I haven’t cooked from it for a while, I’d say the Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper was my fav. pick up last year.
    Good cookbook to me come in two flavors. Encyclopedic and reliable like Bittman’s books or the classic Joy of Cooking (every cook should have at least one of this type). The other type has a tangible voice. The head notes give useful information but also make you feel like you’re talking over dinner plans with a good friend. And you can almost taste the photos.
    Now I want to go cookbook shopping :)
    .-= Check out Patricia

    • steph says

      Aaaah, the Splendid Table book is one of my favorites – and I’m totally in love with the design and bold use of typeface. Isn’t it just sexy?

      • Patricia says

        Definitely. I love its design and voice (the quirky stories like about the garlic rock and stuff). Mmm. Now I want some of the caramelized shrimp.
        .-= Check out Patricia

  7. Vera Marie Badertscher says

    I used to collect cookbooks, but have a much smaller house and much less room (when it comes to do you keep the food processor or four cookbooks—I know my choice).
    And still, I have worn out three copies (diff. editions) of Joy of Cooking. Still keeping the 2nd and 3rd of those in their dilapidated conditions and wishing that I had room for the newest one, which I hear reverts to the traditional recipes of old. When my now-adult boys were children and I hired a nanny while hubby and I went on a trip, she said she just cooked the recipes from my cookbook with the most splotches on the pages and knew the boys would like them.
    .-= Check out Vera Marie Badertscher

  8. MarthaAndMe says

    I have too many cookbooks but I can’t help buying more. I did a big purge a couple years ago and got rid of a bunch. They keep sneaking onto my shelves though. And now you’ve made me want to buy even more!

  9. Kerry says

    one of my favorites –old, dog eared widely traveled copy on my shelf of (actually not that many) cook books — is Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book. I tend to read recipes for inspiration rather than to follow, and that one is always a fine source.
    .-= Check out Kerry

    • AlchemistGeorge says

      I learned to make bread from that book, and after cooking from the Tassajara cookbook I learned that recipes weren’t sacred, they are just suggestions & guidelines – I remember the ‘recipe’ for ‘something missing muffins’.
      .-= Check out AlchemistGeorge

  10. sheryl says

    Oh, cookbooks. I have so, so many – yet never know what to make for dinner. Huh? Anyway, my fave is Mark Bittman – always pretty simple and always near-perfect. Another one I just discovered is Cook’s Illustrated “The Best 30-Minute Recipe.” Oh, and Barefoot Contessa. And then there’s always…
    (see what I mean??)

  11. Alexandra says

    The French Chef. I learned to cook and, without fail, wowed my French guests using a tattered copy with recipes from Julia’s WGBH TV show …
    .-= Check out Alexandra

  12. sarah henry says

    what sam said. plus i’m a total sucker — no surprises here — for aussie cookbook authors. donna hay, already noted, but also bill granger and stephanie alexander, to get you all started on some down under titles.
    .-= Check out sarah henry

  13. MyKidsEatSquid says

    I’ve recently trimmed my cookbook pile, but Bittman’s definitely stayed on the shelf–in fact the binding is beginning to fall apart. I’m also waiting on a book I’ve heard is fabulous–the Breadbaker’s Apprentice.
    .-= Check out MyKidsEatSquid

  14. Jennifer Margulis says

    How to Cook Everything is my all time favorite cookbook but I think Bittman’s vegetarian version REALLY needs some editing. Some of the recipes just don’t work…A great vegetarian cookbook is the WIlliam and Sonoma A Vegetarian for All Seasons.

    i love the photo w this blog. Did you take it??
    .-= Check out Jennifer Margulis

  15. The Writer's [Inner] Journey says

    I am beginning to understand how (and why) one becomes a cookbook junkie. Not only for the food but for the writing.
    .-= Check out The Writer’s [Inner] Journey

  16. Stephanie Manley says

    I found this post amusing. I have a wall of cookbooks, honestly, its over 400 books. I find this frustrating. I can honestly tell you I have about 10 go to books, the one I go to the most is the 1973 edition of Joy of Cooking. I am desperately trying to cull out cookbooks. This addiction is getting better, I now have a stack of books I cull through and leave for my guests to take at their whim.

    I have the Mark Bittman book on How to Cook Everything, but honestly while it may have one dish of most everything, I like other sources just as the Joy of Cooking for its typical multi preparations of each ingredient. Why the 1973 edition? The later editions focus more on microwaving, and less intensive food preparations. Amazon sells different editions, they really do have different recipes.
    .-= Check out Stephanie Manley

  17. Katherine Lewis says

    This is a great post for me, because I’m actually not a cookbook junkie. I have a mom who is, though, and I’m always looking for new ideas for gifts for her and at a loss. Thanks for the guidance!
    .-= Check out Katherine Lewis

  18. The UnDiet says

    I couldn’t live without “The Joy of Cooking”. When I’m trying to work out a recipe idea it’s my go-to book to figure out what makes a cake a cake and not a brownie, what makes a custard a custard and not a pudding, etc.


  1. […] market these days, prime candidates for collection must cook well, read well, and break through the deepening cookbook ennui that’s been building over the past five or so […]