Are cookbooks all style over substance?


Today I spent several hours organizing my cookbooks, consolidating them all into the same room for the first time in years. As I gaze upon my favorite tomes, I am excited all over again to cook from them. That’s why I was a bit put off by a column in The Telegraph, where Prue Leith dismisses new cookbooks, saying that they are more suited to the coffee table than the kitchen. (A similar article also appeared in The Guardian.)

Cookbooks focus more on beautiful food photography than on creating good recipes, Leith says. “Now the look of the book dictates the sale. In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if that would sell today. But those books were much used: they lived in the kitchen and got splattered with custard and gravy. Today, if we cook, we google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza,” writes Leith in the Radio Times. 

Leith also laments the rise of the celebrity cookbook author, noting that many chefs become popular on television before they even write their first cookbook. “Jamie Oliver did the same trick at the end of the 1990s, with his Naked Chef (again, telly plus book), pulling in a whole new audience who saw him as a kind of rock star rather than a cook.” Leith counts Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kerridge, and Yotam Ottolenghi as examples of this trend. But Leith has high praise for Mary Berry, because she wrote many cookbooks prior to her popularity on the Great British Bake Off.

Glancing in my newer cookbooks I do count plenty of gorgeous photos. But I don’t see it as a detriment but rather as an inspiration–and sometimes, a guide as to what the finished dish should look like. This is especially important when making something for the first time. While I have a couple of cookbooks that are used infrequently – Alinea comes to mind – I don’t just ooh and ahh over the photos in my books. I still find the recipes important and make use of them. How about you? Do you agree with Leith that new cookbooks are better suited for the coffee table than the kitchen?

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  • AndieG52  on  August 20, 2015

    I also use the pictures as inspiration but for me the recipe is still the most important. The photo definitely inspires me, though.

  • Rinshin  on  August 20, 2015

    I generally agree with this looking through my cookbooks. The most smeared and loved cookbooks are older cookbooks that often times did not have photos. I used and use more recipes from those cookbooks than newer less recipes but photo rich cookbooks. Though photos are great, I skip through those recipes with too many frilly and tall food on plate since I know I would never make anything like that at home.

  • adrienneyoung  on  August 20, 2015

    I admire Prue Leith, but in Japan they say you eat first with your eyes (well, I think that is a saying). Photos in my newer books have helped me a lot to learn to make my food taste good AND look good. And I value that!

  • BethNH  on  August 21, 2015

    Sounds a lot like, "Kids today …" There are many wonderful cookbooks out to day with accessible recipes for home cooks. Good photography does not take away from a great cookbook. There are other beautiful cookbooks which are obviously made for coffee table viewing and they have their place too.

    Cookbooks are still big sellers so I think it's pretty odd to make a claim that if we want to cook something we Google it.

  • ellabee  on  August 21, 2015

    There _are_ way too many cookbooks that prioritize looking over cooking, but it's just wrong to lump the Ottolenghi/Samimi cookbooks in with them. Their recipes are what have made them justly famous — starting with the food sold at the restaurants/delis, on through the Guardian recipe columns, and then via the books. It looks petty and crankish to attribute their success to book photos. (Ten Speed editors should be raked over the coals for lack of chapter table of contents in Plenty More, though…)

  • Nancith  on  August 25, 2015

    I appreciate the beauty of food photography when it is in my cookbooks, but most of my books have no photos. What is more important, of course, is the recipes! It is interesting to note that on a book discussion site in which I participate, many reviews of cookbooks were more negative when the book lacked photos. Gaging by the tenor of those comments, most were from younger persons. Electronic media does bombard us with images, which perhaps encourages more use of photography in cookbooks to assuage the visual appetite of this technological age. Just an hypothesis!

  • trudys_person  on  August 25, 2015

    Interesting articles, and Ms. Leith has started an interesting debate! I can't come down on either side of the argument though … I have cookbooks that I use a lot with and without photos. It all comes down to the quality of the recipes. We need solid testing, accurate measurements and good instructions. Sometimes a photo provides a clue, if the instructions are lacking.

    And let's not forget where Ms. Leith is coming from … she is trying to create publicity for her "new series of Great British Menu on BBC Two." I think she's been successful!

  • apattin  on  August 31, 2015

    Why do they think Yotam Ottolenghi is all images and no substance? The man's recipes are fantastic, creative.

  • Barbric  on  September 19, 2015

    Most the ooh's and aah's coming from my friends sitting around my dining table originate from my modern collection of cookbooks. Ironically, my tried and tested pecan nut pie recipe comes from one of Prue Leiths books from 25 years ago. As does my fall-back vichyssoise! There is place for all cookbooks on my shelves – none of them ever reach the coffee table.

  • Kitchenslave  on  September 30, 2015

    When looking through a potential cookbook purchase I open the book at a few random places and if the photos of author vastly outnumber recipes, which happens quite frequently, it helps my decision.

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