I never really cared enormously about the index section of books until I started cooking a fair amount. But now I care a lot.
When I first get a cookbook, I like to read it front to back (or close to). I go through the introduction, and the section about cooking tools if there is one, and then I look through the pictures and get a sense of the recipes and see if there’s something I want to make a mental note to go back and try soon.
But once I’ve had a cookbook for a while, I mostly use it as a reference. I’ll look up a new recipe in a few different books to compare. Or I’ll have a vague recollection that one book had meat recipes involving pomegranate molasses, so I’ll go hunting for that. Whatever. But at that point I’m using the index.
And let me tell you, there is a lot of variation in the usefulness of indexes in cookbooks.
I really like The Silver Palate Cookbook, but their index is worthless. I do not know who made that index, but they did not do a good job. For example, they have a fantastic sweet potato and carrot puree. It cannot be found in the index under “sweet potato.” In fact, there is NO sweet potato category in the index. Tarragon Chicken Salad? Not listed under “tarragon.” The beet and roqueford salad with walnuts is actually listed under walnuts, but only as “salads, 160, 218, 219.”
On the other hand, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything has an amazing index. It goes on for pages and pages and pages. It includes everything. Minor ingredients? Check. Alternate spellings? Yes. It identifies the about pages, there’s lots of “see also under specific types of [x],” you can find the bits of reference information in among the recipes. I have faith in that index, and that it will guide me straight.
Check out the salmon listing:
Basics of, 299-300
with lime-ginger sauce, 306
sauces for, 306
crispy skin, with gingery greens, 301
with lemon, pan-grilled, 303
with lentils, pan-grilled, 304
in red wine, 305
roasted in butter, 305
with sesame oil drizzle, pan-grilled, 304
gravlax (salt-and-sugar-cured), 300
kebabs, grilled or broiled, 303
to remove pin bones, 302
salad with beans, 120
sandwich with cress and juniper, 271
simple ideas for grilled or broiled, 301
to skin a fillet, 302
smoked, dip, 21
steaks, basic grilled or broiled, 301
That is a thing of beauty. Bravo, Index-Maker. You did a really good job.
According to Wikipedia, there are two ways to create indexes— either conventionally with an indexer reading through the text and “identifying indexable concepts” and creating headers or through embedded index headers. But either way, I gather that the process involves imagining what one might want to reference and all the ways a reader could be looking for information, and the more I think about that, the more interesting it seems.
I also discovered, in my googling, that there is a Culinary Indexing Special Interest Group of the American Society for Indexing. If you have been reading this tumblr for any amount of time, you can guess how excited this made me. For newcomers, SO EXCITED. Here’s a short analysis of the indexes in the Joy of Cooking. I cannot even tell you had much restraint I had to employ to keep from clicking on every link in the references section.