I was just going to include this in my 'favorite books' section, but it wasn't letting me get the format how I wanted, so I decided to make it a post instead. I hope it's useful.
So, here are some tips for finding a good cookbook:
So what makes a good cookbook? I like cookbooks with pictures of what the final product looks like. If you're not salivating in the middle of Barnes and Noble, put it back. Most of mine have been bargain books or on sale, but they're still fabulous. They don't need to cost an arm and a leg to be tasty.
It helps if you know a little about the person who wrote it, but isn't necessary. For example, if it's somebody from the food network, and you've watched their show, you'll know approximately what will be in the cookbook. Paula Dean for example, will have very tasty things with lots of butter; Rachel Ray or Giada de Laurentiis will have Italian stuff. Alton Brown will just be all together awesome. But don't shun a cookbook just because it's not by somebody famous!!! Heck, even those Ward or Neighboorhood cookbooks can contain some pretty good stuff. Just make sure you have time to flip through, salivate at the photos, and check over the ingredients and instructions so you know that they're clear. My best cookbooks are by people I've never heard of, in fact I tend to not go for the Food Network ones because they're pricier, though a caution with the neighboorhood or really local ones--I was looking through some 'Mormon cooking' cookbook, I forget the name of it, but it was on some deal rack at Macey's grocery store, and in one of the recipes they had completely left out one of the ingredients in the instructions. It was something important too, like the leavening agent or something. This just indicates a badly written book. If you're an experienced enough cook it's probably less of a problem but still. Watch for that in the neigborhood/really local books. The ones that have been through a publisher are usually better about that sort of thing, but like I said, neighboorhood cookbooks do have their place, especially if you're just dying to know how Mrs. Whatever made that amazing Jello salad at last year's Christmas party.
The recipes should include things you actually eat, otherwise you'll never use them. Also, if you get a European cookbook be prepared to also get a kitchen scale since they don't really use our standard measurements like cup, teaspoon, etc.
Avoid cookbooks from the DI or other thrift stores unless you know they can be trusted. There's a reason why they're there...lest you end up with a cookbook full of strange Jello-mold recipes from the 70's or something.
And, Don't look at them when you're hungry, it's just like going to the grocery store when you're hungry, you'll walk away with more than you intended.
There are also lots and lots of fun specialized cookbooks, like Lord Krishna's Cuisine that I picked up for pretty cheep at a Hare Krishna festival. Where else could you find a book like that. Always be on the lookout. Especially if you have some special dietary need, like Gluton free, or Vegetarian. More and more gluton free stuff is becoming available which is really nice for you poor celiacs. My heart goes out to you. Gluten is in everything.*
Resteraunt cookbooks can be awesome too, like Junior's Cheesecake Cookbook. Junior's is a resteraunt that started in Brooklyn. I only got to the one close to Times Square, but this resteraunt single handedly proved that New York Cheesecake is, in fact, all it's cracked up to be, and they were good enough to write a cookbook so poor me stuck in Utah can now have amazing cheesecake whenever I want. Sometimes the recipes don't turn out quite as well as the resteraunt's product. I figure this is for two reasons. One: They've had more practice getting it right, and Two: They don't want yours to be quite as good or esle why would you come pay them to do it. Now people would anyway because fewer people are cooking, but you get my point. Some, resteraunt cookbooks, though are really just great. Thanks Junior's.
About family cookbooks--These are great, at least in my family we always have large family get-togethers and everybody brings their favorite dish. Often we gather at my sister's house since it has lots of room to put everyone and she has lots of family events, besides she's a really great cook, and so are her kids. One Christmas she gave out packets of her family recipes that we always have at her house, which was awesome because we all love her recipes and then we didn't have to bug her everytime we had a craving for her raspberry Jello salad thing that's surprising good, even though I make fun of Jello a lot. Now if I could only get a hold of the rest of my siblings' recipes....
So see, you too might have a little sister out there wishing for your wassail recipe (hint hint Elizabeth) or a friend dying for your Versailles Chocolate Torte (Thanks Emily), so make your own cookbook and give it out for a holiday.
*I'd just like to mention for people who tend to over-react to health things, gluten is not inherently bad for you unless you are Celiac. This means that your body doesn't process the protein found in wheat and some other grains. For everyone else gluten is a good thing, so don't swear off gluten unless you have to.
P.S. Sometime I'll talk about internet recipes, but that's for another post.