How many times have you heard someone say they read cookbooks like novels? Sure, cozying up with a good cookbook is a cute look, but what about actually using one? Why bother reading the intro? Should recipes be followed to the letter? Do you really need every ingredient on that two-page list? To help you make the most of the cookbooks crowding your shelves, we spoke to some of the chefs and authors who write them. Here's their advice on the best way to read recipes and how to find the secret stories hidden between the lines.
Make friends with the author. You could easily use just about any cookbook without even glancing at the introduction, but you'd be doing yourself a disservice. "It's an opportunity to get to know the author before you start cooking from his or her book," says Baking Chez Moi author and baking legend Dorie Greenspan. It's also where great stories live, notes Julia Turshen, who's written books with Buvette chef Jody Williams and The Fat Radish team. Chef books, in particular, "offer such an intimate glimpse into the creative process," says Turshen, who strongly advocates reading everything.
Don't skip the pantry section. "Most readers just want to get to the recipes," says April Bloomfield's collaborator, JJ Goode. But there's information that's just not practical to put in each recipe, and it's usually pushed to the front of the book. Greenspan believes the pantry section is particularly important for baking, when your success is directly affected by specifics like egg size and how you measure flour. Need another reason? Turshen says it's a great place to discover new ingredients.
Read for clues. Think of a recipe as a chef giving driving directions to his or her remote country house, Prune author and chef Gabrielle Hamilton says. Details like time and temperature are useful, but descriptions of how food looks, smells, tastes and feels are far more significant. "All the clues an author gives you are super important," Greenspan agrees. The chef doesn't know your oven, so a time range is really only a suggestion. She recommends setting a timer for a few minutes less than what the recipe calls for then checking the dish and using your own judgment. And the more you cook, the more comfortable you'll feel making those calls on your own.
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Improvise but be smart about it. Cookbook authors do want readers to follow the recipes they spent so much time perfecting, especially the first time and when you're unfamiliar with the ingredients or cuisine. But improvisation is expected and even encouraged. Once you have some experience and confidence, Greenspan says, improvising is a lot of fun. When you substitute ingredients, Turshen says, try to avoid throwing off the balance or chemistry of a dish, unless you understand how to adjust the recipe accordingly. Just don't blame the author when something doesn't work, Hamilton warns. If you make changes, own them.
Have a little faith. Goode, who has also written books with chefs Andy Ricker and Zak Pelaccio, fears that long recipes are seen as being too hard. But length, Goode explains, is often about providing the details necessary for you to succeed. "I've seen how incredible chefs are at what they do," Goode says. "They can make a dish you think you know taste better than you ever thought it could." So follow along and let them teach you something, Goode suggests. "Let yourself get pushed into new and exciting territory."
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