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Cookbooks that explain the entire process?
March 14, 2010 7:54 PM   Subscribe

For me, the most satisfying part of learning a new recipe is figuring out why a particular step is needed. Are there any recipe books that explain the function of each step and ingredient?

(Incidentally, does anyone know why most pie recipes call for dotting the top of the filling with butter?)
posted by archagon to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you need to start watching "Good Eats". It's a cooking show for nerds, basically, and a lot of the show involves Alton Brown explaining why you do certain things, why they're needed, why they matter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:59 PM on March 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Cook's Illustrated. Evey recipe is preceded by a 1 to 3 page article explaining why each and every ingredient and step was included.
posted by skwm at 7:59 PM on March 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Seconding Cook's Illustrated. Also, Cookwise and Bakewise by Shirley Corriher, who shows up on Good Eats from time to time.
posted by Madame Psychosis at 8:02 PM on March 14, 2010


Alton's own cookbooks tend to include the explanations as well.
posted by kindall at 8:04 PM on March 14, 2010


You might want to take a look at Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. It doesn't just give you recipes, it explains why you have n parts flour to x parts water in a dough, for instance. Harold McGee's books also sound like they might fit what you're looking for - some of the science of cooking. As a general browsing tip for your local chain bookstore, ask for the food writing or professional cooking sections - they should be near the cookbook section, but they'll be books about food rather than recipes, which might prove to be more helpful.
posted by booksherpa at 8:09 PM on March 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I just recommended Cook's Illustrated The New Best Recipe over in this comment for the same reasons mentioned above. It's honestly the best.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2010


Incidentally, does anyone know why most pie recipes call for dotting the top of the filling with butter?

The only conceivable reason is to add a bit of richness to the pie filling - fat carries flavor. I've left it out of pies many times and they never baked any differently.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Ratio's interesting, but personally I find it very academic and a bit difficult to get a grasp on.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2010


These people seem to think the butter in pie fillings is merely for taste. I have no other ideas. I really just came on here to second both the Ratio book and anything by Alton Brown.
posted by purpletangerine at 8:13 PM on March 14, 2010


On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is the book that explains food. No recipes, and it focuses more on ingredients than cooking methods, but highly recommended.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:14 PM on March 14, 2010 [9 favorites]


Seconding On Food and Cooking.
posted by mhuckaba at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2010


Definitely recommend Good Eats.
Also like Cooking For Engineers, though it may not have the level of detail you're looking for.
posted by inigo2 at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was a related question a few months ago on books explaining the principles of cooking.
posted by parudox at 8:24 PM on March 14, 2010


I believe the standard explanation for dotting the top of the filling with butter is to prevent a skin from forming. This makes sense as it would keep the top from drying. I have not made many pies, though, and I have not tested that myself. There is a lot of "because we always did it that way" in most recipes.
posted by Nothing at 8:34 PM on March 14, 2010


The Best Recipe cookbooks also have in-depth technical discussions of many techniques and the whys.
Julia Child also has some discussion in several of her books, mostly the one she wrote to support her first TV series.

And an Nth-ing on Alton Brown and Cook's Illustrated.
posted by Hwin at 8:44 PM on March 14, 2010


This site also suggests you "dot with butter" just to add flavor. To be honest the secret of a lot of delicious food is lots of butter.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:11 PM on March 14, 2010


Julia Child's The Way to Cook is great. For baking, Rose Levy Beranbaum's books really get into detail (after all, she wrote her master's thesis on the effects of sifting on the quality of yellow cake.) She's got lots of info., including videos, on her website also.
posted by gudrun at 9:13 PM on March 14, 2010


Seconding Julia Child - Alton Brown, and Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio" are great too - Julia Child is the original 'teach a man to fish' approach to home cookery.

If you can, Netflix or rent some of her old PBS shows. If you can find a copy of "Mastering the art of French Cooking" it's worth it. Very thorough, and full of "here's what's next, and here's why"
posted by device55 at 9:57 PM on March 14, 2010


Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice literally deconstructs every single step of bread making, staring with cleaning your workspace. It's a lovely meditation.
posted by salishsea at 10:02 PM on March 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nthing On Food and Cooking. Awesome info on the science behind what we cook.
posted by phox at 1:03 AM on March 15, 2010


Agree with Cooks Illustrated suggestion. Also related to that is public television show America's Test Kitchen and I think their more "homey" version Cook's Country. Both shows have the series recipe cookbooks that are quite intensive the how and why of a particular step or ingredient.
posted by Don92705 at 6:18 AM on March 15, 2010


Cook's Illustrated, yes. If you don't want to spend money on a subscription, they regularly collect recipes into assorted books (Baking Illustrated, Complete Book of Poultry, Complete Book of Pasta, The Best Recipe, etc) that may be in your library.
posted by not that girl at 8:41 AM on March 15, 2010


I watch Giada for this reason. She's really good about explaining why you do things. If you have access to Hulu, there are plenty of five minute clips of complete recipes. Be warned: Some people find her insufferably enthusiastic.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:48 AM on March 15, 2010


I'm a huge fan of Jacques P├ępin (Complete Techniques, More Fast Food My Way) and Julia Child, especially together. You can find a lot of those on YouTube and PBS. Alton Brown is a close second.
posted by cdmwebs at 10:31 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Agreeing re: Cooks Illustrated. There's a related TV show on public tv - America's Test Kitchen (I think for access to the online content you need to pay) - which is quite good, usually they do a specific theme for the episode. There's also usually a segment that evaluates several ingredients or kitchen tools (which bacon is the best of these, which kitchen scale is the best, etc).
posted by KAS at 12:19 PM on March 15, 2010


Re: butter on pie filling

My understanding has always been - like, say it's a blueberry pie. My recipe for this involves tossing the blueberries in flour & some sugar before pouring into the pie shell. I always thought the purposed of the butter was that it would melt into the flour and thicken the resulting juices? (I may be totally wrong here.)
posted by dnash at 12:32 PM on March 15, 2010


I've had great experiences with Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. Lots of brief recipes in the back but longer narrative sections throughout on basics like how to make a stew, stock, salad dressings, etc etc. Great recipes and a nice way to learn the essentials in more detail.
posted by slipperynirvana at 5:47 PM on March 15, 2010


My recipe for this involves tossing the blueberries in flour & some sugar before pouring into the pie shell. I always thought the purposed of the butter was that it would melt into the flour and thicken the resulting juices?

The flour is the thickener, it combines with the berry juices.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:07 PM on March 15, 2010


+1 to the Peter Reinhart books. the King Arthur Flour baking books are also very good at explaining how things work.
posted by nalyd at 8:50 PM on March 16, 2010


I'd like to note that On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is a very easy read too, despite being a book about the science of food and cooking. It's my bedside reading book and it's fascinating.
When it comes to bread making, The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard provides you with some simple background that has really improved the quality of the bread I bake.
posted by chill at 7:15 AM on March 17, 2010


Alton Brown, the guy from Good Eats? He has a cookbook that fits the bill exactly.
posted by talldean at 6:40 PM on March 18, 2010


Thanks, booksherpa, for recommending Ratio. I'm halfway through it now as the result of your recommendation. Whether or not it's what the OP wanted, it's exactly what I need now to understand why all these different recipes I use are constructed the way they are. (I already know and love Harold McGee's books and column.)

What's the difference between a pancake batter and a muffin batter? Why are sponge cake and pound cake so different, when they contain the same ingredients? It all makes sense now!
posted by Ery at 8:15 AM on March 28, 2010


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