There’s a new New York Times cookbook out now, but it’s a world apart from the first, which Craig Claiborne published in 1961. This one will have a more personal touch: It’s edited, at least in part, by the reader.
Readers — and not only subscribers who pay for the Times’ Cooking section ($40 per year) — can now build their own book of those reliable, often-shared recipes. Longtime editors like Marian Burros, Martha Rose Shulman, and Julia Moskin (and many others, including new recruits Colu Henry and Alison Roman) have filled the archives with thousands of solid, relevant, seasonal dishes — some that have gone on to become iconic, such as Burros’ popular plum torte.
“The Times has a pretty rich tradition of cookbooks,” food editor Sam Sifton told Eater. “The birth of NYT cooking comes directly out of a kind of institutional memory of what The New York Times Cookbook… meant for readers of the Times. And so, in some sense is you can look at NYT cooking, the site, as a kind of digital cookbook. A new model of cookbook. But there’s something special about an actual cookbook.”
Online recipes are, of course, searchable, and can be saved, sorted, and organized into personal collections. But for some people, scrolling across a glass screen to read cooking instructions while in the midst of cooking is not as convenient as turning a physical page. Printed books hold literal and metaphorical weight. Their initial purpose as instructional manual often grows into family heirloom. Stains, splatters, and torn pages add to their character: Printed cookbooks are cherished because they take on a life of their own.
Dinner: What to Cook Tonight is a trial run for what could become a completely customizable cookbook. In this itineration, recipes are limited to a theme — dinner — and just 192 of the Times’ 19,000 recipes are available as options. Readers pick seven chapters, out of 24 possibilities — Sheet-Pan Wonders or Take Out at Home, for example — and each one contains eight recipes, like roasted fish with sweet peppers, hot honey shrimp, or tacos de carnitas. That yields a book of 56 recipes total.
It’s easy to see how the newspaper could expand this concept into an endless number of other combinations: Times’ recipes for desserts, salads, eggs, or classic dishes from New York City restaurants could just as easily become custom book topics if this project expands.
After picking book chapters for Dinner, readers are offered the choice of soft ($35) or hardcover ($55) binding. There’s also an option to add a personalized dedication page.
“We have a digital property, we have a digital world,” Sifton says. “But we also have a physical one, and [we thought] it would be kind of neat to have an NYT cooking book… to cook out of something other your phone, or your tablet, or your laptop.”
The Times wasn’t the first publication to think this up. BuzzFeed launched a customizable cookbook via its Tasty collection in 2016. The idea was almost identical: Tasty’s recipes were organized into chapters which users could pick and sort before sending to a printer. A few weeks later, they’d receive a custom, spiral bound book in the mail. But that project is now defunct. Maybe that’s because Buzzfeed’s users are digital natives. They’re more likely connecting their tablets to their Tasty-branded hot plate — and probably suspending their phone overhead to get the right shot.
Unlike Buzzfeed, the Times has a dedicated, though dwindling, network of print subscribers. A custom product like this, which appeals to an end user that prefers to cook out of a physical, stainable, printed book, might actually be ideal for the Times’ evolving audience. Cooking from a recipe on a screen works for some people, clearly, but not everyone wants to worry about scrolling with dirty fingers or spilling sauce on their device or fiddling with a password-protected lock screen.
Plus, publishers are still printing cookbooks because people are still buying them, as the LA Times reported in 2016. In fact, longtime staff writer Melissa Clark puts out a (print, hardcover) cookbook nearly every season. Last year, with the Times, she wrote one intended to test this new customizable format: The New Essentials of French Cooking is a book born directly from the web.
Though it has published recipes in print since the mid-1800s, the New York Times didn’t launch its online cooking section until 2014, when it merged its dining sections into an umbrella section called Food. Last year, the newspaper put its recipes behind a paywall. Even as the New York Times’ Cooking section builds out its collection of recipes, there is still very much an audience for the printed cookbook. And that’s a great thing.