cookbookPart of the problem inherent in cookbook shopping is that it's really hard to take it for a dry run, first. You can get a feel for a pattern book by the photos of the finished object; for fiction, you can read a few pages and see if it draws you in. But you don't cook for how a meal looks, and all the brilliant prose in the world won't save a badly composed set of instructions for a loaf of bread.

But where there's a thrift shop, there's a way. When I page through cookbooks in the bookshelves of a vintage boutique, I'm not looking for favorite subjects or shiniest images. No, I'm looking for the most used book of all; the one with pages splattered with olive oil and flour and tomato sauce. The one whose recipes were followed, and then followed again.

Paying $15 or $20 for a glossy cookbook full of lovingly-composed food photos is great, if you like to experience the way food looks. Celebrity chef cookbooks? Again, you're paying to look at something, and this time it's Bobby Flay or Giada Laurentis; surely attractive folks, I'll give you that, but a cute boy just gets in the way of good food unless he's waiting in the breakfast nook. Cooking from an experienced cookbook is the next best thing to learning from an experienced chef; someone else has already done the trial and error for you. And at 50 cents to a few dollars, you can't beat the price of thrift store cookbooks. All the better to save for the ingredients!

This post was written as part of a series on how to thrift shop smarter. Read more on what to buy, and not to buy, at thrift stores.

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