Saturday, February 16, 2008

About Cookbooks

When you have a cookbook collection like mine, it can be daunting to try and think of a way to organize the books themselves, let alone the recipes within. My method is far from perfect, but so far it seems to suit me okay, and maybe it could be helpful to someone who is just too overwhelmed.

First, I need to break down my cookbooks into categories. Basically, there are three types of cookbooks for me. There's the "reference cookbooks" like Joy of Cooking or my Cooking Light Annuals which have recipes for everything within. Then there's the more specific "niche cookbooks" like my Vegetarian cookbooks, or the books by one author like Giada, which all the recipes have an Italian twist. I would consider any of my ethnic cookbooks part of the niche segment. The third type of cookbook is the non-negotiable books. These are antiques or old church cookbooks or cookbooks that belonged to a grandparent, and while I do cook from them occasionally, these are mostly around for sentimental reasons, and are not part of my organizational attempts- there's only a small handful of these.

For the niche cookbooks, I don't really organize them much, or the recipes within. Those are the cookbooks that I like to pull a random one off the shelf and just flip through and find something to cook from time to time. I keep them somewhat organized on the shelf-keeping similar cookbooks together, but don't take them much further than that.

It's the reference cookbooks that I take an organizational tactic to. Take my Cooking Light Annuals for instance. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of recipes in one cookbook. And when I have seven of them...that would be literally impossible to figure out a way to leep track of the recipes within. Imagine THAT database! So what I do is simply to take an evening and sit down with the book shortly after I've received it. With me, I have a stack of index cards and a pen. Then as I'm flipping through the book, I write on an index card when a recipe intrigues me- as well as what page it's on. When I fill up an index card, I use another one. And once I've gone through the whole book, I tape the index cards to the inside of the front cover. Now I have a quick easy reference point. When I've made a recipe, I also notate on the card whether it was a repeater. If it was a dud, I cross it off the card, as well as make a note on the actual recipe. Some of my books have many index cards, some only a few, but it makes it quick and easy to pick up a book and try to find a recipe from inside. Here's a picture to show what I am talking about:So how do I know if a cookbook is worth keeping? Well, to me that's a personal question! Someone recently asked me about my favorite magazines, and I feel the same about my cookbooks, I'd just as soon pick a favorite child than pick a favorite cookbook. But last year I started a "Cookbook Challenge" on Tummy Treasure. I challenged myself to cook out of each and every cookbook I have, and it's really helped me to cull out my collection a bit. When I was flipping through a book having a hard time finding a recipe I wanted to cook, that was a red flag to me. And then when the one recipe I would try from that book was a dud- well, that cookbook was a candidate for tossing. I'm still doing the Cookbook Challenge, although it's been a while since I've updated it, and I really need to get back into it.

I guess what I'm saying here today is that you need to find a system that works best for you. I happen to have 70+ cookbooks right now, so to organize the recipes within completely...that just seems like madness to me. The best I can do is to give the whole collection a once-over every few months and see if there are any that just aren't cutting it for me.

And finally, a note to not be afraid to mark up your books. There is nothing better than flipping through my grandmother's old cookbooks and seeing her notations to add a little of this or leave out a bit of that in a recipe. I also love finding the pages that are full of splatters and food stains. This shows me that the cookbook was loved and was used, and makes it even more of a treasure to me. And even before my kids were two years old, they would sit on the floor and flip through Mommy's cookbooks, looking at the pictures. I imagine them doing so someday with their children and grandchildren, and that's fun to think about.


JEP said...

Very, very helpful organizational tips! I have my best loved cookbooks on a huge bookcase in my bedroom with the rest of my rarely looked at or booklet-type packed in boxes due to limited space. The CB's on the bookcase shelves are in a mis-mash order due to weight & size so the whole darn thing won't collapse! I do have my William-Sonoma volumes all together, tho' I especially like your idea of the taped recipe cards inside--amazing! I never part with a cookbook & like you have stained & written on pages & file cards. I have a theory that if a well-loved family or friend's recipe is copied over because it's faded or dirty, the dish will not taste the same--crazy, I know:( My cookbooks are actually spelled-out in my will as to which ones go to which child or grandchild--ha!

noble pig said...

I am amazed at your organizational endeavors. I lack that discipline even though I pine for it. I love books so much that I have a terrible time getting rid of them. Thanks for the inspiration. And do the Cooking Lite annuals have pictures with their recipes?

Erika W. said...

Thanks for sharing Jep! Although it's shame you have some packed in boxes!

Noble Pig, the CL Annuals do not have all the pictures you find in the magazine. They have sections of photos, but not near the quantity I would love to see.

Deborah said...

I'm very envious of your cookbook collection! I try to find anything I want online, to save on both shelf space and cost. I've been searching for a good way to organize the recipes I collect online, though. I have a very well organized folder system on my computer, but sometimes I just want to flip through a notebook like the one my mom used to keep.

Erika W. said...

Deborah, I have a post just for you this coming Saturday!