I need a serious, simple, general-purpose cookbook.
August 20, 2009 3:55 PM   Subscribe

What is an example of a cookbook wherein the recipes have had the hell tested out of them?

After seeing "Julie & Julia" I have a hankering to get back into the workshop and start cooking again. But I've been burned (ha) many times in the past by recipes that don't seem to have been tested on a five year-old, let alone a gourmand. Some cookbooks suffer from poor or nonexistent editing, and I hate the whimsical drifty line drawings which illustrate some of lamest of them.
My current stand-by is a 1980 edition of Fannie Farmer; a serious, tried-and-true gem. But I want something in addition, and nothing too terribly difficult.
I'm looking for a general cookbook; not a particular cuisine. And actual photos of the process, in addition to the end result, is a plus.
In short: if a cookbook were a personality, I'm looking for a Type A.
posted by BostonTerrier to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
There are lots of these. America's test kitchen is pretty much exactly what you want since its all pretty thoroughly reviewed, tested and tried.
posted by zennoshinjou at 3:57 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The New Best Recipe. Your cookbooks begin and end there. It not only presents the best recipe, it explains the other methods they tried and why they weren't the best.
posted by one_bean at 3:57 PM on August 20, 2009 [16 favorites]

If you are a home canner, then you need the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Thoroughly tested recipes and very, very little whimsy.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:58 PM on August 20, 2009

The main Betty Crocker Cookbook (now in it's 10th edition) has a sterling reputation. They've branced out into more specifically targeted categories of cookbooks, but the original is probably what you're looking for in terms of a good general cookbook.
posted by amyms at 4:03 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was coming to suggest America's Test Kitchen, but zennoshinjou beat me to it.

I'll throw in another for good measure: I've made a bunch of the recipes in this cookbook, and all of them so far are not just keepers, but huge hits. Marcella Hazan knows her stuff and explains it very well.
posted by ambrosia at 4:04 PM on August 20, 2009

I almost forgot about the classic Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (the one with the iconic red-and-white checkered cover -- now in its 12th edition), which was a staple in most homes when I was growing up.
posted by amyms at 4:06 PM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah. New Best Recipe is the recipe-nerds cookbook. There's a 500-word essay accompanying each recipe on how they arrived at it. If you follow those recipes to the letter, they're bulletproof—but sometimes, even minor excursions like substituting half-and-half for heavy cream will screw it up.

Also, Joy of Cooking. Seriously. They've been whittling away at those recipes for decades.
posted by adamrice at 4:07 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Joy of Cooking is all you need and more.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:08 PM on August 20, 2009

Along the America's Test Kitchen line, you might pick up a copy of Cook's Illustrated or Cook's Country magazine, both from ATK. The recipes will be seasonal, heavy on the details you're looking for. CI is a tad more fancy and many of the illustrations are drawings, CC is a little more down-home and illustrated with photos, but there's some overlap between the two.

As a bonus, neither magazine has advertisements. This is due to the fact that the magazines include taste-tests and product tests, which can be helpful if you're wondering what the best national brand of an ingredient might be (and why) or if you're in the market for new pans or knives.

I've subscribed to both off and on over the years, though lately I just pick up various special issues on the news stand--the Best Soup Recipe issues from the last couple of years have gotten some pretty heavy use, and so have the "Best quick dinner" compendiums.
posted by padraigin at 4:10 PM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I came here to recommend America's Test Kitchen books as well. I'd also recommend subscribing to the Cooks' Illustrated website. (This is literally the only website I am willing to shell out money for. I think you can do a 30-day trial for free if you'd like.) I also like the America's Test Kitchen PBS show.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:13 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From extensive use, I have to conclude that the recipes in Better Homes and Gardens Anyone Can Cook are very well tested. There are also photos and lots of explanations. For what it covers, it is far more useful than Joy of Cooking, but it is not as encyclopedic.
posted by grouse at 4:13 PM on August 20, 2009

Seconding "The New Best Recipe" for thoroughly tested recipes.

However it fails some of your other criteria. Not a lot of photos, and certainly not step by step shots. Most of the photos and illustrations are actually used in discussion prior to the recipes. You won't find any end result photos. It's black and white if that matters. It's worth mentioning that the book is HUGE as well, which can be kind of clunky in the kitchen.

All that said, it's by far my favorite and most used cookbook. The recipes are amazing, cover a broad range of styles, and are accompanied by in depth discussion of how exactly they arrived at those ingredients/method of cooking.
posted by NeonBlueDecember at 4:15 PM on August 20, 2009

You're gonna love Cook's Illustrated. But know that it's not a book, it's a magazine. (Although they sell them bound as annuals, too.) It's all testing, testing, how they tested, what happened when they tested, and then the final perfected recipe.

At least here, the magazine is in the magazine rack at the grocery store (the aisle rack, not by the checkout counters) so you don't need to make a special trip to the bookstore or get a subscription without being able to try it out first.
posted by Houstonian at 4:15 PM on August 20, 2009

The Perfect Recipe by Pam Anderson fits the bill. She explains what they tried, and what didn't work. I find her seasoning a little bland but it's great for technique - it's easy to adjust flavors to taste once you've got a method that works.
posted by Quietgal at 4:18 PM on August 20, 2009

It's baking-only (but not all desserts -- they have lots of savory stuff), but I highly recommend the King Arthur Flour baking stuff -- there's lots online here, and you can buy the books from them or many other places. I've been to their test kitchen and seen the ladies at work -- they know what they're doing and want it to be perfect.
posted by brainmouse at 4:21 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

Try the Dean & Deluca cookbook, by David Rosengarten. This guy is the master.
posted by Zambrano at 4:27 PM on August 20, 2009

Response by poster: Fast responses--thanks!
I've got a nice list to choose from now.
@MonkeyToes, you made me laugh out loud.
posted by BostonTerrier at 4:33 PM on August 20, 2009

Laugh? The whole message of Ball Complete is that THE SLIGHTEST BIT OF WHIMSY WILL KILL YOU!!! Botulism, aughhhhh! So be incredibly retentive in following our lab-tested recipes OR YOU MIGHT DIE!!!

No, really, it's a great cookbook if canning is your thing. I'm still tired from processing 54 pints of salsa last weekend.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:40 PM on August 20, 2009

The New Best Recipe, linked above, is actually the Cook's Illustrated cookbook (Cook's Illustrated also produces the America's Test Kitchen show).
posted by bluefly at 4:59 PM on August 20, 2009

I HATE the "New" Best Recipe. See if you can find a copy of the original "Best Recipe." I "lent" my copy to a "friend," who lost it and replaced it with the New. Many of the recipes I tried turned out differently (eg, blueberry muffins). In addition, in the Original, each recipe started off with the lengthy description of how they make it and why, and then comes the Master Recipe, after which they'll teach you how to make several variations. New doesn't do that anymore. And New only has a "quick" chicken stock recipe; what if I want to spend hours skimming the top off of my stock?

Anyway, a book with tons of pictures is the Martha Stewart Cooking School book, like pictures for each step of the way. Mostly basic recipes and cooking techniques. I've also had a 100% success rate with her Baking Handbook.

All of Ina Garten's recipes have been tested many, many times, by her. I've never heard of one of her recipes coming out badly.

Stay far away from Nigella Lawson's recipes if you want bullet-proof-tested.
posted by thebazilist at 5:25 PM on August 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've always had success with the New Best Recipes cookbook. What it lacks in photography, it makes up for in solid methodology. Also, the America's Test Kitchen Family cookbook is essentially the New Best Recipes-lite; they're from the same source, but the ATKF has lots of pictures and is geared more towards cranking out approachable, weekday fare, while the NBR is more about steeping you in cooking theory. And despite the tragic fact that I don't own any of her cookbooks, I've always had success with any recipe I've tried from Ina Garten. I love her food, so I keep giving away her cookbooks instead of keeping them for myself.
posted by Diagonalize at 5:42 PM on August 20, 2009

If you want tested recipes, go with the New Best Recipes Cookbook or any issue of Cooks Illustrated. The best thing about them is their explanations of why they do what they did. As you get more confident as a cook, you'll appreciate the explanation even more. At first you can fall back on the "well, they tested so it must be right" theory. As you or whomever you give it to gains experience and confidence, you'll be able to figure out just where you should depart from their recipes based their explanations.
posted by mollweide at 5:56 PM on August 20, 2009

n-ing anything from Cook's Illustrated as mentioned many times above. But for something with step-by-step photos and lots of analysis on the web, try Cooking for Engineers.
posted by webhund at 6:36 PM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

For thebazilist and anyone else wishing to skip the New Best Recipe cookbook and procure the original Best Recipe cookbook (1999), it's still available on the web, for example from Amazon, both used and brand new.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:57 PM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding amyms about the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. I actually wore my fist copy out, and happily bought another. It's bulletproof.
posted by txvtchick at 8:06 PM on August 20, 2009

The Harrowsmith cookbook is great for this. The recipe description even include notes from the recipe testers. Harrowsmith is a Canadian magazine so this book may be somewhat harder to come by in the US.

I love it, it has many reliable and interesting recipes. The baking section is great. Also some of the vegetarian dishes (curried lentils, tofu in peanut sauce, tortilla casserole) are quite nice. Lasagna is good too. This cannot be the only cookbook in your collection, since it has no treatment of ingredients, techniques, or staple recipes. However it is a great collection of reader-submitted recipes that appeal to the masses.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:35 PM on August 20, 2009

Nthing the Cook's Illustrated "New Best Recipe" book. Definitely Type A. There are no photographs and few illustrations, but they aren't really necessary because the essay that accompanies each recipe is so detailed. I got this for my college graduation and absolutely depend on it.
posted by pintapicasso at 10:00 PM on August 20, 2009

Nthing the America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated stuff; I just received their Family Cookbook binder, which I found to have a very good all-around selection (and it's wonderful for all of the same reasons ATK is wonderful, as mentioned above).
posted by metabrilliant at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2009

Ugh forget Joy of Cooking. It's good to have as a reference, but most of the recipes are archaic and unappealing.
posted by radioamy at 10:07 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It's a great all-purpose cookbook. He frequently goes into a bit of explanation for why a particular recipe is put together the way it is, or general principles for categories of ingredients. No pictures though. He's got a column and blog at the NY Times if you want to preview his style.
posted by Fin Azvandi at 10:36 AM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have had great luck with The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mediterranean Cooking, both by Paula Wolfert.

I also like The New Basics especially when I have a vegetable I'm not sure how to cook. (fennel? what the heck do I do with fennel?!)
posted by vespabelle at 12:19 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely Bittman. Pretty much every recipe I've made of his has been spot on.
posted by Caviar at 6:47 PM on August 23, 2009

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