Essays

Why We (Still) Need Cookbooks

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Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to much global or international cuisine, but my life was already shaped by cookbooks.  My family’s diet was pretty straight forward; all the basics you’d find in our classic Betty Crocker cookbook, plus my mother’s specialties: Sunday night beef, potato, and carrot stew, and stuffed shells for Christmas Eve dinner. I looked forward to eating this beloved, comforting concoction every week. My upbringing — with my father, mother, and brother and I eating almost every meal together — solidified my association of food with family, love, and nourishment. 

Cookbooks: My First Chapter

It came to no one’s surprise that, with those formative memories, I became more curious about food as I grew up tall enough to reach the stove and strong enough to hold the hand mixer. I was full of questions: How did you make food? Where did it come from? How do you take ingredients and combine them to create something delicious? I adopted that same coil-bound paperback Betty Crocker as my guide. Whether it was trying the cranberry orange bread, the chocolate chip cookies, or the hearty barley soup, I tried just about everything I could. By the end of high school, I had worked my way through much of the Betty Crocker cookbook, now waterlogged with dog-eared, stained pages that stuck together.

At the same time, I was looking for ways to expand my culinary knowledge. I began to visit more “adventurous” restaurants, including nearby Philadelphia’s Chinatown, the local Thai place, and West Philly Indian buffets. Browsing the shelves of cookbooks in my hometown library, I found a passport to the food of more diverse cultures and got in touch with my own background by baking an apple galette native to Alsace where my ancestors lived. Thanks to the cookbooks I perused, I delved deeper into expanding my palate. Now, each year I take my birthday money to the bookstore to pick out two cookbooks so I can expand my little library of these special culinary wells of knowledge.

Cookbooks: Irrelevant?

My experience with cookbooks was by no means unique. Thanks to these special culinary reads, I grew as a cook and an eater. But in recent years, the explosive popularity of food blogs and social media has made some doubt that cookbooks are still relevant. If you can access a recipe that’s just one click or hashtag away, what’s the point of buying a book when you can find what you need in a single search? It’s a legitimate question. Yet now we need cookbooks more than ever, as I’ll argue here.

Cookbooks As Education

cover of Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat

Not everyone can go to culinary school, due to lack of time, finances, or the ability to relocate. Thankfully, cookbooks can help you get there. A cookbook can be a master class in techniques and fundamentals to educate aspiring chefs, whether they are working from a home kitchen or hoping to cook in a professional one. With books like Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, home cooks can learn the basics and level up their culinary game with essential skills. 

While you can certainly pick up a cooking education online, a cookbook serves as a cohesive course in all you need to know, organized thoughtfully to build on what you learn step by step as you master new knowledge. Cook your way through a tech skills cookbook and you’ll be well on your way to reaching greater heights.

Cookbooks As Expertise

There’s an inherent value in the trusted expertise of vetted, proven chefs whose recipes have been tried and tested multiple times to perfection, then gorgeously photographed so you can replicate their dishes. Who better to offer a seminar in cooking than chefs that have pioneered innovative new restaurants, hosted cooking shows, and become tastemakers (literally)? A cookbook is a polished, impeachable product, one that has been methodically written, tested, edited, and illustrated to flawless perfection. 

Cookbooks As Passports

From my tiny kitchen in suburban Philadelphia, cooking transports me to other countries and cultures. 

Thanks to a global-themed cookbook, I am able to experiment with bringing Ghanaian peanut chicken stew into the house, with its delicious hearty and earthy flavors. That same cookbook takes me to Poland where I craft pierogi from scratch. And nearby, another cookbook on my shelf takes me to the deep South, helping me learn the ins and out of Southern baking, like bourbon pecan pie — now a staple of my family’s Thanksgiving celebration — and sour cream coffee cake.

A cookbook can be the perfect passport to learning about the world of food — and the world’s food. With lavish photography and inspired recipes, cookbooks that specialize in a deep dive of a culinary culture offer home cooks a way to take a trip to another corner of the globe wherever you create food, diversifying your repertoire and immersing yourself in new flavors. If you’re looking for tastes outside your sphere, cookbooks can transport you in a text that’s organized intuitively to help you learn how to build the unique flavors and fundamentals of a new cuisine.  

Cookbooks: The Future of Food

While here I’m arguing for the relevance of cookbooks, the truth is there’s plenty of room for everyone, food blogger or traditional chef. There is no need for conflict or pitting one medium over the other, nor claiming one is superior (and, in full disclosure, I ran a food blog for a few years myself). After all, some of today’s best cookbooks are authored by culinary influencers whose digital recipes, stories, and unique perspectives are popular for a reason. Without their contributions, we might never be blessed by their talent and POVs. 

The barriers to publishing cookbooks have started to crumble, allowing talented online-based chefs who might be considered outsiders a chance to break through. Publishers seeking fresh recipes and points of view can now discover new talent, including from marginalized voices amplified from their corner of the culinary internet. Cookbooks help preserve, organize, and share their recipes and make them (ad-free) and available offline, allowing the leisurely spread of pages to elaborate on the food they’ve created. 

In this way, we need cookbooks now more than ever to validate, celebrate, and amplify new voices. After all, a mix of perspectives, styles, and knowledge is the best recipe for a vibrant, diverse, and inclusive culinary world. And that’s one I want to belong to.


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