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How to Cook From a Cookbook

Cookbooks are made to be used. Start with one that intrigues you and then use this resource to help you learn how to cook from a cookbook.

A row of cookbooks on a shelf are shown. They include books by Julia Child, James Beard, Ina Garten, Nick Sharma, Samin Nosrat and others.

From celebrities to five-star chefs, international to vintage, or even the dietary-specific options, we are presented with a head-spinning selection of help in the kitchen in the form of cookbooks. You may have even inherited a cookbook or two over the years, passed down with the splatterings of kitchen endeavors past.

If you aren’t terribly familiar with cookbooks though, cracking one open can be intimidating. Each cookbook has its own layout and focus. Some have photos throughout, but many others do not. Some have an expectation of experience — that you’ll understand a julienne from a dice, for instance. And yet others are meant to help the beginner navigate the kitchen for the first time.

Start with a cookbook that really speaks to you. Be it nostalgia or dietary interest, when cooking with curiosity, you’re on the right path.

Now, you’re ready. Here’s how to cook from a cookbook.

Choose Recipes Wisely

Step one when cooking from a cookbook is familiarizing yourself with the layout of the cookbook.

How did the author organize the recipes? Appetizers to desserts? By flavors? Or maybe by cooking time?

Once you’re comfortable with the layout, you can really start digging into the recipes.

Don’t discount a recipe simply because it uses an ingredient you may not typically enjoy (i.e., mustard, onion, dill, etc.). When coupled with other ingredients, it might provide a flavor you love — for instance, mustard-haters won’t notice the flavor in their macaroni and cheese, but it does help bring out the cheddar. But if the main ingredient or flavor of the dish is something you aren’t crazy about, then consider if that recipe is worth your time. It might not be (this is why you won’t find anything honey mustard on my site or in my books!).

In choosing your recipe wisely, also consider the purpose of choosing your recipe.

Are you aiming to be adventurous and ready for a challenge? Maybe you want to practice a new cooking skill set with a more familiar recipe? Or are you searching for a dish that could suit a particular event?

Aim for a recipe that matches your intentions and will do what you need. And don’t be afraid to indulge your culinary curiosity in the process!

Read Thoroughly

Curiosity can only get you so far.

Before landing whole-heartedly on a recipe, be sure to read the ingredients and instructions thoroughly.

Use this mental checklist as you read through the ingredients list:

  • ‘Have I cooked with this ingredient before?’
  • ‘Will I need to purchase any of these? Do I have time to??’
  • ‘Are there any allergens I should consider?’
  • ‘Could I substitute any of these ingredients for something I have?’ (Say, Crisco for butter or swapping one vegetable for another.)

And don’t stop once you’ve reached the end of the ingredients list.

Instructions are just as important to review before settling on a recipe!

Perhaps there’s a required tool you need to account for (i.e., whisk vs. blender, large pot vs. medium pot, etc.). Or perhaps the instructions detail a much longer prep time or rest time than you had allotted for yourself.

While ingredients can be entirely familiar, instructions for a recipe may sway your decision on whether you really want to make a dish or not.

Go By the Book

Make the recipe as written the first time you make it.

Even when choosing a recipe based on familiarity, if this is your first time, trust the cookbook to guide you through the steps. This is important and will give you a sense of what you like (or don’t like) about the recipe — and sometimes the author’s style as well.

Changing a recipe changes the outcome of your dish. So measure your ingredients, follow each step and give it a go.

There’s a science behind cooking. The author may have you add salt during a certain step to better impact the outcome of the dish’s flavor, or perhaps there’s a wait time when letting a sauce simmer which will lead to that perfect texture you’re seeking.

The thing about science is having a constant, a control. A foundation on which you can then test your own theories. When learning how to cook from a cookbook, you need to build that foundation first.

Once you’ve nailed it, then bring your brilliant theories to the (literal) table!

Gather Your Mise en Place

Get in the habit of having your ingredients ‘mise en place’.

‘Mise en place’ is a French cooking term for having all your ingredients prepped, measured, and ready before you begin your cooking or baking.

With your mental checklist accomplished and laid out, you’ll be confident in your ingredients and entirely ready to focus on the instructions of your recipe.

As Anthony Bourdain famously said, “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks.”

Not only does having your ingredients mise en place help in the efficiency of your cooking, but it also cuts down on cleaning time because all the prep-work of cutting boards and measuring cups will be out of your way.

Budget Your Time

Cooking time is still time, and while it is cliché, the truth is time costs money.

Thoroughly reading your recipe, preparing ingredients and tools, and designating enough cooking time for the recipe are just a few ways of budgeting your time wisely.

Knowing how long a recipe is supposed to take helps you determine whether Monday or Friday night is better for cooking.

Don’t rush through the steps of a new recipe. Again, changing the recipe changes the dish. Cutting five minutes off the simmering time could turn your dish from delicious to blasé.

And most of all, go easy on yourself.

If this is your first try with a recipe, then allow a bit of wiggle room with your time. This may mean setting aside 15 extra minutes for prepping. You may just need those extra minutes to double and triple-check. ‘Was it diced or chopped?’

"The Easy Frugal Cookbook" by Sarah Walker Caron is held aloft with a row of cookbooks on a bookshelf behind it.

Beyond the Recipe

Cookbooks offer so much more than just recipes. They’re designed to be a reading experience, not simply a stagnant recipe holder. Read the stories, dig into the introductory matter, and take it all in.

Some recipes even require you to turn to a resource page in the back of the book, say for how best to slice the meat once it is finished. Or some recipes refer you to an entirely separate page for the accompanying sauce.

Let yourself live with your cookbook … really!

  • Dog-ear the pages.
  • Thumb through the instructions with batter-laden hands.
  • Write little notes about what you may have substituted an ingredient with or how you thought the final dish was.
  • Leave a message to future you on a ‘theory’ you have for the next time you try this recipe out.

There’s a reason some cookbooks stay in the family long after the pages have fallen out and been stained by ingredients. Cookbooks were designed to be used by you.

Now, which cookbook to start with? Have you seen my newest — The Disney Princess Tea Parties Cookbook is so much fun!