There's a better way! Here's my "cookbook strategy" for making the most out of my cookbooks, knowing in advance what my recipe options are, and streamlining my menu planning. It takes more work up front, but it can be quite enjoyable.
1. Flip through a cookbook quickly (any, but preferably one you use on a semi-regular to regular basis). Note chapter titles, general layout, any lists (quick and easy recipes listed, 5 ingredient or less lists, suggested menus, etc.). This will help you know which cookbook to turn to later in a hurry.
2. Now, using the same cookbook, flip through the entire thing! Yes, this will take several evenings with something like How to Cook Everything or Joy of Cooking; however, most cookbooks can be flipped through during a 1-hour rerun of some sitcom you've already seen. (You should probably do this once a year or so; your tastes, interests, and cooking needs will change over time and you'll notice different things.) Note the following, making a list (even if you never look at the list again, you'll have a better chance of remembering for later use):
- relative ease or difficulty of recipes (daily easy recipes v. company only and so forth)
- type and number of ingredients (lots of short cuts, no short cuts, lots of weird ingredients, basic ingredients, etc.)
- any recipes you see that you definitely want to try for whatever reason
- any recipes you see that you know your family will like
- any recipes you see that use some favorite ingredients
- whether this cookbook is one that you can pretty much make a grocery list for without double checking the recipe or whether you'll have to check the recipe first*
4. Toss cookbooks you're not using much (copy the 1-2 recipes you actually make) or store them in an attic/out of the kitchen. You'll be more likely to reach for cookbooks you "know and love" and this will speed your menu planning later.
5. Menu plan with your new knowledge:
- First, know what you have on hand (meat in freezer, something in pantry, etc.)
- Second, check out sales at your local grocery store (most can be done online)
- Third, note any events needing food (birthday party, covered dish dinner, etc.)
- Fourth, make your menu! Check your cookbooks for recipes you know you want to make and note ingredients (this will be speedier since you have a better idea of where to turn for that cool beef enchilada recipe you want to try or the pound cake you're hoping to make for dessert for company).
- Fifth, make your shopping list.
*One of the reasons I like How to Cook Everything is that there are so many substitutions given and so many basic ingredients used. I don't look at recipes much anymore before shopping, knowing that if I have basic meat types, stock, lemons/limes/vinegar, oils, random produce, dairy, flours, sugar, and some grain, I can ALWAYS find something tasty to make. In contrast, my "short cut" recipe books depend more on specific short cut products (ready made soups, specific sauces, etc.) that must be known about before heading to the store. Now, knowing my H2CE cookbook because I've spent time "reading" it like the strategy above, I just make up a rough menu and basic shopping list; I'll look at actual recipes closer to the day I'm actually cooking. For other recipes/cookbooks that are a bit more specific, I know exactly where to look (or have put them on this site so they're even easier to find).