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Essential cookbooks

Over time I have accumulated a fair number of cookbooks, many of them with glossy photos of exciting recipes, usually received as gifts or bought on impulse... and I rarely use them. They're fun to look through, but I just don't really like cooking from a highly specific, out-of-context recipe. As I've been getting more into cooking, I've found that I really enjoy reading (and then cooking from) books that explain different techniques, how ingredients work together, etc - books that "teach" rather than just present a recipe.

I'd like to add some cookbooks to my Christmas list. Which books do you consider essential in every cook's library? Which books have most shaped/influenced the way that you cook? And/or bake, I should add - I'm not much of a baker but I would love to learn more!

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  1. If you are interested in baking you must get "The Bread Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This book offers easy to follow instructions as well as lengthy chapters discussing how different flours and liquids will effect your final product. This book has some great recipes in it, I was not able to bake anything with yeast before I got this book but I am now able to bake any bread recipe from any book because I am better able to understand how the ingredients work together.

    1. I'm not sure if these are essential to everyone, since cooking and tastes and knowledge are so very personal. These are the books (in no particular order) that I use often, really enjoy, and find to be essential to me:
      The Gourmet Cookbook (the yellow one) from Gourmet Magazine. This is a good, basic book with recipes for just about everything. I recommend this to people who are just getting started and need a basics kind of a book.
      Betty Crocker Cookbook: I have my mom's old one and again, use it for a lot of basics, especially with baking (Spritz cookies, Banana Bread). I also recommend this to a lot of beginners.
      The Best Recipes in the World-Mark Bittman: This one has all kinds of ethnic recipes. I turn to it when I want something a little different.
      Everyday Food: Great Food Fast-Martha Stewart Living: I like that this book is broken up into seasons. The recipes are all easy enough to not be intimidating, the ingredients are usually things I have on hand or buy regularly. Nothing in the book takes too long to make. I use this often for weeknight meals.

      1 Reply
      1. re: CeeBee

        CeeBee, I also have my mother's old copy of BC...with an inscription from my father, as it was his gift to her on their first wedding anniversary in 1950 :-). I wonder if he was trying to tell her something, ha ha. (Although by the time I came along, she was a very good cook....) Anyway, that book's a gem, isn't it? Mine is so tattered, the binding is gone, but I still use it frequently, as you say, to find something basic or one of the mid-Century "classics" (cooking or baking) that you just don't find in cookbooks today. I agree it would be very useful to new cooks, for it's pictorial demonstrations of techniques and tips and info on ingredients and equipments. I also treasure my mother's Betty Crocker cookbook for her notations in the margins as to what worked for her and what didn't. :-)

      2. I also love to ask for cookbooks for Christmas! Last year I got The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and Gastronomique. The former I love and highly recommend, as she talks a lot about cooking techniques. The latter is great to have, but quite honestly I have not utilized it much yet.

        Other cookbooks that shaped how I cook are.....

        - Sunday Suppers & Lucques
        - Biba's Northern Italian Cooking
        - Not a cookbook, but I highly recommend a subscription to Saveur.

        I also recommend The Joy of Cooking (for the basics) and The Bread Baker's Apprentice.

        The most highly overrated cookbooks are, in my opinion, Donna Hay's. I actually own a ton, and I hold onto her magazines - the photography is so beautiful, but I find the recipes to be uninteresting. Again, good for basics.

        1. Your request has two different parts to it. Do you want the names of cookbooks that posters to Chowhound like? or Do you want recommended "how to" type cookbooks. The two are not necessarily the same. However, be that as it may . . .

          I'd recommend Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food," which really explains why you use the techniques you do and what happens if you don't. Also, I would recommend Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," either volume I or II.

          I hope this helps.

          1 Reply
          1. re: gfr1111

            I didn't mean to say that I am only interested in "how-to" cookbooks - I am interested in books that people consider to have shaped the way that they cook or to have taught them a lot... they don't necessarily have to have that "how-to" feel, but posters have found them particularly helpful/useful/informative. I hope that kind of makes sense :)

          2. I can't rave enough about Molly Stevens' "The Art of Braising" - a wonderful teaching tool and fabulous recipes. With her instruction you cannot fail! She covers everything from vegetables through most every kind of meat. And encourages the cook to experiment with flavors once you master the techniques. Her book also has wonderful sidebars about shopping for specific ingredients like cuts of meat and how they respond. Her editorial tone is friendly, simple and to the point and makes you want to cook just about everything in the book. Please check it out!

            Julia Child "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is a must for the techniques and recipes. The new edition has somewhat cut the fats of the previous version and made it more friendly to modern tastes and ingredient availability.

            For breadmaking, I would suggest Nancy Silverton's "Breads from the La Brea Bakery" for all things sourdough. Fascinating reading and great tasting! The Cake Bible by Beranbaum is what it says it is - I have made wedding cakes from this book with great success.

            2 Replies
            1. re: dgreenwood

              I appreciate your first recommendation. I've never been a braising person and would love to start. I will add this book to my Amazon wishlist! :-)

              1. re: chowkari

                I second the recommendation for Molly Stevens' book, though I think it's titled "All About Braising" http://www.mollystevenscooks.com/book.... This book taught me how to braise and my life is now happier. It is one of the few reasons that I'm actually looking forward to another Midwest winter! If you don't already have a large dutch oven such as a Le Cruset, a 6-8 quart dutch oven and this cookbook would be the perfect gift.

                Another favorite book/gift combo is the Williams Sonoma Ice Cream cookbook and a small Cuisinart ice cream maker. This cookbook taught me the fundamentals of homemade ice cream, and my husband's life has been happier ever since!

                Phoo-D
                http://www.phoo-d.com