My collection began in the early ’70s with a single volume, “The Hippie Cookbook,” sent to my college dorm, a gift from a California relative who loved to spend time in the kitchen.

“Thoughts on Buffets” arrived next, as a wedding gift, followed days later by “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook,” the red-and-white checked volume my mother plucked from her own kitchen and handed me as I headed out-of-state, new husband in tow.

All three still have a spot on my bookshelf today. But so do hundreds more.

And that’s the problem. It wasn’t hard to find a specific cookbook — or recipe — when there were only a few. But once the books filled up more than a shelf, I needed a plan, a Dewey Decimal System I could call my own.

After a recent move, which resulted in a significant downsizing of my collection, I looked at the 35 boxes of cookbooks that could not be left behind and paused. There would be no unpacking without a plan.

The result, after weeks of contemplation and perhaps a few glasses of wine, is what I call the Universal Cookbook System, or in the parlance of today, My Cookbook System, a way to organize books so they are most useful to each of us.

The key is individuality — in other words, what works on the shelf for me won’t necessarily be helpful for you, nor will it necessarily align with my needs five years from now. This is a flexible method that’s intended to reflect your collection today, to be adapted as your needs and interests evolve. Those books that were so important in the past that you haven’t opened in a decade? Pack them away and keep your new favorites where you can easily find them.

Now head to your cookbooks. You’ll need to do some serious analysis before you begin any drastic change-of-location for your books.

• First, figure out how you will use them so you can define your categories. Are you a baker? Do you feed a family? Do you hunger for ethnic foods? With fewer books in your collection, you can get by with fewer categories.

• Next, put the grouping that you use most in an easily accessible spot. That might be the kitchen counter. For me, it’s eye-level on my very tall bookcases.

• Finally, fill in your storage space with the categories that most define your culinary collection.

How I organize my books reflects my use of the volumes as a food writer. That’s not necessarily how you will use yours, but I offer my division of subjects as a way to get you thinking. Except where noted, I rarely alphabetize the authors.

1. Cookbook memoir/biography

Famous authors are alphabetized; the others — whose names I wouldn’t necessarily remember — have no particular order on the shelf.

2. Minnesota authors

Even if these books weren’t work-related, I would probably give them a separate spot on the shelf because I like to cook with the seasons, and these authors know our weather well.

3. Beatrice Ojakangas

The Duluth cookbook author has a shelf all of her own, given she has 29 cookbooks to her name.

4. Regional cooking

I keep Midwestern-related books together on the shelf, followed by other regions, such as Southern or Northwestern. In many cookbook stores, these would fall under the overall category of “American.”

5. Baking/desserts

Enough said. Needs a space of its own.

6. General cooking and oversized books

These often tend to be the biggest cookbooks, and I keep mine on the bottom shelf to accommodate their weight and height. 7. Entertaining

Whether it’s appetizers, seasonal menus or holidays, books with recipes intended for company are placed together.

8. Technique

All those books that focus on a particular utensil or method are gathered here: grilling, braising, cast iron pans.

9. Single subject

These are defined by their single ingredient, which I alphabetize. Mine include volumes on butter, lemons, nuts, potatoes, salt and pepper, etc.

10. International

This is broken into two subcategories: Those books that are compendiums of world dishes and those by individual countries, which are alphabetized. “The Best Recipes in the World” lands in the first subcategory, Italian books in the second. For some countries, I have my own sub-subsets (Scandinavian books, further delineated into Norwegian, Swedish and the like).

11. Vegetarian

These books overlap with other categories, but there are enough in my collection that keeping them together is helpful.

12. Food history and reference

Whether it’s the history of spice or how to define cooking terms, I keep books on similar subjects together.

13. Food issues

Although I keep multiple books from an author together (all of Michael Pollan, all of Marion Nestle), I tend to group the books according to subject matter (all farming books, all fish).

14. Dietary concerns

Whether it’s a digest of calorie counts or a book on childhood obesity, like subjects are grouped together.


Words of wisdom: What works for you doesn’t have to work for me. That’s the point of this personal method of organization.

As for categorizing books by color, that should be for decorating purposes only.


Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste