The 5 Cookbooks I Can’t Live Without

I often get asked which cookbooks are my favorite, so I figured some of you would enjoy a blog about it.  I have a LOT of cookbooks.  Most of them are specific to making a particular type of product.  I have lots of books on making cheese.  Making wine.  Curing meats.  Canning and preserving.  The more I look through my cookbook collection, the more I realize I have very few “traditional” cookbooks…you know, ones filled with recipes.  Most of my cookbooks are specialized, like the ones for making cheese, or they are “conceptual” cookbooks.  Books that teach you WHY food cooks, rather than listing off recipes.  And once you learn how and why heat, applied in different ways, makes food cook…and how to manipulate salt and acid and yeast and moisture and how to balance flavors…you actually don’t need recipes any longer.  So my 5 “must haves” will be heavy on those type of cookbooks, because they empower you to become your own cookbook!  (Click the titles of each cookbook to be taken to Amazon where you can buy them or read their reviews.  I don’t like posting links to commercial websites, but this is for your convenience.  I get no “kickbacks” from Amazon.)

Julia Child’s The Way to Cook.  I have all of Julia’s books, and they are all amazing.  This one is a combination of traditional recipe book and technique primer.  While Mastering the Art of French Cooking is definitely her pièce de résistance, The Way to Cook is my favorite.  She published it after she had gotten really good at writing cookbooks.  Mastering was her first go at cookbook writing.  In The Way to Cook, Julia branches beyond strict French recipes and includes recipes like Rhode Island Jonnycakes, curries, and pies in its 528 pages.   The book is also a fount of technique information…how to break down a chicken or fillet different types of fish, understanding cuts of steak and how to properly cook each one, how to “French” green beans and prepare and store fresh spinach.  It’s also packed full of personality as Julia directly addresses the reader throughout.  “I have eaten, and even cooked, green vegetables prepared by the rules of nervous nellies, in which sprouts or green beans were boiled in a small covered pan.  One reason, I am sure, that many people hate vegetables is because they are cooked like medicine!”  I doubt there’s a more-loved food personality in all of American history, and this cookbook is her best.

Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking.  This is the first cookbook I ever received as a gift.  My buddy Justin gave it to me 11 years ago for my birthday just after it was published.  He was probably only 18 at the time, and he had no clue what an impact it would have on my life.  Back then I was cooking, of course, but my culinary journey was in its infancy.  I was still cooking the Southern classics I was raised on, along with a few international classics I had learned while staying with families in other countries.  But I was a recipe follower.  And back then I thought that recipes could always be trusted to produce a perfect result.  Reading Alton’s book about the SCIENCE behind cooking was eye opening, to say the least.  Yes, it has recipes.  Very good ones.  But this is a book about WHY and HOW food cooks.  It’s the first time I had ever heard about brining, though the restaurant industry had been doing it forever.  After reading this book, I became obsessed with understanding and mastering the techniques that make a cook really great.  When you understand the chemistry and physics behind why meat browns when it gets hot, you’ll be able to manipulate heat to deliver perfectly seared scallops, a crusty steak, and roast chicken with delectably crunchy skin.  Alton’s book was a decade ahead of its time, and is still one of Amazon’s top 100 cookbooks in terms of sales volume.  It won the James Beard Award for best reference cookbook in 2002.  It was updated in 2006, so don’t be alarmed if the copy you’re buying says Version 2.0.  While we’re talking about him, Alton’s companion book I’m Just Here for More Food: Food + Mixing + Heat = Baking is a fabulous introduction to the chemistry and physics of baking…something that seems to stymie a lot of home cooks.

Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty: The Ideas and Techniques that will Make You a Better Cook; 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto.  Any avid food reader knows Michael Ruhlman.  Likely the most prolific food writer of our time, he has co-authored many cookbooks with Thomas Keller…likely the most respected chef of our time…as well as Eric Ripert and Michael Symon.  In the late 90s he delved into the underbelly of the Culinary Institute of America to begin his trilogy of books on the role of chefs in our society: The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, and The Reach of a ChefRuhlman’s Twenty is his first solo cookbook, and while it does contain 100 master-recipes, the cookbook is actually an exploration of 20 cooking techniques that, should you master them all, you can consider yourself about as skilled as most professional chefs.   Although Ruhlman considers himself a home cook, this book won the 2012 James Beard award for best cookbook.  And it’s no wonder.  Each of the 20 chapters intensively covers a subject of critical concern to the cook.  Chapter 2 is all about salt, “our most important tool.”  In it he explains the different types of salt and their best uses, why you should never use iodized table salt, why salt needs to be applied throughout the entire cooking process, the chemical and physical effects that salt has on raw meat as well as vegetables and fruits, what properties change about water once salt is added to it, how salt interacts with oils and fats, the role of salt in desserts and pastries, brining and preserving, and how to deal with a dish that has been oversalted.  And that’s just in the first 3 pages of that chapter!  The recipes that follow are everything from curing your own bacon at home to preserving lemons to the most delicious way to eat zucchini…raw but salted precisely!  And while we’re on the subject of Ruhlman, I can also heartily recommend his little book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.  Powered with the knowledge from this tiny little book, you will never have to use a recipe again, even for baking.

Cook’s Illustrated’s The Science of Good Cooking: Master 50 Simple Concepts to Enjoy a Lifetime of Success in the KitchenIf there’s a food entity out there I adore more than America’s Test Kitchen, I can’t think of one.  Their magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, and their legion of covetable cookbooks is unmatched by anything or anyone out there.  Their show on PBS, along with Alton’s Good Eats, are the only cooking shows I’ve watched every episode of, repeatedly.  If you’re not familiar with their concept, they take classic dishes and make them hundreds of times in a test kitchen, evolving each ingredient and technique carefully, until they achieve a near-perfect rendition of it.  But it’s not what THEY think tastes the best…they have a blind panel of tasters, and they don’t stop with a recipe until their blind panel agrees unanimously that they’ve achieved perfection.  Love your grandma’s lasagne recipe?  Give theirs a try, just don’t tell grandma when you find your new go-to recipe for lasagne.  They’ve been at this for over 3 decades, when a young, bow-tie wearing Christopher Kimball started the magazine, then later published classics like The Cook’s Bible and The Dessert Bible, and then began to take interest in developing self-called “bulletproof recipes” that would showcase an American working class favorite in its most perfect iteration.  Thus was born America’s Test Kitchen, staffed with a legion of skilled chefs and backed by literally tens of thousands of at-home volunteers who test recipes for them.  No recipe makes it into Cook’s Illustrated or their cookbooks unless the majority of these thousands of home cooks say the recipe was flawless and they’d make it again, and if their host of blind taste testers agree.  From 3 decades of this research and testing, they have distilled 50 basic concepts that lead to success in the kitchen, and those are the 50 concepts in The Science of Good Cooking.  Don’t worry.  There are recipes in this cookbook.  400 of them in its 500+ pages.  But they fall underneath the chapter concepts that educate you about WHY some recipes or techniques fail, when others succeed.  Chapter 1′s concept is “Gentle Heat Prevents Overcooking.”  We all know this.  But do we know why?  They proceed to tell you by explaining several experiments they did in their kitchen.  They roasted 2 beef rib roasts, one in a 450 degree oven, and one in a 250 degree oven.  They also placed a variety of temperature probes at different levels in each roast.  Both roasts were cooked until the probe in the center of the roast reached 125 degrees (medium rare).  Both roasts were rested 45 minutes and then sampled by the taste testers.  Then they repeated the test 3 more times with 3 more sets of testers.  What did they learn?  I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out!  Following several pages of education, they present you with bulletproof, “perfected” recipes relating to that chapter’s concept, like Prime Rib, Turkey with Gravy, Perfect Hard-Cooked Eggs, etc.  What I truly love about America’s Test Kitchen is that they are perfecting the recipes that you and I make every day at home.  Feel free to buy as many $50 glossy cookbooks from mega-chefs at legendary restaurants as you like.  You’ll probably cook out of those cookbooks 2 or 3 times a year, at extraordinary cost and effort, and likely your friends and family won’t appreciate those sous-vide razor clams with bison demiglace and black truffle confit the way that you do.  I cook out of this cookbook every week of my life, and many of their recipes have been flagrantly stolen and become my own.  My second favorite cookbook of theirs is The Cook’s Country Cookbook, a vast compilation of reader’s favorite recipes from their magazines and TV shows over 3 decades.  That link leads to a newly-revised version published in 2012, and it’s over 450 pages long.  Talk about a reference book!  Be aware, though, that The Science of Good Cooking has recipes that appeared in The Cook’s Country Cookbook, but were revisited and perfected…so the home fries recipe you’ll get in The Science of Good Cooking yields even better results!

And last, but certainly not least, Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes.  Alton Brown may have started my thirst for geeky science books about food, but Harold McGee is the father of all things food-science.  He got his PhD from Yale and later taught there before becoming the world’s eminent food scientist author.  He has a lecture series named after him at the French Culinary Institute.  McGee is the consummate food geek.  He loves everything from the ancient history of cooking, to debunking common kitchen myths.  His first book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is a veritable tome that I’ve read cover to cover twice, but still haven’t digested even a fraction of it.  It was written in 1984, and back then, only chefs understood it.  It was considered a secret compendium of basically all the food knowledge on the planet.  Why is pike different from grouper, and how is each best prepared?  And, more importantly, when does the fish taste best?  The day it’s caught?  Or after sitting on ice for 3 days?  Is the texture better if it’s flash-frozen on the boat, or brought in live in the boat’s well?  How did the ancient Romans cook it?  What is the conventional way to cook it?  And guess what: the conventional way is WRONG, here’s the RIGHT way to cook it.  I can’t recommend On Food and Cooking for the average home cook.  Most of the people I’ve given it to can’t get through it.  It’s a reference book, like the Oxford English Dictionary.  You go to that book when you need to learn something about a specific ingredient or technique.  For the more average everyday cook, McGee released this book, Keys to Good Cooking, and it’s still very comprehensive (576 pages long!), but it’s more readable and more accessible.  Chapters are organized the by types of food they cover.  In the “Cakes, Muffins, and Cookies” chapter you’ll learn to “Rest cookie doughs in the refrigerator for hours to even out moisture and relax gluten, and to firm the fat and produce neater edges” and “Bake cakes in an electric oven if you have a choice. Gas ovens don’t retain rise-enhancing steam as well,” as well as “Low baking temperatures and a long baking time favor a higher rise and open texture.  Higher temperatures and a quicker baking favor a dense but finer structure.”  Over in the “Meat” chapter, you’ll learn that “The quality of most cooked meats deteriorates rapidly in the refrigerator, even in a stew or other dish whose overall flavor may improve for a day or two.  Freeze leftover meats to keep them in good condition for longer than a few days,” and “Reheating meat causes the development of stale flavors, especially in poultry.  Reheating above 140F dries meat out.  So consider serving leftover meats in cold applications.  Rewarm leftover meat as little as possible, consistent with safety.  Turn it briefly in a pan of boiling liquid to kill any bacteria on the surface, then warm the meat through very gently.”  There’s not a SINGLE recipe in this book’s 576 pages.  You don’t use it that way.  You read it through once, marking pages that have info that you’ll use daily to better your skills.  Then you leave it easily accessible on the shelf.  When you’re ready to make cookies, cook a roast, freeze ice cream, or bake a pie, pull the book and read that relevant section and adjust your recipe according to his solid information.  Your recipe will turn out better than if you had followed it alone.

And there you have it.  What I consider to be the 5 best cookbooks out there.  None of them are quick, easy reads.  They are all dense and rich with the best information we humans have accumulated over the past several thousand years.  These are the 5 books I’d take with me to a deserted island, or to the set of a reality TV cooking show.  They are books I lay hands on almost every week.  They are stained with wine and oil and chocolate and warped from chicken stock.  They are, in my kitchen, absolutely indispensable.  Far more so than my own meager first attempt at cookbook writing, Food for Thought: Every Recipe has a Story.  But, hey…ya gotta start somewhere, right?

Now it’s YOUR turn.  What are the cookbooks on your shelf that YOU can’t live without?  Please comment below:

31 Responses to The 5 Cookbooks I Can’t Live Without

  1. Thank you for this list, I may pick up one or two of these as gifts for my culinary art student sister. My own fave reads are nothing fancy, just martha stewart’s “Cookies” and very very old, very rare indian food classic called “Indian Delights”. That’s more of a family recipes type of book that my aunts all brought over to the old country and has formed the bedrock of my cooking traditions.

  2. Unless you are dropping me as a Facebook Friend…..why would I need cookbooks???? Lol

  3. Cooks Illustrated is my favorite!!! Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll have to check them out.

  4. I love anything Alton Brown, and some of my favorite recipes are from Cook’s Illustrated! I used to be a member of their website until they changed many of the recipes to an even pricier premium tier or something like that. I’ll just have to stick to watching reruns of the shows!

  5. Thanks Ben, I want to learn to cook…really cook vs making something to eat. I will put these on my Christmas List!

  6. I don’t know a cook who doesn’t own Mastering the Art of French Cooking

  7. My top two are both from Cook’s Illustrated: The Science of Good Cooking (as you’ve listed too) and The New Best Recipe. Sooo much work was put into these cookbooks to deliver quality recipes and explain why they’re quality. Thanks for the list Ben!

  8. I must have a couple hundred great cookbooks…But Julia, Dorie Greenspan, James Beard…and one of my all time faves, an 1898 edition of the White House Cookbook!

  9. I saw ‘The Science of Good Cooking’ at Costco last year and put it on my Christmas list; sadly, they were sold out shortly after Thanksgiving. Ah well, you just reaffirmed that it’s as awesome as I intuited that it was, so back on my wish list it goes! I’m a bit ashamed that my bookcase is devoid of anything by Harold McGee- I think that needs to be remedied, stat!

  10. I have three of the five. Love Cooks Illustrated!

  11. I’ve found my cookbook twin! I have the McGee (On Food and Cooking), Ruhlman’s 20, Alton’s I’m here. The other ones I LOVE are the CIA’s 1st year text- The professional chef. It has ALL the basics along with gorgeous step-by-step photos of every single technique and knife cut. It’s got sections on how to choose meat, fish, produce and cheese and I love it- so much that I would submit that every home cook who’s really serious about learning the whys and hows (and, as you said, not just a bunch of recipes) needs a copy (plus it’s not that expensive if you buy it from a 3rd party on Amazon- I think I paid $35…).

    I also love The Flavor Bible as a ‘stimulate your brain’ kind of thing that gets you thinking about the flavor characteristics of everything we eat, not just the basic tastes but textures and the effect it has in your mouth (like mint is ‘cool’). This gets me analyzing flavors and trying combinations that at first glance seem weird but work (like subbing in black pepper for some of the nutmeg in a flan).

    We’ve got about 100 cookbooks, and when people ask us if we use them all, we’re like, well, yeah… (my husband’s got his ‘Italian’ collection- Silver Spoon, Hazan, Batali, Anne Burrell). I love Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc- he’s a great teacher, too.

  12. Kris Wilson Potter

    The book I reach for most often is Joy of Cooking. After that it’s Cooks Illustrated and I have 2; the Soups and Stews book is very well used. The Professional Chef is a great resource but not the greatest cookbook. I actually sit and read it. After that I probably puruse Cooks Magazine and Food Network Magazine the most; love that they auto load to my Kindle!

  13. yeah, I tend to lump all books of the genre (reference or actual recipe book) into the ‘cookbook’ category (except for memoirs)

  14. Since I “studied” with Madeleine Kamman at her Newton,Ma. school for chefs..I keep her books next to Julia for reference. Cookbooks are my passion, so have about 3000, mostly from professionals or restaurant owners and many classics, Escoffier, etc.

  15. I need more cookbooks. That’s why I decided to write down recipes from my mom, aunt and great aunt to have my own compilation… And I should write my recipes too, even though I rarely measure when I improvise.

  16. I have the Julia Child book, The Way to Cook and love it for the same reasons. It is my “go to” book for techniques that go beyond a strict recipe. I feel that I learn rather than mimic. Also, truth be told – and it’s part of her charm – she still had some errors e.g. forget how to use one of the ingredients in the recipe list. It makes me laugh as she was so perfectly imperfect!

    I don’t have other cookbooks that are on this level so thanks Ben for this list! I will check them out!

  17. Fantastic choices for cookbooks! Glad to see a shout out given to many of my own favorites, including Harold McGee’s magnum opus and Ruhlman’s Twenty. As a working bench scientist myself, I confess I was a little disappointed by The Science of Good Cooking, which I think oversold itself on the science in favor of the whole “Fifty concepts” schtick, but in general Cook’s Illustrated / ATK put together solid cookbooks. Other notable compendia and instructional books I would add to your list:

    James Peterson’s Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making
    Basically the premier source for all sauce related knowledge, including a thorough discussion of the history and techniques behind them. Though it is fairly Euro-centric and arguably impractical for home cooks who don’t spend hours on the weekends making the basic stocks and reductions, it’s been updated well over the new editions to reflect broader cuisines and is still very instructional and educational.

    King Arthur Flour’s Baking Companion
    Yes, it’s basically a massive tome of baking recipes and doesn’t focus too much on the instruction and the science, but it’s still the best summary of American baking that’s been released to date. Also, the primer sections in the back are absolutely wonderful (e.g., their lengthy discourse of the different types of wheat and how they’re grown, discussions on different leaveners, etc.), despite being ignored by most home cooks.

    Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques
    A valuable instructional primer with clear directions and organized pictures is always a welcome resource, compared to the unpredictable lottery that results from YouTube trawling. I haven’t always been a huge fan of Pepin’s recipes which run oppressively traditional for me, but there’s no denying the amount of care and thoughtful editing that went into this volume. Especially recommended for those who are starting to make desserts (involving pastry cream and custards) for the first time beyond simple cakes and cookies.

    Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy
    I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch, and I typically abhor many vegetarian/vegan themed cookbooks (Alice Waters and Ottolenghi nonwithstanding), but this newly released tome deserves to be on the shelves of any inquisitive and experimental home cook. Brilliantly organized by plant family and loaded with interesting background, it makes for very instructive and illuminating reading whatever section is opened. Note however, that many of the recipes frustratingly rely on difficult to source ingredients like purslane, burdock, and sorrel, but dedicated foodies should persevere for this gem.

    • Great additions, Bagheera! I wasn’t familiar with Deborah Madison’s book, so I’m gonna have to check it out. I have purslane and sorrel growing wild in the park behind my house, and burdock is always carried at the Asian market near me, so I’m excited to see what she has to say about them.

  18. These are some great examples of true cookbooks (as opposed to many authors’ self centered recipe collections posing as a book).

    Ever spend time in a book store to find out how many awful cookbooks are out there? Many of them I would like to pile up and use as a heat source to cook up something tasty or provide warmth to some hungry, homeless people. There’s some awkward, yet thought provoking irony for ya!

  19. Thanks for sharing! Love seeing your posts!
    Looking for a source with “science” basics in baking. Trying to convert this ‘cook’ into a baker. Love to cook w recipes as suggestions & want to learn the basic of baking so improv is not ‘an epic fail’

  20. The Way To Cook was one of the first cookbooks I was given, and it’s still in regular use. The book I use more than any other is ATK’s Family Cookbook. Now I’ve asked for Ruhlman’s 20 for Christmas, since I love his Ratio.

    I’d like to know what books you like for cheese and sausage making, since I make my own. I use Charcuterie, but it drives me nuts that the recipes are too big for my stand mixer. The first time I made a full recipe in my stand mixer, I sprayed the walls and undersides of my cabinets with pork. If anyone ever wants this kitchen to be kosher, they’ll have to burn it down. I’ve been making 3/5 recipes, and the math makes my eyes cross. Maybe time to invest in the big stand mixer…

    For cheese I use Ricki Carrol’s Home Cheese Making.

    • Elise, I use Ricki’s book, as well as Artisan Cheese Making at Home by Mary Karlin. For meat curing, I use Charcuterie, like you, as well as Salumi by Ruhlman.

  21. Other favorites:

    60 Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey http://www.amazon.com/The-York-Times-60-Minute-Gourmet/dp/0449901912/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

    I got this as a wedding gift 20 years ago and used it so much I had it spiral bound. It’s stained and falling apart, so I might get a new copy. It beats hell out of any of the “quick meal” books I’ve gotten recently. This may be the perfect book for a new couple who want to cook and eat well. It gives a main dish and an accompanyment together, so meals are easy. Most recipes make just enough for 4 people, if you include a salad or something.

    Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan http://www.amazon.com/Baking-Julia-Savor-Americas-Bakers/dp/0688146570/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384983025&sr=1-1&keywords=Baking+with+julia

    This looks like a big food porn/coffee table book, but the recipes are solid. I regularly make the scones, Irish soda bread, and whole wheat bread and everyone thinks I’m a brilliant baker. Only you will know that it’s not really me…

  22. Hi Ben, excellent post. I bought a couple these books, Alton Brown and Ruhlman’s. Been reading through them and they have helped me improve on a couple things sofar, lots more practice to go yet but I finally managed to pan fry something and not have the breading fall off. I will definitely be getting more of them. Haven’t got to it yet but really interested to see the chapter on microwave cooking. Never been much of a microwave fan, even for reheating. Really had no idea books like this even existed.

    Now, I was wondering if you can recommend a good book like these but specifically on baking and the chemistry of it?

    And your recipes and the tips they have have become my go-to for new stuff at the moment. Maybe after reading a few more of these and some experimenting, I’ll have a few recipes to post online.