The Most Useful Cookery Books

Ask a simple question and, hopefully, you will get a simple answer. And so we did. Using social media we asked The Foodie Bugle readers, followers, contributors and supporters:

“What is the most useful cookery book you have ever purchased?”

At The Foodie Bugle we do not advertise the wares of celebrity chefs, but democracy allows all to speak freely, and so here are the results. “Useful”, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is an adjective with many connotations: being of use or service, advantageous, helpful, of good effect, having a practical use. The following cookbooks certainly offer great usefulness, and in addition another  very important virtue: trustworthiness.

Many of the books readers e-mailed or tweeted us about are written by cooks who, through the passage of time, have proven themselves to be reliable recipe writers and “loyal friends” in the kitchen, supporting you when the family dinner needs to be put on the table after a hard day’s work, or when friends come to stay. They are accurate, tried, tested and proven.  Not all of the chosen most useful authors are celebrity chefs, or restaurant owners, some are just food writers or home cooks who love good food and enjoy serving it with care, love and attention.

It is interesting to note that 150 years since its publication, Isabella Beeton’s 900 recipe cookbook and household management guide’s influence remains undimmed. Many of the recipes were said to have been plagiarised from several other authors, including Eliza Acton and Hannah Glasse, as Isabella was only 21 years old when she started wrting her 1112 page tome. It sold 60 000 copies in its first year,  a publishing phenomenom unheard of in those times. She died only aged 28 and after her death her husband, Samuel Beeton, sold the copyright to a publishing house called Ward, Lock and Tyler for just £3250, in order to avoid bankruptcy over a failed business venture.

The favourite adjectives readers used when describing their most useful cookbook were “splattered”, “battered” and “worn”. One cook wrote in to say that most of the pages of her most useful cookbook were stuck together with butter, oil and chocolate. Another wrote “I could not pick just one, so here are three….” A father wrote in to say he cooks dinner every night for his children, and without Jamie Oliver “I would be completely lost”. A mother of four wrote in to say that without the “Good Housekeeping Cookbook” she would not have been able to feed her four permanently hungry boys.

It was really heart-warming that for some the most useful cookbook of their lives was not one purchased. It was the one they wrote themselves through Home Economics courses at school, and also the one their grandmother or mother gave them before passing away.

Some e-mailers wrote of authors such as Tom Kime, Michael Ruhlman, Rose Carrarini, Paul Waddington, Marcella Hazan and Mollie Katzen with great fondness and enthusiasm. Foraging is obviously high on everyone’s agenda during the recession, and The River Cottage’s resident foraging expert John Wright got quite a few mentions, as did Pam Corbin, the Cottage’s preserves expert. In general the whole of the River Cottage series was found to be very useful, particularly for its bakery books. Elizabeth David’s bakery book is also noted as very helpful, but none of her other books were even mentioned, which is very surprising. Several readers wrote in to say they only ever buy baking books, as they cook really simple starters and main courses and do not need specific recipes, as they can be cut out of newspapers and magazines.

Cookbooks that have the word “Bible” in them are perceived by many cooks as being the fountain of all authoriy and knowledge, as well as providing real value for money in terms of number and range of recipes. Two Bibles were chosen by readers as ranking as the number 2 and the number 10 most useful cookery book. Both Bloomsbury and the BBC have two authors in the top ten.

How enjoyable it is to compare one’s own cookbooks against this democratic list, for, surely, its reading would make any cook head straight to the bookshop. For there is nothing more tantalising than a cookbook everyone else has nominated as “most useful”. It’s the ultimate accolade.

Here is what our internet survey showed. The top ten useful cookery books as voted by The Foodie Bugle followers are:

Number One: Delia Smith, “Complete Cookery Course”, BBC Books

Number Two: Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave,“Leith’s Cookery Bible”, Bloomsbury

Number Three: Yotam Ottolenghi “Ottolenghi : The Cookbook”, Ebury Press.

Number Four: Isabella Beeton “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management”, Oxford World’s Classics.

Number Five: Jamie Oliver, “Jamie at Home”, Michael Joseph

Number Six: Diana Henry, “Cook Simple”, Mitchell Beazley

Number Seven: “Larousse Gastronomique”, Hamlyn

Number Eight: Darina Allen, “Ballymaloe Cookery  Course”, Kyle Cathie

Number Nine: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, “River Cottage Everyday”, Bloomsbury

Number Ten: Mary Berry, “Mary Berry’s Baking Bible”, BBC books.

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