Why my cookbook addiction is finally paying off

You can never really have too many cookbooks. That has always been my go-to rationalisation when succumbing to the temptation to buy yet another to add to my home collection.

Yes, the kitchen bookshelves are overflowing, the bedside stack of late-night browsing is mounting and new editions are scattered in other rooms.

But you never know — that new cookbook might just provide a recipe or two that becomes a household staple or opens a window into another food culture. Cooking, of course, is an accumulation of learning. There is always more to discover: new ingredients, new methods and new voices.

There is also the sheer pleasure of just opening up something like Alastair Hendy’s Food and Travels: Asia, Anissa Helou’s Feast or Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan — sumptuous books brimming with ideas and possibilities.

Yet in reality, you can have too many cookbooks, and it’s a milestone that I probably passed a long, long time ago. According to one survey, the average Briton has six cookbooks. I have 115.

Most of them inevitably slide towards the relegation zone. Some end up in charity shops, while others linger as a reminder of times past. It is hard to dump the Delia Smith book received from a loved one. Some survive in the hope that one day they might have a recipe or an idea that comes in handy. But, unless you have the recall of a quiz champion, you can only remember so many recipes.

Belatedly, though, I have stumbled across a saviour. The website Eat Your Books has been around since 2010, surviving the onslaught of Google, but in these locked-down times, it has proven to be a real boon.

It works as an online directory of all your cookbooks and recipes. Type in the names of your books, old magazines and favoured food blogs. Search the website for a recipe or by ingredients and it directs you to the source. You can also search by food type, ethnicity, book title or author.

It is not quite a Spotify of books — it does not allow you to see complete recipes, only the ingredients required. This obviously has limitations. But where it comes into its own is if you, like me, over-index on the book pile count.

You might not remember that Jamie Oliver’s Return of the Naked Chef has a recipe for farfalle with savoy cabbage, pancetta and mozzarella or that River Cafe Cook Book Two has one for wild fennel soup, but they will show up in the search results on the site for those ingredients.

The model is different to another site, CKBK, which gives you full access to all of the recipes in some 370 books. But in the current environment, where immediate access to ingredients is difficult, you have to work with what is to hand rather than shop for what you need to make a specific recipe. EYB can help you do this and offers the serendipity of rediscovering forgotten books along the way.

With 1.8 million recipes and details on some 160,000 cookbooks and many blogs and sites, its range is impressive. I typed in the titles of all my cookbooks; even the more obscure ones were on there, such as My Food, a 1995 book by the influential Australian chef Cheong Liew, a pioneer in Asian fusion food who deserves more recognition.

It also had details of a 1984 Rajneesh cookbook, a humdrum paperback inherited from my mother, who had been a follower of the religious movement.

After receiving a food box delivery, I decided to test things out. I typed in aubergines and chose a recipe for terong balado, a Balinese aubergine curry with chilli, tomato and kaffir lime leaves from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey (1998).

This seriously underrated book is a personal favourite, particularly as a guide to curry pastes, and contains recipes such as Malaccan black pepper crab with black beans, ginger, garlic and curry leaves. But the unillustrated aubergine curry is one I had previously overlooked. It was a revelation and will become a regular.

Later, I searched for mushrooms — and chose a simple recipe from Jill Dupleix, an Aussie food writer who also wrote for The Times for a number of years. Her delicious soft polenta with mushrooms would definitely not have been on my recall list without the website.

Similarly, a search for a cucumber pickle recipe led to Pitt Cue Co: The Cookbook (2013), which I had bought mostly for its meat recipes.

At $3 a month or $30 for 12 months to load up as many books as you like — and get access to all the recipes it links to separately — the investment is probably not warranted for occasional cooks.

Google and the great reservoir of online BBC recipes should be more than enough. But if, like me, you have a lot of books, it may be a useful tool. Particularly if, also like me, you are seeking to rationalise further book purchases.

Tony Tassell is the FT’s deputy news editor. Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTassell

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