There are a surfeit of cookbooks on the shelves, everything from pretty books that rattle off lists of ingredients whose duplication in the styled photos is next to impossible, to classic tomes that assume a complete apprenticeship to a master chef and years of professional experience.
I own both kinds.
Having cookbooks is a way to explore worldwide cuisine without leaving your reading chair. It mixes the exotic with the familiar and ignites the imagination. Cookbooks, for me, are a way to kick-start my creativity. I process kosher substitution in my head to see whether milk can be reasonably substituted or whether just plain water will do, or if veal or turkey can stand in for pork. It’s well past the point where I flip past a recipe simply because it’s not intrinsically kosher; anything can be kosherized.
This is where cookbooks often fail their readers, and this is what I attempt to rectify with my classes. There is a necessary element of creativity when it comes to cooking. Simply following recipes aren’t going to teach you technique, nor are they necessarily going to be accurate. Baking bread, for instance, or chocolate work. The humidity of your kitchen is going to affect either of these products. Is your oven the same as the recipe writer’s oven? One of my ovens has a convection setting, and that reduces cooking times; do cookbook writers ever mention that? Is your oven’s 250°C really 250°C? Do you have a thermometer checking that? Was the dried oregano in the recipe dried more or less than six months ago? Does an eighth of a teaspoon of salt really matter (baking yes, sauces, maybe)?
By the way, Julia Child recognized this and revolutionized cookbooks and cooking in the latter half of the twentieth century.
There are so many outside factors like the ones above, that simply following a recipe is no guarantee that it’s going to come out right, or good for that matter. Which is why I also have the other kind of cookbooks.
I have cookbooks that are technically intricate, that give me an elemental understanding of the preparation. I say preparation because some of them have no semblance to recipes as we are accustomed to knowing them. And they’re not supposed to, either. These give me the deeper understanding of the how and why of a recipe, or technique, that I can replicate, adjust, enhance, and improve.
And here’s an interesting bit of trivia about me: I like to read cookbooks on fast days. For some reason, it always makes me feel less hungry.