How to Review Cookbooks
First published 1/24/2005; last edited 1/24/2005
Reviewing cookbooks is rather different from reviewing other sorts of books. I've met very few people who attempt to review cookbooks, and even fewer who really do a thorough job of it, so here are my guidelines for reviewing cookbooks.
Things To Talk About
Try to talk about most, if not all, of the following. You won't always feel that all of these things require mentioning and that's fine. You should at least have them in mind, however, as things to watch out for.
Is the layout clear? Does it make it easy to tell the ingredients apart from the instructions and any notes? Are the instructions broken into short, manageable chunks? Are they numbered or labeled by section? Are recipes broken into pieces and scattered throughout the cookbook so you have to flip back and forth a lot while cooking?
Are there any photos? How many? How well do they compare to the actual results of the recipes? Are they attractive? Is the layout attractive? Is the book printed on flimsy paper or heavy-duty glossy paper, or something in-between? Is the binding sturdy?
How many recipes are there, roughly? ("Hundreds" is close enough; you don't have to be exact here.) What variety of recipes will you find in the cookbook? Does it cover a specific type of cuisine? If each chapter covers a different sort of food, what are the options? How difficult or complex are the recipes; is this a cookbook for the experienced chef or the novice?
Ingredients and supplies
Do the recipes rely on standard ingredients and supplies, or do they require hard-to-find ingredients, the availability of ethnic groceries, expensive specialty ingredients, or particular gadgets?
Is there any other sort of information in the book? How accurate and useful is it? What does it cover? How clearly is it presented? Is it dry, entertaining, boring, confusing?
Ultimately, what people want to know is: How does the price of the cookbook measure up to the usefulness and quality? Do keep in mind, however, that you can't simply declare the cookbook worth the price or not. There are so many ways now for people to get books at a variety of prices that you can't predict what someone will have to pay for a book. This means that you need to provide enough information so that people can decide for themselves whether the book is worth the price they're being charged.
Make The Recipes!
I cannot stress this enough. Make the recipes before you review the cookbook. You don't have to make all of them; you don't have to make most of them or even half of them. But you do need to make a representative sampling.
This sounds obvious, but for some reason it isn't. There seem to be a lot of people who think the only thing that matters is reading through the cookbook, and that if the recipes sound good they'll be good. This isn't necessarily so. The nicest-looking, most expensive cookbook from the greatest professional chef can turn out to be full of mistakes that indicate a lack of kitchen-testing--the kind of mistakes you're unlikely to catch unless you try to make a recipe. I say this from experience; I've reviewed several such cookbooks.
Then, talk in the review about how those recipes came out. If they didn't come out well, do you think that's due to mistakes you made, confusing directions, or out-and-out mistakes in the book? If they did come out well were they just okay or truly amazing? If you didn't like the results, is that because the ingredients or style didn't mesh with your tastes or because of flaws in the recipes? Try to be honest with yourself here--not every poor recipe is the fault of the cookbook, just as not every poor recipe result is the fault of the cook.
Above all, you have to keep in mind what your readers are looking for. They're looking for cookbooks that will deliver delicious, well-made recipes that suit their tastes, at a price they're willing to pay. You have to provide enough information that they can judge the cookbook for themselves--not simply based on whether or not you liked it.