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.
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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