Joe’s Book Club

Some day I hope to compete with Oprah. Does that sound realistic to you? Thought not. But I was feeling a little guilty for getting after Martha Stewart the other day. She’s such an easy target. On top of that, I promised from the beginning to resist becoming just another gripey, navel gazing blog.

My criticisms of poor Martha aren’t any that I wouldn’t be willing to level at most celebrity cookbook writers. Nearly all are notorious for their sloppy instructions, poor testing and terrific photography. In the book publishing trade, cookbooks are called “furniture”, which speaks volumes not only about how they’re used, but about what most publishers’ priorities are. Creative bindings, elegant design, jaw-dropping photographs, and…what else goes in these things again?

In general, people give bakers, cooks and chefs quite a lot of credit in the cooking knowledge department. They see them either on TV or in open kitchens doing their thing and assume that like pop musicians they never use books. This couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in the realm of baking, where rules and formulas rule.

The question is: what kind of cookbooks do professionals use? Not celebrity cookbooks, that’s a given. First, because it’s well known that most celebrity chefs don’t test their recipes well. By that I mean that they’re either scaled-down versions of recipes from their restaurants (always a recipe for, um…disaster), tested by inferior cooks under tight deadlines, tested using professional vs. home gear, or flat not tested at all (rare, but it definitely happens).

Knowing that chefs who make it big tend to be under big pressure to get books in the pipeline fast, professionals generally avoid what they publish (or at least don’t cook from the books). The same goes for “30-minute”-type corner cutting recipes for obvious reasons. Yet professionals do shop off the book racks, especially bakers, since baking recipes have technical advantages that other types of recipes don’t. Namely, that they can be scaled infinitely up or down and they’ll turn out the same every time. So if it happened that Rachel Ray published a good recipe for flourless chocolate cake, it could conceivably be scaled up to industrial proportions with just a calculator. Most bakers and pastry chefs I know, however, gravitate to the classics. In the realm of pastry those are anything by Julia Child, especially Baking with Julia, and any of Rose Levy Berenbaum’s three great books. For bread baking Peter Reinhart rules the roost, but Nancy Silverton’s books are also well known. Paul Bertolli’s section on bread in Chez Panisse Cooking is considered a classic.

There of course hundreds of other possible additions to the list, though it’s been my experience that most pro’s have just a few core technique books that they hold dear. Beyond that, every cookbook they buy simply becomes a catalogue of ideas, to be adapted to the techniques they already know. This is what I meant on Friday when I said that Martha Stewart’s books are great for visual ideas. Mixing and matching is how any cook, home or otherwise, develops style.

I’d love to put together a master list of some of these “core” technique books and put them up on a menu. So if you have any thoughts, please send them to me. Whether baking or general cooking, I’m interested in it all.

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