Top 5 Essential Cookbooks (Reviews of the Must-Have Cookbooks of Biblical Breadth)

by Karen on Wednesday, August 11, 2010

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WARNING:  If you only buy cookbooks for the photos, don’t bother to read this as these monochromatic books will probably bore you.  But if you enjoy a lengthy cookbook sans photos from time to time, you’ll appreciate the few listed below as they are my go-to books anytime I have a question, rumination or spider to kill.

1.  Cookbook for the Nerd:

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

Ever wonder what a scientist would have to say on food?  A lot– almost 900 pages of facts and data.  Now that last statement just made this book sound extremely dry and boring but trust me, it’s nothing like being in school again.  McGee makes learning fun!  And he doesn’t leave a thing out–everything from how egg whites turn stiff when beaten to how soy sauce is made.  Highlighted with interesting historical facts and tidbits, On Food and Cooking is a fascinating read considering how “educational” it is.

2. Cookbook for the Perfectionist:

The New Best Recipe by Cook’s Illustrated

From the people who bring you America’s Test Kitchen, The New Best Recipe is a monolithic book with just about every American recipe imaginable.  Ever wonder what would happen had you brined your pork before breading and frying it?  Or if you used panko flakes instead of Italian bread crumbs?  Or if it would even make any difference?  Well, the people at Cook’s Illustrated help to answer those questions by giving you a detailed account of about a dozen or more different techniques they tried for just ONE recipe.  Admittedly this compulsively formulaic method sometimes results in strange and overly elaborate directions, but it is informative all the same and my go-to book whenever I want to get something just right.

3.  Cookbook for the Gourmet Home Cook:

The Way to Cook by Julia Child

Before Martha, before Rachael, and before the other zillions of venerated food personalities, there was Julia.  The one who started it all– brought gourmet cooking into American homes.  She was successful because she made it so easy for the everyday cook to learn French cooking techniques.  In The Way to Cook, she not only provides step-by-step instructions for basic and more complicated cooking techniques but educates the reader as to how a dish or ingredient is to be enjoyed.  The book’s only downfall is that there is a small sample of recipes per chapter, so if you’re looking for a large inventory of French recipes you won’t find it here.  For that, I suggest you get Julia’s seminal books Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II.

4.  Cookbook for the Novice:

The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

All of us remember the time we really got into cooking, when we really started to love it.  It was when you would follow a recipe and it tasted better than you imagined it would.  That “Yes it worked!”  The Joy of Cooking is a sort of serious-beginner’s cookbook but is still a staple in the seasoned cook’s kitchen precisely because the recipes are a sure-fire bet.  They should be, as the book has been around since the Great Depression with the latest 8th edition published in 2006.  The Joy of Cooking is one of those American books that is passed down from generation to generation like a treasured heirloom.  Food stains and all.

5.  Cookbook for the Know-It-All:

Larousse Gastonomique edited by Prosper Montagne

Bugne, bulgur, bullhead, bull’s blood, bun, burbot, burdock, burgos, burgundy, bustard, butcher’s block, butcher’s shop…
Don’t know what half of those words are?  Don’t worry, most of us don’t.  That’s where Larousse Gastronomique comes in.  It is literally an encyclopedia of food.  Organized like a dictionary from A through Z, it has every imaginable term that relates in any way to food defined in detail.  Don’t let the French name fool you too, as the latest edition includes global foods and ingredients.  Although it highlights recipes here and there, Larousse Gastronomique isn’t a book you’d typically use as a cookbook.  It’s a useful reference book for answering questions and curiosities… or for knocking someone out cold– this book is enormous!


Ivonne August 15, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I have all of them except for #3. I couldn’t agree more!

Karen August 16, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Yup, they’re great books– always looking for other good ones so feel free to recommend some!

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