My cookbook obsession began the way many others’ probably have — with my mother’s copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. It’s the classic with the red-and-white checkered cover, a trusted staple in American kitchens since its first printing in 1930. My mom’s edition is from sometime in the early ’80s.
As a kid, I loved the way a recipe made something seem possible. I didn’t know anything about cooking or baking, but I really loved to read — and so I could stumble my way through making a batch of granola or a pitcher of lemonade, so long as my dad was around to get stuff down from the highest shelves.
That cookbook is still in my parents’ kitchen in Illinois, covered in smears and stains from my earliest cooking endeavors, the binding forever splintered apart at the page for chocolate-chip cookies.
I’m an adult now (sort of), with my own collection of cookbooks to smudge, trendily organized by color on the bookshelf in my kitchen. But, for the most part, these cookbooks have been more decorative than functional. Nowadays, when I’m in need of a recipe, I typically reach for my phone.
That is, I did until recently, when I acquired a cookbook stand. The little beechwood frame allows me to prop a book open right next to my cutting board or stove, so I can easily refer to the recipe while I’m chopping or sautéing. It’s a small shift that’s made a big difference in the quality of my time in the kitchen.
Here’s what I’ve been enjoying most about my rediscovered love of cooking with books.
1) I don’t have to try to memorize recipes.
I think a lot of us labor under the delusion that memorizing recipes is the right way to cook, the way real chefs do it: no instructions, just instincts. But even with dishes I’ve made several times before, without the recipe in front of me, I often need to turn away from what’s happening in the kitchen to double-check the correct oven temperature or how many cloves of garlic I need — and dividing my attention like that makes it more likely that I’ll slip up.
It can also make for a chaotic cooking experience, and that’s simply not the vibe I’m trying to bring to mealtime. (For more on how a calm mind can support digestive health, see “13 Ways to Calm Your Mind and Boost Digestion“.)
2) I can be more mindful about what’s cooking.
Some of the most magical cooking moments really need your active attention. If you’ve ever made cacio e pepe, for instance, you know that gradually adding the Parmesan and pasta water to the pan with the noodles (and stirring vigorously as you go) is how you get that perfectly creamy, emulsified sauce. You cannot, while making cacio e pepe, also be checking your email or letting the dog out. It’s not a time meant for multitasking.
In my experience, watching a dish like that come together in front of me is more instructive than reading about it. Once I’ve made it happen myself, I can replicate it, but it’s not the same if I’m frantically scrolling through my phone to check that I’ve added the right amount of cheese.
3) Related: I’m cutting back on screen time.
These days, I’ll take any excuse I can find to put my phone down. One of the things I love most about cooking is the immersive sensory experience; going low-tech in the kitchen has made it that much more available and enjoyable for me. (For more on how engaging your senses can help you become a better cook, see “How to Cook With Your Senses“.)
The average cellphone is also super germy, so leaving mine away from my dinner prep — and, er, disinfecting it regularly — feels like an easy win. (If you’re trying to break free from tech addiction, get some tips at “How to Break Free of Tech Addiction“.)
4) I’m making better food.
I love Pinterest as much as the next Millennial, which is how I know there’s a real glut of subpar recipes online. A cookbook, in contrast, is typically years in the making. Each recipe is carefully developed and tested and cross-tested, often multiple times, to ensure that the reader can re-create the dish.
Using my favorite cookbooks feels like cooking with a dear (and experienced) friend, one who’s doling out timing advice and sensory cues to help me make a dish they truly love, the way they truly intend for me to make it. Don’t miss out on all that care and attention to detail!
5) I can still improvise.
The kitchen advice that most resonates with me is simple: Cook for yourself. That means not only making your own meals at home when you can, but also doing it in the way that makes the most sense for you.
Often, that involves looking at a recipe (even the most thoughtfully developed, lovingly cross-tested one) as a guideline rather than a dogma. Sometimes you need to add more stock to the risotto, or use the green beans that you have on hand rather than the broccoli that you don’t.
Cooking with a recipe in front of you doesn’t mean you can’t deviate from the text. Some of the best cookbooks, in fact, empower you with info for making seasonal swaps or tweaking a dish to suit your needs.
6) My favorite cookbooks are turning into journals.
Now that I’m using them more often, my cookbooks are becoming much more functional than decorative. I make notes in the margins about what worked well, what I’d change up the next time around, or what I might add or skip to make a springtime dish work in the fall. My favorite recipes are starting to stand out, kind of like that old BHG recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, because they’re the pages I’ve turned to — and smudged and scribbled on — the most.
What I’m Reading (and Cooking)
By John Chantarasak
Born in Liverpool to a Thai father and a British mother, Chantarasak uses the term “Anglo-Thai” to describe his style of Thai cooking with ingredients from the British Isles. (Also, without the hyphen, it’s the name of his London restaurant.) Some of his chili jams and relishes are in regular rotation in my kitchen, and I love his habit of offering swaps for hard-to-find products, such as cinnamon for cassia bark and Sichuan peppercorns for prickly ash.
By Jess Damuck
The self-proclaimed Bob Ross of salads, Damuck knows that creating the perfect salad is something of an art form. By combining different flavors, textures, and colors, you can make something fresh and delicious that will make you feel good, too: a salad you’ll truly look forward to eating. Damuck’s book is full of recipes to help you make it happen.
By Eric Kim
Caramelized-Kimchi Baked Potatoes. Cheeseburger Kimbap. Gochujang Chocolate Lava Cakes. Born and raised in Atlanta, Kim moved back there for a year at the beginning of the pandemic to develop these recipes with his mother, who’s from South Korea. The book’s recipes explore “that tension, and the ultimate harmony, between the Korean in me as well as the American in me,” Kim writes, “through the food my family grew up eating and the food I cook for myself now.”
By Dorie Greenspan
A five-time James Beard Award winner and the author of more than a dozen cookbooks, Greenspan is such a giant in the food world that this pick feels almost too obvious. Then again, it is the most-used book in my kitchen, and I think the Caramel-Pear and Five-Spice Upside-Down Cake is the best thing I’ve ever baked.
This article originally appeared as “Cook With Books” in the March 2023 issue of Experience Life.
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