Cookbooks vs. Cooking Blogs: Ready For Some Commitment
I love food blogs. Love them. I have been following Smitten Kitchen since before the author’s son was born, and I eagerly scan her current posts for hidden links to photos of her adorable four year old. When I’m looking for dinner ideas, my first instinct is to skim the archives of my top cadre of blogs for a recipe that uses the ingredients I have on hand in the hope that inspiration and convenience will strike simultaneously. But I haven’t always been an acolyte of the blogosphere.
One of my earliest cooking memories is making Silver White Cake from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook. My family has two copies of this book, a newer copy that is rarely touched, and a much loved 1980 edition who’s binding has fallen off, been taped back together, and is nearly falling off again. The recipes in this book are not extraordinary. You won’t find a decadent triple chocolate peanut butter mousse anything or an elaborate fifteen-step recipe for a sauce with a French name that I can’t pronounce. But you will find step-by-step instructions for the simple building blocks of a hearty home cooked dinner and a contentedly competent cook.
It was the Illustrated part of this cookbook that so captured my attention as a young chef. Perhaps because color printing and photography was more expensive in the eighties, Good Housekeeping decided to limit the photographs of their recipes to a small section of glossy color pages in the center of the book, while breaking up the text of the recipes themselves with simple line drawings that taught me the basic techniques of the kitchen. From kneading bread dough to dicing vegetables, Good Housekeeping assumed no prior knowledge. Though my mother did a great deal of instructing in the kitchen, whenever she wasn’t there to oversee, Good Housekeeping had me covered. Their recipes might not have been the most exciting, but because of their extensive testing and clear instructions, they were guaranteed to work.
In high school I discovered the world of cooking blogs and excitedly threw myself into wildly creative recipes, with mixed results. In some cases my background knowledge was sufficient to successfully execute a foreign recipe (most notably the peanut butter mousse brownie pie of my dreams), but in other instances I was missing skills or the blog writer omitted a step and the product of hours of work would be a gummy torte or runny cookies that my family would gamely attempt to choke down. This high variability in success has led to some disapproval from my mother whenever I announce that I’m about to attempt a wildly ambitious recipe inspired by a blog. She might read it through and then quietly buy backup ingredients in case my dinner plans quite literally fall apart.
While interning at Lake Isle Press, I have begun to understand my mother’s confidence in cookbooks and at least see where she’s coming from with her distrust of blogs. While the books that Lake Isle creates are far from boring, they share with Good Housekeeping a desire to teach. At the beginning of each book, in the sections that a casual reader might skim over, the author lovingly details the background knowledge that will make these particular recipes sing. From the detailed explanation of the uses and preparation of sacred spices in Vikas Khanna’s Return to the Rivers to the beginner’s guide to outfitting a kitchen in Elizabeth Barbone’s How to Cook Gluten-Free to the nutritional and functional explanations of each ingredient used in Camilla Saulsbury’s Power Hungry, the benefit of a passionate cookbook author is the time and space that they have to teach, not just share a recipe. Cooking blogs are wonderful and have a lot to offer, and the best are well tested and try to help their readers with clear instructions and the occasional tutorial, but a cookbook is an entirely different level of commitment. A cookbook author is giving you the tools to add a completely new dimension to your cooking arsenal.
Though you can buy a cookbook as a collection of recipes that you might sample from time to time, the true value lies in the cookbooks that become integrated into your culinary routine. If Camilla does her job right (and I believe that she has), by adding Power Hungry to your shelf you will not simply make a few homemade energy bars for a school bake sale, you will have the ingredients and skills on hand to make a batch of bars on the weekend to power you through your entire week, and the confidence to customize her recipes to your own personal tastes. By integrating Return to the Rivers into your knowledge base, you will not only be able cook an occasional Himalayan inspired side dish, you will use the spices from this beautiful part of the world with the respect and wonder for these mountain people that Vikas communicates in every lovingly detailed recipe and photo.
Lake Isle’s books have combined the delightful individualism and creativity of blogs with the commitment to teaching and sharing that is only possible in the longer form of a cookbook. It is the difference between sitting down for coffee with your favorite blogger, and spending a month in the home of your favorite author. The interaction is deeper, and there is so much more that you can learn. Though I love the quick fix of a breezy blog post recipe for dinner, in the long term I think I want to invest in some cookbooks.
Brianne Mirecki is a student and runner who attempts to bake gourmet treats in less-than-gourmet college dorm kitchens.