Cookbooks should be about what you have near to hand, not the exhausting search for elusive ingredients.
So says wise and witty author Sarah Butler, whose Instagram and TikTok recipes have made her into an Irish celebrity.
Sometimes stars appear fully formed and so it's proved for County Mayo-born writer, whose exploding social media presence has made her easy-to-follow new recipe books Irish bestsellers.
Combining practicality with years of personal experience, we have the pandemic to thank for Butler's terrific new Irish cookbooks Home Cooking: Simple And Delicious Food For Busy Lives and Food For Life.
The titles tell you what to expect: step-by-step practical recipes, using ingredients you already have, to produce truly superior results.
Better yet, they're full of useful tips on meal preparation, batch cooking, and weekly meal planning to reduce the “what's for dinner?” stress we all know too well.
“I grew up in Castlebar in a family of six kids,” she tells IrishCentral. “My father was a fourth-generation butcher and we had a Bed and Breakfast growing up. So food was always a big thing in our house.”
But Butler herself had an artistic bent and went to Letterkenny Institute (now ATU) in County Donegal for graphic design. “My degree is in graphic design and digital media."
Having the time and space in her own home to do the kind of Irish-style cooking and baking she loves is a sharp contrast from how things were growing up in a house with six kids, which she admits was “always a bit manic.”
"When I did try to cook at home my mam would run me out of the kitchen because she was too busy trying to get the B&B guests fed!”
After she got her degree she started a successful graphic design firm in Mayo with an emphasis on local weddings, but the pandemic turned her business upside down.
“I was doing brochures, magazines, flyers, vehicle graphics, corporate identity, all that kind of thing for 17 years, and then COVID hit. By that stage, I was specializing in wedding stationery and I had won lots of awards in that, but the pandemic saw all the weddings canceled.”
“You'd have you'd have brides ready to go and the weddings were called off,” Butler recalls. “You had grooms getting COVID. You had fathers of the bride die from it. And you'd be dealing with people crying on the phone.”
She doesn't belabor the point, but things soon became quite literally unworkable. “For me, work was terrible because it just stopped and I would be very much a worker by nature, I don't sit still.”
So what she did next completely changed her life. “I had my own Instagram account for my wedding stationery business where I'd often come on and talk and give advice. But because there was no work there was nothing I could tell them now that everything was in lockdown.”
On a whim, one day at home she shared a picture of a lemon meringue pie she had made - and social media went mad. “Everybody was in lockdown so I had a captive audience, they couldn't even leave their house. It was perfect timing. I did my very first video in November 2020 and it blew up. I went from 1000 followers up to 10,000 by February 2021.”
But before you picture a fairytale rise, when Butler reached 10,000 followers her Instagram account got hacked and she lost the page. “That meant I lost everything I had worked on for years, which was bananas.”
“I mean, my mental state was back to normal because I was working and then it was gone. And I couldn't even tell my followers what had happened because my page was completely taken over. So I had to start again with a new page. And by the evening of the next day I had 19,500 back by the sheer power of people sharing my page and my story online - and on the radio.”
“I did it myself,” she says of the first book's design and content. “I designed it with my graphic design background. It's funny how things come around. I photographed everything in it bar the cover and the author's photos because I got a professional in for them."
"All the food photography, the design layout, and even the printing of the debut book Home Cooking: Simple And Delicious Food For Busy Lives were done with my own contacts in the printing business. And I sold the first book on my own website. Then the local SuperValu market put them on the shelves and things really took off.”
Building a home eight miles outside of Castlebar in the Irish countryside is something that accidentally elevated her own cooking practice, Butler says. “I would realize 'oh God. we have no milk' and the local shop would be closed because they close at like nine o'clock out here.”
“So I learned to always have what you need in the freezer so you don't get caught. We have two kids and we are both self-employed (Butler's husband is a carpenter) so there was no such thing as maternity leave. I was in the hospital bed and out the door the same day and back to work.”
“I learned to maneuver and hold the infants in the crook of my knee, balancing the bottle with my elbow and holding the mouse with my left hand. I would feed them their bottles and then it was straight back into it.”
That all made the concept of batch cooking a lifesaver and it's everywhere in her books. “I don't have time to be going off looking for a crazy recipe ingredient. Just get me good local vegetables. You can make a very tasty bite using fresh herbs and I thought people knew these little tips, tips that I picked up for my mother along the way. I want to share them with people.”
“Here are all the things you can make from that two pounds of good mince beef, for example, lasagna, taco fries, spaghetti bolognese, baked potato fillings, and then make some good burgers with the other pound.”
“That's two dinners that may cost you a tenner. If you put the time in and do it yourself, you will save some real money. Put two chickens on instead of one say and then you've got extra chicken for sandwiches. It'll stop you from going into the petrol station to buy dodgy chicken rolls for seven euros a pop. Save on the expense and make some great food in the bargain!”
To read her inspired recipes and order her new cookbooks visit: sarahbutlerathome.com