On Christmas 2012, my wife gave me a copy of the DIY Cookbook, from America’s Test Kitchen. It was a savvy choice: she tossed between it and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways—a poetic, thoughtful meditation on the inner worth of walking, also a frequenter of various “best books of 2012” lists. But that book requires attentive reading and could inspire seditious thoughts, such as, “Let’s go walking again,” whereas the cookbook is easy to dip in and out of. As I am in the middle of a PhD right now, too much absorption could be a bad thing. Also, I gave her a copy of The Old Ways, so they both ended up in the house without any comedy and return trips to the bookshop during the dreaded post-Christmas sales.
Now, the DIY Cookbook is not just any cookbook. It will not teach you how to make a blingy spaghetti or crazy braised veal anything, nor does it track down whiz-bang bread recipes from across the planet, much as I love cookbooks which do that sort of thing. This is about creating in your home the things you typically buy already made. It is about kitchen staples, forgotten traditions, guilty pleasures, and ubiquitous condiments. It is for people who look at the label and think, “What is that, how do I pronounce it, and what will it do to me?” It is for people who know that glucose/fructose, modified corn ingredients, and organic dehydrated cane juice all mean sugar but that breaking it down under different terms means it doesn’t look like Product X is just full of sugar. It’s also about restoring a little competency to our diet of practices. It is Makerism, and I know this is a hotly contested field, but I don’t mind taking a small amount of pride in being able to do something myself1.
Not only that, it’s devised by freakishly assiduous kitchen scientists. The collective authors of this book tried many different versions, tinkering with time, temperature, and process to get you something that is (most of the time) as good as what you could buy at the supermarket. I qualify “as good as” because sometimes it turns out much, much better. I haven’t yet met recipes in here that fall below the store-bought iteration (with one exception; details next post).
So, rigorous in its testing, affirming in its ethics, and revolutionary in its modesty, this was the book for me. The kids call it “Daddy’s magic book” and fancy me something of a mage. I wrote notes and dates every time I cooked with it, intending to describe my year of living with the DIY Cookbook once we ticked over to 2014. Here we are, and here it is.
First, some broad points. It is an excellent cookbook, and I’m glad I received it and worked with it. We already do most of our cooking from scratch, so it wasn’t a chore for me to somehow find the time in my busy life to be in the kitchen making things. I am a full-time doctoral student, a musician and songwriter on the side, the husband of an equally active wife, and the father of two children… no, make that three, because we had a new baby in July. Busy? We all are, mate. Don’t wear it as a virtue, don’t hold it as a shield. Do you want to eat homemade Nutella? Then get to it.
By the numbers: the book offers 99 recipes, plus a few variations. These are broken down into categories such as “pantry” and “dairy.” At the year’s end, I (we: my wife made one of them) made 16 out of the 99. A further nine recipes instruct us on things we already make at home: granola, yogurt, preserved lemons, corn tortillas, etc. If it looked like an improved method, I would give it a shot, but mostly there was no need (and with the Seville orange marmalade, good reason to avoid, methinks; details next post). So, 25 of 99 were manufactured in our home in 2013. Three quarters of the book remain uncharted waters, but remember my personal busy list above. Also, some of these absences were down to infrastructural impediments: software issues (ingredients that were too hard to source), hardware issues (such as the beer-making kit, which we do have and did use back in Canada), or spatial issues (this book is highly North American in focus, and presupposes things like big fridges, garages to store gear, and big extra rooms for preparation, maturation, or storage). I’m not bothered by our low sample rate, because life is long, and it’s not like I need to return the book at the end of the year. There is every reason to expect I can do more of these things next year and in the years to come.
Of what we did do, the pantry items got the highest hit-rate. Pickles, preserved meat, and (very oddly) snacks were complete blanks. But each section had things I would have loved to try, so there is worth across the book. I won’t bore you with the spreadsheet of what I did accomplish. Instead, a selection of awards will follow in the next post, to bring out my encounter with the book and its suggestions.
1 This may have been carried too far in 2013, the year in which I unscrewed and removed the back of my Samsung netbook to identify why my on-off switch wasn’t working when the computer seemed otherwise to be running decently, then ordered the replacement part for £6.50, then popped it in place when it arrived the following day, then restored the software guts from a System Image backup and ta da it was working just like… well, just like before the on-off switch stopped working.