Dorie Greenspan recently created a new Facebook group called Bake and Tell, a community about baking, sharing, and helping fellow bakers. You apply to join and administrators must approve your request. As part of the application, you must answer a series of questions, the first being, and I’m paraphrasing, “What is your favorite cookbook?” As someone who owns and frequently curates a healthy cookbook collection, I was stumped. I didn’t know how to answer the question. How do I choose a favorite?
Over the years I have stopped buying books, instead choosing to read them on my Kindle. This started when I was traveling frequently and lugging around physical books wasn’t practical. However, the one type of book I continue to collect is the cookbook.
I don’t know exactly how many cookbooks I currently own. I pared down my collection before I moved back home from Boston, I gifted certain cookbooks to friends and donated another eight or so cases of books to a local non-profit. I still came back with several boxes of books and proceeded to find homes for them in the house. And the challenge to find shelf space has not stopped me from adding to my collection.
What draws me to a cookbook?
A cookbook must have recipes, but it shouldn’t be a blueprint. It should be more inspirational; it should be a guide.Thomas Keller
What I like most about cookbooks is it gives me inspiration and ideas. And like any good book, it can fuel my imagination, allowing me to travel without leaving my kitchen. It may spark ideas for a future meal with friends, or inspire me to visit a new destination to experience the food.
Cookbooks also document technique. In this world of YouTube, seeing instructions written in black & white provides clarity and reassurance that I’m doing things the correct way.
And when I purchase a cookbook, I am looking for more than a coffee table book. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful food photography, but the recipes and the stories that accompany them are more important.
The cookbooks I own fall into a few categories and some fall into multiple categories.
Cookbooks as reference
Beyond inspiration, many of my cookbooks are used for reference. I look to these books for classic recipes like the base for chicken pot pie, how to make Chinese hot water dough for dumplings, or how to make dal. These cookbooks not only provide recipes, but solid techniques and methods.
- Julia Child
- Jacques Pépin’s New Complete Techniques
- Larousse Gastronomique
- Classic Chinese Cuisine by Nina Simonds (this book is from 1982 and has pages falling out)
- Mahdur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking (this link takes you to an updated version. My copy is from 1983)
Cookbooks from favorite chefs
There are cookbooks penned by favorite chefs, some already mentioned above like:
- Julia Child
- Jacques Pépin
- Nigella Lawson
- Nigel Slater
- Yotam Ottolenghi
- José Andrés
- Jamie Oliver
- Donna Hay
And there are cookbooks that inspire me to try new cuisines, new dishes, and new techniques. Some also challenge me to think of well-known dishes in new ways.
- Cook Real Hawaii by Sheldon Simeon
- Dorie’s Cookies by Dorie Greenspan
- Double Awesome Chinese Food by Margaret, Irene, and Andrew Li
- Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year Round by Marisa McClellan
- The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
- The Italian Baker by Carol Field
What’s more important than recipes is how we think about food, and a good cookbook should open up a new way of doing just that.Michael Symon
So how do I choose a favorite cookbook?
To complete the application, I could make it simple and just select one of Dorie Greenspan’s cookbooks – she is included in one of the lists above. But that feels like a cop-out.
I did a Google search to see how others have answered this question. Serious Eats has a section on books and included are interviews with several well-known chefs and authors about their favorite cookbooks (plural, not singular). There are lists from chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, David Lebovitz, and yes, even Dorie Greenspan. While I saw a number of similarities in the books that made their lists, I still didn’t have an answer on how to narrow down to one cookbook.
Making my selection
In the end, my favorite cookbook may be the one put together by my family. It’s a limited edition, not to be found in any bookstore, and uniquely ours. It’s meaning lies in the memories that each recipe holds and evokes.
I haven’t tried to submit an application to join the group. I’m probably overthinking the question. The funny thing is the second question, and I’m paraphrasing again, asked about a go-to dish for a dinner party. That question was easy to answer – Sticky Toffee Pudding with Black Pepper Ice Cream.
Do you have a favorite cookbook? If so, please share it in the comments below.
Old cookbooks connect you to your past and explain the history of the world.José Andrés