This is My Grown-Up Cookbook List
May 2, 2020 11:45 AM   Subscribe

My ramshackle, hodgepodge cookbook collection needs a serious upgrade/overhaul. I've decided my ideal cookbook library would include: a) a general purpose, North American-style cookbook; b) a baking bible, c) a Mediterranean cookbook, d) a French cookbook, and e) a special occasion/holiday/entertaining cookbook. I don't want cookbooks that call for intensive cooking time/labour or expensive/rare ingredients. What are your best cookbook recommendations for each of these categories, MeFites?
posted by orange swan to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I use my two Martha Stewart Living cookbooks (the original classics and the new classics) a lot as sort of a general all purpose cookbook for looking up how to make things.

Though honestly I think I would get Alison Roman's cookbook Dining in or Nothing Fancy for my entertaining cookbooks even though they're really not fancy food - her recipes are just kind of.. easy? but always come out delicious and if you want to have people over they will actually not stress you out, I think they are great books.
posted by euphoria066 at 12:26 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

a) How to Cook Everything (Note, I have the one from decades ago. It's been updated several times since, but I'm still using ye olde version.)

b) Rose's Baking Basics (though it depends on what kind of baking you're into). This does have fussy measurements, because she is serious about precision, which is understandable for a baking book. Rose Levy Barenbaum, of course, also has The Baking Bible.

c) Does Ottolenghi qualify?

e) Again, maybe an Ottolenghi book. Or The Home Cook by Alex Guarnaschelli. Or Dining In by Alison Roman.
posted by veggieboy at 12:31 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

The iconic red/white checked Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is a classic choice for your basic, North American style cookbook. I’ve had mine ever since I moved into my first apartment over 30 years ago, and it’s still my go-to book whenever I need help with a recipe or cooking technique.
posted by bookmammal at 12:38 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]

I’ve got How to Cook Everything, but honestly, I barely use it. My go to general cookbook is still The Joy of Cooking. The breakdowns of how and why to do things, and the explanations of methods of cooking are invaluable to me. My basic method of making stew isn’t from any one recipe. Instead, it’s based off of the in depth explanation of stewing and braising before they even get to recipes.

There’s also a solid iPad app version which I’ve found very useful.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:02 PM on May 2 [8 favorites]

Yeah, I'd honestly think about The Joy of Cooking for A. The big flaw that's made people abandon it is that its recipes outside North America and bits of Europe are terrible, but you'll have your other four books for that. For classic homestyle North American cooking, it's quite good. And it is incredibly useful as a compendium of techniques. For most things you can get in white/Anglo grocery stores in the US, it has like five different ideas for things you can do with them, and good illustrated instructions for any weird steps or techniques.

Bittman's books are similar, but more opinionated. Instead of five totally different techniques for cooking your mystery vegetable, you get one or two — the correct one or two, in his opinion — plus a list of alterations like "crumble up bacon on it" or "add lime juice and cilantro and call it Mexican." I think it's a matter of personal taste and style which works better, but at this point I find myself using Joy a lot more.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:20 PM on May 2

For A, I'd go with one of both of Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen cookbooks. I've never made anything of hers I didn't find tasty, and it's also pretty modern and not fussy.
posted by nantucket at 1:40 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

I cook out of Ottolenghi (the one just called “Ottolenghi”) CONSTANTLY. It feels a little more specialized than a “Mediterranean basics” cookbook but it’s really great. There are actually a lot of recipes online.

I’d get I Know How To Cook as the French one, it’s so good for very usable everyday recipes. Less emphasis on very fussy spectacles and more on “good way to get that asparagus on the table tonight” kind of recipes.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 1:43 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

I use the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking all the time for cool-temperate food. Lots of simple recipes, explains everything. I also have a three-in-one volume by Elizabeth David, her Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, and Summer Cooking. She assumes you know everything, the recipes are like the gnomic summary issued by a great-aunt in a mild mood. Wonderful food, though.

One last category might be a pantry cookbook, recipes for components to use up a flush of ripe produce or to get ready for something well in advance. I like Helen Witty’s, but they may still be out of print.
posted by clew at 1:57 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

This is a bit of a challenge for someone who isn't a minimalist. I have hundreds of cookbooks and I love them all. If it were a dessert island challenge, I'd leave out the classic American, because I'm not American. That said, I might buy Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab.
For baking, what kind of baking are you thinking about? I don't have BraveTart, because I'm not so much a cake person, but if I need a cake recipe I'll look at her recipes online, or David Lebovitz, I have his books even though I rarely cook from them because they are fun to read. For bread-baking I use a local Danish book.
For Mediterranean cooking, well, that is a very wide range. Ottolenghi's Simple might be a good choice. I still keep returning to Elizabeth David's first book: Mediterranean Food . It's wider in it's scope than Ottolenghi's, though neither David nor Ottolenghi are much into Italian food, so you might want to add an Italian food classic, either David's or Marcella Hazan's or the Italian classic, The Silver Spoon.
Classic French cooking seems to have been falling out of style for quite a while now. The book I use the most is my Larousse Gastronomique, which has much more than French cuisine. (I'm judging here by how worn the books are and I actually have two editions of this because they are not identical and both are worn to tatters). Another option would be Jacques Pépin's New Complete Techniques
I'm not sure what you want from a special occasion cookbook if you don't want it to be too complicated. I'd be looking for a book by a chef I admire. For me, Ottolenghi is in that category. You need a gazillion ingredients, but the dishes are beautiful and most people love them. But there are special occasion recipes in all of the above.
posted by mumimor at 2:02 PM on May 2 [5 favorites]

For many years, for everyday cooking, I used Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking. Over the last couple years, I find myself turning to Kenji’s Food Lab more and more often. I’ve just started reading Dorie Greenspan’s Everyday Dorie and I like it quite a lot.

For baking, nthing Rose Levy Barenbaum!

I got lucky with my first French cookbook. My mom bought this secondhand because it was pretty (she got a an old version). Turned out it was brilliant — Elizabeth David’s Country French Cooking. For modern, I love David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen — this may be a questionable suggestion but many of his recipes aren’t too fiddly.

And lastly, my current favourite is Nik Sharma’s Season. His blog, A Brown Table, shone a light on something I had so deeply incorporated that I didn’t notice till I saw his hands and asked “brown table”? A brown chef in a practically all white world. He’s freaking brilliant. I am grateful for that realignment.
posted by lemon_icing at 2:07 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

Joy of Cooking was one of the main cookbooks around when I was young (the other being a book only for the truly hardcore "lentils are God's protein" crowd, More with Less) and it is whiter than that tuna melt Sen. Warner microwaved the other day. But it has a soothing tone and is very detailed. I personally would go with How to Cook Everything, but it depends somewhat on your preferred approach. Bittman's goal, I think, is to wean the reader off recipes entirely over time--teaching them to think in terms of various flavor components and cooking techniques that can be swapped in and out without too much fuss. That may sound appealing or it may sound intimidating.
posted by praemunire at 2:56 PM on May 2

I like Joy of Cooking for basics. I also like the big Cook's Illustrated cookbook (they also have a bunch of specialty cookbooks for gluten-free/paleo/pressure cooker/whatever). I reach for the latter much more than the former.

The thing about Cook's Illustrated is that their recipes are complicated, but if you follow them, they Just Work. Their recipes are the product of the same kind of exhaustive experimentation that Kenji Lopez Alt practices (and indeed, he used to work there).
posted by adamrice at 3:24 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

Anecdata - I keep a notebook where we jot down recipes from family members or off packages and/or obscure internet sites. I have a whole section called "Better than Bittman" where I adjust recipes from How to Cook Everything because they often don't work quite right on their own, or can be made profoundly better when cross-referenced with other sources. (Possibly relevant - we are brown people, and find many of the Bittman recipes under-season and over-rely on fats.)

In contrast, The Food Lab is the most cherished thing in the kitchen, and we follow it, Joy of Cooking, and Ottolenghi to the letter because they have earned our trust.

(Similarly love Smitten Kitchen, use the blog multiple times weekly, but the books gather dust.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 3:24 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]

For baking, I think the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion sounds closest to what you're looking for. It's extremely comprehensive and covers an enormous range of baked goods, it includes lots of helpful explanations and tips, techniques and ingredients are kept pretty simple and straightforward, and it includes ingredient measurements in weights (albeit just ounces, not grams).

Re. a couple of other suggestions I saw above - I love Bravetart by Stella Parks, but not only does it cover a limited range of baked goods (American desserts), it definitely doesn't meet the qualification for "no intensive cooking time/labour or expensive/rare ingredients." For instance, her recipe for key lime pie is amazing, but it calls for homemade condensed milk and graham crackers; other recipes call for ingredients like malted milk powder, coconut oil, and organic powdered sugar.

Re. Rose Levy Beranbaum, I absolutely love her stuff too, but I know a lot of people who aren't baking hobbyists are put off by the enormous amount of precise detail in her books. For instance, Rose's Baking Bible calls for fractions of eggs here and there; her pie dough recipe turns out excellent results but involves a more involved process than many other recipes. And neither her Baking Bible nor Rose's Baking Basics is nearly as comprehensive as the King Arthur Flour book. So overall, I think the KAF book is the best general "baking bible" for someone looking for simple, non-time-consuming recipes.
posted by LNM at 4:29 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

Tartine Bread is the go to bread cookbook.
posted by Grandysaur at 5:46 PM on May 2

Sunday Suppers at Lucques is my special occasion cookbook.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:01 PM on May 2

For Mediterranean cooking, you might try Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan.

For French cooking, nothing beats the late great Pierre Franey. He put out a number of cookbooks in his time, as well as a column in the NYTimes called the 60 Minute Gourmet. My favorite, which is unfortunately out of print now, is The Seafood Cookbook. Every sauce that man came up with is divine. You can find a few of his recipes on his website.

For entertaining, every one of Melissa Clark's cookbooks are fabulous. I recommend any of the following: Cook This Now (which has a delicious bulgur pilaf recipe), Dinner (which has a surprisingly flavorful broccoli soup recipe), or even possibly In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. Her latest cookbook, Dinner in French, is on French Cooking, but I have yet to try any of those recipes out.
posted by panther of the pyrenees at 11:08 PM on May 2

b) ratio by michael ruhlman
posted by aniola at 11:15 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

A I have really liked the latest Joy. I regularly cook from Smitten Kitchen, both the website and the Everyday cookbook, but they aren't encyclopedic.

B For baking, I'd go with Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours, although she doesn't cover yeast breads. Ruhlman is too basic. I have some of RLB's older books (Cake Bible and Christmas Cookies), they are solid and varied, and in those she gives American volume, American/British weights, and metric weights.

D I cook from Julia too.
posted by JawnBigboote at 5:57 PM on May 3

Inspired by this thread, I took out my Elizabeth David A Book of Mediterranean Food, and read it from front to back. I was rather surprised at two things: how much it has formed me as a home cook, and how many rubbish recipes are in there. I pull back my recommendation above. I still love it and if you weren't limiting your quest to five books I still think you should have it as a source of inspiration. But 1950 was a different world. There were so many things you couldn't get in England, and she was writing based on travel notes from a decade of wandering about rather than the meticulous research of her later tomes.
So IMO, it's Ottolenghi's Simple for Mediterranean cooking.
posted by mumimor at 12:56 AM on May 4

More of a cooking book with a very substantial recipe section, but if you need something solid on technique and theory of putting together delicious food, highly recommend Samin Nusrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat.
posted by Concordia at 3:11 AM on May 6

- General purpose North American style: The New Best Recipe or The Food Lab
- Baking bible: Nth'ing Rose Levy Beranbaum
- Mediterranean: Hard to go wrong with Ottolenghi or Claudia Roden, but I'm partial to Saffron Tales myself
- French: I own an embarrassing number of French cookbooks but I find myself turning to Patricia Wells' the most (Bistro Cooking and Simply French in particular)
- Special occasion: Cooking for Good Times is my current go-to (well, pre-pandemic), and the Canal House books are great. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook also works for this.
posted by AceRock at 8:00 AM on May 7

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful advice. I've made my selections:

a) general purpose, North American-style cookbook -- The Joy of Cooking, 2019 ed.;
b) baking bible -- The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion 10th-Anniversary Edition: The All Purpose Baking Cookbook (I was seriously tempted to get Rose Levy Beranbaum's beautiful book, but her recipes looked so fussy I knew they'd drive me crazy);
c) Mediterranean cookbook -- The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day;
d) French cookbook -- La Vie Rustic: Cooking and Living in the French Style, by Georgeanne Brennan;
e) special occasion/holiday/entertaining cookbook -- Canadian Living's The Special Occasions Cookbook: 250+ Recipes for Memorable Gatherings (it has a roster of recipes/menus for every special event all year, including Canada Day, and last night I scored a secondhand copy for $12.95 on Amazon:)).

I've been going through my existing cookbooks this past week, and I'm going to keep a few of them, such as the low-fat vegetarian cookbook I bought 23 years ago and that I have used regularly ever since (for the record it's Bobbie Hinman's The Meatless Gourmet), and the 2010 Taste of Home Christmas cookbook I scored at the dollar store several years ago, which besides featuring loads of recipes for yummy-looking Christmas treats has lots of table decorating and craft ideas in it too. And I have an old school tin recipe box in which I've got a collection of tried and true recipes written out on index cards -- it's a good way to keep recipes I got from family or friends, or found on the net, or the few good recipes from the cookbooks I'm getting rid of.

Once I acquire all the new titles on my list, I'm going to be all set with a comprehensive cookbook collection that should meet all my needs for years to come. Thanks again!
posted by orange swan at 11:52 AM on May 12

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