Help me find the perfect cookbook
April 16, 2009 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Can the Hive recommend some good cookbooks?

Specifically ones that not only have recipes but will also help teach me to cook. I'm a young guy the loves to cook, my dad gave me The Betty Crocker Cookbook (the same cookbook he had when he was my age, though admittedly a newer print.) I love it because in the front and back it has charts that tell you things like emergency substitutes. In the beginning of each section it talks about proper preparation and storage of the foods. Really awesome. I'm a big fan of Alton Brown and his scientific approach but I'm not sure which of his various books would be best for me.

I've ordered The Flavor Bible, but I'm looking for any other recommendations that the Hivemind can give me. It doesn't really matter how difficult the recipes are, I'll attempt anything at least once.

posted by InsanePenguin to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head: The Joy of Cooking, Starting With Ingredients, Veganomicon and the work of Mark Bittman.
posted by box at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

How to Cook Everything by the aforementioned Bittman is a very good place to get started at cooking everything.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:43 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

All of Alton's are great. You can just pick up the first one you find of the shelf and you'll be good. Then you'll want them all.

If you can find a mad-old copy of James Beard's American Cookery, you'll go a long ways.
posted by General Malaise at 1:44 PM on April 16, 2009

The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything are generally the go-to books for this. And with good reason. (Extra bonus -- if you get an older edition of The Joy of Cooking, you may still be able to find a recipe for how to cook possum!)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 PM on April 16, 2009

Seconding Mark Bittman. How to Cook Everything is arguably the perfect cookbook.
posted by scody at 1:45 PM on April 16, 2009

I like The New Best Recipe. It's by the Cooks Illustrated people and it explains the methodology and ingredient choices for each recipe. That way you can tinker based on whether you want the cookie to be crisp or chewy, for example. Also, the directions are ridiculously clear. I'm not totally sure why, but I prefer it to Bittman's books.
posted by loulou718 at 1:49 PM on April 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nthing Bittman, but when I started cooking on my own 20 years ago, the book that I used and loved was James Beard's Theory and Practice of Cooking. It's a small book divided into chapters by technique (baking, roasting, etc.) with a few recipes for each technique. Cook your way through that and you will acquire the fundamentals and have a nice little repertoire in a short amount of time.
posted by HotToddy at 1:50 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whoops, sorry, it's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking.
posted by HotToddy at 1:56 PM on April 16, 2009

I have a copy of America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which has become my go-to cookbook for nearly everything. The recipes are foolproof, and the book also features excellent explanation of how & why things work (or don't) in cooking.
posted by dryad at 1:56 PM on April 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Seconding the Veganomicon. Even if you aren't into vegan food, it's got some great general material on preparing tasty vegetables and using spices to make food tasty, rather than just loading on fat.
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2009

For suggestions about websites and books that teach cooking techniques with step-by-step visuals, see this thread.
posted by juliplease at 2:01 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you like the science behind cooking, you should definitely, definitely look at McGee's On Food and Cooking. Not really a cookbook, but it describes in minute detail the scientific basis of action for every ingredient imaginable. Really useful if you want to cook without recipes, and generally very interesting for food enthusiasts.
posted by dormouse at 2:01 PM on April 16, 2009

nthing How To Cook Everything in that the beauty of the book is that Bittman basically follows up almost all of his recipes with addendums and sidebars indicating how you can create multiple variations on a dish by substituting ingredients at certain steps. It provides a lot of guidance on substitution and menu planning.

If you are lucky enough to score an older printing of the book, the appendices are also laden with great recommendations for additional cookbooks and food writing that can be the foundation of your library. The newest version excised this, presumably because the list got dated and it may have been a pain to keep updated, but it was a great resource.

I am also a bit of a fan of James Peterson's Cooking. It has more pictures than How To Cook Everything, and might be easier to follow, but Peterson's writing style is a little more intimidating as he tries to switch audiences between veteran cooks comfortable with technique and novices trying to master basics. Still it's worth looking at as a text for understanding how techniques work together and trying to free yourself from a slavish adherence to recipes.
posted by bl1nk at 2:03 PM on April 16, 2009

The Cook's Illustrated people produce great cookbooks, as others have said above. Given that you mentioned liking Alton Brown, I think you'd especially like these.

Here's their bookstore. Maybe start with The New Best Recipe.
posted by Perplexity at 2:08 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ruhlman's new Ratio book is an outstanding and different look at cooking approaches. I highly recommend it.

I also like Colicchio's Think Like a Chef.
posted by Caviar at 2:10 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like The New Best Recipe.

Seconded. It's like Joy, but with a very scientific methodology, and explanations as to why some methods were tried and found wanting, which can help you immeasurably as you become more confident in the kitchen and begin to grow beyond the "just follow the recipe" phase of your development.

Also, a hearty hell yeah to Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food. Most of her other cookbooks are pretty technique-intensive and rely on hard-to-find ingredients, but this one is aimed toward the less experienced cook, and presents a lot of incredibly useful general principles of cooking. She focusses more on basic building blocks (with plenty of recipes, as well, of course), all of which are simple, delicious, and again will help you grow and gain confidence in the kitchen.
posted by dersins at 2:11 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have many of the books mentioned above. Colicchio's Think Like a Chef would be my choice for you. It doesn't have a lot of charts and data, but it does have very straightforward, non-cryptic explanations of basic cooking processes, and the recipes lead to excellent food.
posted by jon1270 at 2:18 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just as a side note on New Best Recipe -- I have this in addition to Bittman's book, and while I do like the Cook's Illustrated approach of explaining how different techniques can lead to different results; I find that I don't always agree with their opinion on what constitutes the best approach to a dish, and would've preferred it if the book did provide recipes for some of their less than ideal alternatives. Usually, you're just left with guessing and reverse engineering based on the text that precedes the recipe.

New Best Recipe is also highly focused on a specific selection of familiar and comfortable family dishes, and writing multi-page descriptions of how to develop those dishes. It does not have the breadth or scope of How To Cook Everything or Joy. If you're interested in learning how to make some really good pot roast or pesto, then you can probably be well served by the Cooks Illustrated folks. If you're interested in learning how to make, say, pho or falafel then you're going to be much better off with Bittman.
posted by bl1nk at 2:29 PM on April 16, 2009

As a supplement to all these great introductory books, pick up a copy of the Food Substitutions Bible. It's incredibly useful, and helps you stretch what you've already got in your kitchen.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:29 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love the Taste of Home cookbooks. I love them because the recipes submitted are submitted by readers - these are tried and true recipes that the every day person, with every day ingredients can whip up. I find that comforting.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:42 PM on April 16, 2009

"Cook without a Book", Jamie Oliver's "Cook with Jamie", have recipe baselines for you to tweak and play with. "The Thrill of the Grill", "Grill", "Roasting", and James Beard's "On food" all have good recipes.
posted by xammerboy at 3:18 PM on April 16, 2009

Cook's Illustrated writes good cookbooks (I was going to suggest Perfect Vegetables) - but try to buy them in a store instead of ordering from the company. They will sign you up for a cookbook club of some kind without telling you, and keep sending you cookbooks you didn't want and demand that you pay for them.
posted by lakeroon at 3:34 PM on April 16, 2009

The New American Plate.
posted by motsque at 3:38 PM on April 16, 2009

nthing Bittman; Joy of Cooking.

Also, try Deborah Madison's Greens and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Even if you're not a vegetarian. They aren't really everyday cookbooks -- not for "I'm hungry & want to eat within 30 minutes". But I almost ALWAYS turn to them when I'm having a dinner party. Her soups, salads, and quiche-y tarty things draw raves.
posted by kestrel251 at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2009

Another vote for the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. This is especially true for you as an Alton Brown fan, since they similarly tend to point out WHY you need to do things a certain way. It's an easy cookbook, for the most part. I also appreciate the fact that it comes in a version that is in a 3-ring binder, so the thing lays flat (an underappreciated trait in cookbooks!).
posted by pemberkins at 4:06 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

As far as Joy of Cooking goes, try to get the 75th anniversary addition. The 1997 edition is an inferior all-purpose cookbook; it was too pared down. The 75th anniversary edition has more information about ingredients, a section about alcohols and punches, lists of crock-pot, made-ahead and or 30 minutes or less meals. I believe the 75th anniversary edition also has some information about preserves and pickles that is missing in the 1997 book.

This book is great for reference, and will teach you useful things like not to eat persimmons until they are very squishy. There's a couple paragraphs about each veggie/fruit/meat cut/grain at the beginnings of sections that address storage, ripeness and to some extent flavor matchings. There are also solid recipes, and it's my go-to for things like tomato soup, biscuits, pies and the like. I'm not as big a fan of the New Best Recipe book because it doesn't have that many recipes, just hugely detailed write-ups about the few it does have. Joy has, for example, a great tomato-tortilla soup recipe, a nice dal recipe, and good soupe au pistou, and I don't think New Best Recipe has that kind of variety. I'm unfamiliar with Bittman's various cookbooks.
posted by matematichica at 5:30 PM on April 16, 2009

I like "The New Best Recipes," by the editors of " Cook's Illustrated Magazine."
posted by ragtimepiano at 5:47 PM on April 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Lots of great recommendations here already. One that hasn't been mentioned yet is Molly Stevens' All About Braising; I've made many recipes from it, and every single one has been stellar.
posted by katie at 6:10 PM on April 16, 2009

Elaine Corn, Now You're Cooking. Recipes include really detailed instructions for every step, explanations of what "saute" or "simmer" mean, things like, "now would be a good time to wash your hands," how to add chopped veggies to a hot pot... I found it really useful when I was at your stage.
posted by not that girl at 6:11 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bittman also has a new book out called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. It's based on a lot of the same ideas as Michael Pollan's books (Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food). The first half of the book is an argument for the style of eating that he outlines in the recipes in the second half. It's basically all about using whole ingredients and eating more vegetables than meat. I haven't even read the first half, but I'm loving the recipes and the way he presents them.
posted by diogenes at 6:37 PM on April 16, 2009

15 years ago, when I graduated from college, and older friend gave me The New Basics Cookbook. I still use it regularly. It is everything that the title implies--has tons of handy charts and instructions (measurement conversions, how long to cook pork, how to separate eggs, etc) and really good recipes, presented in an unintimidating way. 12 years ago, a grad student in Chicago met a boy and decided to invite him to her place for dinner. She made him beef Wellington and chocolate mousse with creme de menthe sauce. Yada yada yada...
posted by njbradburn at 7:32 PM on April 16, 2009

I can't nth the America's Test Kitchen books (and the corresponding magazines, "Cook's Illustrated" which is more fancy, and "Cook's Country" which is more down-home) enough. If ever I want to try something I've never made before, The New Best Recipe and/or ATK Family Cookbook are my go-to bibles.
posted by padraigin at 8:51 PM on April 16, 2009

Simple Chinese Cooking has a lot of recipes that are indeed simple and well-explained. The first few times I tried some of these recipes, I was stunned that I could produce food better than a Chinese takeout place. (Now I know it's not really a big deal.)

The much aforementioned How to Cook Everything also was a great help to me in getting started with cooking.
posted by ignignokt at 8:51 PM on April 16, 2009

If you like Italian food, try Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. She provides details and instructions like no other. Definitely one of my favorites & has been for years.
posted by onell at 6:52 AM on April 17, 2009

King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook - I'm an Alton Brown fan and I liked this book because it explains the chemistry of not only baking with whole grains, but why they're different than baking with non-whole grains. Whenever they recommend that you do something, like bake the brownies and wait a day until you cut and eat them, they don't just say "because it tastes better," they actually explain scientifically why they taste better.

And yeah, the brownie recipe in this book is the best I've ever had. They really understand what it takes to make whole grains not taste bitter or like "health food." There's a huge variety of recipes divided into logical sections, and most sections have a small chapter at the beginning explaining anything you need to know about the cooking process. Lots of science and practical tips there.

As for the Alton Brown books you may find helpful:
Gear for Your Kitchen - this tells you what kind of metal pan you want for different tasks and why (lots of scientific information, like x metal conducts quickly but not evenly, that sort of thing), what to look for when you're looking for typical appliances, etc. If you're just getting into cooking and you're going to have to buy the equipment, this book is worthwhile.

I'm Just Here for the Food: Cooking and I'm Just here for More Food: Baking - Absolutely helpful. Really the key to Alton Brown's cookbooks is that they're not organized by things that taste similarly, but by things that are made using similar methods, which is what's actually important when cooking. In other words, angel food cake is a lot more similar to a souffle or a meringue than it is to other desserts so it's listed under the "egg foam" method; quiches and cheesecakes are listed in the same section, and so on.
posted by Nattie at 11:49 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I own about 400 cookbooks, so I can confidently say that what you want is Stephanie Alexander's Cooks Companion. You will want other books after, but it should keep you going for about 5 years. It's Australian, but completely accessible to furriners.

It’s organized by ingredient, encyclopaedia-style, and has a good section on basic techniques and equipment. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve dutifully searched the web, building up a nommy shortlist of great things to make, then turned to that book and found them all set out in a few pages. You will never regret buying this book.
posted by crazybrave at 4:55 AM on April 18, 2009

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