Teaching books blog

On Sunday I put a call out on Twitter for books that a 60-year-old guy could use to teach himself to cook and got scores of suggestions: Lots of Julia of course, but others that got three or more votes were Bittman's How to Cook Everything, Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, and The Joy of Cooking.  A couple mentioned Tom Collichio's Think Like a Chef and Madeleine Kamman's The Making of a Cook. A few kinds souls mentioned Ratio, a not unreasonable suggestion as it explores the fundamentals.  But after I read all these comments, and, having been speaking intensively with a couple of publishing executives about the changing nature of cookbooks I wanted to put this out as a post, to discuss the nature of the new cookbooks and also so that people can name their favorite teaching cookbook in comments so we have a more permanent record of them than we do on twitter.

I pulled the above stack (photo by donna, thanks!) randomly but they are all good books and all teach in their own way.  And "own way" is the key here.  Most of them don't overtly try to teach (Alton's and my books do, and the CIA pro chef series is an explicit culinary textbook), but some are more effective than others by being more than simply a compilation of recipes.

Now that the tsunami of free recipes has flooded the cooking landscape, what is the purpose of cookbooks?  Some of the points addressed by Sydny Miner of S&S and Bill LeBlonde of Chronicle Books at The Greenbrier included the fact that once we needed books of recipes, compilations, such as Joy or Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook.  But now, because recipes are a click away, books have evolved.  They come now with voice, with story, with a distinct personality.  Also, as Miner pointed out, decades ago, somebody in most households cooked (usually a mom) who passed a fundamental set of skills down to the children so that recipes could read, "use a lump of butter the size of a walnut, mix together with flour, egg, sugar, pour into a cake pan and bake in a moderate oven until done."  That was enough.  Now we must be very specific in our instructions because not everyone knows what moderate means, mix together how, etc. We managed to lose a generation of cooking knowledge.

Bill LeBlond commented that he was much, much more interested in unconventional ideas because the old model is just not selling anymore.

And while at Greenbrier a reader emailed to say this: "After getting used to reading food blogs, I’m
looking for the stories behind the food. Today, for example, I browsed
through 2 older David Lebovitz cookbooks and I missed the stories. I
now find traditional cookbooks to be dry/boring without the wonderful
stories I read on (good) blogs. Plenty of people can make up a recipe,
but not many are good story tellers or have something particularly
interesting to say."

What are the best teaching cookbooks out there and what are we now looking for in today's cookbook?


165 Wonderful responses to “Cookbooks That Teach”

  • misuba

    The New Best Recipe is a fave of mine – I learn best when I know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and TNBR is better than the competition at putting that out simply and comprehensively.

  • EB

    I think you hit the nail on the head. With books now, it really is about a voice. A human connection. As for learning, for me it was Pepin and back issues of Gourmet.

  • Carol Blymire

    I agree with Sydny’s assessment that we’ve lost the tradition of passing down the craft of cooking from one generation to another. As a child, I spent a decent amount of time with my grandmother and great-aunts in the kitchen, but that stopped when I had to focus on school and extracurriculars to be able to get into college. The whole notion of passing along all the rituals and how-tos of “keeping house” doesn’t exist like it used to, and call me old-fashioned, but it makes me more than a little sad.

    As for cookbooks that teach, of course I’m biased, but The French Laundry Cookbook changed how I cook. Cooking my way through that book ingrained a heightened sense of intuition in my day-to-day shopping and cooking.

    I actually just now wrote, “But is it the right book for a 60-year old fella who wants to learn to cook? Maybe not.” But, I deleted that line because I think you have to click with the right book to be able to learn from it. And who knows? This gentleman may go to his local library or bookstore with a list of all the books we’re suggesting, and none of them might be the right fit, but a few of them could be. He may look at the gazpacho recipe in TFLC and be able to smell it in his mind merely by reading the list of ingredients. He may open the Zuni cookbook to the pages about roasting a chicken and crave that and click with it. Or, he may recognize foods from his past in one of the other books and decide to go with that. I don’t think there’s one book (or 2 or 5 or 10 books) that are the best-suited for teaching. I think it’s something you’ve got to take the time to figure out what clicks with you and what gets those salivary glands working.

    That said, when considering a book that teaches, I would hope any of us would choose a book that doesn’t just go about reinforcing what we already know, but pushes us to do more or do better.

    Zuni is a great book, as is the CIA text (it’s one of my most-used reference books). I also love Julia and Jacques at Home. But TFLC is the book that forever shifted how I cook and reinforced that it’s all about respecting the ingredients and striving for perfection — even if perfection for any given meal is part food, part state of mind: the ripest, most beautiful tomato from my garden (its skin still warm from the sun), sliced and drizzled with olive oil, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and fresh-plucked tarragon, laid out nicely on a plate and eaten at a pace where you let yourself truly taste and enjoy with few (or no) distractions.

    Whatever book enables you to take pride in what you’ve made, and really and truly savor it and enjoy it… that’s the book for you.

  • jah

    I think you have to mention Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian cooking books — these books are special because they provide a complete education about a different approach and philosophy toward food/life — it’s not just a bunch of recipes.

  • ruhlman

    From Nurit Asnash, of http://www.familyfriendlyfood.com/

    “First, thank you for relating to my comment AND incorporating it in your post. I was so surprised and excited to see it.

    “I own more than 130 cookbooks (I stopped counting long ago) – most of them are good – and am/was subscribed to more than 5 different food magazines. These days, unless it’s a very special cookbook, like my recent purchase “Ottolenghi”, I am less excited about buying traditional cookbooks (the ones with a little description of the dish before the recipe). A regular cookbook has got to have very creative food and/or great stories and/or super gorgeous food photography, or something else that stands out (like Ratio) to get my attention and dollars.
    Recently I find myself attracted more to food memoirs and books by food bloggers because of the stories, their personalities, and their unique voice. (Also because I have a concept for a food memoir that I would like to write and so I’m trying to learn what makes them special.)

    “I personally find that the personal story leading to a recipe (it’s the food blogs’ “thing”) has tremendous added value. With the easy access to millions and millions of recipes and pretty good food photography, why should I make THIS recipe or not the other one? This is where the story plays a role. There was something about the dish that made the people who wrote about it laugh or cry, feel love, maybe closeness to someone, or maybe it’s their way to remember a good trip or have a better day… In any case, it was something valuable and worth sharing with the whole world and it makes me want to be a little part of that. I would buy such a foodbook (I already have) the same way as as I would buy good literature and fiction books, only it happens to have good recipes (and maybe photos) as well.”

  • Judi

    I love Shirley Corriher’s book – probably for the same reason I love seeing her on Alton Brown’s show. She is so warm and natural and has such a great way of explaining food science.

  • Rory

    I haven’t checked out Ratio yet, and have honestly not used Charcuterie as much as I thought I would. However, I would put a hearty recommendation in for two of your earlier works: Bouchon and The French Laundry cookbook. I can honestly say that I learned more from those two cookbooks than all of my others (~100) combined.

  • mary lynn

    Places that I have lived influence my votes for my favorite cookbooks. I live in the southwest, so I have used Rick Bayless’s first 2 books, “Authentic Mexican” and “Mexican Kitchen” until they are falling apart. We also lived in Beijing for 2.5 years and I used and learned so much from Ken Hom’s books. I spoke Mandarin, but couldn’t read it, so the few cookbooks they had were of no use to me. In addition to the English cookbooks, I also learned from a few Chinese women who were willing to teach me. Great experience for learning to cook the cuisines of foreign countries.

  • stuandgravy

    Another vote for Nigel Slater, for his book ‘Appetite’. The first half of the book is mostly about food – seasons, tastes, relationships – not cooking.

    It’s such an important element that too many ‘learn to cook’ books ignore, perhaps because it’s easier to write procedures. Most of my non-cooking friends have as many problems in the supermarket as they do the kitchen.

  • marcj

    I see “New Best Recipe” in your stack, so let me put a vote in for it. I bought this about a year and a half ago and absolutely love it. I think some folks can get turned off by the Cook’s Illustrated bowtie guy’s tone, but ultimately this book does what it says it does: it tells you how to cook a broad range of common recipes, and walks you through the process of how they worked out the recipes in the first place.

    Compare their recipe for pancakes to the Joy of Cooking one, and you’ll see what I mean.

  • luis

    Rory Charcuterie is a work in process for me too… Can’t find casings and ingredients locally. I need to turn to the internet to get going with sausages etc. Have the Kitchen Aid attachements but no casings.

  • Carol Peterman

    I was just given a copy of The Art & Soul of Baking and I am surprisingly impressed with it. Great explanations of why and how, and the recipes all have ingredient weights. Shirley O. Corriher’s CookWise and BakeWise are very good. I also like the Cook’s Illustrated books like Best Recipes. The Professional Chef and Professional Pastry Chef are two books I reference the most. Not a book, but the online cooking school at http://www.rouxbe.com is excellent.

  • Dave

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned James Peterson’s excellent cookbooks. His “Vegetables” book is one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, as is his fish book, the “Sauces” book, the “Soups” book. Oh heck, they’re all good, and very good teachers.

    Another book I’d recommend to someone learning to cook would be Bruce Aidell’s “Complete Meat Cookbook”. It explains pork, beef, and lamb in great detail, discussing cuts, cooking techniques, etc.

  • Mike Pardus

    I teach Asian Cuisine at the CIA. Robert Danhi – the guy who trained me to teach that class, and who has remained a friend, colleague, and resource for many years- has just written and self published Southeast Asian Flavors (www.southeastasianflavors.com).
    From an educators point of view, this book breaks new ground.
    Danhi tells stories, documents them with fantastic photos, collects, transcribes and tests the recipes himself and best of all, each recipe contains a section called “How and Why” explaining the nuances behind each dish and the reason it has to be done that way. This is a true teaching tool, at home and in the class room. Even if you’re not that much interested in SEA food, it’s worth a look for anyone interested in advancing culinary education – and, oh yeah, the website has short video tutorials to help you with techniques in the book – cutting edge stuff, I think.

  • sjwoodin

    I learned to cook by helping my grandmother, and relying on what my mother relied on – Better Homes and Gardens. It’s still there as one of my most-consulted sources, along with Joy, James Beard, New Basics, andof course the scrapbook of my grandmother’s “recipes”.

  • Kevin

    I am fairly new to cooking, and the books I have found thus far that interest me have to do with fundamentals (Alton’s Books, Ratio, and Elements for example), and they also have to do with cooking seasonally from start to finish, including tips on how to grow vegetables and prepare meats. I like knowing that I was able to regulate pesticides, or salt content, and things like that. Jamie at Home and Charcuterie are examples of the latter.

  • Karen Hollings

    My go to books are The Margaret Fulton Cookbook (revised updated edition), My French Kitchen by Joanne Harris & Fran Warde and lastly The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins. With the help of these 3, I am never lost in the kitchen!

  • Mike Pardus

    A good friend and part time co-conspirator of mine, Robert Danhi, has just written and self published what I consider to be a ground breaking “cook book”. In “Southeast Asian Flavors” (www.souteastasianflavors.com), Danhi tells stories, documents culture with great photos, and best of all from an educational point of view,explains each recipe with a “How and Why” section exposing the nuances of the dish and the “why” behind it. To complete the package, the supporting Web site contains tutorial demos for related techniques. This is a model for all teaching cook books to follow. Congratulations Robert, I wish I’d written this book.

  • Anne

    Nigel Slater’s Appetite is a great book, IMO, for beginners. He talks about ingredients and the pantry, includes some basic staple recipes (tomato sauce, custard, risotto) in addition to the rest of the recipes, and for each recipe he gives suggestions for possible variations on the basic theme or technique. I think that’s a good way to encourage new cooks to start really learning how cooking works, similar to what’s in Ratio: not just following a recipe, but using techniques with various ingredients so that you can adapt as needed and make something your own.

    Of course, I’d also like to cast a vote for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And while I’m at it, Alton Brown’s books are fun for people who want to know the why behind the how.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Mike Pardus,

    I am loving Robert Danhi’s site….this is why I love m.r.’s blog….it alway’s add’s to my intellect and knowledge.

  • Rouge Chef

    I just gotta have my cookbooks. The internet is not enough plus sifting through the many recipes that absolutely suck online at first click of a search. So many people are teaching people how to cook the wrong way. I have almost every book in the stack above and cherish them all dearly. Some cookbooks can be so comforting and hit home in a way that can make you cry almost. I must add that my current obsession is the river cottage series. Don’t ever forget Julia!

  • luis

    The “Batter Continuum” Rhulman, it would take me a lifetime in a bakery or pastry shop to gain this type of insight into the process. I bet there are thousands of bakers and pastry folks out there cranking out recipes without even suspecting the delicate relationships you describe and hint at in RATIO. Wild stuff.

  • tim

    For the reader looking for “stories” in a cookbook — Marc Vetri’s “Il Viaggio di Vetri” is full of good stories and some very accessible recipes for northern Italian food.

  • jscirish27

    Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” has already been mentioned, but another great book is “Cookwise,” by Shirley O. Corriher. It is kind of like McGee meets Bittman in a very readable form. I love the Professional Chef and FCI’s book (I am an alum and working chef) but they may be too voluminous for someone just starting out. Btw, Michael, picked up Ratio and it is a great book… good work as always.

  • Peter

    James Peterson’s “Sauces” was inspirational to me, especially the examples of derivations from mother sauces. It was one of my first three “serious” cookbooks, and it’s still in my top-3 favorites. Sauces are my favorite topic of cooking, though.

    Larouse Gastronomique was also inspirational for the history, but also very helpful for the terminology that keeps popping up (but is never really defined) in serious cookbooks.

  • Peter

    James Peterson’s “Sauces” was inspirational to me, especially the examples of derivations from mother sauces. It was one of my first three “serious” cookbooks, and it’s still in my top-3 favorites. Sauces are my favorite cooking topic, though.

    Larouse Gastronomique for the history, but also for defining cooking terms and techniques which show up in more serious cookbooks (and usually in French).

  • Sophia Twaddell

    I learned to cook watching my mother and grandmother at home, my grandfather and uncles at their restaurant. My sons have learned watching me (although I did put together a book of recipes of the things they grew up eating when they went off to college).

    I don’t use cookbooks to cook very much any more, but I love to read them. I probably have 1000 or more. What’s most interesting is how certain flavors appear in recipes that appeal to me, e.g., tarragon or ginger.

    My go-to cookbooks are Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking, Craig Claiborne’s NYT Cookbook, Silver Palate and Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts (out of print, unfortunately). My most hated cookbook is Ruth Reichel’s Gourmet Cookbook with the yellow type–what were they thinking?

    I just looked at my shelves and realized that I have more books on baking than anything else; I love to read them but I hate to bake. Probably because baking is the opposite of cooking.

  • Michelle

    Most of the books I was going to recommend have already been mentioned.

    Every kitchen, in my opinion, can use at least one good reference cookbook. A “go to” when verifying measurements or specific ingredients. I usually pick up Joy of Cooking for that.

    Also, I think Martha was onto something when they organized Everyday Food according to the seasons. Love that idea!

    I would like to have a simple, family style cookbook, organized according to ‘type of cuisine’. Similar to choosing a restaurant, my family often decides what they want to eat by deciding what they are hungry for. A ‘go to’ with ideas from around the world.

    I actually like Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and the stories and pictures that go along with each of her recipes.

    At the risk of sounding like a pandering sycophant, all of your books, Ruhlman, have been inspiring – and inspiration is the best teacher.

  • Sally

    I’d been cooking for several decades when I realized that I knew how to follow recipes, but I really didn’t know how to “cook.”

    What changed that? Pam Anderson’s “How to Cook Without a Book.” I also like the Cooking without Recipes” (which Pam Anderson contributes to) series in “Fine Cooking” magazine.

    I’m fond of Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food” — both the cookbook and the magazine, anything from Ina Garten and Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.”

  • Just Me

    I like the book Chemistry in the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Also the Joy of Cooking is very instructive. And the cookbook Not just Beans. They have recipes for a lot of mixes we would pay extra to buy premixed at the store but don’t really need to.

  • Graeme

    I would have to say going in an order of personal ability and knowledge (from beginner up): 1)On Cooking and Joy of Cooking. I prefer the On Cooking to the CIA books (I’ve never seen the FCI books though…), and I find it’s techniques better demonstrated then Joy of Cooking, and it has the best covering of the generalities (Mother sauces, a thousand things to do with potatoes, etc) since Escoffier. But the actual recipes are often quite painful, so I recommend the techniques being transfered to Joy’s recipes.

    Level 2) French Laundry, Zuni Cafe. Very good intros for how to think about food.

    Level 3) Bouchon, Les Halles. You’re getting a little big for you britches. Remeber what makes food good.

    Level 4)Charcuterie, On Food and Cooking, Professional Pastry Chef (I am not one, so this is about my speed). This is the stuff that takes patience to acheive, and since On food and Cooking doesn’t exactly have recipes, it more about what is going on in you’re food and how to make it better.

    Level 5) Under Pressure (I’m putting it here since I haven’t had a chance to work with a sous-vide rig and therefore am assuming you must make certain rites of passage through the previous 4 before you’re allowed near one)

  • Natalie Sztern

    Michael, there are so many reasons you get 130 responses to one post:
    1- people want to feel you hear them
    2- it is like talking directly to you
    3-feedback on others comments
    4-everyone feels part of the ‘ruhlman community’ and therefore that much closer to other chefs and other kitchens
    5-u are not untouchable and aloof like perhaps Tony, Eric , or Symon is on their blogs and others of course ie your are a man of your readers and in contact with them – there is a touch and a feel to you NOT having anonymity of sorts
    6-you write naturally and from a passion of the heart
    7-everything you write has a meaning and a place and a purpose in the food world and therefore your readers get to have a direct relationship with everything au courant in that world
    8- you take us everywhere you go: conferences, dinners and even into your own kitchen (THAT VIDEO WAS PRICELESS)
    9- and though,not lastly, your readers get a rapport with each other.

    so are u telling me that with us as followers you are worried for the future?

    No way…I think whatever your venue becomes you will always have a following…but, hey, that’s just me

  • Ohiogirl

    If I have adults who really haven’t cooked at all, and want to, I send them to Marian Cunningham’s “Learn to Cook.”

    It’s a fantastic basic cookbook, and almost as importantly – it has her warmth. She explains, give hints and tips and you feel like you are not cooking alone. She’s made many a scared soul brave that first step into the kitchen – and succeed. Hats off to her.

    My favorite cookbook with stories is still, after all these years, the lovely late Laurie Colwin’s “Home Cooking” books. Wonderful witty writing, and excellent recipes to boot.

  • CucumberPandan in Jakarta

    Oh, that photo makes me very happy! 😀 Last week I took similar shots of my stack of books for a post (on books & reading in general, not specifically on cookbooks) on my personal blog (http://tmohede.blogspot.com).

    Talking about cookbooks that teach: “Joy of Cooking” is a personal favorite. Whenever I’m ‘reading’ a cookbook I am more drawn to the stories/anecdotes than the actual recipes. Cooking and eating are such integral part of life anyway, to reduce everything to technical directions is to cut out much of life itself.

  • Robert

    I have to echo the other votes for Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. It’s broad ranging and full of basic but solid recipes that are perfect for someone looking to master the fundamentals.

  • Mister 1-2-3-4

    I’m going to give my vote to the America’s Test Kitchen series of cookbooks. They may not tell really flash stories about the glamorous life of a chef, but they do explain in great detail how ingredients work together, what tools work best for a given task, and what techniques will give you the best results. I have loved every recipe that I have tried from them.

  • Rita

    I know this may sound too “crunchy granola” for some, but back in the 80s I used to read Laurel’s Kitchen aloud to my kids for a bedtime story. That book has a great narrative and doesn’t shy away from saying “spaghetti-o’s” outloud. It helped my kids try new foods and gave their curiosity about food a useful context.

  • Karen E

    What a fun question! I have relived my life through the comments — all of the most helpful books/companions have been mentioned. My personal trajectory started with Joy and Moosewood, then I moved to Laurel’s Kitchen, to Viana LaPlace’s The Unplugged Kitchen (unsung masterpiece of the early 90s), and most recently to Zuni and Alice Waters. I’ve been baking Brooklyn-style this year with Baked. The jewel of the moment? Freshly-purchased Ottolenghi — very inspiring!

  • C. A. Morris

    I was one of the lucky ones; I had a 100% Greek mother who taught me how to cook. The concept of wine and garlic and onions was normal in our kitchen, but for a beginner I would say have a copy of Joy of Cooking and you won’t need anything else. I always give Julie Childs:The Way to Cook as gifts, because of the way each chapter is structured, like bullding blocks. For me, personally, I agree that the book has to do more. Tell me a story; give me the science. For baking I love Beranbaums “Bible” series and Marcel Desaulniers Chocolate series is the best. In Death by Chocolate the former Vietnam Marine tells about surviving by concocting chocolate recipes in his head. His “orders” are so well written that he give me the confidence to try his chocolate masterpieces.

  • Peter G Lavery

    So, a distinction to be made between teaching and inspiring. A lot of marketing noise, good photos and alluring story will keep your populist soul rapt as you whip up recipes, but not necessarily teach a bit.

    Maybe a distinction without a difference? The more you cook, the more you learn and if you need to be inspired to pick up your whisk, then sobeit. But on a spectrum, inspiration teaches indirectly, and certain books fall clearly into each category, but not the other. Consider Mario’s Babbo book to Marcella’s Cucina, or Steve Raichlen’s smokiness and sunglasses to Chris Schlesinger & John Willoughby’s books.

    But my the Grade A foie of educational cookbooks is (drum roll please), the CIA’s Garde Manger book. Guaranteed you will go to it for a recipe and come away with ideas.


  • Rob Barmore

    I’m not a professional in the food industry; I am a decent home cook who has taught a number of people how to improve their kitchen skills. I think that the appropriate books for teaching someone to cook depends on where that person is starting from. You’d have a hard time convincing me that a book is the most effective tool to teach someone the most basic of basic kitchen skills. A lot of the books people seem to be commenting on will help improve a home cooks skills, perhaps taking them from an adequate cook to a good one over time. However, a completely unskilled cook looking at the excellent Zuni Cafe Cookbook would only become intimidated and frustrated.

  • luis

    One of the best ways for folks to come up to speed is reading ‘The Elements of Cooking’ That pretty much brings them up to speed on elements and techniques. Then the ethnic cuisine of their choice book. And that pretty much is wide open.
    Afterwards “RATIO” is the book to OWN. First they learn techniques, then they stock their pantry and RATIO frees their soul to cook great foods with whatever they have on hand.
    Sousviding is the future and folks such as Keller’s Under Pressure begin to bring it to the home cooks but there is a lot of room there for home gadgets that work and recipes etc.
    Yesterday I downloaded something on sousviding that reads like a masters thesis with heat flow equations etc….and for gadgets I need electronic boxes controlling other things like crockpots etc…
    Yet if you are to get back to tasting great food and the seasoning from a well kept soil in a farm… sousviding is the way. The way to quality and the way to health.

  • Michael L. Van Cise

    I find “The Joy of Cooking” and Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” to be good resources that explain technique, discuss selection of food, and give enough detail to instruct a novice, but also provide insight that may allow a more experienced cook to generate a new recipe or go “off-recipe” to cater to the cook’s own taste.
    I also really like “The Big Book of Easy Suppers” by Maryana Vollstedt because the ingredient lists tend to be short and the preparation methods and cook times geared toward cooking at home.

    Although I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, The “Bride and Groom cookbook” by Mary Corpening Barber and Sara Corpening Barber, is a great cookbook. It contains an opening section that discusses how to stock your pantry and also includes a section about what utensils, electrics, pots, pans, etc. and what every cook needs. Although this cookbook doesn’t contain hundreds of recipes (it only has about 60 total, I think) every recipe I have tried has been excellent. This is a great “niche” cookbook as it is geared toward newlyweds. And, as you point out, since a lot of cooking knowledge has been lost, many newlyweds need to know how to stock their pantry and what things to buy to fill their kitchen. They may also need to have recipes for holidays, everyday meals, and entertaining. This book contains all of them. While probably not appropriate for an expert, it probably has more universal appeal than the title might indicate.

  • truestarr

    When I send my granddaughter recipes I usually send her a link to VideoJug- and give her my “tweaks” in a note or as a ‘tip’, particularly for things she’s never made on her own before, like Chinese cooking or Japanese sushi. It’s much easier to watch someone do it, then follow what they did.


    My old Joy of Cooking always answered my early cooking questions. The Moosewood cookbook for beginner vegetarian.

  • Adele

    The very first cookbook my mother gave me was an old edition of Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook. It got me through the real basics, and then Claiborne’s first New York Times Cookbook and James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining, introduced me to some of the finer things (without always clearly telling me how to achieve them). Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking really helped me with technique and terms, and I also must give a nod to The Silver Palate Cookbooks and recently, Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris (very easy to follow and good recipes)and Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook — as a previous writer said, it really helped me with mise en place, and the Moules Portugaise rock. As I list these cookbooks, I realize that I still use recipes out of each of them,

  • JW

    For people who think they can’t cook, I always recommend Cooks Illustrated. When combining the narratives and recipes, there is little left to interpretation. One of my partners at work could barely butter toast, and now routinely makes full holiday dinners for her family using Cooks.

    Personally, I am a cookbook junkie and I agree that the books that I return to over and again are the ones that teach. My favorites in no order-At Home with Jacque and Julia, Bouchon, Molto Italiano, and CIAs Professional Chef. I also have the extinct Time Life Foods of the World series that I reference for history lessons. Complete sets are occasionally offered for a bargain on ebay.

  • JoP in Omaha

    I’m late to this discussion, having been away, so this might not be seen, but my current favorite is the recently published Cooking Know-How. It presents 65 techniques for savory dishes. For each tecnnique, variations of ingredients are presented in chart form that result in the creation of different dishes.

    This is the sort of thing I’ve wanted for a long time. The focus is not on stand-alone recipes that result in the reader learning how to cook one dish. The focus is on methods which the reader can apply as desired.

  • David A. Goldfarb

    My favorite basic cookbook, which I usually give as a gift to people who want to learn to cook, is James Beard’s _Theory and Practice of Good Cooking_, which is heavy on technique and light on recipes, well written, and illustrated with classic line drawings that perfectly complement the spirit of the book’s emphasis on the outline over detail.

  • Matt

    AB’s book, for me, was important in the way it framed in the fundamentals of applying heat to food. Cooking seems too broad and unapproachable until a book like “I’m Just Here For The Food” comes along and really breaks things down into its component parts. I know some people don’t like Alton or his style, but fundamentally he is one of the best teachers of food to the masses I’ve ever seen. If this guy were ever allowed to just unload food knowledge on us in a structured manner, I think we’d all be the better for it. I get the impression FN dumbs him down…give him a real outlet to teach!

    Too many people are scared to cook because they’re afraid to screw it up the first time. Those of us that love to cook learn to accept and embrace that unavoidable step. A cookbook that helps people connect with their mistakes and learn from them…Cooking Troubleshooting if you will…would be very interesting. And I’m not talking about fixing a hollandaise. More like avoiding overcooking steaks, or the cause of flat cookies, or preventing overcooked pasta. Things people cook every day.

  • mirinblue

    Ahhh! Books about food..
    I choose John Thorne. I learned the one truth that imparted the most difference in my cooking-letting flavors develop-often on the back of the stove. And I love his stories and asides and comparisons.

    Also Bouchon-I reach for that often. It’s my go-to roast chicken. And poaching in olive oil… (confit) -those wonderful cloves of garlic have led me down so many delicious pathways…

    I fell in love with these books after I learned to cook. I DO have to say that cooking was never anything I set about to learn…it was more of an absorption that happened over many years and began in my mother’s kitchen.

  • John

    Lots of great stuff so far, and more for me to add to the “acquire” list. If I was going to hand a new cook one book, it would be Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food. It’s a little dorky, yes, but he runs through all of the basic cooking techniques and describes how it’s done, what’s happening chemically and why it is you would want to use that cooking method. These are the basic building blocks for understanding any other cooking book. His book on gear is good as well.

    After that, Pepin’s Complete Techniques, Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise (after reading that, I finally understand what the difference is between all of those flours) and anything by Christopher Kimball/Cook’s Illustrated and good for building on the foundation.

    After that, my own inclination is towards ethnic cookbooks. Basic ones that describe the cooking techniques used in the cuisine. Bonus points for info on the history or philosophy of a cuisine. My favorites here are Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and anything by Martin Yan or Rick Bayless. And New American Chef by Dornenburg and Page.

    I also like The Professional Chef as a general reference and have a copy of On Food and Cooking on the to-read shelf (and Ratio on the to-buy list; the local shop was out when I went).

  • Lamar

    For baking, both “The Cake Bible”, and “The Bread Bible” are musts. They break down exactly why things happen the way they do. Not to mention some of the cake recipes are just flat-out remarkable.

  • Sprocket

    Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
    by Marcella Hazan.

    It is simply the best Italian cookbook to learn from.

  • Marla

    Sure, the web is a great tool for finding recipes – I print them out all of the time! But how do I know that they are going to be good if I haven’t made a few by the author/chef in the past? I don’t! That’s where great cookbooks (like Joy and Best Recipe) come in – they are comprehensive and you can (usually) trust them! I love the internet and reading food blogs, but I’ll always want to own some great cookbooks.

  • Cevin

    The “New Basics Cookbook” by the silver palate ladies started me cooking 20 yrs ago. Today it’s “Alton Brown” and the “Joy of Cooking”

  • Stuart Reb Donald

    Thumbs up for the Joy of Cooking.

    On Food and Cooking is crucial. Although it is really for more advanced cooks and contains no recipes, McGee has taught me plenty.

  • Sonja

    Like your reader says, I too am interested in the food stories, but I’m also interested in some direction/instruction. The cookbooks I turn to most frequently for these things include:
    Cooks Illustrated “Baking Illustrated” and of course any of their magazines.

    “Gourmet” cookbook – not so much for the instruction, but a lot of the recipes have stories, albeit short ones.

    I also appreciate Jamie Oliver’s “The Naked Chef” for both the stories and his unique style of instruction.

  • Linda

    Bourdain’s Les Halles. It’s entertaining and the seven hour lamb works. It’s fun, and so is cooking. And so far, every recipe works….

  • a home cook

    Cooking has always been a see-saw between technique and expression for me. My journey started with the ‘Time-Life’ series. I wanted to recreate what I saw in those volumes as a way to better understands the world I lived in. Cooking and food were the gateways through which I accessed the culture and history of the places I wanted to visit one day. There have been many trips and many meals based on pictures from ‘The cooking of Provincial France’.

    As I began to understand that I would need to know the techniques to do this, I focused on Jacque Pepin’s ‘La Technique’ and ‘La Methode’ as ways to get these skills. Later as I became less afraid of technique I learned from Jacque Pepin’s ‘Cuisine Economique’ that good technique could make ordinary food special. It would be another 10 years before I understood the importance of ingredient efficiencies put forth in that book.

    The cookbooks that direct the cooking path I am on today position the recipe as a function of history or shared memory. I was deeply inspired by Madeline Kamman’s, ‘When French Women Cook’ and ‘The making of a Cook 2nd ed’. I carried ‘Making of a Cook’ around with me for a year, reading it like a novel. When Paula Wolfert talks of the pride one of her contributors has,” We are rich because we use spices” in her ‘Grains and Greens’ book, I’m driven to learn who this woman is through her food and will practice whatever technique is necessary to understand. When I wanted to recreate the pound cake that my now deceased grandmother taught me, I sought to understand the chemistry for creaming butter and sugar in order to successfully re-create the feeling of being in her 1950’s kitchen as this cake came out of the oven.

    I still swing between technique and expression. The driving force for me will always be why is this technique happening? Why do cooks in this part of the world treat meat this way or cook in this type of pan? I may need the discipline to master a technique, but the urge to do so will always be fired by a desire to understand the expression of the food.

  • MIke

    Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ – The New Basics tought me to make food I liked when I first started cooking

    Paul Bertoli’s Chez panisse cooking (I forget the actual title) is the best cookingbook and one of the best books I’ve read. It openned my eyes to food and my mind to process.

  • Dave

    Best teaching books:
    The Way to Cook (best ever!)
    La Technique – Pepin
    La Methode -Pepin
    Making of a Cook – Kamman
    The Best Recipe
    How to Cook Everything
    Joy of Cooking 1997 ed
    Cooking – Peterson
    On Food and Cooking
    ABs books

  • Iva

    A fantastic book to get you started on baking is The Baker’s Dozen. It explains a lot about technique and ingredients and gives simple recipes as well as possible variations. I highly recommend it to any beginner baker.

  • marcy goldman

    What a wonderful blog entry. I too, love cookbooks that are as readable as Jane Austen and are also informative and teach me – as some of the great books you mention. I grew up gleaning all I could from many of those great books, alive with vital, vibrant voices (and expertise), a true presence on each page; a presence fused into each recipe. As a chef and cookbook author myself, I try to ‘be there’ with my reader, in all my own cookbooks. My whole goal is to inform, share, teach and be that culinary friend. Particularly, as I am a baker/pastry chef and write baking books, I could hardly give a recipe for anything and not share techniques, tips, and tricks. The ‘story’ of my recipes is in their headnotes and that gives (one hopes) context and warmth. Without someone in the kitchen with you (most of the cooking grandmas left the building in the mid 70’s)a one-voice cookbook is a treasured friend that keeps you company in the kitchen and breaks bread with you (albeit in spirit) at the table when all is cooked and baked.