Confession time: I make cookbooks for a living, but I don't treat them nicely.
I treat my authors nicely — I love being their literary agent; it's an honor — and I love the cookbooks we've made together (I hold them tight and sing them to sleep and feel all sorts of joy-sparks when I look at them). But let's not be precious about it.
Cookbooks Exist to Help Us Cook
They work for us, not the other way around. Cookbooks want more than anything to help you cook, and to cook damn amazing food — and sometimes better food than you could cook if left to your own panic-fueled decision-making. Cookbooks want to lure you away from that moment when you're staring blankly into the fridge, fathoming the meaninglessness of dinner, and wondering why on earth you didn't just plan something, like you swore you would.
Cookbooks will find you in that moment, wipe away your tears, and gently whisper, "It's okay ... I have an idea."
So if you're drowning in cookbooks but still parched for practical ways to get dinner done, you might need to reassess your relationship. Here are seven ways to make your cookbooks work for you like they mean it. They helped reform me from a hapless daydreamer to that stubborn soul that cooks a brand new recipe even though it's 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, the fridge is empty, and the dog is on fire.
1. Pick only one cookbook to try per week.
Here's the truth: You're not going to cook from your cookbooks if you can't even bring yourself to pick one. Trust me — I've been in that deep, dark place, sitting on the floor, surrounded by books, wailing to the cookbook gods that I WANT TO COOK THEM ALL. This is where insanity is bred. This is where recipe dreams go to die.
Instead, back away from that bookcase with just one — seriously, only one — book in hand. That's the cookbook for the week. Now turn around, and walk it over to a spot in your kitchen where it can happily live for the next seven days. You two will become good friends in this time, and you're going to learn much more about your new author friend than if you were hopping around to every kitchen in town.
Bonus Tip: As you're cooking your first recipe of the week, use pockets of downtime to flip through the recipes you want to try later in the week. It'll help you wrap your head around exactly what you're supposed to do to that chicken.
2. Create recipe stations in your fridge.
Remember that time you ate an entire package of prosciutto in a fit of zealous hunger, only to remember you needed it for a recipe later in the week? Well, that used to be me, until I gave myself a little slap on the wrist in the form of recipe stations. The concept is simple: When you come home from the store, corral everything that is specific to a recipe in one corner of your refrigerator. You can use a bowl or small sheet pan if you're feeling ambitious, but even sequestering everything off to one corner of the fridge will help you.
3. Set reminders on your phone for time-sensitive items.
Here's another common scenario that used to kick me in the shins: I'd have my meal plan set and my recipe picked from that week's cookbook, but when dinnertime rolled around, I was already behind. The chicken wasn't defrosted; the butter wasn't at room temperature; the five-hour braise was five hours behind schedule.
This doesn't have to be you, and that's because you're going to start reading the next day's recipe as you cook each night (see tip #1). And here's the clincher: You're going to set a reminder for anything that needs to be done in advance.
Maybe this is as simple as defrosting a protein or switching on a slow cooker, but it can mean the difference between eating Ottolenghi's roast chicken and 3-rice salad or a frozen burrito for dinner.
4. Don't be afraid to dog-ear your cookbooks.
This is where any cookbook collectors should put on their earmuffs, because I'm about to say something that may offend you. Cookbooks should be messy (and tattered, and splattered, and maybe even a little smelly from one too many rounds near the garlic sautéing). They should also be thoroughly marked as your territory with plenty of dog-eared pages.
Whenever you meet a brand new cookbook friend, sit down together, get to know each other, but don't be shy about marking off your favorite parts. After all, the only thing worse than a rumpled cookbook is an untouched, unloved cookbook.
5. Write all over the recipe.
Here's where I'm going to politely ask the authors to go into earmuffs mode, too. Because yes, I think scrawling your own thoughts right alongside the author's printed words is one of the best ways to make your cookbooks really work for you. This can be something as simple as underlining what needs to be done in advance (and you are setting a reminder for that, right?) or something as specific as how long you think you'll need and what time you'd like to get started.
If permanency scares you, use a pencil and write lightly, so you can easily erase temporary notes. But I promise you — the cookbook police will not come for you. And if they do, I'll tell them you went the other way.
6. Write mini-reviews in the margins.
We all love Amazon reviews, but in truth, the best reviewer is yourself, in the privacy of your kitchen, with the quiet of a pencil, where no one can harrumph or harangue you because you didn't like that one recipe that everyone is losing their minds over.
Here is your private forum to scribble out your most honest thoughts about that dinner you just made. Was it good, but not great? Would you have added more cream? Braised the chicken a bit longer? Added a splash of lemon juice?
Get it all out in this marginalia confession, and make sure you wrap it up with a one- to five-star rating. Otherwise, you might not remember a year later whether that recipe was a keeper needing a few tweaks or a dud that left you hungry and sad. And the only thing sadder than a mediocre meal is the same mediocre meal made twice.
7. Substitute shamelessly.
And the very best way to get more use out of your cookbooks? View each recipe as a template. If you can play within the parameters of a dish, you'll be able to make that recipe no matter what is (or isn't) lurking in your refrigerator. For instance, a recipe that calls for pancetta will be just fine with prosciutto or bacon or even plain ol' ham.
If you love that recipe for grits with shrimp and okra, but okra makes you heave, go ahead and make it with green beans instead (or broccoli, or peas, or really anything you have in the nether regions of your freezer).
And if grits are what make you nervous? I'm sure the recipe would be just as delicious with rice, millet, or couscous. Yes, it's not exactly how the cookbook author would have made it, but I won't tell.