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Chris Amirault

The Cookbook Use Throwdown -- And What Does "Use" Mean?

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Over in a discussion about weight-based cookbooks, I wrote:

Methinks that people who actually buy cookbooks to cook or bake are a tiny, negligible fraction of the cookbook-buying public.

One member agreed; one expressed doubt. So I propose this throwdown:


  • 1. Walk over to your cookbook pile/shelf/collection. Right now. No fair choosing today as "clean out the unused cookbooks" day. (Don't dig around the attic either.) And if you are a pro, count the ones at home, not the ones in the basement that you steal from for your "original" dishes. Count the total number of books there all handy and ready to go.
    2. If you have fewer than ten cookbooks and are out of high school, you're done. We're looking for people who buy cookbooks, after all, not people who got "Joy of Cooking" from their mom, got "Enchanted Broccoli Forest" from some one-week relationship with a vegan, and then called it quits. Sorry.
    3. If you're still playing, count the number of books in your collection that you've used to cook more than one dish. (In this throwdown's arbitrary rules, cooking a single dish is an aberration; cooking two or more is defined as "use.")
    4. Divide the tally in #3 by the tally in #1. That is your use percentage. Post it here, along with whatever lame excuses you have for the use percentage being so low ("I study Robuchon & Adria; I don't try to imitate them"; "I get reviewer's copies that I keep around to impress dates!").

My guess is that few of us here in the eGullet Society will post numbers higher than 80% -- and if we're honest, we'll get many posting halvsies or less. (I've done my calculation -- my tally 1 is 92 -- and will post the use percentage after a few others have taken the dive.) I'll also stipulate that this crowd is atypically user-friendly, and that we'll skew high on this calculation.

But we'll just have to see about that, won't we? Grab your abacus, get to the cookbook shelf, and start adding.

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Just based on a quick perusal my use percentage is a bit less than 1%. My excuses:

"I read cookbooks mostly for ideas and inspiration."

"I get lots of review copies and am too much of a packrat to get rid of them as quickly as they come in."

"I only really use recipes when I bake."

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I don't buy many cookbooks. 24 total, not counting things like pamphlets of recipes that come with kitchen gadgets, my own kitchen notebook, or my grandmother's recipe box. This is just what's on the shelf. There are a few more I've downloaded in the past year since discovering that some historical cookbooks are available for free on the internet, and I'm not counting those, but they wouldn't change the percentage too much. 63% used for more than one dish.

The ones that I haven't used much tend to have been gifts. A couple I've acquired in the past year and just haven't had a chance to use.


Edited by David A. Goldfarb (log)

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I'm not at home and I don't do math, but I brought 35 cookbooks to the cottage with me. Of those, I use 33 of them on a regular basis for two or more recipes in them. The other two are Robuchon and The CIA's Professional Chef 8th edition, which are mostly reference books for me.

I'll look at my cookbook shelves when I get home as I have about 200 in the kitchen. But I'm not sure how many of them I've used for more than one recipe.

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I'm gonna say around 40 percent. There were some I couldn't remember whether I'd used more than once, some I was pretty sure I had not. I tried to count only the ones I was sure about. Some I tried once or twice and didn't get excited about, and some I keep meaning to use more and don't--instead I keep going back to the tried-and-true. That's kinda lame.

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I just love cookbooks - for reading, for the pictures, for ideas - and sometimes even for the recipes. Probably around 1% - but that doesn't bother me!

Now my candy and chocolate cookbooks - a very different story - more like 50 to 80 % on those.


Edited by Kerry Beal (log)

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At quick glance, my guess is 10-20 percent (and that's after I gave a box or two away). My excuses, lame or not, are much the same as Steven's (review copies, inspiration) with the addition of working in a cookware store for 10+ years with discounts and signings. How could I not buy a copy of Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way when I could get it autographed? How could I resist a copy of Rick Tramanto's Amuse Bouche when it was only $5?

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I'm not at home and I don't do math, but I brought 35 cookbooks to the cottage with me. Of those, I use 33 of them on a regular basis for two or more recipes in them.

Pretty impressive! But:

I'll look at my cookbook shelves when I get home as I have about 200 in the kitchen. But I'm not sure how many of them I've used for more than one recipe.

Now that's the group I want tallied!

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I count seven out of sixty-one. A few boxes went to the attic this summer, and there's still a ton of magazines around the house. What I'm noticing is how many of these food/cookbooks don't have any recipes at all.

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I'm here for another week and a half, then I'll come back here and give the tally. Generally speaking, the ones in the kitchen are the ones I use on a regular basis. I've got about 300 in storage and another couple of hundred in my office that I never use. But if you are asking about the active cookbook shelves, then those are the ones in the kitchen!

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My average is about 89%, but I have almost 500 cookbooks, a hundred of which are in the garage and don't count in this sample. I've never cooked from "Demolition Desserts" (terrific book!) "Cooking from Northern Spain." (eh) and the various tiny cupcake or tapas books with which I've been gifted.

But so what? I haven't read "Connecticut Yankee" or dipped into Piston's "Harmony" for eons. That doesn't mean I'm gonna stack them in a box for a Purple Heart pick up.


Edited by maggiethecat (log)

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I have 20 exactly and have used 4 for more than one recipe.*****

HOWEVER, LOL, the BH just checked out of the library "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread" for me to evaluate.

I have 4 or 5 cookbooks on the way and plan to buy one more whether it is the borrowed book or another bread book.

*****Coincidentally, just today, but (Scouts Honor) they were culled on Saturday, I gave away 9 cookbooks to the library that we borrowed the book from.

There is a mantra I keep repeating, "No more cookbooks because the Web has sooooooooo many resources (legitimate) to find recipes, I do not need to buy cookbooks. Save trees and space, think Green"

I think it would be a good discussion.

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137 total (give or take) of which I'd consider 103 to be the "regulars". The balance are kept just because, or because they have sentimental value. Of the 103, I would say 20 of them get used for more than one recipe, so that's about a 22% average.

But. Like others, I believe there is great value even in those you've never cooked from, or don't cook from regularly. They're a great read, if nothing else (usually), and enhance your knowledge base. That's always a good thing.

Edit to say.....both numbers reflect only bound, independently published cookbooks. Not the pamphlets that come with appliances, nor magazines (I have every issue of Cook's Illustrated I've received) nor those dastardly little "checkout stand" pamphlets that I was addicted to for a very long time.


Edited by Pierogi (log)

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Exactly 2% - a handful that I use regularly. The rest are just eye candy and inspiration. I realized that the Martha White cookbook that I got as a premium is my most utilized.

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Of the 92 on my downstairs cookbook shelves, I've used 64 more than once, for a rate of 70%. A bunch of the non-used are wishful-thinking aspirations (Alinea stands out), regional entries to round out a geographical gap (Saudi Arabia), or functionally reference books.

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For me, at least 80 percent, maybe higher. I am very cookbook-selective; most of the ones I seldom use were gifts.

Ray

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I am at 21 out of 52 books. 40%.

The other books were either gifts, family contributed church type collections, or more overview/photo type cookbooks.

I noticed that about 10 of the used are WELL used and have at least five or more usages in them. 2 or 3 have more like 20-30 uses.

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A bunch of the non-used are wishful-thinking aspirations (Alinea stands out)

You should use the Alinea book! I'd say at least 75% of the book is doable with standard home equipment and standard home/grocery store ingredients. I've only done two complete dishes from the book but I've used tons of techniques and components (tweaked to my own purposes) from it.

I wonder how that fits into the calculation being discussed in this thread? Books that I've used a thousand times but not for complete dishes. If I count the books that I've done complete dishes as written from, my number will not be good at all. If I count books that I've used ideas/techniques from but twisted to work with what I want to do, my number will be respectable. I don't mean using them for inspiration, I mean, for example, if I were to do Alex Stupak's pliable ganache from the Alinea book but in a different setting and flavor profile than the original, does that count? Or do they have to be "as written" to count? Anyway, I don't have time to do the numbers this morning but I'll get them together.

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When we moved a year ago, I goodwilled dozens of cookbooks I had collected randomly when I was out on my own for the first time, then newly married and trying to figure out what the heck this cooking thing was all about.

The authors that that made the cut and are getting used regularly right now:

Marcella Hazan

Diana Kennedy

Rick Bayless

Julie Sahni

Madhur Jaffee

James Beard

Julia Child (especially the book co-authored with Jacques Pepin)

Mollie Katzen (I used to use these a lot more but I couldn't part with them.)

Jamie Oliver (although I will confess this as much because I want to support his politics as I like his recipes, also, he's cute :laugh: )

The Gourmet Cookbook (the ugly yellow one, despite it's complete layout horribleness :angry: , everything I've cooked from it has been fantastic)

and, whenever I am in a real jam for something infallible, The Joy of Cooking

Baking:

Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess

Pierre Hermes

Dorie Greenspan

The positively ancient Rodale Press, "The Bread Book" which isn't really anything special but I love the book itself, the pictures, the way the recipes are written, the commentary, etc.

Reference

Magee

Phillip Pauli's Classical Cooking the Modern Way-Methods and Techniques

The New Catering Repetoire, Volumes I and II, Hugh Cracknell

Between multiple books by the same authors and a few one-offs, there are about 40 on the shelves, 10 of which are used almost constantly, some which are reference only anyway, and some, like the baking books, are only there for special occasions.

I really really want Peter Reinhardt's book next, since I use his pizza crust method constantly and would like to use others.

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I counted 137 cookbooks of which I have used 22 or 16% more than once. I did not count magazines. I gave away about 200 books a couple of years ago and thought I had only kept the ones I really "used". Hmm...I think a little rationalizing is in order, especially since I have 2 more books coming.

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24% not counting magazines or reference books without recipes (like the Food Lover's Companion).

I tend not to make recipes directly from the books, but read them all and then do what makes sense to me.

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A bunch of the non-used are wishful-thinking aspirations (Alinea stands out)

You should use the Alinea book! I'd say at least 75% of the book is doable with standard home equipment and standard home/grocery store ingredients. I've only done two complete dishes from the book but I've used tons of techniques and components (tweaked to my own purposes) from it.

Of course I should use it! I should also use Keller's Bouchon, Wolfert's Cooking of SW France, and Kennedy's Essential Cuisines of Mexico more often, and I should cook every dish in Thompson's Thai Food instead of only 20% or so, and I should do each exercise in Pepin's Complete Techniques.... As my mother likes to say, "Shoulda woulda coulda." :wink:

I wonder how that fits into the calculation being discussed in this thread? Books that I've used a thousand times but not for complete dishes. If I count the books that I've done complete dishes as written from, my number will not be good at all. If I count books that I've used ideas/techniques from but twisted to work with what I want to do, my number will be respectable. I don't mean using them for inspiration, I mean, for example, if I were to do Alex Stupak's pliable ganache from the Alinea book but in a different setting and flavor profile than the original, does that count?

As arbiter of the arbitrary, I say: Yes. That counts as use.

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I'm not sure how many cook books I have, but I am sure I'm in Steven's 1% range for similar reasons.

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I have 23 cookbooks at home and use just 1 - so that's under 5%. But I open about 50% of them often for inspiration or to refresh my memory about proportions or ratios.

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