Help me find the perfect cookbook...for myself.
December 7, 2010 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I need a cookbook recommendation. My mum would like to buy me one for Christmas, but I'm having problems choosing. I'm pretty picky.

I just finished pouring over Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, and worshiped every word. I also really enjoyed reading Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food and refer to it often. I love The New Best Recipe but am starting to find the instructions a bit precious and specific. I also have been enjoying the Gourmet cookbook.

I would especially love recommendations from chefs. I'm just a home cook, but cooking is a huge passion for me. I love reading about how chefs eat at home and about their approaches to food. Entertaining is something else that I LOVE to do. I like incredible ingredients prepared simply. Seasonal cooking is also important to me.

So, hive-mind, given those factors, what cookbooks do you think might make my eyes roll back in my head with glee?

(bonus...I've been eying Ad Hoc at Home...any thoughts on that particular book?)
posted by ms.v. to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoy Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. He seems to approach recipes as starting points, rather than prescriptive magic spells. The Joy of Cooking is also excellent, because its recipes are excellent bases for improvisation. I liked How to Eat Supper for its text, but its recipes are a bit "twee."
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:27 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rather than a cookbook, I would like a subscription to Fine Cooking magazine. They have so many different recipes and if you follow them exactly (not my usual, oh, I forgot the xyz!) they turn out perfectly. More variety, and new things every month! Or two months, whenever it comes out.
posted by bquarters at 7:31 PM on December 7, 2010

I also endorse Bittman's How To Cook Everything, and his "The Best Recipes In The World" makes an excellent companion to it if you'd like something with a more international bent.
posted by mhoye at 7:34 PM on December 7, 2010

I came here to suggest Bittman's How to Cook Everything too. When I first picked it up at a bookstore, I knew I loved it. It's the only cookbook I own. I read it recipe after recipe like a regular book.
posted by oreofuchi at 7:45 PM on December 7, 2010

I too came in to recommend How to Cook Everything. I also heartily recommend the How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The combo will pretty much have everything you could possibly need. Between those and an old copy of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, I'm rarely at a loss as to what to make.

I should note that Bittman's known for his simple recipes (He's "The Minimalist" after all), and there's some seasonal hints and tricks throughout them.
posted by piedmont at 7:55 PM on December 7, 2010

The Moosewood Cookbook has some real winners (the gypsy soup is a big fave), and the old drawings are charming.

The Bittman referred to by others is a regular go-to reference book. I have both the original version and the vegetarian one, and both are great.

Jeff Smith and James Beard are excellent also; I have each of the books I linked to. Jeff Smith's books tend to include little stories that just make the recipes more interesting and enjoyable.

I get great recipes from ReadyMade Magazine; getting a subscription was one of the better gifts I got a few years ago.
posted by wowbobwow at 7:59 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds like Bittman might be a bit simplistic for what you're aiming to get. I would think maybe about some Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson--their cookbooks are gorgeously photographed and well-written enough that I am as likely to curl up with one on the couch as to prop it on the counter and cook something.

It also sounds like you'd really enjoy Heidi Swanson. I've got Super Natural Cooking and I refer to it at least once a week. It is a vegetarian cookbook, but I'm an omnivore and can wholeheartedly endorse it as a collection of amazing recipes.
posted by padraigin at 8:00 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ad Hoc is okay - basic recipes, with some really great tips in the margins. If you're thinking Ad Hoc, I thought The French Laundry was a better read and gave a better impression of the kind of meticulous chef that Keller is. I have both, but they're directed at two different audiences.

I hear Bittman's How To Cook Everything is awesome and am ponder that as my next purchase. Not sure though. Apparently it's getting a lot of love from mefites.

Joy Of Cooking is a great reference. I use it a lot to base ideas.

The Flavour Bible is also another oft-recommended book.

The Last Supper is not a cook book per-se, but an interesting peek into the minds of chefs and what they'd eat as their last meal on earth.
posted by jlunar at 8:03 PM on December 7, 2010

I wanted the Larousse Gastronomique for a long time before getting a copy and it was well worth the wait. Not quite a cookbook, but, scarcely matters in a day when you can Google up every recipe ever devised for anything. An encyclopedia, a big book of inspiration; you leaf through and decide to try your hand at an aïoli garni or something else you never would have thought of. Or ever heard of. You'll feel like a total naff about food; quite wonderful.

As has been discussed here before -- avoid the newer Joy of Cooking. Totally different book, and quite bad. Also steer clear of updated Moosewood.
posted by kmennie at 8:07 PM on December 7, 2010

Best answer: I love Mark Bittman, but I came in here to recommend his Simple to Spectacular. Written with Jean Georges Vongerichten, the book takes simple recipes -- basic chicken breasts, butternut squash soup, etc. -- and shows you four ways to prepare it, going from simple to, yes, spectacular. It's a lot of fun.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:09 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nigel Slater has written a wealth of other cookbooks. I especially like Real Food.

You might also like Madhur Jaffery's Ultimate Curry Bible. The recipes are all interspersed with the history of the dishes, their variations, how and when she makes them/hears about them etc. It's both technical, social, and um, "lived in" if you know what i mean. :)
posted by smoke at 8:23 PM on December 7, 2010

IANAC, but I've had quite a bit of fun with Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. He's got a sense of humor, and I've found the instructions interesting to read.

Also, Fresh and Fast is very useful and seasonal. But the visual aesthetics leave something to be desired. But, every dinner I've made from that one has been pretty darn good.
posted by madred at 8:39 PM on December 7, 2010

Response by poster: I've been worried about Bittman's How to Cook Everything as I'm afraid it will be too much of an overlap with The New Best Recipe. Not so? I already have How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and do enjoy it. Bittman is a bit simplistic for what I'm looking for here...thanks to padraigin for putting words to my feelings.
posted by ms.v. at 8:40 PM on December 7, 2010

Heidi Swanson has a blog called 101 Cookbooks, which features her own recipes and ones that come from the many cookbooks she owns - a list of her favorite cookbooks is a good place to start.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:52 PM on December 7, 2010

Best answer: I love cookbooks, buy or borrow them, pick one thing to cook, then get bored or distracted and shelve the book for weeks. The ONLY cookbook I have ever bought and cooked from over and over for months, happily anticipating the next delicious dish and feeling no desire to look at another book, is All About Braising by Molly Stevens. The food is amazing, not too difficult to prepare, but of the slow, caring kind of cooking that produces great results--especially when you have guests for dinner. The photos inspired me, she's a chef and explains about quality of ingredients and cuts of meat, and I feel like I really came to understand an important cooking technique. I've told my girlfriends that anyone who eats the Chicken with Pear and Rosemary will fall in love with the cook.
posted by tula at 8:57 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have "ad hoc" and though I've read it, the recipes seem generally too daunting or too fussy to really get me to roll my sleeves up. You might consider Julia Child's "The Way to Cook." It's one of my first go-to references for just about any subject. Basic recipes are laid out, then variations described. Technique is appropriately addressed. Recipes are not simply lists of ingredients, but rather lessons on particular treatments. I consider myself an ok cook, but I refer to this on a regular basis.
posted by Gilbert at 9:03 PM on December 7, 2010

Ugh. The ONE AskMe I may actually be qualified to answer, but I simply don't have the time right now to compose a thorough response!

I would especially love recommendations from chefs. I'm just a home cook, but cooking is a huge passion for me. I love reading about how chefs eat at home and about their approaches to food. Entertaining is something else that I LOVE to do. I like incredible ingredients prepared simply. Seasonal cooking is also important to me.

I'm not a professional chef, but your description of yourself is pretty much me. There are some excellent suggestions above (particularly the Heidi Swanson recommendation).

I devour cookbooks -- I buy them compulsively and read them cover to cover like novels, then discard/repurpose the ones I have no use for. I will try to compose the comprehensive answer I want to make within the next couple of days, but I have a lot going on right now. So check back, and if you're still interested in my opinion and I haven't responded, MeMail me. I will favorite this question to remind me.
posted by trip and a half at 9:33 PM on December 7, 2010

I have a dogeared, battered, 10 year old copy of How to Cook Everything and I love it. It and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone are the two books I return to time and time again.

That said, The French Laundry is on my Christmas wishlist simply because it is fussy and daunting. It is a book I want to pull out when I am in the mood for adventure and can afford a weekend to scour specialty stores looking for that thing I've never heard of. The blog French Laundry at Home is what inspired me initially - maybe that would give you an idea of whether or not it's close to what you're looking for?
posted by lilnublet at 9:51 PM on December 7, 2010

Best answer: Okay, decided to chill out for a bit, enjoy a winter cocktail, and make what suggestions I can for now. This will not be comprehensive: feel free to MeMail me.

If you are interested in baking at all, seek out Paula Peck's The Art of Fine Baking. I am lucky enough to have an original copy, but it appears it is available in a facsimile edition through Amazon.

Seek out Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee.

Lidia Bastianich is a celebrity, but her books are treasures.

You can't go wrong with Judy Rodgers or Nancy Oakes.

Anything by Paula Wolfert has my personal guarantee, or I will personally refund your mum's money and take you both out to dinner.

Guess I have to run now, but I hope this may have been some help. I hope you enjoy your holiday gift! (Again, feel free to MeMail me for elaboration and other suggestions.)
posted by trip and a half at 10:00 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ad Hoc is definitely complicated for a lot of home chefs, but everything I've tasted out of it has been a winner so far.
posted by fishmasta at 10:02 PM on December 7, 2010

If you're me, then you want a subscription to Canal House. It's 3 books per year of seasonal recipes and articles, put out by some ex-Saveur people now doing their own thing. Here is a link to the preview of their latest edition.
posted by cali at 12:29 AM on December 8, 2010

This might be a bit left field, but Maggie's Harvest comes to mind.

Maggie Beer is kind of an Australian version of Alice Waters and this book is beautiful (if expensive) - cloth bound and embroidered, creamy paper, rustic pictures. It's divided up by season and then by produce, and there's a nice balance of anecdotes, advice, discussion of produce, simple country home cooking and fancy gourmet challenges.

I guess my only hesitation would be that it's very (South) Australian. You may find it charming to read cookbooks from other countries and be totally ok, say, with the odd fish substitution and the fact that January = summer, but I can see that to some people it might just find it a bit too ... local.
posted by Emilyisnow at 1:13 AM on December 8, 2010

Would you be interested in books with a narrower focus, perhaps on a particular ethnic cuisine? Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook is excellent. So is Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen.

If you like books that encourage experimentation, consider Tom Colicchio's Think Like A Chef (long predates his Bravo celebrity) or James Haller's Blue Strawberry Cookbook.
posted by jon1270 at 1:52 AM on December 8, 2010

I love Nigel Slater's "Appetite," which appears to be out of print but would be worth the investment in a used copy. The subtitle is "What do you want to cook today?" and is very focused on spontaneous cooking and learning to rely more on flavors and techniques rather than recipes.

My husband bought me Alice Waters' "The Art of Simple Food" last Christmas and I've really enjoyed it. She focuses some on technique but more on building a repertoire of dishes that a home cook can master.

I was inspired to begin cooking about ten years ago by Nigella Lawson and really enjoy her book "How to Eat," which like Waters' book encourages you to start simply.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 3:26 AM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: Former professional chef here.

I've been really enjoying two cookbooks by Sally Schneider, The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook. Fantastic cookbooks, both of them.

A Bittman book that won't be too simple for you and is quite wonderful: The Best Recipes in the World.

You mentioned wanting recipes of what chefs cook at home; how about what chefs cook for staff meals? Staffmeals from Chanterelle is fantastic. And since we're on the subject of what chefs cook at home, how about Off Duty: The World's Greatest Chefs Cook at Home.

Bistro Cooking at Home and The Balthazar Cookbook are both incredible bistro cookbooks for the home cook.

Ratio is a really incredible book, as is Alinea.

And finally in the cookbook realm, the ultimate food porn classic is The French Laundry Cookbook.

For non-cookbook reference materials:

The Food Lover's Companion. I use this as a reference almost daily.

The Oxford Companion to Food. Very good compendium of, well, food.
posted by cooker girl at 7:01 AM on December 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have How to Cook Everything as an iPhone app (as well as in book form); however, since it's there in my pocket, it gets used much-much more often than the tree version.

Uh, if you have an iPhone (:
posted by ambilevous at 7:29 AM on December 8, 2010

Seconding Ratio! It is one of the most useful books ever published.

If you want a copy of How to Cook Everything, I will send you mine, because I never use it. It survived a recent cookbook purge, but I find that my go-tos are invariably Joy of Cooking and The Gourmet Cookbook, and Je sais cuisiner.

Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian is probably my next most-used cookbook.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 AM on December 8, 2010

I second both Tom Colicchio's "Think Like A Chef" and Nigel Slater's "Appetite." And also Ruhlman's "Ratio."

Colicchio's book reads like his blog and is really well thought out and well written and gives some insight into how to think about putting flavours and menus together. Slater's book is nice for relaxing about recipes and cooking without stressing-- a bunch of this, a handful of that, a knob of butter etc, with variations on a theme ideas.
posted by tangaroo at 7:47 AM on December 8, 2010

As others have said, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is hard to beat as a simple, high quality starter cookbook. The Joy of Cooking is also a great old standby.
The Gourmet Cookbook and/or The Essential New York Times Cookbook would also be great.

As lovely and alluring as books by fancy Celebrity chefs (i.e. Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, et al.) are, IMHO they're only worth buying once you have the basics down. When you know what kind of cooking you like, you can buy more specialized books. That said (now watch me kind of contradict myself), The Art of Simple Food wouldn't be a bad place to start at all (it has a lot of nice, basic, elegantly simple recipes), I just think the breadth of a book like How to Cook Everything or The Joy of Cooking is a more versatile and useful place to start. You get more bang for your buck, in other words.
posted by faeuboulanger at 9:03 PM on December 8, 2010

only worth buying once you have the basics down
useful place to start

I think the OP is an experienced cook and is looking for a new gourmet or specialized cookbook similar to the ones she lists above.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:09 PM on December 8, 2010

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