Why reader reviews of cookbooks are so important
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Why Reader Reviews of Cookbooks Are So Important

There are two types of reviews when it comes to cookbooks: reviews written by the media (magazines, newspapers, and radio shows) and reviews by readers (bloggers, recipe testers, and home cooks).

Which reviews usually influence your decision to buy a cookbook?

I pondered this after coming across a blog post by author Dianne Jacob, whose new release made The New York Times‘ holiday roundup of the best books to buy. It’s a brag-worthy piece of press that hundreds of cookbooks vie for each year, but as a food writer and editor, Dianne admitted that something “nagged” her about the so-called “review.”

Because in her eyes, a review implies the reviewer actually tested the recipes before extolling their greatness. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a rewritten press release.

And as I thought about it more… her refreshingly frank take on the matter makes a lot of sense.

To be fair, it would be exceedingly difficult for a food editor to test recipes from all the books he’s expected to review in a given month. Budgets are low, time is precious, and what if the one recipe he decides to test from an otherwise excellent cookbook is a dud? He’d have to test at least three recipes to get an accurate sense of the book… multiply that by the dozen-plus books he probably sees on his desk every week, and one of his job duties (reading, writing, or cooking) is likely to fall by the wayside.

It just seems easier to skim the press release that the publicist sent over, flip through the book to note important things like recipe clarity and image quality, and then formulate a blurb on his first impressions. Perhaps not a true “review,” but a legit write-up nonetheless.

So, are cookbook reviews by major media simply overhyped? Should you take them with, er, a grain of salt?

In her post, Dianne Jacob pointed to an instance where a highly-touted, hotly-praised cookbook (a New York Times bestseller, no less, and featured in heavy hitters like Vanity Fair and Food Network) was actually a mess of a book, full of untested recipes and unrealistic photos. (And by unrealistic, I mean photos that were obviously not created from the corresponding recipes.)

It was called out in a one-star Amazon review from a prominent, award-winning chef (ouch!) and confirmed by blogger Christine Gilbert, who posted the disastrous (and hilarious) results of her recipe testing… for guacamole. A very, very basic guacamole found in the book. She went so far as saying it was “The Worst Mexican Cookbook in the World,” and while I can appreciate her honesty, I can also breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t my book!

As a fledgling author, I’m thrilled and thankful for all the kudos given to The CSA Cookbook since its release. My book was mentioned in Audrey, Edible, Where Women Cook, Clean Eating, Honest Cooking, Northern Virginia, Publishers Weekly, Statesman Journal, The Press Democrat, Heritage Radio Network, and a host of other media outlets in the last year. Whether those writers actually tried any of my recipes, I’ll never know — but I certainly hope someone in the office did, eventually, even if the book was passed down to an intern or a friend.

The CSA Cookbook featured on the front page of The Press Democrat's Food section

But after reading those thoughts from Dianne and Christine, I’m even more thankful for the reviews posted by readers on Amazon and the reviews from my cookbook ambassadors, all of whom took the time to try a recipe and write about it.

These aren’t seasoned food writers or professionally trained chefs. They’re everyday home cooks, or people learning how to cook, and their personal experiences in the kitchen are the truest test of whether my cookbook might be right for you.

I should add that every single recipe in The CSA Cookbook was tested at least twice by myself, and multiple times by my recipe testers (friends of varying skill levels in all types of kitchens). Some were even tested outside on camp stoves! If a recipe can pass that kind of test, where conditions are as unpredictable as the weather, well… I take that as a good sign. As mentioned in my behind-the-scenes post, every recipe was cooked exactly as instructed and photographed without any tricks of the food styling trade. What you see is what you get, charred edges and all.

If you’ve cooked from The CSA Cookbook, I hope you’ll consider leaving a review on Amazon to help other readers get a better feel for the book.

And if you haven’t been convinced to buy a copy yet, here are a few reviews from around the blogosphere (some of whom were sent a complimentary book, none of whom were expected to give a good review — just an honest one). If anything, maybe this list will introduce you to a new favorite blog!

If you tried one of my recipes on your blog and I missed your post, please share the link in the comments section. I’d love to hear how it turned out for you!

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  • Kathryn Graves

    Enthusiastic endorsement. Could be a Food Studies text.

  • Pingback: Friday food links – 22 Jan 2016 « Using Mainly Spoons()

  • I truly loved reading through and reviewing your book! Everything is so gorgeous. I’ve made several things and they’ve all been amazing, but my favorite is STILL those leek breakfast pizzas. SO YUMMY! I can’t wait for spring and leek season!

    • Ah, thank you for the reminder on one of my favorite recipes from that book! Might have to make it this week! 🙂 And thanks again for reviewing my book, I’m so happy you’re enjoying it and cooking from it!

  • Karen

    One of my fav cookbooks! I use it all the time!!!!

  • Heather Wood

    Wow. This is why I pay full price for every cookbook that I review, to see if the value/money ratio is really favorable, and keep them around and cook from them for a while before I review them.
    It also confirms something I have thought for a long time: many famous cookbook authors have little to do with the creation of their own cookbooks. Read through the series of cookbooks nominally written by Alice Waters ( yes, I said it) and notice how the whole authorial voice changes from book to book. They are brilliant and useful books when the co-author is a working cook and food-lover, (Paul Bertolli comes to mind,) oddly chilly and mechanical when the case is otherwise.
    I am still enjoying your book, and it is so clearly the work of a true gardener and cook.

    • Thank you Heather! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my book! And yes, it’s a shame when famous authors aren’t as involved with their cookbooks as they should be. I personally love reading back stories and head notes, so when a cookbook is lacking that personal tone, I’m not as inclined to cook from it.

  • Laura

    Hehe… Great article. I went and read the linked article. And I love the call out of all the big mags who gave obviously fake reviews. Food has gone out of control which is why lots of home cooks like myself turn to bloggers. Because in truth, a blogger who isn’t honest in voice or content will not be able to sustain a following. Because of that, it gives us a sense of confidence in buying published books from bloggers. And bloggers who start based on pop-ups or food carts – that experience also generates cred.

    • That’s a really interesting thought! I’ve read (in a big food mag, ironically) that they think readers steer away from bloggers’ cookbooks because they aren’t established chefs and therefore, their recipes may not be up to par when compared to, say, a restaurant chef. But you are so right in that a blogger is held more accountable for the accuracy in her recipes than a chef is, simply because of the level of personal interaction a blogger has with her readership.

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