How to Cook a Book

Cookbooks I love

If you’re like me, you have shelves full of cookbooks, many of which look as pristine as the day you bought them. Even those of us who love to cook get distracted by busy lives and rely on the same handful of recipes, when we’re not getting take out. We all have dog-eared, bedraggled cookbooks that are full of stains, notes, and barely attached pages. We’ve learned the rhythms of the author’s techniques, stocked our pantry with the book’s basics, and have grown confident enough to improvise or adapt when needed.

It can be hard for new books to compete. Though they may be full of bookmarks from the first read through, they’re often neglected after the first one or two recipes, probably because there’s another new cookbook to peruse on the night stand. Cookbook clubs, online or off, offer a way to ensure you’re making the most of a cookbook while helping create a community of like-minded cooks.

I’ve been blogging through cookbooks since 2010 and it’s built community for me along with kitchen chops. If you’re considering joining a cook-along group, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Be True to Yourself

There’s no right way to write a cook-along post. Some people chart their experience with each recipe step-by-step. Others connect their assignments to stories and memories. You might be interested in writing about the roots of ingredients, recipes, or cuisines. Another blogger might weave these meals into an ongoing record of their lives. It’s not just structure that makes a blogging group work, it’s creativity.

Pros: Finding your voice is an enormous part of what makes blogging worthwhile.

Cons: If you’re struggling to find an angle, you won’t connect with your project or your readers.

Be Consistent

Make a commitment, whether that’s to cook every single recipe in the book or to participate every second month. Whether your goal is to make better use of your cookbooks, get into the kitchen more often, or begin a writing practice, you’ve got to have some structure. Your schedule doesn’t need to be precisely the same as your cook-along group’s schedule, you just have to find what works for you and stick to it.

Pros: Finding a schedule that works for you takes things from whim to project.

Cons: When things get tough, the tough get writer’s block.

Be Flexible

Illness, vacation, or work crunches can cause your cook-along to take a back seat. Don’t worry – that’s what ‘catch up’ lists are for. Your family’s health restrictions or food preferences might not fit with every recipe. Adapt the recipe, make one or some of the components, or skip it altogether. There’s no such thing as a cookbook that’s tailored to your needs and tastes precisely, unless it’s your own. If you can’t make a project work with your life, it’s not going to work at all.

Pros: If you’re too rule-oriented, you might not enjoy yourself.

Cons: If you’re too flexible, you just might find you’ve stopped.

Be Accessible

It can be frustrating to read through a post and find out that the only way to comment is to sign up for a third party commenting system – consider relaxing your restrictions a little and rely on spam filters or moderation a bit more. If it’s too hard to comment, your fellow cooks may give up trying. In a similar vein, when you’re posting your link for an assigned recipe, make sure it’s a link to the post itself, not your blog. If you’re not getting comments, it could be that folks got frustrated trying to find the right blog entry.

Pros: Being part of the conversation is what makes cook-along groups tick.

Cons: Managing spam can be time-consuming.

Be Generous

Comment on everyone’s blog, whether their following is large or small, even if you think you’d never cross paths in your offline lives. When done well, every exchange is a gift, allowing participants to learn from each other, have fun, and even form real-life friendships. Don’t be the person who doesn’t reciprocate – in the end, you’ll be the one who won’t want to stick around.

Pros: This is how you build online community.

Cons: If you’re part of a big cook-along, you’re going to have to schedule time for commenting, as well as cooking, photography, and writing.

Be Open

What started as a cook-along project for you might morph into developing your own recipes, writing reviews of cookbooks or restaurants, or spur your creative urges in another direction entirely. There’s value in participating in one of these groups from beginning to end, but there’s also much to be gained from joining mid-stream, or letting go of the group when your interests change.

Pros: Following the direction of your creative energies will keep your output fresh.

Cons: When you’re ready to move on, you’ll have to work harder to maintain the community you’ve created.

After all of that, you might be wondering, where do I sign up? There are a wealth of cook-along groups out there. Search by cookbook, cuisine, or meal and you’ll be sure to find some. To get you started, here are links to the groups I’m currently participating in:

And if the idea of joining an online cook-along just doesn’t appeal to you, don’t despair. That’s not the only way to cook a book.

Want to go your own way?

Chart your own course through your cookbook shelves, like Ei, of the Cookbook Immersion Project. Make your blog into a record of your hits and misses, what you’ve learned, and what you’ve yet to master. With no deadlines or requirements, you can visit and re-visit the books on your shelves as you see fit.

Pros: Explore your cookbook library at your own pace, according to your own tastes.

Cons: If you’re not a self-starter, you might be back at square one.

Not online? No problem!

Cookbook clubs are the new potlucks, according to a wave of recent media trend watching. Recruit a cadre of home cooks and plan regular dinners, with each participant bringing a dish from a cookbook you’ve chosen. Unlike other book clubs, the meat of the discussion is right on the table.

Pros: A delicious, multi-course meal, made by many hands. Conversation, conviviality, and analysis. No pressure to document each dish photographically or otherwise.

Cons: People are coming over! If a meal isn’t documented on the internet, did it really happen?

Once you’ve found your way, you’ll be a more skilled, more creative, more adventurous cook. Just don’t neglect those old favourites completely. Never repeating a recipe can be as much of a fault as making the same ones over and over.

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23 thoughts on “How to Cook a Book

  1. Great read! I’m doing a little more work from a book this month than I usually do for my site (though there’s a lot of spring-boarding going on, leading to variations, etc.), so it’s nice to see some tips about keeping things real. I’ve never really thought about doing a cookbook club, but I can see how it would be quite appealing. For now though, I’m still going to remember a lot of this when I’m flipping through the pages on my own!

  2. There will never be another group like FFwD, but I am happy its carried over into other ventures.
    I enjoyed this post.
    Going back to school was a game changer for me. I miss having the freedom to dig deeper into the cooking and posting world 😦 thank goodness for catch up posts!

    1. Thanks so much, Cher. I think it’s exciting that you’ve gone back to school, but I miss your posts. I’m glad you’re able to post occasionally and I’m with you – hooray for catch up posts!

  3. Love this post Teresa. As always, insightful!!! And spot on. I’m so glad that so many of us have been cooking together for years! And, a good reminder about reciprocity. I have reading to do. But it’s very true, and it really is as much a part of the community as the cooking and blogging itself!

    1. Thanks so much, Candy! I’m always trying to make time to comment on more of the blogs I enjoy, but it sometimes feels like a losing battle…

  4. I learned so much reading your post, Teresa! My husband and I we love cookbooks and have quite a collection, and once in a while we pick something from there to cook. We’ve never thought of joining a club, now you’ve given me something to think about. Thanks!

  5. Great post! Every time I get a new cookbook I think about starting my own personal “cook the book” project. I am enjoying the pace of CtBF. By the end of FFWD I felt like I had lost my voice and getting each recipe documented felt like drudgery (though I’m still happy I completed it!). With this new project I am making an effort to tell more of a story with each post, and the schedule gives more time for the important comment reciprocating.

    1. I think the pace of CtBF is great. I sometimes wonder if the pace of FFwD was what helped us to build such strong bonds, but at the same time, I agree that posting every week could drain inspiration, too.

  6. What a lovely post! How did I almost miss this one? I enjoyed reading your thoughts on our cooking projects and found myself nodding vigorously at many of your observations.

    I’m actually finding the every other week schedule more of a challenge than expected. Every week was quite an effort, but with every other week (or every 3 weeks as has been the case with a few of these longer months) I find myself falling out of the routine and sometimes just forgetting about it completely, even when I already made the recipe! I may need to set up some reminders for myself.

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