The Best of Beginner Books

What do you think makes a good cookbook? Is it a magnificent tome that includes every single thing you’d ever need to know about food and food preparation? Or is it a wonderfully pictorial volume of varied recipes from around the world?

For me, there is no one single, best cookbook. At the end of the day, there are just too many recipes (and, quite frankly, too many cookbooks) out there to limit it to just a handful of books. And, now with our friend the internet, we really don’t need a book for recipes. We can just pop on over to Google, type in a few keywords and prest-o-matic, you have 25 variations of spaghetti bolognese at your fingertips. Print one out and you’re all set. (Or, do as I sometimes do when I like to live dangerously, and perch your laptop on a canister and follow along in eco-friendly fashion. I add the living dangerously because sauce is very difficult to remove from a keyboard.)

But, sometimes… just sometimes… I like to consult a book. (You know, book… those things made from dead trees.) I use actual books for reference material on things I only do a few times a year. (I always need a picture when it comes time to truss poultry.) Mostly, I have them around because I like to recall where my favorite recipes are by the pages mottled with ingredient smears. Because in each of my cookbooks, I only have a few recipes I make over and over again. (Well, do you venture into the liver section of your cookbook much? I didn’t think so.)

Anyway, I thought I’d bring you a list of the books that I find useful to have in physical form. I do not call them must-haves, but merely good places to start if you’re looking to expand the books on your shelf.

Joy of Cooking coverJoy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

The little red ribbon seals the deal for me. If you don’t own this classic of American cookery, it is a large hardcover book with a helpful red ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. OK, besides the ribbon, this book has recipes, but it also tells you how long to cook a chicken or at what temperature you should roast beef. You know, the very basics of cooking. It started in 1936 and has been edited and updated a number of times since then. You see, some things in cooking just don’t change all that much. And, yes, it does make me joyful.

The Way to Cook by Julia Child

The Way to Cook coverWe’re all pretty familiar with Julia’s first masterwork on French cooking (thank you, Julie and Julia), but I think fewer people are familiar with this, her second cookbook. It’s really just a good, basic cookbook—especially for people who rarely spend any time in the kitchen. The recipes run the gamut from easy-peasy to holy crap this is going to take me days to finish. But, they are generally tasty, always straight forward, and help build on the basics everyone needs to know in the kitchen (including how to properly poach fish or make an omelet or just about any other silly thing you might want to do with a stove and a pan).

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

The Bread Baker's Apprentice coverSo, I took a baking class where we spent the first weeks doing nothing but breads. You can actually learn a lot about bread from repeatedly making different loaves—and that is that all bread recipes (nay all baked goods) are pretty much the same with varying amounts flour, water, yeast (or in the case of other baked goods, replacing the yeast with butter and sugar). The difference in taste lies in the amount of each ingredient, the additions (spices, nuts, chocolate), and the whole rising/resting process. This book is a good all-encompassing guide to bread (but not desserts… I have yet to find a good one size fits all for desserts). A few cautions: A number of the recipes take quite some time, so plan ahead. And, remember, the best baking is done with weights not volume measurements. So, if you want to be spot on, bust out a scale and weigh your flour.

One Good Ethnic Cookbook

I don’t have specifics for you, because I think it really depends on what you like to eat. But, you should pick an ethnicity other than your own, and find a cookbook filled with regional dishes. My shelf is full of Italian cookbooks (not fair, to be sure, since I am half Italian), but I also have a number of Asian (especially Chinese) cookbooks. Why should you do this? Because learning techniques from another culture can help improve your general cooking ability. Yes, knowing how to stir fry has helped me build better pasta sauces. I swear it.

On Food and Cooking coverBonus: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

This is not a cookbook, not at all. But, if you are interested in why cooking does what it does, you should pick up a copy. It is a very delightful reference. Full disclosure: I have this one on my Nook, because it rings in at almost 900 pages. And, I’m the kind of geek who likes to carry it around just to pop in for a chapter or two every now and then.

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