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What's the right cookbook for me?

I'm new to the cooking world and I want to find a good cookbook to guide me along. The facts; I'm a bachelor, relative newbie, and have a tiny kitchen with minimal space and equipment and I have two jobs so there are time issues as well. Given these details, what would be a good cookbook for me? Also, as I live in Canada, more obscure titles may not be available here. Thanks so much!

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  1. Considering Mark Bittman is a minimalist, I think his book How To Cook Everything would be a good one for you.

    Even though Amazon doesn't have it anymore, you can buy it used or on other websites. It's a pretty popular book.


    1 Reply
    1. re: Miss Needle

      Mark Bittman is a good idea. How to Cook Everything is kind of a comprehensive cookbook with everything. Kind of a reference book.

      You might want to look at the two minimalist cookbooks by Mark Bittman also. They are shorter books, not covering the waterfront but some good ideas for things that are fresh, and don't take a lot of time. I'm sure they are probably out of print also but should be readily available used, I would think.

    2. I wonder if Chapters (bookstore) carries discounted Hermes House (HH) cookbooks. These are well illustrated cookbooks from a UK publisher.

      You may have to try several books to find something that fits your learning style and food likes. Bittman's cook everything is not illustrated but quite comprehensive. Joy of Cooking is another general purpose book, with a limited number of line drawings. For many pictures help, but I'd stay away from ones that print a recipe on one page, and pretty photo of the finished dish on the next. For learning, step by step pictures are better, as well as illustrated discussions of the ingredients.

      2 Replies
      1. re: paulj

        Chapters definitely DID carry discounted HH cookbooks. I'm sitting here looking through Valerie Ferguson's "Vegetarian: 500 Sensational blah blah..." that I got for $14.99 on clearance. This particular book has great photos (at least 3/4 of the recipes have color photos) but it's kind of... traditional... and it's in UK English (you probably can't go to Safeway in Saskatoon and expect the produce guy to know what a "swede" is!).

      2. My first, back in my batchelor days when I was trying to entice young ladies over to dine, was The Joy of Cooking. It just has so much in it - recipes, techniques, utensils, health issues

        1. Simply Vegan and Lorna Sass' Short-Cut Vegetarian have quick, easy, healthy recipes. If you have a pressure cooker or can get one, Lorna Sass' Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure.

          1. A good place for random cookbooks in Canada is Winners. If you have one nearby you should go and browse their cookbook section to find one that actually meshes with your cooking style. I have one called Pantry Raid by Dana McCauley that you might like, as its general premise is that you can make most of the recipes with stuff you would always have on hand. I think it's a Canadian book, but don't quote me on it.

            1. Don't forget your public library. You can borrow cookbooks and give them a test run before purchasing.

              1. The New Canadian Basics Cookbook. Great cookbook, comprehensive but not gigantic. Has a lot of recipes but doesn't assume you know how/want to do everything. I'm in a similar situation to you and I definitely use this book a lot.

                1 Reply
                1. I think The Best 30-Minute Recipe by Cooks Illustrated is a great beginners cookbook. It's got a good range of techniques, and the recipes really do stick pretty close to the 30 minute goal.

                  It's the first cookbook I've gotten my mom that she actually likes and uses.

                  1. I agree that The Joy of Cooking is still useful, although a little antiquated. You might also try James Beard's American Cooking and The New York Times has an anthology of modern cooking that is a somewhat updated Joy of Cooking. When you develop more enthusiasm, you could also try the Silver Palate cookbooks.

                    Bon Appetit!

                    1. I have to recommend my all time favorite, and good for new cooks or experienced cooks as well: The Way to Cook by Julia Child. I think this is the best cookbook for almost everything you might want to cook. Explanations and recipes are very clear and there are also lots of pictures.

                      1. Why do you think you need a cookbook?

                        Cooking is about doing -- not reading.

                        15 Replies
                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          Well, if you are new to cooking, it can be helpful to have a cookbook as a guide, at the very least, or as a manual to teach you techniques, temperatures at which to cook things for the best results, etc.

                          1. re: MMRuth

                            I disagree, respectfully.

                            I think the best way to learn how to cook is to just do it. If you have questions, ask someone.

                            Plus, cooking is all about exploration and progressing in baby steps.

                            For example:

                            Learn to make PB&J
                            Learn to make a grilled cheese sandwich
                            Make french toast
                            Make Monte Cristo

                            If the OP has questions, he can ask a friend or relative (e.g. mom, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, etc.)

                            Plus, with the internet, the best way to learn to cook (other than asking questions) is to do a simple search on Youtube or other video aggregrator sites and watch something being made.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              I guess I don't see what is wrong with having a cookbook to, say, tell you, what ingredients to use for the french toast and in what proportion, or what temperature to cook the french toast at, etc., rather than winging it and ruining a couple of batches before you get it right, though I do agree that one could simply do a search online, as you suggest. For whatever reason - maybe I'm getting old - I really don't use the internet much to find recipes, and I like the point of view that many cookbooks have. For me, it's easier to have a book that I know is tried and true as a reference point when cooking, rather than going on line, finding a bunch of recipes and choosing one.

                              And - some people don't have anyone to ask. Though my Mom was a good American home cook, she rarely cooks anymore, and on the rare occasions that I do ask her something, she asks me "Why are you asking me - you're the one that cooks all the time." None of my other relatives would be much help either, frankly.

                              I also enjoy browsing through cookbooks for inspiration more so that I do surfing the net - but, again, that may be an age thing.

                              1. re: MMRuth


                                I don' think it's an age thing. I also enjoy browsing through a cookbook, but only to gawk at the food porn, so to speak, or to learn about different cuisines.

                                But to actually learn how to cook, I think cookbooks are an awkward, if not a totally inappropriate, tool.

                                At the risk of being deleted by the mods, cooking is like making love. Would you want a lover that learned her "amore" by reading a book? For some, maybe, but me? Nope.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  I guess since I taught myself to cook using a cookbook (The Way to Cook, with help from Marcella Hazan), it's the way that makes the most sense to me. Won't go to the other place. <grin>

                                  On the other hand, my husband never uses a cookbook - and while some of his results are great, some are not. I like consistency, and over the years, have learned how to ad lib as well, using the base I learned from cookbooks.

                                  1. re: MMRuth

                                    Can you write more about how you taught yourself to cook? That might be helpful for others who are not interested in using cookbooks.

                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      Well, I'm probably a bad example.

                                      I literally grew up in restaurants. Probably learned to de-vein and butterfly shrimp before I learned how to ride a bike.

                                      Both of my parents were chefs and our family owned restaurants of various types and sizes. I spent most of my summers in the kitchen, doing everything from cutting vegetables, to marinating meats, to making Chinese dumplings and hand-pulled noodles, to baking desserts and cakes.

                                      And when my parents retired, I ended up working at a bakery during college to make ends meet.

                                      Never bought a cookbook in my life, never even owned one. Don't even have written recipes. I do it just like the way my mom taught me -- from memory and experience.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        That's very helpful - it sounds like you grew up "seeing" how to cook, and learned that way, which is a wonderful thing to be able to do. But, I do think lots of people don't have that experience, and so for them (as, at least, for me), cookbooks are "in loco parentis", so to speak.

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                Different people have different ways of learning of course, but as someone who just recently (as one of my 2008 resolutions) got serious about learning to cook--I 100% agree that you cannot learn to cook without actually, well, cooking. But, I also have to agree with MMRuth that a well organized, well-edited, well-tested cookbook that takes you through all of the steps and techniques is tremendously helpful. While making mistakes is certainly essential to the learning process, so are enough successes to make you feel like you want to continue and that you aren't completely hopeless. Plus, how painful it is to a Chowhound to have to eat bad or mediocre chow (and feed it to your loved ones!) because that's all you were capable of producing...

                                It is so confusing/frustrating for a beginning cook to read a sloppy recipe that has the steps all out of order, introduces an ingredient in the instructions that wasn't on the ingredient list (or vice versa--never tells you when to add those scallions you chopped!)...and so on.

                                And the nice thing about a cookbook that takes you through techniques and ingredients progressively knows which things you should know by chapter 5 (assuming you have read Ch's 1-4) and which techniques you know and which you don't yet know.

                                I think the internet (hello Chowhound!) is fantastically helpful, and I do use often use recipe sites, but prefer those like epicurious or allrecipes where the recipes are ranked by the users... (I read all the user comments to those recipes, too, because there are usually some consensus that the liquid needs to be reduced or the cooking time lenthened, etc., too.) But, at the end of the day, I nearly always run back to the comfort of my basic cookbooks...

                                I, like MMRuth, would love to hear ipsedixit, how you taught yourself to cook. Maybe I can pick up a thing or two!

                                I recently bought Alice Waters "Art of Simple Food"--I've been reading it (haven't cooked from it yet) and it's really lovely. Not as comprehensive as Bittman's, but not overwhelming either. The focus is on choosing ingredients and on learning techniques through using foundation recipes that don't require a lot of specialized equipment. The book includes a nice intro section on choosing ingredients, stocking your pantry, etc. To ziggystardust, you might have a peek at this book next time you're at the bookstore (or, as someone said upthread, at the library!) to see if it would suit you.

                                Good luck and don't forget to come back to the Home Cooking board to let us know how your cooking progresses, regardless of how you decide to proceed.

                                Let me also put in a plug for the "Cookbook of the Month" project we have going on here on Chowhound. If you want to cook "in community" the Cookbook of the Month (refer to the threads "stickied" to the top of the Home Cooking board) is a great way to dive in to new cuisines.


                                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                  Along this same idea, a cookbook is really just guidance. It won't do the cooking for you. Sometimes you can follow a recipe to the tee and it just doesn't turn out. Could be difference in equipment, quality of ingredients, or just plain inexperience in knowing what to expect.

                                  1. re: Jen76

                                    HA, Jen76, if only the cookbook did the cooking! I completely agree with all of your points, which is exactly why I like the Waters book with her focus on how to select high-quality ingredients and using minimal specialized equipment (also helpful for someone with a small kitchen). Also, I think that a good cookbook does describe to you what to expect, although, again, the author isn't there in the kitchen with you.

                                    One time, many years ago, I was baking Christmas cookies--a double batch. And I spaced out and only added the normal amount of flour instead of double the flour. It's a dumb example of a dumb mistake, really, but I really couldn't understand why my dough was so sticky (and, frankly, didn't even know it was "wrong", I just thought it was annoying to make this kind of cookie) until my mom came in and said, "Whoa, looks like you forgot to double the flour" --someone who knows what to expect knows when something's gone wrong and often how to fix it. This is the part of cooking where there is no substitute for experience, although, as ipsedixit points out, maybe looking at a "how to" video online might help you visualize how something is supposed to look. I think that's why television cooking shows are so popular, too.

                                    I have to say, when I encounter imprecise instructions in a recipe, it just sends me into a panic. The other day I was making a bitter melon recipe from Dunlop and she says to slice the melon into thin strips, but she didn't say how thin--paper thin? 1/8 inch? 1/4 inch? How thin?! The problem is, I've never cooked with or even eaten bitter melon before, so I had no idea how this dish was supposed to turn out, so, it's not like I could even adjust my cooking time shorter or longer to compensate for having cut my melon too thin/not thin enough. In the end, I just went, "Huh. Bitter melon. Very bitter (truth in advertising, that's for sure!) and kinda crunchy". Is that how Dunlop imagined the dish? I have no idea. I love Dunlop's books and thanks to advice and support from my fellow home cooking hounds I've been able to work through a lot of my confusion with those recipes, but her books are examples of the kinds of books I would not recommend to a beginner (unless that beginner had access to the wonderful chowhound community, of course!) simply because I think she's not precise enough in a lot of her instructions.


                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                      Precisely why I like cookbooks with pictures. I suppose it's shallow sounding, but if I don't have a picture to reference, my often limited attention span has trouble grasping the idea of the recipe. Pictures inspire me as well as provide guidance as to how the finished product should appear.

                                  2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    DQ, you're most supportive, thank you! I will report back. So far so good, I do get intimidated by complex recipes though.

                              3. re: ipsedixit

                                I agree, but I still think I need some guidance to avoid newbie faux pas.

                                1. re: ziggystardust

                                  Interesting discussion...It's like bacon and eggs, you cook the bacon until it's done and then crack the eggs and cook them the way you like them and eat but what if you want biscuits? There is technique involved with a more complex set of ingredients and different preparation requirements. Sure you can just throw together some flour and liquid and hope for the best but it won't work out. You need a cookbook the first few times you make the biscuits just to figure out what goes where and how the puzzle goes together. After you get the basic recipe figured out, then you can say let's throw a little cheese in there and see what that tastes like, or maybe crumble up some bacon and add that in. You learn by doing but you really need to know what to do to get the best results. It's like the "Pirates Code" a recipe is a code but some folks just figure that they are guidelines. How do you know how to make pancakes(I'm a breakfast person, does it show) you follow a recipe and then you end up with pancakes. After you've made them a few times then you just throw them together, but you want something more, with the experience you've gained making the basic recipe, you think "Well, I can spice this up a bit" and you throw a 1/4 tsp of cinnamon in the batter. It's not in the recipe but it elevates the pancakes to a higher level because you had the experience of making the basics. After you've cooked for a while you understand what works with what and you can "throw something together" and have it work out. You have to build your knowledge base and experience level by walking before you run. I started playing in the kitchen with my Grandmama when I was 6 years old, and I'm 57 now and I'm just now comfortable saying I can cook some good grub better than most but not as good as some.