Giftable Cookbooks for Beginners?
October 24, 2011 5:05 PM   Subscribe

What's the best wedding-present cookbook? I'm looking for a nice, practical cookbook to give my sister & her fiance as a wedding gift (along with a starter set of quality knives), but I'm a little stumped, because the cookbooks I love are not really their style.

They're early-20s non-foodies who are just discovering that cooking for yourself is awesome but don't really care about the art/culture/philosophy of cooking or fine dining, so the expensive, impressive books I'd give to one of my peers (Alinea, French Laundry, A Day at El Bulli, etc.) aren't appropriate for them. I've already given them Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything and my favorite Betty Crocker book from childhood, so those are out. Mastering the Art of French Cooking isn't practical enough. Joy of Cooking is of course a classic, and failing other ideas that's what I'll go with, but I was hoping someone here could offer better suggestions. I'm looking for something suitable for beginners and available in a nice hardback edition. Any ideas, Ask?
posted by rhiannonstone to Food & Drink (65 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of food do they like?
posted by ryanshepard at 5:09 PM on October 24, 2011

I am in love with the Cook's Illustrated "The Best 30-minute Recipes". It's got a lot of information about easy ways to chop things, product reviews, and basics on making sauces and such. (It is hardback, and really handy for working people who still want to eat real food.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:11 PM on October 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and it has a decent variety of recipes in there: stir-fry, pasta, rice-casseroles, etc. Nothing too exotic with hard-to-find ingredients, either.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:12 PM on October 24, 2011

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. It's not really a beginner's cookbook, but a lot of the recipes are surprisingly easy, and everything is delicious!
posted by seriousmoonlight at 5:13 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Better Homes & Gardens has a pretty good cookbook for beginners. You might also consider a collection of Sunset books, which are actually pretty good. There are lots of categories, and you can just pick the things she likes. Finally, The Silver Palette Cookbook is the modern equivalent of Joy of Cooking.
posted by Gilbert at 5:16 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook is suitable for beginners and up. It's hard bound, easy to navigate, simple to understand, and the recipes are tough to improve on. More importantly, by reading it, you'll often learn the various tricks that can be applied in other contexts or to improve other people's recipes.

You can also get whole years of Cook's Illustrated, collected and bound.
posted by Hylas at 5:16 PM on October 24, 2011 [8 favorites]

Cookwise is one of my very favorite go-to cookbooks. More than just recipes (although it contains some great ones), it gets into much of the science of cooking. Reading selected chapters and sections gave me the culinary education I was seeking.
posted by DrGail at 5:18 PM on October 24, 2011

One of the first "real" cookbooks I received was the Gourmet cookbook. It's practical, has explanations on how to do various things, and I still use it, oh, 15+ years on.

The Philosopher's Kitchen and Shakespeare's Kitchen might also be fun, if the couple would enjoy recipes adapted from history. The recipes themselves aren't too complex, and are quite good as I remember.
posted by daikaisho at 5:18 PM on October 24, 2011

I second Gilbert's selection of the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. It has lots of easy to make standards with clear directions.
posted by mmmbacon at 5:18 PM on October 24, 2011

What about a book that's more about technique than a big list of recipes, since they already have How to Cook Everything. How much are they cooking as it is? I mean, I'm sure you can list the other big guns off the top of your head (Silver Palate, Joy of Cooking, New Basics, and so on) but there's an awful lot of information in HtCE. Maybe they would get some benefit from a book that's more like "this is how you truss a chicken and this is why you do it, and this is why it doesn't matter in these cases", "this is the easy way to peel garlic", "this is the fast trick for trimming asparagus spears". If you watch someone cook who doesn't cook much, it's crazy how much little stuff you'll realize you must have had to learn at some point, but probably don't remember learning.

I'm thinking something like "How to Break An Egg", or Pepin's techniques book. Personally, in this category, I'm a huge fan of Essentials of Cooking but that kind of assumes you at least want to get decent at cooking.
posted by jeb at 5:19 PM on October 24, 2011

Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. Very accessible recipes tinged with an infectious enthusiasm for the art of life and local eating. Very good book to build your skills from as well - and it looks great.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 5:21 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, forgot to mention. I haven't used it myself, but I have heard that Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for the Food is interesting. Perhaps a bit heavy on the culture side for your purposes based on what I've heard, and it does involve a Food Network personality, but there's also a lot of food science apparently.
posted by daikaisho at 5:23 PM on October 24, 2011

They both like the simple, homey food they grew up with (think steak-and-potatoes, chicken and rice casseroles, fried things, chilis & stews) as well as BBQ, Mexican a la Chilis and Taco Bell, and pretty much all sorts of American fast-casual fare. My sister still raves about a Summer trip to Italy years ago, so Italian, too.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:25 PM on October 24, 2011

Any of Ina Garten's cookbooks -- the recipes tend to be very accessible, easy, and down to earth, but still taste great and feel a little more dressed up than the usual.

Either that or the New Basics cookbook by Rosso. I loved that one when I was an early-20s married person learning to cook for my mom-in-law (who's an excellent and rather intimidating cook!).
posted by hms71 at 5:26 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is one of the cookbooks that started me on a lifelong passion for cooking: The New Basics Cookbook. It's a little dated as to what things were "new basics" in 1989, but you could have just this one cookbook and be set for any possible occasion, and the recipes are well-written. It explains a lot of techniques and how to prepare ingredients.
posted by fiercecupcake at 5:27 PM on October 24, 2011

I really found The Cook's Kitchen Bible useful when I first started cooking. Goes through all the basic techniques (with illustration) and has excellent recipes to accompany each technique.
posted by Go Banana at 5:29 PM on October 24, 2011

Simple, homey baking reaches perfection in "The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook". Easy-to-follow instructions, good explanations and guaranteed results. It may not be as broad a cookbook as you're looking for, but it's a fantastic resource for learning to bake (the "Simple But Perfect Pancakes"? Awesome, and I'm a terrible pancake maker).
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:31 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding "America's Test Kitchen." My wife got me one of their cook books (this one) a few years ago and I love it.

The have a lot of really classic, simple recipes and they give some great explanations on why the recipe is the way it is and I've learned a ton about cooking in general.
posted by VTX at 5:32 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

While I'm not a brand-new cook, I'm definitely the type that prefers a few comprehensive and really good cookbooks to a bunch of fancy-pants complicated aspiration-recipes. (Those are strictly for bookstore-browsing.)

My holy trinity of good, practical, all-you-need cookbooks is:

--How To Cook Everything by Bittman
--The New Best Recipes by Cook's Illustrated
--The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl

The New Best Recipes is my go-to for "hmm, chicken breasts are on sale this week, I want a solid recipe that is do-able on a weeknight (takes an hour or less), won't involve bizarre spices or ingredients I have to specially buy, and I can be 99% sure will taste somewhere between 'good' and 'awesome'."

The Gourmet Cookbook is my go-to for "I want to do something a little bit more fancy for a dinner party but I still trust this will taste good."

I'd stay away from Joy of Cooking; I have that and almost never use it because the recipes are at once sometimes hard to follow if you don't know the lingo (New Best Recipes and Bittman tend to *really* break down steps in a way that is good for beginners) and also a little... old for my taste (kind of heavy in terms of butter and fat and meat).
posted by iminurmefi at 5:33 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Joy of cooking would be my first choice, honestly. I received it as a gift a few years ago, when I was beginning to cook more often, and I used it every day for at least six months. Now that I'm doing some long-term travel without it, I miss it dearly. It's not trendy, but it has everything they could want.
posted by OLechat at 5:33 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jamie Oliver makes some of my favorite cookbooks for simple, approachable recipes. Also, most of them have gorgeous photos and really easy to understand explanations of any "weird" ingredients, which I think can help beginner cooks feel more confident in broadening their palate.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:34 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came to suggest any of Alton Brown's books - I love the Good Eats books, but if they're not fans of the show, "I'm Just Here For the Food" is also very good.

My wedding gift of choice is a cookbook that is geared to my perception of the couple's cooking skills/interest. I tend to give a lot of copies of Bittman's books, because I think Joy can be a little overwhelming to the novice cooks. I've also given copies of "I Know How to Cook" (French) and "The Silver Spoon" (Italian - and my favorite to give because the pictures are positively lucious) if I know that they cook a lot, or another kind of ethnic food if they tend to eat, say, Indian quite a lot.
posted by honeybee413 at 5:37 PM on October 24, 2011

Ina's are GREAT and perfect for beginners. I would also suggest either of the Everyday Food cookbooks from Martha Stewart -- I use the first one (Great Food Fast) ALL THE TIME. Ditto Reichl's Gourmet Cookbook.

I rarely actually use Joy of Cooking other than for very, very classic recipes. I agree with iminurmefi that if feels a little stodgy sometimes, and personally for me, part of its appeal is as a...historical document, for lack of a better phrase. It can be a little intimidating, I think.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 5:38 PM on October 24, 2011

I hear great things about Michael Ruhlman's Twenty, though I don't have it myself yet. The concept is he presents twenty basic techniques/fundamentals that everyone should know, and gives recipes that elucidate each. Think, salt, water, onion, acid, egg, butter, batter, dough, sugar, sauce, vinaigrette, soup, sauce, roast, braise, poach, grill, fry, chill.
posted by supercres at 5:39 PM on October 24, 2011

Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table is lovely and doesn't seem too difficult.
I want to eat ALL of it!
posted by exceptinsects at 5:42 PM on October 24, 2011

Seconding Great Food Fast and it's partner Fresh Flavor Fast published by Martha Stewart under the Everyday Food banner. I have a ton of cookbooks, but those two are my go-to "everything is going to work out perfectly no worries" cookbooks. I also suggest a subscription to Everyday Food for beginners in the kitchen. Lots of variation on classics that are easy to prepare and really do turn out great consistently.
posted by danielle the bee at 5:53 PM on October 24, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here. I'll pitch in with one that's not been recommended yet -- The Splendid Kitchen's How to Cook Supper. Has great recipes for staples, but dressed up, as well as a few more unique recipes, and lots of tips on how to make basic recipes just taste better.
posted by devinemissk at 6:04 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sorry, that's the Splendid TABLE.
posted by devinemissk at 6:04 PM on October 24, 2011

How to Cook Everything is wonderful. Delicious approach to dressed up staples and covers just about, well everything.
posted by goggie at 6:13 PM on October 24, 2011

Seconding Silver Palate Basics. Also, Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook has about three recipes that they are likely to use, but it's a fun thing to have.
posted by BibiRose at 6:14 PM on October 24, 2011

The Common Grill Cookbook

I have made almost every dish in this book. Here's why I love it: the ingredients are accessible, the explanations on how to cook the stuff is great, and it offers complete meals. So when I want to have someone to dinner, I can open it up to the right chapter and have a WHOLE MEAL PLAN right there. The food is delicious, and "normal", and easy enough to do.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:21 PM on October 24, 2011

For our wedding, a friend gave us The Joy of Cooking AND The Joy of Sex.
posted by PSB at 6:34 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get an older Joy of Cooking. It's the best resource around without being hip, trendy, supercilious, etc. 1973 is my fave.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:47 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, there's The Pioneer Woman Cooks, which is dreadfully unhip but sounds like just their kind of food.
posted by bq at 6:53 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

+1 on Everyday Food (Great Food Fast) cookbooks!! They are perfect for the not-so-fussy. The recipes are usually pretty simple (few specific ingredients that wouldn't be in a typical pantry), many of them are very meat-and-potatoes, others are easy versions of my favorite Mexican and Asian dishes, and they almost all turn out deliciously.

Not sure they're available in hardback, but they are so great, they'll still make good presents in paperback.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:54 PM on October 24, 2011

I don't know if this is available in the USA, but Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion is truly a bible of good recipes.
posted by wilful at 7:06 PM on October 24, 2011

Have you ever watched "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS? It's a great show and you can buy their DVDs as well as their cookbooks. They have their books separated by categories such as baking or healthy cooking or cooking for two.

They actually test everything you would use in a kitchen and rate which is best for the money.

Their shows and books test out all of the different ways to cook something and then explain why something should be cook a certain way (best use of time, effort and result!)

What a great gift! Congratulations to your family!
posted by Yellow at 7:10 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The beginner cookbook I'd recommend to anyone is Fanny Farmer. Plain, thick, not very wordy but covers everything from Tamale Pie to what to do with leftover beef to how to make tea. It's a little more 'old school' than some of the others mentioned and isn't the best on exotic dishes (Chinese, Thai, or even Mexican) but it's straight-forward and covers a huge range. My family's copy is now in three parts but we still pull it out for the Welsh Rabbit recipe (not actually rabbit although she does have real rabbit recipes).

Another good author would be The Urban Peasant, James Barber. I got my friend his "Cooking for Two" soon after she started dating her now husband.

And I'll nth America's Test Kitchen books or magazines.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:28 PM on October 24, 2011

Have you ever watched "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS?

Second the America's Test Kitchen recommendation. It really cuts to the chase and tells you what you need to know.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:30 PM on October 24, 2011

FYI, America's Test Kitchen = Cook's Illustrated.
posted by devinemissk at 7:35 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Fannie Farmer. It's great for basics and traditional American dishes. It was originally written in 1896, and updated regularly since then. My edition is from 1979.
posted by expialidocious at 7:40 PM on October 24, 2011

What about baking? For a fairly comprehensive but very approachable book, I've really enjoyed Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook as my go-to for basic recipes. The blueberry scones are particularly stellar, and incredibly easy.
posted by gatorae at 7:40 PM on October 24, 2011

If they're meat and potatoes types who are just learning to cook, how about a slow cooker and "Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook"?
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:46 PM on October 24, 2011

Another one that hasn't been mentioned yet but is healthy, nourishing, homey food: The More with Less Cookbook. This is one of the books I learned to cook from, and I was super-incompetent, so it's very in-reach for a beginning cook. It's also got a lot of recipes that don't take a lot of time and aren't super-complex, so good for busy people. I found a lot of cookbooks overwhelming because everything had 8 zillion steps and took forever. I didn't realize at first that's only how you cook for special occasions. :)

Also, super-delicious.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:57 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll second any of the King Arthur books for baking. For more general cooking, I like Help My Apartment Has a Kitchen. Lots of easy recipes that are well sized for one or two people.
posted by nalyd at 8:15 PM on October 24, 2011

How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart would be a good one. It helps beginners make the jump from cooking "from a recipe" (where if you don't have exactly what's on the ingredients list, you can't make it) to understanding basic cooking techniques: here's how to make a frittata, which you can now make with whatever ingredients you have on hand; learn this basic sauté technique and you can do fish, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, or whatever else you may have; here's how to make a pureed vegetable soup — what's cheap and looks good at the farmers' market?
posted by Lexica at 8:24 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

46 comments and no one mentioned The Cook's Book?

It's the best "basics" book out there. Pictures of every major process, charts and timings and everything. The full edition is great, but the concise editon is good too. Seriously, it's the most useful cooking book I own.

The best "basic" baked goods book is Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book.

I use those all the time.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:31 PM on October 24, 2011

How about Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook? They might enjoy making food for special occasions.
posted by nightwood at 8:46 PM on October 24, 2011

I love america's test kitchen, especially the New Best Recipe. However, my favorite gift cookbook is the above-mentioned How to Eat Supper, by Kasper. Everything in that book is fabulous, simple, and her style is so warm and engaging. It's perhaps less intimidating than a huge cookbook, esp if you've already given them Bittman.
posted by purenitrous at 8:47 PM on October 24, 2011

I really like Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course.

It covers all the basics of British cooking: how to roast any kind of meat, cakes, soups, desserts, thin crepe-like pancakes (yum!).

But what I really like is how logical and explanatory it is - she doesn't just give you a recipe, she tells you HOW to do the various things - how to mince onions, how to prepare a roast, how to sift flour - as if you are intelligent, but ignorant about cooking. And she explains WHY you need to do things - like the fact that you cream butter and sugar in a cake recipe to create air pockets, which are then held by the egg and that's why you have to cream very well to get your cake to rise. (Or, in my case, use the recipe with an extra teaspoon of baking powder). It's a cookbook/cooking course for people who like to know the hows and whys of cooking, including some of the science of it.
posted by jb at 9:29 PM on October 24, 2011

The New Doubleday Cookbook is filled with tons of easy to understand, practical knowledge and advice. I believe ours was a wedding present.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:16 AM on October 25, 2011

I also really liked Julia Child's The Way to Cook.
posted by that girl at 12:22 AM on October 25, 2011

The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century
Amanda Hesser made every recipe in the book. It has everything, from cocktails, to casseroles.
posted by JABof72 at 1:29 AM on October 25, 2011

Based on what you listed as their tastes, it sounds to me like a crockpot cookbook (and maybe a crockpot to go with it?) might be an idea.
posted by XMLicious at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2011

I agree with bq. Based on your description of what they like to eat, The Pioneer Woman cookbook is perfect. It's not my kind of thing, and obviously not yours either, but if they like things like pot roast, Cajun chicken pasta, and enchiladas, then they'll probably use it all the time. The woman who writes that blog isn't super-big on technique, but she doesn't cook the kinds of things that depend on technique.

America's Test Kitchen is a good basic book as well, but beyond that my own experience has shown me that even Bittman is a little too esoteric for the chicken and rice casserole-crowd. Try to think of what they'll actually use instead of what you think will encourage them to become more sophisticated. And ask them to invite you over when they make those enchiladas, because they look good.
posted by cilantro at 1:39 AM on October 25, 2011

I also recommend the "More with Less" cookbook if money is a concern for them at all. Most people, when they learn to cook, end up throwing away tons of money because they follow recipes to the letter and splash out on lots of different ingredients because cookbooks aren't really designed with the economics part of home economics in mind anymore.

The "More with Less" cookbook does exactly what it implies in the title which is to show them how to make delicious food with few ingredients. The recipes are traditional and tend very much towards the type of foods you say they like. It's great, and the corn and kidney bean chowder recipe in there is the best soup in the world according to everyone in my household.
posted by hazyjane at 4:22 AM on October 25, 2011

Since it sounds like they already have a couple of general cookbooks, how about a specific one for a food they like? I got an all potato cookbook as a present once, potatoes from breads to soups to appetizers and main courses to desserts, and I loved it. It also showed some loving attention to my tastes :)
posted by Salamandrous at 4:40 AM on October 25, 2011

nthing America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. The recipes are really rock solid. I've only had one recipe fail on the first try everything has been a slam dunk from day one. Its like the new Best Recipe without the detailed prose before each recipe yet they will still include hints like: "You can use skim milk in this recipe" or "Never substitute x in this recipe" etc.
posted by mmascolino at 5:55 AM on October 25, 2011

How about some British cookbooks? These are Americanized with respect to units and so forth. What I like about them is that they're not as sterile as some beginners' cookbooks, and encourage you to explore cooking without a recipe -- I feel that they get the philosophy of good cooking really spot on -- it's not that important to get restaurant style food out of your kitchen, you want good homey food out of your kitchen, but the flavors should really pop. Here are some examples:
Appetite by Nigel Slater
How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
and as mentioned above, Jamie Oliver.
I love these books -- they're fresh, have a sense of seasonality and are written with great style and verve.
posted by peacheater at 6:26 AM on October 25, 2011

Thirding the 'More with Less' cookbook suggestion, adding that the same author group followed it up with 'Extending the Table' and 'Simply in Season', which share the same direct simplicity. 'Extending...' features world recipes, while 'Simply....' is organized by seasonal ingredients. The whole series is sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee, a hard-working world relief agency, so you could consider it a double gift. While having a religious (but not preachy) worldview about the place of food in community, I think most non-theists would agree with the books' philosophy if not their religion.
posted by eaglehound at 6:41 AM on October 25, 2011

This is our arsenal of cookbooks:

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution
Jamie at Home (by Jamie Oliver)
America's Test Kitchen Healthy Cookbook
Slow Cooker Revolution by America's Test Kitchen
The Silver Spoon (distributed by Phaidon Press)
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
and a slew of Cook's Illustrated mags

I don't have it yet, but I've been meaning to check out Ruhlman's Twenty and I'd like to get Serious Eats.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:11 AM on October 25, 2011

Partially off-topic: You say you're going to buy them a "starter set of quality knives".

I don't know what you mean by starter set. But if you mean a knife block with a chef's knife, bread knife, butcher's knife, and steak knives, I'd like to suggest something different.

How about a matching set of chef's knives?

Knife blocks have too many knifes and are impossible to clean well.

Your chef's knife is the most used knife (possibly tool) in the kitchen, and using a top-quality chef's knife for prep is a true pleasure. And I know that - at least in my house - if we are cooking together, it's a lot nicer when both people are able to use a nice knife, as opposed to one person using a nice knife and the other using a rusty, serrated machete.

Just my two cents.
posted by halfguard at 12:17 PM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I adore my knife block - for the first time in my life, I can find a knife quickly when I need it. I only have a few slots - chef's knife, carving knife, paring knife, bread knife and honer - all of which are very useful. Also, I don't need to clean my knife block, because I only put clean knives into it.
posted by jb at 2:29 PM on October 25, 2011

Do they have a slow cooker? My SO and I love Make it Fast Cook it Slow and More Make it Fast, Cook it Slow by Stephanie O'Dea

Simple, tasty recipes
posted by amapolaroja at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2011

halfguard - I appreciate the input. I actually love my knife block, but your'e right that most big knife sets are kind of useless. The set I got them just has two very useful knives--a nice chef's knife and a nice paring knife. They don't cook together (there's no room in their tiny kitchen to do so!), otherwise the matching set of chef's knives would be a wonderful idea. I may use it for another couple in the future.

Everyone else, thanks for all the wonderful suggestions! I ended up going with The Silver Spoon, because I know my sister will appreciate its history. It's not super-basic, but they already have two books on the basics, and as someone else pointed out, it might be nice for them to have other options when they want to cook something nicer or just different.

A slow cooker cookbook is also a great idea, but wasn't what I was wanting for a wedding gift (plus someone has already bought them a slow cooker from their registry). I will probably get them one for Christmas. :)
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:26 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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