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Cookbooks for dummies? Yes, please.

I recently had a conversation with a neighbor about how recipe writing has changed over the years.

If I look at my older cookbooks, like a 1963 copy of “Gems from Georgia Kitchens,” the recipes are fairly bare-bones listings of ingredients, with a brief paragraph of simple instructions.

“Cook sugar and water to thread stage,” begins a recipe for macaroon torte, assuming the reader knows that thread stage is a specific temperature point in candy cooking when a heated syrup will form a thread when dropped from a spoon into cold water.

Meanwhile, over in my 2006 copy of Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa at Home,” a recipe for a mixed-berry Pavlova spends an entire paragraph telling cooks to preheat an oven, choose a pan and trace a circle of that pan on parchment paper, along with several other specific directives before getting to any edible ingredients.

The trend isn’t limited to cookbooks. Some food blogs these days illustrate recipes with dozens of up-close, artfully lit photos of details as small as plopping a quarter-cup of brown sugar into a bowl of flour.

Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food” magazines and books have been praised for photographing ingredients in the prep stage, so you know what Julienne-cut vegetables are supposed to look like.

Is all of this attention to detail just food editors’ way of catering to a public so hungry for food-related content that even a Real Housewife of New Jersey can write a cookbook?

Or is it a service to a generation of cooks who grew up on TV dinners and fast-food, or who were so busy moving between activities that would look good on their college applications that they had no time to watch what their parents were doing in the kitchen?

I’ve certainly benefited from it. I graduated college 10 years ago with a journalism degree and fluency in three languages, but little to no cooking skills.

I’d rush home from work to watch Rachel Ray make 30-minute Meals on the TV in my first apartment, desperately seeking any wisdom that could land me a dinner more sophisticated than jarred red sauce on pasta.

I read food blogs, I tried ambitious recipes, I made mistakes, I bought a better knife.

A decade later, I’m still learning to cook, but I measure my improvement in the kitchen by a few key factors:

  • Lean Cuisine has not been on my shopping list since 2005.
  • I feel under-supplied if my cupboard does not contain flour, canned tomatoes or Fleischmann’s yeast.
  • The folks who eat my food aren’t losing weight, and so far I haven’t caught them scouring WebMD for symptoms of food poisoning.

I’ve received e-mails in the past from readers looking for gift ideas for new graduates who will soon be cooking for themselves for the first time.

Some ask about cooking classes, but in lieu of those, I’d equip a new cook with a good saute pan, a quality knife and a comprehensive basic cookbook. In my opinion, it’s hard to beat the classic “Joy of Cooking,” which doesn’t spend a lot of space on flashy food photography, but does include useful illustrations of how to truss a chicken, how to form a pie crust and other skills.

You don’t learn to cook sipping wine watching some cookbook author sell books (though that can be a lot of fun). You learn to cook by cooking, by burning things but eating them anyway because you paid for the ingredients, by putting dinner on the table night after night without piling up takeout containers in the recycling bin.

But thanks to modern technology and an onslaught of approachable cookbooks whose authors understand you don’t know what thread stage is, that learning process is a lot easier–and a lot more fun.

TOMORROW: A crowd-sourced list of suggestions for the new cook.