September 8, 2005 12:09 PM   Subscribe

What are some good cookbooks? What should I do if I want to learn how to cook?

I'd like to learn more about cooking, starting with Chinese food I think. Anybody have any good cookbook recommendations? I'm a quick learner, and I'm OK in the kitchen, and I can usually figure out how to cook basic things. I'm wondering how to cook really tasty things like you'd find in quality restaurants. Obviously there are lots of cookbooks out there, so I'm interested in personal recommendations from other mefites.
posted by delmoi to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
not chinese...but HIGHLY recommend any of Alton Brown's books. Not quite cook books (but he does have some recipes in them) but he talks about teh science behind cooking and that, in my opinion, makes a better cook.
Alton Brown link
posted by ShawnString at 12:13 PM on September 8, 2005

I don't know about chinese cooking, but a good standard that everyone should have is "Joy of Cooking." Whenever I discover a friend doesn't have it I buy it for them immediately.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:13 PM on September 8, 2005

You will find some good suggestions in this old thread.
posted by transient at 12:16 PM on September 8, 2005

stupid amazon links
posted by ShawnString at 12:17 PM on September 8, 2005

How to Cook Everything
posted by footnote at 12:17 PM on September 8, 2005

It might seem terribly elementary, but the Joy Of Cooking omnibus is one of the best things to keep in any kitchen, particularly when you're first getting into it. With a JOC, all you need to do is use the index to find whatever you might decide to tackle.

Also, I've found the Cooking Light cookbooks to be incredibly easy to follow. The recipes seem much simpler. Just collect the ingredients and use them in order and voila. Dinner.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:22 PM on September 8, 2005

Japanese Homestyle Dishes: Your Complete Guide to Preparing Light and Flavorful Japanese Meals at Home, Contains All the Classic Japanese Recipes
posted by PenguinBukkake at 12:22 PM on September 8, 2005

Anything by Alton Brown. Larousse Gastronomique. Julia Child's...umm.. forget the title. French cooking, it's about. First published a while ago.

The best way to learn is:

1) Watch the Food Network. Take notes.
2) Be disciplined. Follow recipes to the letter until you're comfortable with them.
3) Then throw away the recipe and experiment. Keep $20 handy in case you have to order pizza.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:24 PM on September 8, 2005

Second on the Bittman. How to Cook Everything lives up to the title.

I also like James Peterson's "Essentials of Cooking". It's unique in that every operation, from paring a carrot to butterflying a chicken is carefully documented with photographs. It's more about technique than recipes, though it has those too. Essentially Peterson gives you a full cooking course in a book.
posted by bonehead at 12:31 PM on September 8, 2005

Not Chinese, but James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher (and Julia Child) are among the titans of the cookbook-writing world.

Personally, I like Anthony Bourdain, Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee (and also the aforementioned Alton Brown), but those probably aren't what you have in mind.
posted by box at 12:34 PM on September 8, 2005

Cook's Illustrated's "Best Recipes" will give you good basic recipes with full details on what makes them good.
posted by donpardo at 12:35 PM on September 8, 2005

Julia Child's 2 Volume set on French cooking are incredible. Don't be intimidated by Julia Child being a big name in the food world, this is seriously French cuisine for idiots. Step by step instructions, diagrams, etc. It's the only cookbook I actually own.

I second the recommendation for watching the Food network, it's also quality programming and more entertaining than Who Wants To Marry My Dad's Millionare or whatever they're showing with the kids these days.

Also : Epicurious is indespensible. The "search" function has saved me on occasions when I can't go grocery shopping and need to find something to make and all I have in the refrigerator is a jar of salsa and a package of tofu.

I also second the recommendation for always having enough cash to order a pizza. Cooking doesn't always work out while you're learning.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 12:40 PM on September 8, 2005

Ditto on Bittman and Best Recipe. The Yellow Farmhouse is a personal favorite.
posted by cribcage at 12:50 PM on September 8, 2005

I also recommend the joy of cooking, in which you can look up almost anything you want. Along these lines I also like the williams-sonoma Kitchen Companion (no recipes, just encyclopedia-style entries), but this was a gift and I suspect is rather overpriced when you actually buy it. This covers some gaps in Joy of Cooking (for instance, the "cookware" entry gives a rundown of different materials and pot/pan styles that I couldn't find in JoC).

I also recommend some book that explains how cooking works - as others have said, Alton Brown's books probably do this (though I haven't looked at any). I have "Cookwise" by Shirley O. Corriher, which is pretty good about this, especially for bread. What's important about having this kind of book is that it will/should start to teach you how to look at a new recipe and have some idea if and how it will work out.

Other cookbooks: Good for baking are the King Arthur Flour cookbook, and the Red Star cookbook too. The moosewood cookbooks are very good for general purpose recipes. If you have a good used book store you might look around and just pick up some stuff cheap - but be warned, not all cookbooks are created equal (hence the value of being able to tell whether a recipe will actually work out well as stated - good also for internet recipes).

You may also want to consider to subscribing to some magazine - Vegetarian Times is decent if you make lots of vegetarian food (though all of these magazines seem to be ad-heavy, and even the content of food magazines can be more-or-less veiled ads).
posted by advil at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2005

Another one to add to the list is Denis Kelly and Bruce Aidells' Complete Meat Cookbook if you're a carnivore. I really appreciate the fact that it's organized by cut. So if you've got a flank steak, you can see four or five ways to use it. Great marinades and recipes for all levels of ability.

There's no chicken in it though.
posted by Atom12 at 1:11 PM on September 8, 2005

I missed the more inside somehow, sorry. Most of the general purpose things I recommended actually have some info. about chinese food, but I learned most of what I know about that by having a chinese housemate for 3 years. This works well, but may not be practical. Unless you're going for very fancy things, the most crucial bit of knowledge seems to be the ability to put together the sauces right. A local chinese grocery is also handy. My housemate wasn't very impressed with most printed-in-America cookbooks that she had seen, but this may also be because they weren't oriented towards Shanghainese cooking (and also possibly because they were oriented to Chinese-restaurant-in-America cooking, which may differ from actual Chinese cooking).
posted by advil at 1:11 PM on September 8, 2005

For baking, I recommend anything by Maida Heatter. I have never had a recipe of hers fail me and her desserts are unquestionably delicious. I also love Alice Medrich; although I find her recipes hit-or-miss sometimes, her chocolate chip cookie recipe is the absolute best I've ever made or tasted and her Steve Ritual for brownies is amazing. Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible is also wonderful, if you like making fussy, beautiful things that call for two pounds of butter. (I do. Now and again.)

I find How to Cook Everything helpful but not inspiring. The section on cooking meat, poultry and shellfish is a good reference. If you have an ice cream maker, do try his recipe for bitter chocolate sorbet.

I'm rather fond of Jack Bishop's Vegetables Every Day. I probably refer to it at least once a week. If you're looking to expand your repetoire beyond green beans and broccoli, there are hundreds of excellent recipes for the more obscure veggies you'll find at your grocery store as well as for produce aisle staples.

I think Cooking Light is a pretty good magazine and most of the recipes are quite user-friendly. They publish an annual cookbook of their recipes. You may want to check it out. My only gripe with them is their reliance, at times, on overprocessed foods. (No, I don't want to make a trifle with reduced-calorie Cool Whip and sugar-free pudding, thanks.)

A lot of folks are fans of Cook's Illustrated and I do admit that their Platonic Ideal approach to cooking intriqued me for awhile, but I think their recipes are needlessly complex. Last Thanksgiving, for example, their pumpkin cheesecake kept me in the kitchen nearly the entire freaking day.

My favorite cookbook right now is The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. It's definitely not a cookbook for everyone. Her recipes are very long--not because there are lots of ingredients or steps necessarily, but because she provides tons of information and tips on how things should look, feel and taste as you are preparing the recipe. I find the approach very reassuring and educating but my husband, for example, thought it very intimidating. Her recipe for roast chicken--no brining, just preseasoning--is remarkable.
posted by Sully6 at 1:16 PM on September 8, 2005

If it is Chinese cuisine you want to start with, I like the 1000-Recipe Chinese Cookbook by Gloria Bley Miller.

Do not expect following recipes out of a cookbook to produce "restaurant quality" food until you've been doing it for a while. Start with basic techniques and work your way up to elaborate ones -- in this, you will find the Chinese cookbook I mention very useful because it lays out the basic elements of Chinese cuisine and then shows you how combinations and variations produce different dishes.
posted by briank at 1:18 PM on September 8, 2005

Oh no no no. Don't attempt to learn anything by watching television. Seconding the Joy of Cooking, and thirding anything by Marian Burros (several "done in 30 minutes" type books, positioned as alternatives to pre-made microwaved meals) and Jane Brody (healthy, simple, usually not too elaborate).
posted by scratch at 1:19 PM on September 8, 2005

From a absolute culinary neophyte, I second "Joy of Cooking." I have my grandmother's worn, broth-stained copy and it has never failed me.
posted by Emperor Yamamoto's Eggs at 1:21 PM on September 8, 2005

PS Most of the Chinese recipes I have picked up through more general cookbooks. I have heard that Eileen Yin-Fei Lo is one of the best teachers of Chinese cooking. I'm not sure if her stuff would be intimidating to a beginner, but it's probably worth a thumb-through at the bookstore.
posted by Sully6 at 1:25 PM on September 8, 2005

Also not Chinese: Whatever you think of his persona, Jamie Oliver's recipes are great. Very easy to follow, easy to find ingredients, and delicious results.
posted by cushie at 1:28 PM on September 8, 2005

I'm going to dissent on the Joy of Cooking recommendation. I think it's a terrible cookbook. Every single recipe I've made according to their directions has turned out terribly. (and no, it's not my skill. I've never had problems with recipes from other books.)

I'd suggest a subscription to Cook's Illustrated and watching its associated TV show, America's Test Kitchen (on PBS). Like Alton Brown, CI and ATK discuss the science behind the cooking. And their recipes work.

Don't buy a wok. They don't work well on American stoves. Get a 12" flat bottom frying pan instead.

As far as cookbooks go, I like Chinese Cookery by Rose Cheng. It contains recipes from all over China and it's pretty user friendly. It was published in 1981, though, and I don't know if it's still in print.
posted by luneray at 1:29 PM on September 8, 2005

Anything from Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen, as well as Alton Brown. Also, a few years ago, the PBS store was selling a video set of Jacques Pepin's cooking techniques show, that was very informative, maybe you can find it on eBay.

I can't stand the Joy Of Cooking. The ones listed above are much more easy to assimillate in my information-age head.
posted by matildaben at 2:02 PM on September 8, 2005

The Modern Art Of Chinese Cooking, by Barbara Tropp. It's a fantastic, easy to understand, massively comprehensive book that starts with buying a knife and goes through how to chop vegetables, cooking techniques, right through to both simple and complex recipes. It's written in a conversational tone by someone who also had to learn from scratch with no prior technique and went on to run one of the better known restaurants in the SF bay area, so she understands which parts might be difficult and breaks it down really well. She's basically the Julia Child of Chinese food. I cook a lot of Chinese food, I can do it intuitively now without even looking at a recipe because of this book. GO BUY IT.
posted by cali at 2:10 PM on September 8, 2005

Pick a handful of new recipes you like and make them repeatedly until you can do them without the book. You will get better with each attempt, build confidence, and learn tricks you can use for other dishes. Soon you will be able to put the books aside and just whip up a batch of "my spring rolls" or whatever.
posted by pracowity at 2:13 PM on September 8, 2005

Well, I'm completely in the Joy of Cooking camp. Also not to be forgotten - Fannie Farmer's Cookbook, when I couldn't find it in Joy, Fannie would have it (when I was learning, that is). James Beard's Theory and Practice of Cooking is also fabulous - there is one chapter on each 'type' of cooking (baking, boiling, freezing, etc.); wonderful illustrations and many things I use to this day (20 years after the first read).
For baking, my bible for years was the Tassajara Bread Book - a little stone ground at times, but great illustrations and wonderful instructions.
BUT, the best thing for learning to cook was working in a restaurant (as a waitress, but any position would work). I'd make something, it wouldn't turn out quite how I'd wanted/imagined, next time I was at work I'd ask the cook/chef. (experts love when you ask them questions) The answers were always helpful, usually it was a matter of not doing something in the correct order (some recipes/cookbooks suck on this front).
Good luck and have fun!
posted by dbmcd at 2:27 PM on September 8, 2005

Before you make anything from Cooking Light, go on their bulletin board (in the Community section of the website)and check out the feedback from others who have made the recipe. Cooking Light's recipes aren't tested to within an inch of their lives, like the recipes in Cook's Illustrated.
posted by Joleta at 3:32 PM on September 8, 2005

There are many great cookbooks out there, and everyone has done a good job covering them. I'd like to point to two resources based on a different approach to learning to cook: understanding the processes, instead of learning byrote of recipes:

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.
the Egullet Culinary Institute which is a acollection of very well done introductions to many types of cooking, but explored in the pedantic depths only available in non-space constricted worlds like the internet.

I've been in and out of the food industry and a passionate cook for a long time and these two resources did more to stimulate my thinking about food and cooking than the hundreds of rescipes I've made.

Good luck!
posted by markovitch at 3:43 PM on September 8, 2005

Anything by Nigel Slater.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:54 PM on September 8, 2005

nytimes cookbook craig claiborne
moosewood cookbook (vegetarian)
all cookbooks by patricia wells (french)
all cookbooks by marcella hazen (italian)
anything by guiliani biugialli (italian)
anything by daniel boulud
anything by delia smith (english)
LL Bean new england cookbook
silver palate cookbook
anything by alice waters (chez panisse)
bon appetit magazine and food & wine magazine

bon appetit!
posted by madstop1 at 7:21 PM on September 8, 2005

for great indian, madhur jaffrey's books.
for chinese, henry chung.
carol clements (author) book is called French. great book.
posted by madstop1 at 7:27 PM on September 8, 2005

For Chinese cooking specifically, my experience is way too Murican to offer much, but I read cookbooks like they're novels.

Joy of Cooking. Emperor Yamamoto's Eggs probably has an older (better) version of the Joy of Cooking than what you could buy two or three years ago. When the (grand?)son took over, he ruined a few things and left others out. I keep an older edition on the shelf just for the Beef Stroganoff recipe if nothing else. Other than that, Joy of Cooking is great for getting started, techniques, approaches, what the hell things are, etc.

Anything by James Beard you probably need to cut the salt in half. Beard on Bread produced great loaves, but they gave me heartburn until I figured out what was going on. I was much too young at the time to get heartburn from white bread. (Ask me about bread books, and I can write a dissertation.)

The New Basics was a nice flash that didn't last as long as it deserved. Good approaches to lots of things. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is a must have. The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is good for step-by-step recipes, but it doesn't leave much room for experimentation or interpretation. I don't think the version generally matters much, but my grandmother's 1942 edition has helpful tips about how to throw a dinner party even if you don't happen to have servants to wait on your guests. ;-)

Beyond that, food is food. If you're already "OK in the kitchen" I'd say work with what you know, play with what you don't, and don't be afraid to mix flavors you think might mesh. I "invented" an Orange and Chocolate (yeast) bread—flavors I'd never seen paired—about 2 years before those tasty Tobler oranges were ubiquitous in the candy section of US grocery stores. Use the best ingredients you can obtain or afford, favor fresh over preserved, and never feed (unwarned) guests with something you can't be fairly sure will be at least edible.

You're probably (mostly?) beyond it, but the first book (I don't recall the title) of the series that the Cooking Club of America will try to sell you is also very nice for basics.
posted by phrits at 8:31 PM on September 8, 2005

Alton Brown probably satisfies most people's food science lust, but as much as I love everyone's favorite food geek, I'm going to recommend the OG food scientist: Harold Motherfucking McGee. There would be no Alton without Harold McGee. Not everyone is up to reading an 800 page book about the effects of oxygen on finely ground spices and the astringent phenolic compounds in black tea, but it does make an excellent referance book. Before making anything complicated that I am not familiar with, say, zabaglione, I would look it up in the index, read about the physical structure and behavior of yolk foams, and then get to my recipe. Fiddly recipes are a lot easier when you know what's going on and what to expect.
Oh, and please do not be scared by what I said about the 800 pages and the science and such. I am one of those ladies that give ladies a bad name(math and science are HARD and CONFUSING and OH MY GOODNESS CAN'T WE JUST GO SHOPPING OR PERHAPS BAKE A PIE), and I loved it. My pies are better, also.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:27 AM on September 9, 2005

Might I suggest "The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook". It's rather large, hardcover, heavy. It has big pictures and in depth explanations of the ingredients and tools needed to cook. It also has a lot of good asian (as well as indonesian, indian etc...) cooking advice.
posted by nadawi at 8:03 AM on September 13, 2005

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