Nutrition-wise blog

Hit the books: Choosing the right cookbook

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. June 18, 2010

Last week I had to go through my large cookbook collection and downsize. I knew which ones were like old friends — too dear to part with. Quite a few, however, were more like groupies — just hanging around and taking up space. They could go.

As I sorted through my books, I got to thinking — what makes a cookbook great? Here's what I look for in a cookbook:

  • Recipes plus techniques. A cookbook will teach you techniques, whereas a recipe book is simply a collection of recipes. I like a book that offers both.
  • Practical. I look for familiar ingredients, easy methods and quick recipes. I also look for cookbooks that teach me something new — like how to make great low-fat sauces. Finally, I want a cookbook to have a great table of contents or index so I can readily find the recipe I want.
  • Appetizing. It can be tough to judge this before you buy. However, when I read recipes I think about the flavor combinations — are they interesting or weird? And are there enough recipes in the book that I want to try?
  • Healthy. Are most of the recipes based on fresh ingredients? Do they emphasize plant foods (vegetables, fruit, beans/legumes, whole grains)? Are they low in fat and sugar? I also like recipes that provide nutrient information, such as calories, fat, sodium and fiber, at a minimum.
  • Trustworthy. Who's the author? A good cook? A known authority on health? Ideally, a good cook has partnered with a health expert.
  • Bonus features. Added pluses are suggestions for substitute ingredients, different cooking techniques for the same recipe (stove versus oven versus grill), and photos or illustrations. I also look for books that address specific health concerns, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and celiac disease.

What about recipe websites, you ask. I'm not quite ready to abandon cookbooks and go totally online, but I've bookmarked a number of sites that meet the above criteria. I find that cooking sites are especially helpful when I'm searching for recipes that use a specific ingredient — for example, new ways to cook boneless skinless chicken breast or what to do with all the garden veggies I just picked.

What do you think makes a cookbook great? What are some of you favorites — and why?

I'll be interested in hearing from you!

- Jennifer

Jun. 18, 2010