Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

A growing genre of cookbooks skips recipes and focuses on science

When Niki Segnit compared her mother's intuitive cooking skills with her own by-the-book approach, she realized she had become too dependent on following recipes.

The British hobby cook turned food writer owned close to 200 cookbooks, and adhered to their instructions to the letter, measuring out every ingredient meticulously. If she didn't have a specific herb, she'd search for another recipe rather than substitute an ingredient. Meanwhile, her mother, who had inherited her kitchen skills from her own mother, possessed only two cookbooks - one of which was a wedding gift from 1963 - which she rarely consulted.

"When my mother made pastry… her sense was always to do that just very instinctively, and I would measure things out," Ms. Segnit says. "I was a very, very keen and very wide-ranging cook, but I was a bit too timid."

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Segnit's desire to become more adventurous led her to write The Flavour Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, just one of the latest culinary reference guides for foodies and serious hobbyists.

As home cooks become more knowledgeable about food, many are looking for resources, rather than strictly recipes, to build up their culinary repertoires. And books like The Flavour Thesaurus are meeting that demand, delving into the nitty-gritties of food that, until now, have largely been the domain of professional chefs and food scientists.

Light on step-by-step instructions and filled with food history and tidbits of science, The Flavour Thesaurus explains why different pairings - from classic combinations such as carrot and celery to the more esoteric hard cheese and banana - work. (Bananas' mild taste works well with a French comté, Ms. Segnit says. It brings out a multitude of flavours such as hazelnut, melted butter and hints of citrus in the cheese.)The book also provides such helpful facts as that Iranian saffron is sweeter than the Spanish variety, giving readers knowledge to explore on their own.

"You just end up taking away all those different things and work out your own path, make your own connections," Ms. Segnit says.

The Flavour Thesaurus, which was published in Britain in July and released in the United States and Canada this month, is as popular among food enthusiasts as it is with those in the culinary industry.

While the cookbook market is dominated by recipe books from television food celebrities, the culinary reference genre is a niche that's growing. Other titles published in recent months include Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes by U.S. culinary scientist Harold McGee, Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter, the Dorling Kindersley guide The Illustrated Cook's Book of Ingredients, and Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food with Wine by Canadian sommelier François Chartier, which details the aromatic compounds of various flavours.

"There's only so many recipes that you can buy. There's only so much room in one's kitchen or library to stick them," says Douglas Pepper, president of McClelland & Stewart, which published Taste Buds and Molecules. "You get to a point where you think: 'I just don't need another recipe for mushroom soup. I've got like 50.'"

Story continues below advertisement

The market for books on food and cooking exploded after food television took off, Mr. Pepper says. And that market shows no signs of abating, as home cooks build bigger kitchens, buy top-of-the-line cookware and enroll in cooking classes.

In 2009, 7.5 million books on cooking and entertaining were sold in the United States in the first eight months alone, according to The Wall Street Journal. That represented a growth of 5 per cent over the same period the previous year, compared with a 9-per-cent year-on-year dip in the adult non-fiction genre.

A cookbook enthusiast himself, Mr. Pepper has hundreds in his personal collection. But until recently, he says, the options in culinary reference books were limited.

To stand out among the ever-growing list of cookery titles, authors constantly need to think of new concepts, he says. "You have to come up with something pretty unique. It's something that's not in your library already and you would buy if it was available."

Besides offering new perspectives, the genre seems to appeal to the growing number of men who are taking up cooking at home, says Barbara-jo McIntosh, who owns Vancouver store Barbara-Jo's Books to Cooks. "I just think they are a bit technical when they take on something. They want to know a little bit more of the science of it," she says.

Beyond their applications in the kitchen, however, many of the new culinary reference books are popular simply because they're entertaining to read, Mr. Pepper says.

Story continues below advertisement

"You can sit there and open it up anywhere and learn something. For somebody like me, for a cook at home, I just eat that stuff up."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to