Don't Pay Up For That Cookbook! How to Spend Next to Nothing on a Great Recipe Collection

You'd be surprised how often I hear people claim that the high cost of cookbooks is an obstacle between them and cooking cheaply at home. And, admittedly, it sure seems like there's a constant oversupply of heavily marketed, celebrity-endorsed cookbooks in bookstores everywhere, many of which can cost forty, fifty or even eighty bucks a pop.

Of course, when people see cookbooks costing as much as a nice restaurant meal, they start to wonder how cooking at home can possibly be worth it.

But here at Casual Kitchen, our sworn goal is to challenge readers to think differently about food. And after you're done reading this post, you will think differently about cookbooks--and you will never again be suckered into overpaying for one.

[I'll start with an obvious and easy solution available to anyone who feels compelled to pay eighty bucks or more for a cookbook: Don't. Just don't.*]

Seriously though, there's absolutely no need to obediently cough up big bucks for heavily marketed cookbooks. Instead, subvert the cookbook-industrial complex by using the following tips to obtain an enormous collection of great recipes on the cheap:

1) Use your local library
Yep, they've got cookbooks at your local library--most likely a surprisingly extensive collection. As we'll soon see, most cookbooks are so little used, and contain so few heavy rotation-caliber recipes, that there's a tremendous risk that any cookbook you buy will end up collecting dust on your shelf. Thanks to your library, however, you can test drive these cookbooks first, dramatically reducing the odds of buying something that will waste both money and space in your kitchen.

2) Exploit the cookbooks you already own
This tip may seem confusing at first, especially to consumers habituated to wanting and buying new things. But there is an untapped goldmine of recipes just waiting for you on your kitchen shelf--hiding in the cookbooks you already own.

Most people use a preposterously low percentage of the recipes in their favorite cookbooks, to say nothing of how little they use their least favorites. In fact, even in my own kitchen, I estimate that I use only about 10% of the available recipes in my entire cookbook collection. Ridiculous. If you want to learn more about cookbook exploitation (or what one of my readers melodramatically calls "the barbaric practice of cookbook exploitation"), I've written two posts on how to exploit your cookbooks for all they're worth. Always remember: your kitchen doesn't need that many cookbooks--just a few really good ones.

3) Exchange cookbooks with friends
Every new cookbook contains one tremendous risk: the risk that we won't use it. We're always filled with good intentions and enthusiasm when we first take a new cookbook home from the store, but ultimately, we're highly unlikely to use any cookbook to its full potential. Eliminate this risk by borrowing your neighbors' lesser-used cookbooks, and return the favor by letting them borrow your lesser used ones. This way everyone's cookbooks have a chance of being fully exploited. It's a true waste to have a cookbook collect dust on your shelf. Instead, see if it can provide value in someone else's kitchen.

4) Split the cost of new cookbooks with a friend or neighbor
Suppose you and a friend are just starting out at cooking, and neither of you own any cookbooks. You can always chip in and pick up a couple of cookbook classics together. Start with Better Homes and Gardens, Sundays at Moosewood or any of the other key cookbooks that form the foundation of a good cookbook collection.

PS: Combine this tip with the next tip and you and your friend will laugh all the way to the bank with the money you save.

5) Buy cookbooks used

Question: What's the difference between a new cookbook bought at retail and a lightly used cookbook from a used book sale or garage sale?
Answer: Twenty to forty bucks.

I can say with confidence that the only thing more crapnoying than a cookbook that collects dust on your shelf--is a cookbook you paid $45 for that collects dust on your shelf. The thing is, you aren't going to know right away which cookbooks you'll ultimately really connect with and which cookbooks will become $45 dust collectors. This risk exists with every cookbook purchase. But here's the thing: if you pick up a cookbook for a buck or two at a charity book sale, you'll at least bear an absolute minimum of financial risk.

6) Always avoid heavily marketed, celebrity-branded cookbooks
You are likely to pay more, often much more, for a cookbook when it contains the added branding, marketing and promotional expenses of a celebrity chef. Sadly, just like with celebrity-branded cookware, these higher costs rarely signify higher quality. There are exceptions to this rule (Emeril, please stand up), but in general, I believe that the greatest cookbooks are about the food, not about some quasi-celebrity chef who's trying to build a brand for himself by pumping out three cookbooks a year.

7) Spend 15 minutes a week reading food blogs
The entire food blogosphere exists to provide great recipes to you at zero cost. And if you spend just 15 minutes a week perusing a modest list of 15-20 good food blogs, you can easily put together a decent list of 30-40 solid recipes in a matter of just a few weeks. That's a pretty measly time investment for a lot of good recipes. You can find a great list of blogs to start with by visiting my "Favorite Blogs" list, which is halfway down the right margin of this page.

There's more to this tip: The very best food blogs also offer incredibly useful added context and commentary on their recipes. I take great pride here at Casual Kitchen in sharing all sorts of timesaving process steps, recipe variation ideas, cost information, and even candid discussions of the potential pitfalls and problems with each of my recipes. Traditional hard-copy cookbooks, with their space constraints and fixed publishing dates, simply cannot offer this.

Furthermore, whenever a reader asks me a question about one of my recipes, I make sure I answer. This furthers the discussion and gives other readers still more useful context. By way of comparison: what happened the last time you wrote to Martha Stewart with a question on one of her recipes?

8) Ask three friends or neighbors to share their five favorite easy recipes with you
This easy step takes just a few minutes, your friends and neighbors will be deeply flattered, and you'll instantly obstain a solid starter collection of reliably good recipes. After all, because they're the top favorite recipes in your friends' homes, the odds are good that they'll become top favorites in your home too.

9) Look in strange places
You'd be shocked at the downright weird places I've found some of my best recipes. On the side of a box of couscous, on a bag of lentils, in my dentist's office... heck, I once found a great recipe written in unreadably microscopic print on the twisty-tie wrapped around an armload of collard greens. Amazing and easy-to-make recipes are out there, free for the taking, if you just look around and keep your eyes open.

Readers, what tips would you add? And a final question for the bravest commenters: What is the strangest (and I mean strangest) place you've ever found a recipe?

* A final word: If you truly cannot help yourself and you simply must buy an overpriced, celebrity-endorsed cookbook, please be sure to use the Amazon links on my blog to do so. Sure, you'll be overpaying, but at least you'll be supporting Casual Kitchen while you overpay.

Related Posts:
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs
The Six Rules of Recipe Modification
Six Secrets to Save You From Cooking Burnout
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Food Costs

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Anonymous said...

Google "recipe (name of ingredient)" and you will uncover hundreds of recipes for whatever you are wanting to cook. Or if you don't know exactly WHAT you want to cook, look through or These are both free services that have thousands of recipes, as well as techniques for things like how to make biscuit mix, how to make yogurt, etc.

I consider a recipe to be - at best - a suggestion. So there is no reason for me to spend a lot of money on a book of "suggestions." If I do, and I do occasionally buy a cookbook, it's because I admire the author or want to support a cause. But when I want to cook, it's the internet for me!

KitschenBitsch said...

I really recommend checking out discount stores (Home Goods, Tuesday Morning, Marshall's, Ross, TJMaxx). I worship the ground Nigella walks on, mainly because of the way she writes her recipes -- they read like a seduction. I picked up a copy of her _Forever Summer_ at Tuesday Morning for $8, and it's a $35 hardback. Worth it? Oh yes.

That said, be careful. I've picked up some really lame cookbooks that looked good off the bargain rack at the local bookstore. Sometimes they are there for a reason.

Anonymous said...

This kind of saddens me, because I'd like to see cookbook authors getting paid, not only for their hard work, but for their bringing joy to my table!

So while I agree with your strategies for saving money, I'd add tihs: if you find a great book (through the library or online sources, etc.) and you find yourself cooking out of it time and time again, then splurge, and buy it! I have several books like that, and I can't imagine not having them at my finger tips. And I'm glad that people are inspired to keep putting out cookbooks, even if most of them won't ever make it onto my shelf.

Marcia said...

You forgot one. "Put cookbooks on your Amazon wish list."

I have a 3-shelf bookshelf of only cookbooks. It's sad, really, how little I've cooked from them. But I love them so much. I can sit and read cookbooks for hours.

I've been meaning to commit to trying one new recipe a week. Maybe I'll do that. I do get a lot of my new recipes from blogs.

I also swap cookbooks with the neighbor.

beth said...

I live by and as well as a few other recipe sites and aggregators. What I have found is that if you really need a cookbook, buy a 3-ring binder to put all of your printed recipes in! That way you know that your cookbook contains only recipes that you either love or have wanted to try, and they can be edited and modified before it even gets to the printer, so it is just right.

chacha1 said...

Dan, you were feeling a little frisky when you wrote this, weren't you? Very entertaining.

I have grown quite cavalier in my approach to cooking and rarely use a "recipe," but when I do try a new one it is nearly always from the Internet.

That said, DH and I love risotto and paella dishes, so we have cookbooks devoted to those as well as a BHG which I refer to for basic technique when I've got a new ingredient. And I have a little box of standby recipes collected from friends, family, and magazines.

I am most often inspired by the Food Network show "Chopped," next by "Iron Chef America," and then by the produce section at my favorite supermarket. Their produce manager is a visionary.

Daniel said...

Some excellent ideas so far. A few thoughts:

There is something to be said for turning to a highly reliable source (say, Better Homes or Joy of Cooking) rather than trying your luck with internet based recipes. If you have specific blogs you trust and can rely on, great. But if you're going to Google a recipe, you should have sufficient cooking experience to judge the recipe you choose just by looking at it. I've written a post on this very subject by the way: How To Tell If a Recipe Is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions.

That being said, agreed, there are a zillion really good recipes just waiting for you out there, thanks to Google.

And to Anonymous (#2): I'd also like to see cookbook authors getting paid. But what I'd like to see even more is consumers getting good value for the money they spend. The best cookbooks will attract buyers. What I'm here to do is protect consumers from the overpriced crappy ones.


Kathy said...

I have quite an extensive cookbook collection and recipe collection. The recipes I get online from my favorite websites/blogs, etc. The cookbooks I mostly pick up at library sales and thrift stores. (I picked up both volumes of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking at a thrift store a few years ago - $1/each.) I also utilize (KathyJ). I have received the $40-$60 priced cookbooks for basically the cost of shipping.
Good deals are out there.

AmandaLP said...

I have gotten a few cookbooks from, which is free for me (except for what I send out, which is worth it because I am getting a great value.)

I find that the most used cookbooks I have are from larger names, and are more about the "how to" rather than the recipe itself. The King Arthur Cookbooks, The Cake Bible, and Bakewise are the first cookbooks I reach for when baking something new.

UrMomCooks said...

My favorite new strategy is to "google" the desired new cookbook and the author to look for reviews... Usually a recipe or two from the book will show up in the review! Sometimes this whets my appetite even more, and sometimes it cools my jets completely! But at least I can make one recipe from the book and have some fun for free!

Anonymous said...

i belong to several food boards and on each i have offered cookbooks that have come into my possession, after copying out any recipes i want, for free. i pay the shipping - you get the book. i do this so they go to someplace where someone will use them and, if they decide they don't want to keep them, will pass them on. i also save the magazines i *hangs head in shame* "treat" myself to at the supermarket and any of the ones i subscribe to and pop them into the package as a laginappe.

Barefoot contessa, marcella hazan, cat cora, mfk fisher, martha stewart, john folse and others have made their way to canada, michigan, california and even india this way.

Diane said...

I'm pretty darn frugal, and get many recipes from the web. But I have to say that cookbooks are definitely something I will buy - and often buy new. I feel strongly about supporting these authors. They deserve to be paid for their efforts. Of course I pick carefully what I buy, but I beloieve in spending my $ on books.

Lisa said...

Weirdest place I found a recipe... a fantastic banana bread recipe inside a novel written by a Canadian radio personality. I bought the novel at a used bookstore in northern India, and copied it into my travel journal, waiting almost a year before I had a kitchen again to try it in. I recently met the author and got to tell him that same story.