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Recommend a cookbook for a VERY novice cook?

Hey all,

I'm looking for a cookbook (recipe book? instructor book?) for a friend as a gift. This person has not been around the kitchen much, and although likes cooking, is prone to following the instruction to the dot (in both a good way and the bad -- she once burnt chili because i told her to stir about once every 5-10 minutes, and she timed herself for 7.5, and as the liquid reduced...)

Anyway. I want her to expand her repetoire of recipes, something fun, easy, simple (we're both college students), and a good introduction to cooking.


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  1. I don't know is "The Joy of Cooking" still the cook book bible?

      1. Hi,

        I would recommend the Sunset cookbook "Easy Basics for Good Cooking". Not sure if it is still in print, but I've found older copies at Amazon...good luck!

        1. My favourite is Julie Van Rosendaal's "Starting Out: The Essential Guide to Cooking On Your Own." I think it fits what you're looking for to a T. Besides (really good) recipes that usually also have "what else to do with it" and "what to do with leftovers" segments, it has a section on how to choose fruits & vegetables and one on damage control, defines cooking terms in plain language, gives you "mom tips" (eg. how to chop an onion without crying) and has menu suggestions. It's available at Amazon here: www.amazon.com/Starting-Out-Essential...

          Also pretty good, and with tips, are "Cooking Outside the Pizza Box" by Jean Patterson and Danae Campbell and Company Coming's "The Rookie Cook by Jean Paré.

          1. oh-oh... this is a great question. the flip side is that you may get too many suggestions as everyone throws in 2.5¢ (me too)... anyway, America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook would be a great gift. FC has over a thousand basic (read this as traditional/classic) American recipes (or good mods to other cooking styles) with easy to read text and color photos. This is an ideal book for someone starting to cook or for someone who's been cooking since the... well, a long time.

            List price is about $35 but it's often on sale at Amazon, the ATK/Cook's Illustrated website, or other booksellers.

            It's a ring bound book so you can take out a page if you wish. Most recipes are very straightforward and do not require any special skills or exotic or unusual ingredients. FC recipes include cooking (from apps to desserts) and baking (breads, cookies, cakes, pies). There's also an excellent menu planning section with suggested menus for full up meals as well as a real index.

            If someone follows the recipes exactly (sounds like your friend), the dishes will come out as advertised. If you've seen the ATK shows on PBS, you know how they test each recipe a <large number here> times. Now, people may agree or not whether something turns out awesomely good or just so-so (or not even that) but that's a separate issue. As noted, the focus is pretty American classic/traditional.

            My experience has been consistently positive. I've had more than a few requests for a "how'dja make that".

            This is also a good book for someone on a budget since the authors seem alert to good outcomes at modest costs.

            3 Replies
            1. re: jcr1

              I love my Best Recipes book and had said, prior to "meeting" CH, that if I were starting out cooking, that would probably be the first cookbook I'd buy. I'm a recipe follower and rarely feel the need to create. As I've said, they PAY those people to write those books :)

              1. re: c oliver

                I would second Best Recipes. It is so reliable and reads essentially like lab notes so it not only tells you the how but the why. Very useful for the novice!

              2. re: jcr1

                I have one of the America's Test Kitchen cookbooks. I'm beyond the novice cook stage (in years if not in skills) and I find my ATK cookbook invaluable when making many classic recipes. Any cookbook that expends two pages telling you how to make potato salad (including half a page about the best way to hard boil eggs) is pretty thorough.

              3. James Beard's "Theory & Practice of Good Cooking".

                Each chapter is devoted to explaining a method of cooking (Frying, Roasting, Braising, Baking, etc.) and then has recipes using that technique. It was my "Cooking 101". Amazon has copies.

                1. timing is everything. no recipes per se, but how long it takes to cook everything. an invaluable aid to breaking out of just using recipes to learning techniques.

                  1. I'm with monku. Give your friend "The Joy of Cooking."

                    I was given that book at age 16 and I still refer to it over 30 years later.

                    Sure, there are some extremely complex recipes in there. But there are also instructions for boiling an egg, making tea, frying a hamburger, etc. They give delightfully thorough instructions for blanching, peeling and seeding tomatoes -- all sorts of good stuff like that. And I don't know if the current editions include the recipe, but my old "Joy" has complete instructions for preparing squirrel, muskrat and groundhog.

                    "Joy" is a cookbook with "about" ingredients sections that're actually a good read. Your friend will cherish this book for many years to come if she's a blossoming foodie right now.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: shaogo

                      I still have my mother's from the early 40s. How to pluck a chicken.

                      1. re: c oliver


                        If I recall correctly, the older editions have complete instructions for dealing with a hedgehog's quills.

                    2. "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. It's what I gave my daughter when she moved out, and she has never stopped thanking me for it.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: mcf

                        +1. It's the book my mom gave me for Christmas the year after I graduated from college. I'm now on my second copy, having abused my first one into oblivion. Joy is good to have a some point, but a little musty for a college kid's first book.

                        1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                          Ditto here. Gave Bittman's tome to a couple of people over the years and they've constantly referred back to it.

                        2. re: mcf

                          My roommate has this cookbook and it's awesome...great, easy recipes!

                        3. Another vote for "Joy of Cooking". Remember when I realized I had no idea what temp and how long it took for a baked potato - good old Joy came through. Many many moons ago lol!!!

                          1. Betty Crocker is a good basic book. We have a1970's version that I still refer to when timing anything I roast. It's good for classic basic food, how to organize a whole meal and basic times, temperatures and measurements.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: LikestoEatout

                              I find some of the older books do the 'so many minutes a pound' instruction rather than internal temp for meats. Can be SO off as to ruin something.

                            2. The New Fannie Farmer, by Marion Cunningham. Comprehensive, easy to follow, not going to blindside with hard to find ingredients, great explanation of techniques. I'll also add a plug for "The Way to Cook", an outstanding teaching book; the videos of the same name are now out on DVD.

                              1. Joy of Cooking or Bittmans How to Cook Everything

                                1. bittman's how to cook everything, deborah madison's vegetarian cooking for everyone.

                                  if the person wouldn't feel weird receiving it (picturing college students giggling) i'd get them one of the illustrated good housekeeping cookbooks. check these out. they have step by step pix to guide the novice cook, and the recipes are solid, well-tested, and simple-- which equals success and increased confidence for a beginning cook.

                                  1. I second The Joy of Cooking, especially if you can find an older edition. I've been cooking out of the 70's edition since high school, and I find it indispensable. My other suggestion is the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. I also had that one in high school and those two books taught me how to cook.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: northside food

                                      Hereinabove I advocated Joy of Cooking. I stand by that recommendation.

                                      However, Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook (I have my mother's ring-binder from the 1960's) also includes great pictorial instructions. It also has a great recipe for baked macaroni and cheese -- I've never seen anyting similar.

                                    2. It is "Martha Stewart's Cooking School".

                                      This is not a "BIBLE" but an excellent beginner cookbook to whom being overwhelmed by cookbooks without beautiful photoes.

                                      A full of photoes and step by step explanations. Good resource for new ingrediences to beginners.

                                      There are not so many recipes but few good basic recipes to make a first step on. This book is a one of the finalist for 2009 James Beard Cookbook Award - general reference.

                                      You can find a copy at your local TJ-max and Homegoods. Less than the Amazon price.

                                      1. Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis

                                        1. Julia Child's "How to Cook" would be my first choice, although there are some great contenders here. What did you decide on?

                                          1. Bittman's HT Cook Everything--excellent, accessible, thorough, contemporary.

                                            1. I also like Juila Child's "The Way To Cook". It has always been one of my favorites.
                                              That said, Bittman's book as well as any of the Cook's Illustrated tomes are good as well.
                                              I would give a nod to the Cook's Illustrated books as they are always good at explaining how they came about their recipes.

                                              1. I think I'll no longer recommend a logical or prudent choice-- just find a cookbook with excellent PICTURES of what she likes best (ask her), and that should get her started on her own.

                                                1. "How to cook without a book" by Pam Anderson

                                                  "The new Best Recipe" by Cook's Illustrated

                                                  I would also recommend a subscription to cook's Illustrated on line.

                                                  Make a shortcut on your computer to Food network.com

                                                  Set your Netflix queue to send you Jacques Pepin's basic techniques dvd's. There are two.

                                                  Set your Netflix queue to send you America's Test Kitchen DVDs. There are lots.

                                                  Set your Netflix queue to send you Cook like a chef Season 1 dvd 1 & 2.

                                                  Start watching Food network on tv. I highly recommend "good eats" with Alton Brown, "30 minute meals" with Rachel Ray even though I hate gigglers, "Semi-Homemade" with Sandra lee, "Tyler's Ultimate" with Tyler Florence, "Paula's home cooking" with Paula Dean and "Barefoot Contessa" with Ina Garten.

                                                  1. I really like The New Basics cookbook. It breaks down the ingredients into sections and tells a little bit about them, how to prepare them alone in various ways. It also has a bunch of handy lists and diagrams (like a drawing of a cow showing where the various cuts come from or a list of cheese/fruit pairings). The recipes go from novice to difficult (extending its usefulness), and there aren't any glossy pictures, but I still refer to it quite a bit, and it's interesting to browse even if you're not looking for any recipe in particular.