Monday, June 10, 2013

COOKBOOKS -- How I Rate Them as Reviewer

As a cookbook reviewer, I occasionally come across some awesome cookbooks.

Professional book reviewers follow Amazon’s system giving each book a star ranging from one to five. I review close to hundred books a year most of which are cookbooks. I regularly receive these books from three book review magazines. Cookbooks (or food-related books) given five stars are truly exceptional and not common. Really bad books surface in the mail too but they are not common either. Our criterion of giving one star to a book is: Probably only going to be read and enjoyed by the author's mother.”

I am often asked by friends and acquaintances how I arrive at the rating of a cookbook.

First, the recipe writing: it must be absolutely clear, unambiguous, ingredient amounts also clear and in easily measurable amounts in a home cook’s kitchen; step-by-step instructions in logical order; ingredients listed according to cooking steps used. I check to make sure no ingredients are missing either from the list or from the directions. Are most ingredients readily available and known to a home cook? Are there professional jargon used a cook needs to look up in a dictionary?

Then comes the layout of the recipes. Good cookbook authors insist that the recipes are laid out to the convenience of the cook not to the book designers. If you need to flip pages back and forth to follow a recipe, the layout is poor. Illustrations related to a recipe should be close to the recipe itself.

Recipe headnotes should be interesting to read and informative to the cook. This also applies to the sidebars, tables, and charts. Good food writing rates high in my reviews but endless personal stories and history can be boring that readers will only read once (if at all). Also illustrations: some authors include many, many personal photos from babyhood on which I consider fillers. The quality of food photography may be amateurish or professional, as well as sketches and step-by-step thumbnail photos.

Index is extremely important. Having poor index is very frustrating to a cook when attempting to find a previously prepared recipe. Index needs to be thoroughly cross-referenced to be useful. (Roasted Tuscan Eggplant should be listed under eggplant and Tuscan but not under Roasted.)

A good cookbook also have extras: perhaps something about unusual ingredients, about the cooking techniques used, history and origin of the recipe and so on.

Using a very good professional cookbook editor (not just any book editor) and a professional indexer don’t guarantee a good cookbook but it’s likely to lead the way to five stars.

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