Cookbook Reviews: what would you want to read?
May 19, 2015 2:49 AM   Subscribe

I've been put in charge of the cookbook section at my Library, and I've been asked to do something interesting to promote them. I was thinking of creating a tumblr or Instagram-style blog to show them off. Please help me figure out how best to do this.

At first I thought it would be fun to go through them and make a recipe from each one, but if I did that weekly it would be over 200 years before I got through them all. I could see myself making ONE recipe a week, but no more than that. I'm not a great or adventurous cook, and I would rather not dedicate that much time to one task.

So then I thought perhaps I'd pick 10-15 a week and write a little review about each of them. I would include a picture of the cover and some basic info about the book: citation, number of recipes, etc. Once a week or so I would feature a particular cookbook, pick a recipe from it, and make it and include that with that book's review.

If you were reading a short blurb about a cookbook, what information would you find interesting/helpful/useful? Keep in mind that I am writing for the general public - so I am not going to focus on niche information each time such as "is it vegan/gluten-free/kosher/freezeable". Of course, when I write about vegan/gluten-free/kosher/freezable food I will certainly point out its vegan/gluten-free/kosher/freezeablility. I would add links to our catalog for each book, along with a complete citation.

Recipe copyright can be a tricky topic, but I work with patents and copyrights as part of my job and one of my colleagues is a fellow at the USPTO. Needless to say, copyright concerns are not an issue here. So don't worry about that!

Anonymous so that my workplace, lovely as it is, does not figure out my username.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You should make note of any stained or scribbled pages, of course. Because those pages likely contain the best recipes.
posted by Harald74 at 3:26 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Cookbook fan here--a big thing for me is whether or not there are photos of the finished recipes--that plays a big part in deciding whether or to try a new recipe. Also--are ingredients in the recipes things that I probably already have in my pantry or are they more specialized? Is the cookbook written for a beginner or a more experienced cook?
To generate interest, could the library host a cook-off where patrons make recipes from the cookbook collection?
posted by bookmammal at 3:31 AM on May 19, 2015

I would want to know about the author, not just the recipes. And not just their CV, what's their personality like? Do they write fun blurbs about the recipes? Are they passionate about butter...or seasonal they have a blog...did they write the cookbook after traveling through some exotic places...etc...

Also important to me, how exotic are the ingredients? Is it full of specialty foods that are expensive or difficult to find? Can I get what I need from the farmer's market and local grocer?

Lastly, is it written for the novice cook or the more seasoned? How vague or detailed are the cooking instructions?
posted by hannahelastic at 3:38 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're working in any library like the ones I have, guaranteed there is a strong community in house making stuff and reading these things. Just a quick chat over coffee becomes: "Library Assitant Trish loves the bikkies from page 33" or "Director Tran can't stop eating the lasagne from this one!". Personalising it with staff seemed to work best for me, and if you can get some photos from staff that will work nicely too. Anything else and you start getting into way more work than you want.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:53 AM on May 19, 2015

I would want to know if the recipes include information about the kind of hardware to use (which pot, which pan, which bowl) as well as the ingredients. Recipes that say "a cake pan" are less useful to me than those that say "a 9-inch cake pan."

I would also want to know how specific the instructions are. Do the recipes generally say "chop the onions" or do they say "chop the onions into a 1/8 dice"? (for the record, I would prefer for the former over the latter).
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:48 AM on May 19, 2015

In my library, the two things that "sell" a cookbook are pictures and subject. People who are just browsing will be pulled in by the pictures, people who are looking for a certain style of cuisine (or diet) will go for subject. I'd try to target both by starting with the latter (people who come in and ask for ALL THE PALEO), make a subject guide for the Top 10 Paleo Cookbooks at X Library, and then build out individual updates highlighting certain recipes for the Just Browsing patrons. This would then feed back into the Subject Guides via links. When new cookbooks come out, ask for pictures/patron reviews that can be included and hopefully this will outsource some of the work to the community.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:51 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

I own a TON of cookbooks, possibly more than actual books at this point. For reviewing recipes, you may want to enlist the help of your friends. My friends and I have a cookbook club - a dinner party once per month or so, where we each cook a recipe from the same cookbook. We either get the book out of the library or one person buys it and shares recipes via email; and then we can try a bunch of recipes before we decide if we want to buy the book. Some key things I look for:

-Does it have pictures of the final recipe? How many recipes have pictures?
-How many ingredients per recipe on average? How many recipes require "specialty" or unusual ingredients? If there are specialty ingredients, do they provide substitution options ("if you can't find X, use 1/2 Y and 1/2 Z") and/or sourcing instructions? Photos of the specialty ingredients are helpful, especially for things like Chinese/Japanese/Korean/etc ingredients where they might not be labeled in English and the shop owners may not know/understand the English translation.
-Conversely, are the recipes overly simple (most people don't need to buy a book to make pasta with butter and garlic)?
-How many recipes are quick vs. slow/multi-day endeavors?
-Do the supposedly "quick" recipes actually require that you first make 3 other recipes from the book and have those base recipes ready ("great, this noodle soup takes 10 minutes to make! oh wait, first you have to spend a week making the stock on page 97 after personally raising a chicken from birth and teaching it how to read")
-Do you need specialized equipment to use the book successfully?
-Does the book provide pairing options ("this recipe pairs well with the XYZ dish on page 120") or sample menus?
-Do the instructions take environmental factors into account (will humidity, heat, altitude affect the recipe?)
-How are the recipes arranged (course, ingredient, season, etc)? Is the table of contents helpful? What about the index?
-Are there a variety of flavor profiles available in the book or is everything kind of one-note?
-Are there helpful technique instructions - knife skills, ingredient selection (e.g., how to buy fish), visual/scent cues, how to fix common mishaps or whether it's unfixable (e.g., burnt caramel)?

When testing recipes:
-For things like custards, puddings, etc. - do the setting times match reality (if it says chill for 2 hrs, is the dish actually set in/close to 2 hrs?)
-For baking, if you bake it at the temp and for the time specified is it undercooked/perfect/burnt, taking into account your particular oven's persnickety-ness? Generally you'll want to test 2-3 recipes to see if any issue is an outlier or a consistent pattern (*cough*Martha Stewart).
-Does the finished product actually look like the picture?
-Was it salty enough or did you need to add 4x the amount of seasoning to make it edible?(*cough*Mark Bittman)
posted by melissasaurus at 5:38 AM on May 19, 2015

Does it contain measurements by weight as well as volume?
posted by Room 641-A at 5:46 AM on May 19, 2015

A popular tactic food bloggers like is farming out recipe testing to other folks. For example, The Bitten Word's Cover-to-Cover Holiday Cookie Challenge had 500 readers sign up and each took on a different holiday cookie recipe from a cooking magazine. Could you get other staff members--or better yet--patrons to test out a recipe and give you a photo & review? The patron participation aspect might do as much to sell the collection as the reviews do. You could make up Review this Cookbook bookmarks to stick in books on display with how-to instructions (e.g. check out the cookbook. Make 1 or more recipes. Take digital pictures if you can. Write up a review of the book/recipe/s. Submit to CookingLibrarian at libraryemailaddress or hand in at the Reference Desk.)
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:00 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Does the book lay flat and stay open when it's on a certain page, or do the pages flop around and close if you take your hand off it? This is a lovely feature in certain cookbooks since I hate having to use my crappy cookbook holder.

Similarly, are all/most recipes printed so that they are on two facing pages, so that you can see the entire recipe at once? I LOVE when I don't have to flip pages back and forth with greasy fingers to figure out what step is coming up next.

For some of the suggestions, like ingredients by weights (good one!), you might want to just have some standard checkboxes at the bottom of all of your reviews so that you can mark off whatever is applicable, rather than spending time writing about it in prose.
posted by gatorae at 6:15 AM on May 19, 2015

If this collection gets decent circulation, you could invite people to write guest posts about cook books they checked out.

One question I don't know how to measure, is how fiddly are the recipes? Is this an all day science experiment like Cook's Illustrated? A quick and easy thing like Rachel Ray?
posted by advicepig at 6:17 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like all these ideas, but want to note that I think showcasing 10-15 books a week is too many. Make your content top notch, then give your readers time to soak it in and think about trying out any of the books that catch their eye. I think 3-5 books a week is sufficient.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:18 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really like the style of the cookbook "first looks" at the Kitchn -- here's an example. It gives all the basic facts, and I love the little list they include of the recipes that sound amazing to them -- it's clear they haven't personally tested those recipes, but gives you a flavor of what the cookbook author is going for and what you can expect.

If there is a display shelf to spare in the library, one thng our library did is having little review sticky notes set out (like the staff reviews you see at bookstores), for library patrons to grab a favorite book, stick their review on the front, and display it. I believe you could also write one when you were returning a book. It was a lot of fun, and would spread out the work of testing a million recipes, etc.

I think a "Top 10" (or whatever number) in different categories would be fun -- like, "Best Baking Cookbooks" or "Best New Cookbooks" or "Best Vegetarian Cookbooks" or whatever. Maybe you could determine this based on circulation numbers? Or some other factor. Even have people vote! I think interactive is fun and draws people in.

Finally, I would just be aware that there are SO MANY blogs out there dealing with this topic. The cookbooks section of the Kitchn is really well done and gives examples of many different types of cookbook-related posts you could do. But ultimately, you have a lot of competition in this area. A blog is fine, but I think coming up with ways to engage people offline is filling more of a niche that doesn't already exist -- maybe a potluck evening where patrons bring in baked goods made from library cookbooks and share recipes and hang out, or a cookbook book club hosted at the library, or in-person voting for the "top library cookbook" contest, or a spotlight on local specialities or recipes that are in season where you live, etc. etc. If you have a land grant university in your area, they will most likely be willing to send someone out for free from the extension department to do a class on safe practices canning/pickling, and you could use that to promote the enormous number of preserving cookbooks that have come out recently (trendy!).
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:54 AM on May 19, 2015

I personally love cookbooks that not only have excellent recipes and pictures, but tips/tricks/notes/shortcuts scattered throughout. Not only are books that feature those elements interesting, they also make great elements to post on social media. A picture of a tip showing up once a week would make me way more interested in following your account than just a list of titles.

Also, recipes with cool stories. I like reading cookbooks more than I actually like cooking with them, so I love narrative elements. "Did you know that [Chef X] first began working on this version of her tiramisu after a Christmas emergency when her Uncle Frank ate all the ladyfingers?" or whatever is the kind of stuff I would enjoy.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:22 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good suggestions for post content! You might be able to add library-specific value by featuring a new and/or popular cookbook with each post, then compiling a catalog-linked list of similar but less currently-popular titles. If the featured cookbook has lots of holds, the list of similar titles could be a "while you're waiting for x" list. You might also include magazines that are likely to feature similar recipes.
posted by Leona at 9:30 AM on May 19, 2015

Like a fiendish thingy, I prefer cookbooks that have stories in them.
I mainly use recipes for ideas and inspiration, since I'm not going to buy a bottle of Indonesian fish sauce when I already have Chinese (or whatever). I have far too many unopened bottles of condiments. Also, I shop first and then think out what to eat later.

But I love reading about peoples experiences with food and cooking. Maybe cookbooks with stories could be a sub-genre? (Which could then lead to another sub-genre which is novels with recipes in them..)
posted by mumimor at 10:37 AM on May 19, 2015

I agree with having patrons submit pictures of recipes they've tested and then featuring them in your content.
posted by Youremyworld at 5:18 PM on May 19, 2015

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