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

Chris Amirault

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I have 78 home type cookbooks and I have used all but 5 of them. (one is a 1930's celebrity cookbook with glamour shots of movie stars, another is an 1811 receipt book that I just got) So, that's an unused 6.4%.

I'm a vegetarian and have found that I'm not interested in a lot of vegetarian books because they aren't very good, and there are a lot of meat related books which are also of no interest. Of the 78 books, 9 are vegetarian.

I really like books with a lot of story, like Scheherazade cooks! by Wadeeha Atiyeh or Caramel Knowledge by Al Sicherman.

I do own 211 vintage (pre-WW2) professional baking & pastry books. (recipes make large volumes, all weight-based measure, require equipment to produce some items, etc.) Some of these are problematic because they don't contain recipes; they are piping guides or guides to making sugar flowers, etc. Many of these books also contain similar recipes for basics like royal icing or devil's food cake. But, I'll admit that I mostly by these books for design ideas and have only used two of them to make cakes. So, in those I am at 99% in terms of cooking. I have used at least half of them for their designs and decorative motifs, though.

I also own some reference books, food history books, and cocktail books. The cocktail books have a 100% usage rate.

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I'm definitely in the low 1-2 percentage rate if you mean "followed a recipe step by step". I hardly ever do that. I hardly ever cook with a set recipe, usually make things up as I go along, combining ideas from different books/magazines and just see what I have handy.

I do cook from recipes if it's something new to me, like the rabbit, abalone, frog legs and giant fresh water prawns I just got for example. I do follow different instructions for a perfect roast chicken, but might change herbs and spices around.

I own a bit over 200 and page through them almost on a daily basis, looking for ideas and inspiration or just fun stories. I love books with little stories going along with the recipes, some history, etc.

Funny thing is, I've probably followed more recipes from the internet step by step than any from any of my books. Probably because I tend to look up something I've never made before but have in the fridge/freezer.

Many of the books I own are also in the sub category of art book (layout, design, and especially photography, which is one of my (too many) hobbies). Alinea etc, I doubt I'll ever try to make much from them, but they are a pleasure to just look at.

As for excuses? Who needs excuses to own cook books? :cool:

"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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I have just over 100 cookbooks - most are skinny Japanese books, so that's just over one yard of shelf space. I've used over 95% more than once. However, there are plenty that I've made no more than 5-10 recipes, so I moved all those to a Try Harder pile!

As others remarked, the low-use books show a common trend:


- books bought out of duty or as a second-best choice: I "should" have a book on kaiseki (but I really prefer the equally elaborate temple style of cooking), or I couldn't find just what I wanted on Kyoto cooking (so I bought a less than inspiring book "in the meantime").

- books that are too general (the above mentioned "recipe collections"). If there is no theme or concept behind a book, I'm unlikely to read it from cover to cover...and so I miss the gems that are undoubtedly hiding there.

Conversely, "specialist" or "concept" books are the ones that really get heavy use. Because the author's message is clear, it's easy to identify the main points of each technique or recipe, and I use individual recipes and adapt other information from this type of book much more.

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I have twelve cookbooks on my shelf. I use five frequently, and by frequently I mean, I pull them off the shelf and cook from the recipe, at least once a week. One or two more I have the recipes I like memorized, but I keep around in case I need to pass the recipes along. My high usage rate could be tied to the frequency of my moves - every two years I purge virtually all of my possessions saving only the things I use frequently, as I have to justify shipping costs.

Those that made the cut are:

Marcella Hazan: Marcella's Italian Kitchen

Harumi Kurihara: Japanese Home Cooking

Debra Samuels :The Korean Table

Fuschia Dunlop: Revolutionary Chinese

I also habitually use Bittman's How To Cook Everything for oddments like pancake proportions and cooking times for meat, and for things I should know but don't, like how to make an apple crisp. I like it because it's light for its size.

Usually when I planning my grocery shopping each week, I set these on the table and page through them as I make up my menu plan and grocery list.

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I'm not going to be near my cookbook shelf agAin for about a week, so this is an estimate.....

I have culled my books regularly, so of those I've had more than about 5 years, the two or more recipes should be about 90% of the cookbooks. Of those I've had less than 5 years, it drops to probably 20 or 30%, because I tend to cook less from

recipes these days, and cook less often overall; and I still count a book a succrss if opening it reliably leads to something yummy being made, even if it's because I have invented something inspired by a recipe or discussion in that book. Since I've slowed the get-cook-cull cycle a lot, then, I'm probably down to 50 or 60 percent of those on the shelves now. But will verify when I get home.

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I'm not at home, and my collection of what I think of as "cookbooks" includes an awful lot of books about food, memoirs and such, rather than straight collections of recipes. I usually do cook a half-dozen or so recipes from a new book and then it either stays in the kitchen or gets moved to one of the other 25 (I'm not kidding) bookshelves around the house.

My excuses for not cooking from all of them:

Well, there are just too many! There's not enough time! :shock:

As I've mentioned before, I'm a (retired) librarian, and I just don't feel comfortable in a room that isn't filled with books. :wub:

I'm an insomniac, and if I give up on sleep and get up to read, I don't want anything with a plot that I'll get drawn into; I want something pleasant I can just dip into - that said, sometimes I will get so engrossed in, oh, say Laurie Colwin or MFK Fisher or Calvin Trillin - and now I'm reading R.W. Apple, Jr.!! - that I'm totally startled when the alarm rings at 5 a.m. :laugh:

And, as so many others have noted, my usual M.O. is to read through a bunch of recipes for the dish I want to cook, and then, once I get the gist, I wing it. I have learned (finally!) to write down exactly what I do, and tweak it with each successive try until I get it "right." Then it goes onto a card and finds a place in my recipe file (actually it's an old library card catalog file). Those are the recipes I end up using all the time, but they definitely have their origins in my cookbooks. :smile:

Edited by Special K (log)
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Out of 65 cookbooks, using the criteria in the original post I "use" 31 of them, for a use percentage of 48%. Probably half the unused ones were gifts, and the other half are "wishful thinking" books (Alinea, from which I made one recipe, but never got to stage two of using the output of that recipe as the input to the next, for example). About 50% of those that I use are baking/pastry/confections books, and the others are things like Peterson's Sauces or CIA ProChef, which, while today I use primarily as references, are the books that I used to teach myself how to cook in the first place.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations

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35/70, exactly 50%. Not bad, considering that I played it straight and resisted the temptation to leave out the cookbooks people gave me but that I didn't want and my strictly-for-collecting books!

My average becomes more normal when I admit that my cookbook collection REALLY lives at my local library, where I bring home a few volumes to lovingly thumb through every time I go. That's where I find out which ones I want to buy for my very own. Keeps my numbers up!

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Can I include the "Woman's Favorite Cookbook?" Circa 1900, and the only things I've used from this cookbook are dyeing and outhouse maintenance techniques. If not, I'm at about 72%. If the Woman's Favorite Cookbook is included, the percentage is just slightly higher.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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29 cookbooks, of which I "use" 18, or 62%.

I'm a piker compared to you all when it comes to number of cookbooks! But I culled a bunch in the most recent move. And I have a complete run of Fine Cooking, about 10 years of Saveur, and 6 years of Cooks Illustrated. Those are my most frequent source of recipes and recipe ideas.

Margo Thompson

Allentown, PA

You're my little potato, you're my little potato,

You're my little potato, they dug you up!

You come from underground!

-Malcolm Dalglish

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32 that I've used more than once in the last year out of 87 total. There are at least another 30 of that 87 that I should use much more. Some of the remaining ones are very specific to some occasions and needs, but there are probably at least 15 that should be culled, and most of those were well-meaning gifts. Interestingly, some of the ones that I used to use often now just seem somehow too dated. For example, I like some stuff in the Graham Kerr cookbook that I inherited, but mostly it seems weird today.

"Life itself is the proper binge" Julia Child

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I use probably 50% of my books.

1. I buy quite a few at Half Priced Books in Dallas, TX when I visit my in-laws. I have maybe 2 minutes to judge a books before I make a purchase. Some times I just pick a few turkeys.

2. I occasionally find books that provide better information than books that I already have. This often results in books being placed in the overflow shelf in the guest bedroom.

3. I have some very subject specific books that maybe get used 4 times a year, but are otherwise indispensable.


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."

If you have any baking and pastry books that you would like to store at my house, I should have room for them. :wink:

"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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Out of approximately 250 cookbooks (or books about food with recipes), I've used 45% of them at least twice, much higher than I'd thought it would be. But if I look at what I use regularly, the number is probably closer to 10%, still not that bad.

And yes, I did find a few I need to dig out and use. I think I'll start with The Arab Table tonight. Don't know why I've never used it, it looks like it has some lovely recipes.

Abigail Blake

Sugar Apple: Posts from the Caribbean


"Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone." Big Night

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Home again and looking at the actual cookbooks on the shelf:

53 books used for at least two different recipes

44 books used one recipe or haven't yet used (on probation)

4 books used for just one recipe but many times for that one recipe (I would consider these to have earned a permanent spot on the shelf)

19 books purchased primarily for reference/background; some have recipes but that's not why I bought them

and 3 books of my own recipe clippings and handwritten recipes, each used many, many times,

for a total of 123.

So 1/3 of the books on the shelves, but almost half of the 'recipe books' haven't yet been really used; of those, I'd bet at least half make it for the long term, but others will be dumped when I need the space and finally admit that I just don't like the stuff in them, and others will stay until bumped off by something else covering the same ground but that I like better.

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I'm surprised at how many people follow so many recipes. I'm wondering, in the cases of those who use lots of recipes from lots of books: Do you follow the recipes exactly, with no substitutions or changes of your own, or do you follow adaptations of the recipes? If you follow the recipes exactly, how do you manage in terms of stocking ingredients? I find that, for me, preparing a recipe with a long ingredients list is very difficult unless I do inefficient shopping (buying a whole container of something to use a teaspoon) or adapt the recipe.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A lot of times I'll refer to my recipe books for ideas. Sometimes I use the exact recipe, and other times I use it as a guide to make something I have in mind. I also like to look at a few recipes for the same dish, and use a little of both or when assembling something like a cake, I may use the cake batter from one book and frosting from another. As far as percentages of books used, my goal is to use almost all of my books at some point.

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.”

W.C. Fields

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Abgout 50% for about 100 cookbooks. That's mostly because before I vary a recipe (recipe used for inspiration), if I have the time, I like to cook the original. Then if it's less than promised I don't use it (and don't take the blame for screwing it up). If it delivers, I'll vary it and accept responsibility.


"Everything I eat has been proved by some doctor or other to be a deadly poison, and everything I don't eat has been proved to be indispensable for life. But I go marching on." ~George Bernard Shaw

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I'm surprised at how many people follow so many recipes. I'm wondering, in the cases of those who use lots of recipes from lots of books: Do you follow the recipes exactly, with no substitutions or changes of your own, or do you follow adaptations of the recipes? If you follow the recipes exactly, how do you manage in terms of stocking ingredients?

Depends on what I'm cooking. Nearly every meal we eat in this house is cooked by me, so I have a lot of stuff on hand. I also live in a house, not a NYC apartment, with two full pantries, a full-size basement freezer, and storage for additional items I get on big sales like flats of San Marzano tomatoes. (No walk-in yet, sadly.) I often choose recipes based on what I want to use from that ingredient stock, instead of choosing a recipe and then getting ingredients for it. Last night's dinner was a perfect example: I braised a pork shoulder* Dominican-style, made rice* and beans*, and sauteed a cabbbage* with homemade chili sauce* and kecap manis -- all to use up the asterisked items.

For those meals I usually wing or flip through a book to get ideas. I follow book recipes more precisely when I'm learning the basics of a cuisine or want to recreate a complicated dish or try a new technique. I tend to dive into something (currently Khmer cooking) whole-hog, and have a few other base cuisines (Chinese and Thai, e.g.), and for those I'll keep the larder full of the required items and tend to follow the recipes more slavishly. The nuances of David Thompson's Thai curry pastes, for example, often have me scurrying to the market to get one more item on a list, and I made a special trip for a Paula Wolfert lamb stew to get Aleppo chili pepper (glad I did, too).

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I am not surprised at my percentages--I know my collection has grown faster than I could make use of it in recent years because I'm cooking less often, but also working too much, and right now, it's easier for me to buy a new cookbook that I want to try rather than to get it from the library.

I count those books as 'using for two or more recipes' if I used recipes from it twice or more; and liked those well enough to keep it. I have certainly gotten rid of books that I used twice or more but didn't enjoy (e.g., Lord Krishna's Cuisine); used twice or more but then I found another book in a similar area that I liked better--was more comprehensive, or more to my current tastes (e.g., Classic Italian Cooking); or that I took a key technique from that I now apply to recipes from other books (Best Bread Ever). Others are kept for recipes that I know so well that I rarely go back to the primary volume, but still, if I got one or more recipes out of it with such value, it's worth keeping in hopes there will be more I like as much (More than Minestrone). I also consider a book a success and worth keeping even if I virtually never follow a recipe precisely, but do open it, read it, and get inspired to make a variation on that.

I'm defining 'following a recipe' here as needing to review the ingredient list or order of steps in preparation, but even with baking, I almost never follow the recipes precisely as written. I do have a grain mill to mill my own whole wheat flour, and I do not have any cookbook written as 'start with 300 grams of hard white wheat berries and 150 grams of soft white wheat berries and 6 long peppercorns, coarsely crushed'--save the recipes I write down myself in my own book or post to my web site. If that was for a recipe that called for 3 cups of all purpose flour for a loaf of bread, I'd consider that following the recipe and give the cookbook credit. I always refer back to Flatbreads and Flavors for my favorite Chickpea and Onion Stew, but usually play with the vegetable component by what's in season, and double the spices, but still would have trouble getting it right without having the written recipe in front of me. That's using the book too. I also give credit to those sources of the recipes that I have memorized and follow more or less precisely but never have to open the book anymore.

I do live now in a house with capacious cabinets, but even when in small apartments I put up bookcases as pantries to keep a good stock of grains, beans, seeds, spices, dried fruits, home canned stocks, and abundant cooking equipment on hand.

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The first time I make a recipe, I follow it exactly. If it turns out great, I'll continue to follow the recipe exactly. But if I find the end result lacking or if I think of a way to improve it or Gild the Lily, I'll make changes.


“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”


Tim Oliver

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