What Do Cookbooks Teach Us?


Cookbooks differ from one another in many ways. For example, recipes vary from book to book, and presentation varies. The first Western cookbook, De re coquina (meaning ‘concerning cookery’), was written by Apicius over 1,600 years ago. It was a compilation of Roman and Greek recipes. It put into print ideas that are still respected today.


In a time when the internet has robbed us of the quaint ritual of cracking a cookbook spine, where high-speed cooking videos and on-demand recipe-in-a-box services are all the rage, it’s easy to wonder what purpose cookbooks serve. But cookbooks can offer a vital literacy experience by requiring careful reading and the development of culinary vocabulary. Recipes often include complex instructions that must be read and reread to ensure a successful outcome, making them a valuable tool for developing critical thinking skills.

Cookbooks also act as a record of people’s food habits, showing us how various cultures procure and prepare foods in their unique ways. They can be studied as texts with rhetorical aims that go beyond simply cooking and eating, revealing authors’ views on the world and their relationship to it. In addition to their scholarly value, cookbooks can be used in classrooms to teach students about primary sources.

A great cookbook will help novice home chefs navigate recipes without feeling overwhelmed. It’s essential to choose a book that focuses on an overarching theme or cuisine (e.g., American favorites, global comfort food, vegan, vegetarian, etc.) or one that teaches a skill like attuning your pantry to the seasons. For example, Michael Sanguinetti, personal and private chef for luxury on-demand private dining service INTUEAT, recommends the cookbook “The Flavor Bible,” which teaches new cooks how to combine flavors and ingredients.


Cookbooks are ideal for teaching students how to analyze primary sources because they present the opportunity to examine a collection of materials at once. They are a relatively low-stakes and less anxiety-inducing way to introduce the skills of document analysis than other types of personal items, such as diaries; food-related materials, such as handwritten “receipt books” or recipes clipped from grocery store bags or periodicals; or commercially produced artifacts, such as brand-promotion pamphlets.

Cookbooks also provide opportunities to teach reading comprehension strategies because their instructions often include unfamiliar words and terms (for example, a recipe may require the reader to know how to prepare an onion, sauté a pepper, or roll out dough). They can help students master new vocabulary as well as learn to read for details. They can also reinforce the importance of following instructions exactly (a missed step could ruin an entire dish!).

If you’re creating a cookbook, it’s essential to make sure the layout is user-friendly and visually appealing. Invest in a professional designer to create cookbook templates that include high-quality photos of each recipe and are easy to navigate. Ensure that the photographs are clear and have a consistent color palette. Choose a font that’s easy to read, and use a clean, simple layout. Also, be sure to proofread the cookbook thoroughly.


Cookbooks often contain ingredient lists, helpful tips, and descriptive narratives to help readers understand the background of each recipe. These pieces of background can teach readers about how different foods work together, as well as their origins and history. They also can be a helpful resource for new chefs, providing them with information like how to use specific tools and kitchen equipment.

Many cookbooks feature a combination of recipes compiled by professional chefs, culinary experts, and home cooks. The recipes can also be based on particular cultural traditions or personal creations. In addition to a collection of recipes, some cookbooks include other helpful content, such as a glossary, appendixes, and resource sections.

While some academics have dismissed cookbooks as mundane and unscholarly, recent critical work has shifted the discussion about food writing and cooking to a more thoughtful place. The work of scholars like Lisa Heldke, for example, moves the debate about food making and cookbooks forward by analyzing cookbooks as meaningful objects that embody the age-old dichotomy between theory and practice.

Similarly, the Tables of Contents team at the New York Times invited a group of authors to contribute their recipes for a community cookbook, which raises money for a local food relief organization. The cookbook contains 36 recipes from novelists, poets, and essayists, including Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, and Emma Straub.


A cookbook is a collection of recipes that are already tried and tested. However, the presentation of those recipes varies. From stodgy old Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management to the modern day Anarchist Cookbook – O’Reilly Media’s series of books on computer programming that provide ready-to-use, cut-and-paste examples for specific problems — cookbooks are a diverse genre.

For students, cookbooks are an ideal text to teach how to look at a book from multiple perspectives. Examining a table of contents provides an opportunity to consider the author’s motivation, purpose, and audience. Reading the ingredients and techniques demonstrates how to make inferences about the recipes within. Looking at the pictures reveals how to interpret different visual cues, such as color-coded bars or tabs that indicate whether a recipe is vegetarian, meaty, or contains gluten.

Cookbooks can also teach students about the importance of reading carefully. A missing or misread step can ruin a dish, so cookbooks teach students to pay attention to the details. They also help them master the language of cooking, from unfamiliar ingredients to math lingo like one-half or one-fourth. This is an important skill that will be essential for their future careers and daily lives.