What's it like to write a cookbook? I've written three, so I get asked this a lot. My friends have made me laugh at times with the perceptions they have about writing cookbooks. It looks so glamorous! (It's not.) Now you're famous! (Errr, no.) Can you quit your day job now? (Ha, no.)
Perhaps the biggest misconception, however, about cookbooks is that they are always executed by people who know what they are doing from beginning to end. To the contrary, every time I've written a cookbook it has taught me something new about cooking. Here are some of the things I've learned along the way, plus even more learning moments from friends and Kitchn contributors who have also given us delicious and hard-won cookbooks.
Mind, these aren't things that I've learned about writing a cookbook — that's another (very long!) post, but just what I've learned about cooking that has returned with me into everyday life.
1. There is no single right way to cook almost anything.
When you are testing recipes and improving them bit by bit, you learn very quickly that there is no single right way to do almost anything. I saw, with my casserole book, how small changes in oven temperature, amounts of cheese, or ingredient substitutions made no measurable difference in the outcome. For my pudding book, I made puddings and custards in so many ways, and found that often my little tweaks didn't matter.
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Now, I'm not denying there are indisputable facts of chemistry in the kitchen. Also, there are certainly best and mostly best ways to cook some types of dishes. But creating recipes and improving them made me a much more fluid and relaxed cook, with an understanding that the platonic ideal of any given dish is quite subjective. It also made me more suspicious of recipe authors who insist that their way is The True and Only Right Way.
Debbie Koenig, a Kitchn contributor and author of Parents Need to Eat Too, had a similar experience. She says:
I learned how subjective taste can be ... with many of the recipes, there'd be one tester who just didn't like the results, even though everyone else raved. It wasn't the same person each time, either, so it wasn't like it was one super-critical tester. It showed me that individual palates experience things differently — what was under-seasoned to one person might be too heavy-handed for the next. I wound up putting a lot of encouragement in the book to trust your own tastebuds. If the finished dish makes you and the people you're cooking for happy, that's all that matters.
2. When to trust a cookbook author, and when to trust my own taste.
Writing a cookbook has helped teach me that there are times to utterly trust a cookbook author and take their word for almost everything — and there are times to simply trust your own taste.
It's a very hard job to wrangle every single detail into instructions that will work for a broad variety of people. It's easy to grumble about a missed ingredient or poorly edited instruction (and believe me, I do complain) but I also cook from cookbooks now with more sympathy for the author and an understanding that most recipes are simply a starting point.
And as Debbie said above, taste is subjective, and just because you didn't love a recipe doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. It's tough to write recipes for everyone, and it's wise for a cook to take a recipe as a starting place and not just follow it blindly.
However, writing a cookbook has also given me awe for the cookbook authors who are deeply, uniquely knowledgeable about a subject and have translated it clearly and concisely for the home cook. There are many people who can write solid, useful recipes — but these masterful authors are much more rare, and I've learned to seek them out and trust them. I can recognize that in-depth expertise now. I feel like writing a cookbook has made the better cookbooks stand out more quickly and clearly to me on a first read.
And ultimately, I respect the work that goes into all cookbooks much more. Anna Brones, our coffee columnist and author of the newly released Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats, concurs:
I can't go into a bookstore now without being completely overwhelmed by thinking about all the work that went into EVERY SINGLE ONE. There's an author, and hence, a human being, behind all those books (cookbooks and others) we consume so regularly.
3. It helped me learn that nothing is perfect.
My day job at The Kitchn lets me tweak and rewrite and "fix" things later — all to my perfectionist's heart's content — but when you work on a cookbook, at some point you have to, in Elsa's immortal words, let it go.
Read more: We're Writing The Kitchn Cookbook!
At some point the manuscript is done, with some inevitable typo or mistake buried somewhere (even the greatest authors have to put out errata!). The pages get bundled up for printing, and you can't ever touch it again.
As Marisa McClellan, most recently the author of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces, said to me:
This isn't about cooking so much as it is about life. The biggest thing that writing a book taught me is how to let go. When it comes to recipes on my blog, I'm always tweaking small things in order to make them better. When you write a book, there's a moment when you have to stop, let go, and allow yourself to be well and truly finished. There's something hugely freeing about that.
4. It made me question a lot of assumptions I have about cooking.
Writing recipes — whether it's for The Kitchn or for a cookbook — makes me question assumptions. I just assume it's better to toast nuts in the oven, but is there a better way? I assume everyone feels as I do about salt on desserts (every brownie is better with salt) but not everyone actually does. And on and on.
There are ways of cooking that are habitual and creating a cookbook makes you question those.
Sheri Castle, author of The Southern Living Community Cookbook: Celebrating Food and Fellowship in the American South, says:
It taught me that the most tedious things to describe are things I do automatically and intuitively after all these years. It is easy to overlook steps and moves that I'm not aware I'm making.
This has persisted into my daily cooking, as it has made me question even small habits in the way I cook food, store it, and save it for later. Everyone has a different way of doing things, and writing cookbooks taught me that every cook has something to teach another.
As Megan Gordon, author of Whole-Grain Mornings: New Breakfast Recipes to Span the Seasons, says:
It taught me not to make assumptions about anyone's knowledge base in regards to ingredients, methods, or equipment. I found the recipe-testing process fascinating because I'd have feedback coming in that really taught me to slow it down in the recipe instructions and not take anything for granted.
5. It made me grateful for simple weeknight cooking, and cooking by feel.
In the end, however, writing cookbooks made me deeply appreciative of how simple basic cooking is in comparison. When I step up to the stove on a weeknight and cook a couple of chicken breasts with a made-up hodgepodge of seasonings, and throw together an impromptu salad — maybe with salsa out of a jar — I'm so grateful for how easy and simple this process is. It's a joy to cook by feel and not have to measure and document everything.
As Tara Mataraza Desmond, author of Full Belly: Good Eats for a Healthy Pregnancy, said:
... writing cookbooks highlights the joy of just cooking by feel and heart when I'm not writing one. Free of having to measure, weigh, tweak, time, fret, and notate all the while!
Writing cookbooks is such a joy and a privilege — it's delightful to know that the recipes and tastes I love find homes all over the place. But it's also humbling to remember that, as great as recipes can be, that improvisational weeknight cooking can be just as good and even better than the recipes I write. And I'm really grateful for the books that help me do that better.
Here at The Kitchn we're all about cookbooks — we love the ones that have helped us grow and learn as cooks. But we're equally committed to teaching and resources that help you cook without recipes, trusting your own instincts and abilities. That, in my mind, is just as fun as writing cookbooks!
(Image credits: Pablo Enriquez)