Today, I'm proud to announce Eater's first ever formal, starred, and tested cookbook review, which is of The Meat Hook Meat Book by Tom Mylan. This will be a once-a-month series looking at some of the most exciting new releases from chefs, restaurants, bartenders, and other culinary professionals. The goal of this series is not to write bad reviews, although I will if necessary. Rather, it's to inform readers where they can place their trust. Out of the hundreds of cookbooks that come out each year, which ones have recipes that really, truly work? Not many, unfortunately. But here, I hope to highlight the ones that do.
The cookbooks featured in Eater's cookbook reviews will be books that are intended to be used for their recipes. I will not review coffee table cookbooks by the world's great tasting menu chefs, as often those books use ingredients, techniques, and equipment that are prohibitive to home cooks. Those books often have merit beyond whether or not they contain functioning recipes, and reviewing them for functionality seems rather beside the point. The books selected for this series are books that, after a read-through, seem like books home cooks will actually attempt to use.
In many ways, these reviews will be like Eater's First Look series: writing, layout, photography, and concept are all fair game for a review. If the author writes something about the goal of the cookbook, that will also be taken into account. The biggest difference here is that I will test recipes. It's one thing to look at a recipe and presume it will work; it's an entirely different thing to go through the motions of actually preparing it.
The cookbooks will be reviewed by the following criteria. Functionality will account for about 40% of the review; the other three factors will each account for about 20%.
Functionality: That is, the tested recipes. Cookbooks will not be reviewed on the concept of the dishes but on the clarity of instruction. Simply put, can a home cook with a reasonable level of skill actually create something that approaches what the recipe claims they can? That is, after all, the purported goal of a cookbook.
I will test five recipes from each cookbook. These recipes will ideally come from different chapters; at the very least they will test five different concepts. Recipes will be followed to the letter until it's obvious a step will result in something inedible. (We're not trying to waste tons of food here.) Substitutions will be avoided but will be disclosed when necessary, whether they're ingredient substitutions or equipment substitutions.
Writing: Is the book an engaging read? Are the essays useful or interesting? Are the recipes well written? Are there fun sidebars and other ephemera included? Does the personality of the chef/restaurant/bartender come through?
Concept: Does the book fill a niche? Does the world need this cookbook? Who is the audience for a book like this? Are there hundreds of other cookbooks out there on this exact topic, or does it bring a new angle to the topic?
Photography/Layout: How does it look? Does the book use its photography and layout in any innovative way? Is the photography illustrative? Pretty? Hackneyed? Blurry? Ugly? Does the layout help or hinder the cooking process?
The Star Scale
Eater's cookbook reviews, like its restaurant reviews, will use a four star scale:
Zero stars: Majority of tested recipes failed. Instructions were unclear. Concept is weak or unoriginal. In other words: do not buy.
One Star: Buy, with caveats. One star books may be good only for a very specific audience, may presume a good degree of knowledge on the part of the cook, or may contain a few good recipes amid a bunch of busts.
Two Stars: Strong buy. Two star books are a good read with decent photography, and the recipes mostly work, although they may require a critical read before cooking followed by some minor adjustments. The vast majority of cookbooks reviewed in this column will be two star books.
Three Stars: Very strong buy. The recipes work, the writing is engaging, the photography is very well done. Recipes explain complicated processes in a thoughtful manner, the concept is useful, the format doesn't hinder the cooking process. Three star books will also fill a niche: an under-covered subject in cookbooks, say, or a long-awaited first cookbook from a chef, or a new angle on a beloved cuisine.
Four Stars: Simply put, a classic. Four star books are nearly foolproof, the type of books that get passed down through generations. These books are very rare: four star books include Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso's Silver Palate Cookbook. These are books that inspire: must-owns, hall-of-famers.
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