Cookbook Recommendations

A selection of cookbooks

I have accrued many cookbooks in the last few years. They are great to suggest for birthdays or Christmas, make a good treat for yourself if you need some “retail therapy”, and often appear cheaply in charity shops. Some I use a lot, some I’ve barely cooked from, and it isn’t immediately obvious- even when you’ve looked through the book- how useful it will be.

The first thing to consider when looking at recipe books is BBC Good Food. BBC Good Food is brilliant. There are almost 10000 recipes on there, and that doesn’t count those contributed by readers. You can search through all of the recipes- something you can’t do in a cookbook- to find something to make out of, say, chicken. A lot of my weekday cooking is done from recipes on BBC Good Food, as you can get hold of the ingredients easily, and the writers are conscious of the price of the ingredients and cooking times. I’ve always had great results from these recipes, and they helped me get confidence with cooking as I started. So if you are looking for a more general recipe book, or even an introduction to a type of cuisine, chances are you just want BBC Good Food- it’s right there, and it’s free.

Consequently, if I am looking to get a recipe book, it has to offer something more than what I can get from BBC Good Food. It could be a particularly specialised type of cooking, like making patisserie, or a type of cooking that needs a whole book to treat it properly, like baking bread. It might be a cookbook of a certain cuisine, like Thai, where it is worthwhile talking about the different regional recipes, and how the food culture evolved, so you develop a better understanding of that cuisine. But these potentially useful books can come with pitfalls. If your Thai recipe book asks for, say, palm sugar and shrimp paste in every recipe, you had better make sure you can get hold of these, or know what suitable replacements could be. Similarly, equipment required is worth considering. If you have to stone cherries for a recipe, and you don’t have a cherry stoner, it’s going to be a miserable time cooking. The price of the book is not unimportant either.

So, with these things in mind, here are some of the recipe books I love, and some I don’t like so much. Obviously I can’t go in to loads of detail for each of them, but if you want more information or a suggestion, get in touch.

Recipe Books I love

Gordon Ramsay has brought out a large number of recipe books, and some of them are really good. I love his trio Chef’s Secrets, Chef for All Seasons, and Desserts– they are my go-to dinner party books, with moderately complicated, but varied recipes. If you want to start getting into cooking a bit more seriously, I would highly recommend these. Similarly, Gordon’s Passion for Flavour and Passion for Seafood will give you a lot to think about.

I have a few regional cuisine cookbooks, but two that stand out to me are David Thompson’s Thai Food, and Camilla Plum’s Scandinavian Kitchen. Both have the right balance between keeping recipes traditional and making them accessible, and there is plenty of background writing that really gives you a feel for the cuisine. Similarly, both feel ‘complete’, in that you wouldn’t need to buy another recipe book on that cuisine to fully understand it. Jamie’s America and Jamie does Spain/Italy/Sweden/Morocco/Greece/France are also good introductions to regional cuisines, and everything I have cooked from them has been delicious.

More specialised books can end up used a lot, and these three are ones I would highly recommend. Michel Roux Jr.’s book on sauces is cheap, and does what it says on the tin. Often I might be using up some leftovers, or just cooking a lamb chop for dinner- making an interesting sauce to go with this really makes the dinner exciting. This book gives lots of ideas for sauces, and is indispensible to me in my day to day cooking. For Saturday afternoon cooking, I love to make things from The Home-made Sweet Shop– with recipes for things like nougat, marshmallows, or rhubarb and custard sweets. It’s often hard to find good recipes for sweets online, which are well explained and the steps illustrated, like they are in this book. Finally, How to Make Your Own Drinks is another fun book, with many ideas of novel drinks to make, with a particular application to foraging. From this I made elderflower syrup, lavender lemonade, and mead.

A couple of books that aren’t recipe books, but are utterly useful, are McGee on Food and Cooking, and The Flavour Thesaurus. McGee is basically a food science encyclopedia, so if you ever want to know why the recipe works, or even for things like how to brew the perfect cup of tea, you’ll find great information there. The Flavour Thesaurus lists different flavours- like mushrooms, or cumin, for example- and, for each flavour, has a list of other flavours it goes with. This is brilliant for designing courses, for example in my porcini and scallop tartlets.

Reference cookbooks

Average recipe books

Most of the other recipe books I have fall into this category. Usually they are good products- just when you have a lot of recipe books, they don’t get used much, and if I am feeling creative about cooking, I don’t immediately reach for them on the shelf. A lot of these are ‘everyday’ kind of cooking: Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking for Friends, Sunday Lunch, Jamie’s Italy, The Return of The Naked Chef, Delia, Nigella’s Kitchen– all good books, but there are probably better ones out there.

A couple of specialist ones fit here as well. Mad about Macarons is a good book for making macarons, but you feel like another macaron book would be just as good. Similarly with Canapés,  Indulgence Petits Fours, Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food, or The Roux Brothers’ Patisserie. If you want to make these things, these books are okay, but there might be better ones out there.

Lastly I have a couple of ‘Healthy Cooking’ recipe books, which I either picked up at charity shops or when I started out cooking. In general I’ve found these to be reasonable, but cooking healthily is in general not something fundamentally interesting to me. You could probably find a lot of these recipes online, too. 1000 low-fat recipes and Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite would fall into these categories.

Recipe books I am less keen on

Restaurant cookbooks are the biggest disappointment, I think. Either the dishes are (unsurprisingly) impossible to cook, like Gordon Ramsay’s recipe book from Claridges, contain ingredients that are impossible to get hold of reasonably, as in the Ladurée Sucré book or Desserts from The Champignon Sauvage, or spend more time talking about the restaurant and restaurant philosophy than focusing on recipes, as with The French Laundry Cookbook. Restaurant cookbooks aren’t cheap either, so I’d just rather buy one or two other recipe books with the money. The one exception, though, is Raymond Blanc’s Recipes from Le Manoir, which I think is great- tough, but great.

Older recipes books often disappoint as well. It might seem romantic to cook from Escoffier, or an old family cookbook you found in your grandmother’s attic, but there are reasons recipe books are different today. Ingredients are all in pounds and ounces, the recipes pay no attention to how healthy the food is, and require cooking techniques- like boning a lamb shoulder- that most people nowadays won’t have. The lack of pictures make inspiration hard, and the results I’ve had have been mixed. Fun for posterity, but that, I think, is all.

Lastly, cookbooks which come from TV shows are ones I’ve seldom found good value. What’s usually good about the TV show is the story that goes along with the dish- whether it is travels abroad, like Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escapes in India and South-East Asia, a food reality show like Masterchef, or cooking techniques in Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets– but that story goes away when you create a book from the TV show. These can still be good cookbooks (like the Gordon Ramsay ones), but I might go for something that was intended to be a cookbook in the first place. Often worth, perhaps, choosing to spend your money on another book instead.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Katy
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 10:46:20

    Absolutely agree with everything you’ve said here! I might have to buy McGee – I got the Flavour Thesaurus for Christmas and love it.

    Reply

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