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cookbook for beginner cook - help!

please advise me.
my better half has requested a cookbook for her birthday, and i am not sure what to get her.

she has very little cooking experience - especially compared to me. i've worked in professional kitchens for years, though i no longer do. it has become a bit of a joke in our relationship how i do all the cooking - however, i don't neccesarily want it to be that way forever. i did leave the industry for a reason, after all.

the cookbook needs to be easy. nothing should take a long time or sound intimidating. it should look appealing - i think it would need to have pictures in order to inspire her to use it. it should seem accessible. my favorite books are useless to her - partly because she does not have the ability to look at a recipe and then visualize / taste it, partly because they have technical stuff that sounds scary to her, and partly because i use them anyway.

any thoughts for me, hounds? i know you'll have a great idea.

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  1. My favorite beginner and overall basic cookbook is the Better Homes and Gardens one (it's red and white checked on the cover). I received mine at a bridal shower in 1985 and now it's held together with rubber bands, but it got me started in my early cooking days and is still a good go-to book.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Janet from Richmond

      Yes - that's the one I gave my sister - the illustrated version. There was a recent thread on this subject - will try to find it.

      I taught myself to cook using Julia Child's The Way to Cook and Marcella Hazan.

        1. re: MMRuth

          I have a number of the other cookbooks recommended - or have looked at them - but the good thing about this one is the illustrations, and v.straightforward instructions.

    2. The Joy of Cooking. My absolute fave.

      8 Replies
      1. re: diablo

        My fave was the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

        1. re: SAnativegirl

          I have that one too. It's also a great resource.

        2. re: diablo

          I'll second the Joy of Cooking. I used to be a chef, and I still use it for ideas. My teenage daughter is using it. A *lot* of information from the beginner to the expert.

            1. re: rfneid

              Just to clarify: the book needs to be inspiring, but it doesn't need to be comprehensive at all. i too love joy of cooking, and taught myself out of marcella hazan and julia, but these books don't hold her interest. she doesn't want to become an expert. she just wants to make me dinner once in a while and not have it take four hours to do it. she's never going to be the kind of person who cooks very frequently. so i think i need to buy her a book that i wouldn't otherwise own, you know? i just can't stomach rachel ray, but something like that, i think. it definitely needs to have appealing food porn-style pictures, though. thoughts?

              1. re: pigtails

                I would buy her Matha Stewart's Healthy Quick Cook or Mark Bittman's From Simple to Spectacular. Martha's book is great because everything is laid out by season and by a whole meal. For example, she'll have a meat, side and dessert listed together. The pictures are really appealing. I'm a professional cook, and I look to this cookbook pretty frequently (aka, when my pants are feeling tight :)

                From Simple to Spectacular has gorgeous pictures and the recipes are easy to follow.

                1. re: pigtails

                  Since you want something that will tempt her to cook, think about the food that gets her drooling, and look for a basic cookbook in that style with decent production values. That is, if she loves Italian, get her a Giada cookbook, and so on.

            2. re: diablo

              I love the Joy of Cooking and I would go for one of the spiral bound copies. It is the book I consult when i just want to know simple thigns like, how long do I need to bake a sweet potato. It is also the book I go to when I need to know how to do something harder, like when I attempted to make an almond torte. It covers an amazing amount of topics and can be consulted for an hour or ten seconds.

            3. You might also consider a subscription to Everyday Food. An appealing magazine with pictures and good but simple recipes.


              2 Replies
              1. re: fern

                I heartily agree! What a great little magazine -- fun, easy recipes, that are also imaginative and tasty. mmmm. I've picked up lots of cool ideas there over the years - I first discovered sauteed grape tomatoes in Everyday Food, and my mom is always finding cool healthy alternatives to make for my sister from EF. Everything is under 30 minutes.

                1. re: fern

                  I heartily second Everyday Food. Great photos, simple recipes, menu ideas, ingredient info. And not at all intimidating. I usually don't end up using the recipes myself, as they seem TOO simple, but for people who really never cook, I think it provides easy, tasty recipes.

                2. any of the Jamie Oliver cookbooks, especially The Naked Chef and Happy Days with the Naked Chef. the photography is beautiful (and inspiring!), the recipes are simple yet impressive, and if anyone can make someone want to cook more, it's Jamie Oliver. he actually talks about how sexy mozzarella and basil are.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Sophia.

                    I'd second those exact two books, since the OP specified simple, attractive recipes. Jamie's recipes are really simple and very good. Here in the UK, we're a bit fed up with him by now, but that doesn't change the fact that the books really are great. Easy recipes that always produce impressive results.

                    I'd also go with Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, which I recommend often. She's not a chef, she's a home cook, and every recipe in this book is the kind of thing that's manageable for normal people who love delicious food but don't have loads of time or expertise. There's a big focus on stress-free and enjoyable. The book is also helpfully divided into sections like cooking for one or two, cooking in advance, fast meals, weekend meals, etc.

                    I definitely don't recommend JoC for a beginner. I love the book and use it myself, but to someone who's a little intimidated, it can seem impenetrable. You could find yourself looking at it and going "Where do I begin??!". I think the Jamie Oliver and Nigella approaches are much gentler and aimed at giving the inexperienced cook confidence. Once you have the confidence, you can handle any recipe.

                  2. I second or third the joy of cooking its a must have . If I could only have one cookbook forever. However unless a reprint has more pics its not the most stimulating cookbook. Does she have a particular cuisine that she is facinated by.... I sense u have the basics covered. If you do most of the savory cooking maybe a great cookie book - something you don't ussually do so she can feel like she's doing something diff. I have a pizza cookbook that I think is silly, everyone that doesn't cook loves it because of the pictures and simplcity.

                    1. The Williams-Sonoma books are routinely discounted at Borders and would be a good option for her. They offer full color pictures and take the reader through each recipe step by step, providing ample instruction and demonstration. The wonderful thing about this series is that they allow her to build up her courage and focus on one thing at a time rather than try to tackle everything at once.

                      You can view many titles from the collection here:


                      1. Is The Silver Spoon to advanced? It was a traditional gift for Italian wives about to start their domestic lives and runs the gamut from simple and satisfying to exotic and impressive.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: JungMann

                          The Way to Cook by Julia Child. It's a monster, but it has great photos.

                          I grew up on the Betty Crocker cookbook and can't recommend it too highly.

                          1. re: JungMann

                            I like the Silver Spoon, but I think it makes a lot of assumptions about the knowledge of the user - wouldn't recommend it for a novice cook.

                          2. Why not a subscription to a food magazine instead? Lots of pictures to look at. I find that surprisingly Cooking Light has great recipes and a bunch that are of the "30-minute" variety. Plus you can get re-inspired every month to make a few new things. Another good one would be Cook's Country, which unlike it's sister Cook's Illustrated, is more geared toward cooks like your better half, lots of shortcuts and pretty pictures.

                            If you definitely want a cookbook - you might try one of Giada's. I can't remember which one I have, I don't end up making very much out of it, but it has lovely pictures of food and she's not into hard stuff that takes forever.

                            1. I don't know if you have access to canadian cookbooks (through amazon.ca would work too) but the Dieticians of Canada published two great cookbooks Cook great food and something like More great food. Both use everyday recipes which work out each time (very encouraging if you are a novice cook). The first one has, I think, the best banana bread recipe I ever tried - just for that recipe, it's worth buying the book!

                              2 Replies
                                1. re: pâté chinois

                                  Are you familiar with Chowhound's Cookbook of the Month? The November pick is The Silver Palate, which I would strongly suggest as a book for beginners. It was one of the books that got me cooking all those years ago. Though it doesn't have any pictures, no doubt many will soon be posted in the COTM threads. Plus, she'll get lots of inspiration and encouragement from all the folks cooking from it and reporting.

                              1. Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" is a great beginner's cookbook, but it doesn't have a lot of pretty pictures. However, it can teach you have to do just about anything basic in the kitchen. First cookbook I owned after realizing that my apartment had a kitchen and that I had no meal plan anymore, at the ripe old age of 19! :)

                                1. Joy of Cooking (classic with intro and more advanced recipes, spells out everything), America's Test Kitchen (great techniques on classic recipes), or Everyday Food magazine.

                                  1. The things I love about Nigella Lawson's How to Eat is she talks you through the recipes, effectively doing the visualization of the process and outcome through a nice narrative. And also that while some of them are of the extended complex variety many many of them are not. Many of them are about when one just cannot be bothered to fuss in the kitchen. And so she will help her understand about that, and that both varieties are okay. and also (okay third thing), because its a nice read, it won't feel like a mechanical how to. really, i find nigella the most assuring. and i have a crush on her.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: drdawn

                                      She's gorgeous... her way with words is gorgeous, her food is divine. What a treat it is to read Nigella's cookbooks. She just glows.

                                    2. I would recommend Jacque Pepin's Fast Food My Way.. http://www.amazon.com/Jacques-Pepin-F...

                                      Some wonderful idea's, easy to execute.

                                      1. I would recommend Ina Garten's "Barefoot Contessa Family Style: Easy Ideas and Recipes That Make Everyone Feel Like Family" (Amazon link --> http://tinyurl.com/ywcycf ) Big photos and lots of them, easy recipes.

                                        For something smaller, try Joanna Farrow's "The Cook's Encyclopedia of Four Ingredient Cooking". Amazon link --> http://tinyurl.com/yoybpb ) This is one of a series of smaller cookbooks published by Barnes & Noble. The photography is outstanding and clear, the recipes are simple, and the book is printed on thick, glossy paper so it's darn sexy. The jacket is flexible and brightly colored, so it feels a bit "friendlier" than some massive, hardbound tome.

                                        If she likes online stuff, I suggest a subscription to rouxbe.com, a Canadian-based instructional cooking video site I enjoy. Great graphics, clear video, simple steps carefully explained, interesting recipes. They're just getting started so they are adding 1-2 recipes per week.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: KenWritez

                                          I would recommend any of the Barefoot Contessa books, but particularly the original.

                                        2. Even though I'm "competent" in a kitchen I love the Cooks Illustrated books. They teach alot of they why's. I think they give alot of knowledge so they help when you aren't using recipes. The magazine is what I will be giving some family this Chirstmas.

                                          1. I recommend: Susan Spungen "Recipes", simple, good w/ lots of pics. She says they're the recipes she returns to again and again. Formerly w/ the Martha Stewart empire. They're do-able simple dishes, though w/ flavor. She'll have confidence in no time!

                                            Also perhaps: Cooking at Home by the CIA.

                                            I would recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything over Joy of Cooking once she wants to expand her repetoire. It's alot more up to date. It goes from very simple techniques (w/ explanations) with more complex variations, and is pretty laid back.

                                            1. Though I like the Joy of Cooking and Fanny Farmer each as great all-around references, for a beginner, The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook may be the way to go. In the front, there is a photo of every single recipe and there are sketches interspersed with the recipes, which might be helpful and/or inspiring for a beginner.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Shayna Madel

                                                I was surprised that you were the first to suggest the Good Housekeeping cookbook. It was one of the first cookbooks I owned and I still reference it when I have a basic question. The pictures in the front are a great idea and the instructions are very clear and simple.

                                                My second favorite would be JC's The Way to Cook. I think it might be a little intimidating for a beginner though.

                                              2. The Cook's Bible, by Christopher Kimball is my go to book for people who are afraid to cook. The pictures aren't pretty and they aren't a lot of recipes. But what there is are basic with a very good explanation of why the recipe should be that way. There is a perfectionist quality that can be a bit overdone, but I think it is a good fundamental book. It also does not assume any knowledge base and the chapters on cuts of meat, etc. can be very helpful.

                                                1. My wife really likes the Fast __ books from Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison. Lots of pretty pictures, not too many ingredients, not too fussy prep.

                                                  1. Whichever cookbook you decide on, I recommend Cook's Illustrated Magazine as a companion - lots of techniques explained in beginner terms, and good, basic recipes in a no-fail format, every other month.

                                                    1. As I said in another post, I second the magazine subscription. That way each month she can get inspired anew just by opening the mailbox, whereas with a cookbook she actually has to decide to cook first, then find a recipe . . .I like Food and Wine and also Cooks Illustrated. The two (or three) cookbooks that got me started were actually Silver Palate(s), as their descriptions are really inspirational . . .

                                                      the other thing that really makes me want to cook is the food section of the Times on Wednesdays, if you're around the NY metro area.

                                                      One more idea: you might also get her a notebook so that she can print recipes out she finds online and has somewhere to keep them.

                                                      1. For inspiration, I love Starting With Ingredients. This Christmas, I'm hoping to get the latest Gourmet cookbook.

                                                        Sometimes, I like to browse through my collection of cookbooks compiled by churches, schools, and organizations. No one contributes lousy recipes to these.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: mamaciita

                                                          I agree! On this note, you could compile your own version of this... contact all of your friends, relatives, etc and explain that you would like each to contribute three stellar-yet-easy-to-prepare recipes, each from a different course. As mamaciita says, no one will contribute a flop-recipe, and that way the recipes will be infused with the sentimental value too. I have been trying to get my mom to do this for years... she wants to design it with some fancy computer layout, but I think photocopying the original handwritten recipes is much cuter and more personal. Ask your NON-chef friends on this one, right? :) You coul also ask your friends to ask their moms for favorite recipes... classics can always be freshened up and updated, and cozy favorites never go out of style. Busy moms know how to pu good food on a table, fast. Likewise, for a new cook, putting a definite star-recipe on the table is so reassuring.

                                                          I would suggest getting her Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone, too, for a great food memoir, and a read about the passion of cooking for loved ones, creating delightful food that the home cook can make. I love her books! This is in keeping with the theme of food coming from community, culinary techniques learned from friends and family, a collaborative process of growing. :)


                                                          1. re: foxy fairy

                                                            I just finished Tender at the Bone--what a great read!!

                                                            1. re: mamaciita

                                                              She's just delightful, isn't she? Have you tried any of her recipes?

                                                              1. re: foxy fairy

                                                                I haven't, and I borrowed her books from the library, but I'm thinking of buying them for the recipes (and for my kids to read in a few years--oldest is now 6).

                                                                Have you? I want to make her Artpark Brownies, among others.

                                                        2. I second Cooking Light magazine and any of Ina Garten's books. I have Fast Food My way but I still haven't used it...

                                                          1. For a beginner cook, I would recommend the Betty Crocker cook book.
                                                            The important thing is to have illustrations and general techniques.

                                                            Books that are all text and recipes can be overwhelming for a beginning cook. Besides, with the internet, these types of cook books are kind of obsolete imho.

                                                            Also, I must be the only one who thinks The Joy of Cooking is way over-rated.
                                                            The recipes work, but seem toned down or even bland when you follow the recipe.

                                                            1. I wonder if these wouldn't fit.

                                                              Jacques Pepin Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin and Ben Fink

                                                              Jacques Pepin Fast Food My Way Set of 3 DVDs by Jacques Pepin

                                                              Jacques Pepin's Simple and Healthy Cooking by Jacques Pepin

                                                              The Short-Cut Cook: Make Simple Meals with Surprisingly Little Effort by Jacques Pepin

                                                              1. I also like Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, and Cookwise.

                                                                1. Jacque Pepin's Complete Techniques -- I am a beginner cook and I have learned a countless number of great tips from this book. It will teach you how to cook the right way.

                                                                  Also, I second Bittman's How to Cook Everything. I know some disparage his recipes, but I have only had success and this book is perfect for those nights when you have ingredients on hand but have no idea what to cook.


                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: Eddie H.

                                                                    I've heard raves about that book, and maybe I should take another glance at it. But when I was paging through it last year to (maybe) put it on my Christmas list, I really wasn't that impressed. Maybe that's because I thought it seemed meat-heavy and I'm much more likely to cook a lot of vegetables (former veggie) than a lot of meat. I'm not a beginner cook, but I didn't think I'd end up making a lot of his recipes -- they just didn't strike me as WOW.

                                                                    Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is fantastic -- comprehensive, breaking down each ingredient and offering multiple preparations. It's great, as Eddie says of Mark, to whip on-hand ingredients into something magical, and I've discovered all sorts of new twists on my favorite vegetables.

                                                                    I learned to cook from a combination of The Moosewood Cookbook (original) and my mom's recipes, plus calls to my mom for assistance. :) Moosewood is a great cookbook to start out -- fun and sassy, with great ideas on creative pastas, soups, casseroles, dressings, sauces, fantastic brownies, even funky sandwiches.

                                                                  2. As others have suggested, I agree THE JOY of COOKING is one every cook should have. It covers all the basics and is a great reference even for the more experienced cook.

                                                                    1. Early in my career I learned a lot from Jaques Pepin's La Technique and La Methode.
                                                                      And belive it or not the Time Life Series called The Good Cook. Both series of books have lots of step by step pictures, great recipes and great instructions.
                                                                      The Time Life series has about 20 books in it and can be bought pretty cheap at used book sellers.

                                                                      1. 1. Get the DVDs from America's Test Kitchen. Live action beats pictures.
                                                                        2. Practice a lot. Repeating the same dish over and over is more important than obsessing over the right book, IMHO.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: NAtiveNewYorker

                                                                          That's so true, NNY! It's like anything else (dance, sports, art) -- practice first, then add your own flair. Once you've mastered the basic technique for a dish and you understand how the flavors work together, the creativity can take off, as you embellish the dish with your own touch!

                                                                        2. On another thread, toodie jane reminded me of something. Maybe "better half" would be best served with this address: http://thepioneerwomancooks.com/
                                                                          It's a fun read, the food is good, substantial, often bordering on classic, and the recipes are very detailed with many, many pictures. When Pioneer Woman lists ingredients, she also has a picture of them!
                                                                          Really, this is it!!

                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                          1. I like Betty Crocker's Cooking Basics. My mom gave it to me when I got my first apartment in collage. 14 years later I still refer to it now and then.