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Jan 29, 2012 08:09 AM

Cookbook 101: List Some Fundamental Cookbooks (Suggestions Needed)

Hello all.

I am in the process of starting a cookbook collection. In the past, I was content with the internet as my only source of recipe-finding. Now I would like to build my own collection of more reliable and tested recipes. I expect that cookbooks will help me do this.

I have set out to get encyclopedic, comprehensive, all-purpose cookbooks with lots of recipes (the more recipes, the better). I live in Canada so I am looking for cookbooks centered on North American recipes. Note that I said 'centered'. Some cookbooks will have 'international' sections and recipes and these are fine with me.

What, in your opinion/experience, are some fundamental cookbooks that can serve as foundational for the home cook?

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  1. My research so far has led me to consider the following as candidates:

    1. The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America's Most Trusted Cooking Magazine

    2. The New Best Recipe

    3. How to Cook Everything, Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food

    4. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, 15th Edition (Better Homes & Gardens Plaid

    5. The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century

    6. Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition

    7. The Good Housekeeping Cookbook: 1,275 Recipes from America's Favorite Test Kitchen

    8. Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen

    22 Replies
    1. re: claritas

      Well, claritas, as much as I enjoy browsing online for recipes, I think I probably qualify as a cookbook nut. I love the physical things, want to hold them, turn the pages, ogle the photos. Some I rarely or never cook from: some are more reference than anything; some I use mainly for inspiration; some rekindle memories, forgotten meals. And then there are the stalwarts that I come back to again and again for recipes. (EatYourBooks, the website that indexes cookbooks, has been a godsend, invaluable for getting me into more of my cookbooks. You can type in a key ingredient and the site will tell you which recipes in your cookbooks--or blogs or magazines you read--feature that ingredient.
      But I'm getting ahead of your question, aren't I? EYB is valuable once you've gotten a collection together. )

      My thoughts upon looking at your list:

      Every collection should probably have a copy of The Joy of Cooking. I personally love The Essential New York Times Cookbook and have tried very few recipes with which I haven't had great success. Gourmet Today is a great compendium of contemporary and more ethnic recipes. I don't own the big CI, but it gets a lot of good reviews from people on this board, and I think it would be part of a solid foundation of cookbooks.

      Should you want any recs for more specialized cookbooks, I'd be happy to share my opinions on some of those as well.

      1. re: nomadchowwoman

        Thanks! I hadn`t heard about before now. It sounds like a great resource and I will be checking it out.

        As for specialized cookbooks, do you have any recommendations for a big referential baking cookbook?

        1. re: claritas

          I hope some real bakers will weigh in. I'm not much of one, and while I own a few baking books, I'm not sure they'd qualify as reference books--or even particularly good for that matter. I do love The Cake Bible and Martha stewart's Pies and Tarts, but those are obviously subject-specific.

          And I couldn't live without Jim Lahey's My Bread, but it's very specific to his no-knead method and not a comprehensive bread book. (It did, however, make a bread baker of me.)

          1. re: nomadchowwoman

            Thanks. I have heard of Cake Bible. How is it? Do you happen to have any of the other 'Bibles': Bread and Pastry & Pie?

            1. re: claritas

              I have both The Cake Bible and the Pie and Pastry Bible. I like them for their precision, detailed instructions, scientific approach. Nice photos, too. I need that because I'm not much of a baker, have no intuition for it, and they help me understand better what I am trying to do. I'm getting better.

                1. re: nomadchowwoman

                  My intrusion probably isn't welcome but I own the cake bible and several books on baking but what does it all have to do with encyclopedic, comprehensive, all-purpose cookbooks centered on North American recipes?

                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                    In this post above, OP says, "As for specialized cookbooks, do you have any recommendations for a big referential baking cookbook?":

                    That's what.

                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                      I asked nomadchowwoman for it. You probably just missed it above.

              1. re: claritas

                You might want to check out this thread on comprehensive baking books (with a focus on technique):

              2. re: nomadchowwoman

                I grew up with The Joy and heartily second The Essential New York Times Cookbook . My favorite French cookbook is The Way to Cook and have many favorite dumbed down recipes from the Sunset Magazine series.Of course the internet has changed everything.I often use Foodily when I need a recipe for a specific dish. Example was I wanted to make chicken chili for a crowd.

                1. re: Berheenia

                  Thanks. Can you please give me your review of the New York Times cookbook?

                  1. re: claritas

                    Briefly I like it because it has updated versions of some favorite recipes from the older NYT Cookbooks, stuffed pork chops for example, and some good new ones. Last night we had a cabbage and potato dish that was a winner. I have always been a big fan of Craig Claiborne and his buddies. If you look in the Chowhound annals there are reviews of this book and specific recipes from Feb 2011.when it was cookbook of the month.The author, Amanda Hesser also weighed in. I have bought it for myself and as a gift for my son's new in-laws.

                    1. re: Berheenia

                      Sounds great. Thanks. I do wonder if the recipes are little more novel than classic.

                      1. re: claritas

                        Here's the master thread on the Essential NY Times Cookbook that Berheenia was referring to; each of the threads linked to within it has dozens of reviews pf specific recipes:

                        The recipes in the book (which is around three inches thick) aren't necessarily basics, but I would say that they include lots of classics. Each chapter is arranged chronologically, with recipes included from the 19th century up to the late 2000s, but retested and written in contemporary format.

                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                          Excellent thread! Thanks. And recipes from the 19th century? That would be cool to see.

                          Do you know if this system has been done for other cookbook? If so, how can I find the threads?

                          1. re: claritas

                            Claritas, here is archival thread for all COTMs that were done from COTM inception:
                            Click on individual chapters' threads to read reviews about recipes.

              3. re: claritas

                I'm personally not a fan of these types of cookbooks, I prefer ones more specialized. I owned Joy about 25 years ago and have no desire to put it back in my collection. I have a copy, I got free, of How To Cook Everything. I don't know, his recipes just don't inspire me at all. I highly suggest you sit down at a bookstore or the library and give these a good look through before purchasing any of them.

                1. re: rasputina

                  Thanks! Checking the books out in the local library is a great idea. I have been able to find most of them and I am getting a feel for them before deciding to shell out some money.

              4. The books Claritas listed will make a nice start, however, I still like the web for recipes. Don't get me wrong I have dozens of cookbooks.

                I like to keep my recipes on my computer hard drive so I have to transcribe the recipes. With recipes on the web, I just cut and paste. I use sites like Epicurious and Foodnetwork. I look for highly rated or highly viewed recipes. If a lot of people like them, they are probably pretty good.

                A lot of sites now have advanced search options where you can list 3 or 4 ingredients and it will give you a list of recipes using those ingredients. Tha same one usually have a way of eliminating an ingredient that you just can't stand.

                15 Replies
                1. re: Hank Hanover

                  Thanks for the reply. I do agree that the Internet is wonderful in it's vastness and interactivity. Sometimes I find it overwhelming due to the sheer number of recipes I can find one any given dish. I'd like to balance this by having a really good cookbook for reference. I love cross-referencing recipes.

                  Of the cookbooks you have which would you recommend as the best for use as encyclopedias of sorts.

                  (By the way I am claritas. I am trying to whittle down the list I posted or possible even find new ones all together [though many of the ones mentioned seem like classics and as such almost irreplaceable] and some of them seem better than others from my little research. For example, the Gourmet cookbook doesn't seem as 'basic' as the Joy of Cooking which can be an plus or a minus depending on one's needs and where one is coming from. The same can be said for New Best Recipe's 'obsessive-compulsiveness', as another example.)

                  1. re: claritas

                    On your list, I would go with 6, 4, 1 and 3 in that order. The first 3, at least, will have a lot of hows and whys. There is a lot of reference material in Joy of cooking.

                    Be sure to buy used. Even an earlier edition of the book you are seeking. Most cookbooks I have seen are in great shape. Either they are treated lovingly or the person didn't read them more than the initial skimming.

                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                      The ones you picked are some of my favourites so far. Are you saying you prefer the first edition of 'How to Cook Everything'? Thanks for the buying tips as well.

                      1. re: claritas

                        No. I'm saying I often save a lot of money buying used cookbooks, especially if you buy an earlier edition. They re-release successful cookbooks every few years with very few if any changes. If a book was published in 2009 for $19.95, you can usually get it for around $12-13. That same book can probably bought used for $6-7. The previous edition that was published in 2003 can probably bought used for $1 - 2.

                          1. re: claritas

                            And you can find inexpensive "used" copies (often, they've never been used and are like new), even the latest editions, through Amazon.

                  2. re: Hank Hanover

                    I'd include the Joy of Cooking and How To Cook Everything, hands down, but to be honest I'm more in Hank's camp about the interwebs. It just makes it so easy, although I now don't thumb through my cookbooks as often as I should.

                    That said, I do also reference my New Penguin Cookery Book, which is pretty encyclopedic.

                    1. re: megjp

                      Thanks for the reply. I agree about the convenience of the Internet. I hadn't previously heard of the New Penguin Cookery Book so I will be checking it out.

                    2. re: Hank Hanover

                      I have a good (and growing) collection of recipes from online sources -- but I find I only search for recipes when I have something in mind, and either can't find it in one of my books, or am looking for a different variation for some reason.

                      I've found good recipes for mojo marinade...apricot liqueur...various country-French dishes -- but they were all ones that I went and looked for, rather than stumbled over in a "what-will-i-have-for-dinner" crisis.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        I've got somewhere near 4000 recipes on my hard drive in Word format but I am always looking for something new. I have shared it on a flash drive with friends and neighbors.

                        I have to admit that I don't have as international a palette as some.

                        When I do decide to cook something I haven't made much before, I tend to pull up 5 - 6 recipes for the same dish and try to pick my favorite. I will often take something from one and add it to another.

                        In fact, tonight I did precisely that for a delightful rendition of "Red Beans and Rice". One recipe suggested using small red beans (adzuki's? I think) and another suggested using a ham hock in addition to andouille sausage. Some recipes recommended chicken stock. Others just recommended water. A forth recommended using tomato sauce and touted as a trick he had learned a long time ago. I used all those suggestions and it turned out great. I now have a "Red Beans and Rice ala HH" recipe.

                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                          I love the idea of cross-referencing and creating a 'master Franken-recipe'. I do this all the time.

                        2. re: sunshine842

                          Do you have a system for storing your online recipes?

                          1. re: claritas

                            I break them down into categories like main dishes, side dishes, sauces, etc then I break them into subcategories like beef, pork, poultry, etc. Sometimes they are broken down even further like main dishes - Beef - meatballs & meatloaves, casseroles, stews, etc.

                            Sometimes the recipes are put in 2 different categories. I back them up with flash drives and back up hard drives.

                      2. I would suggest Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1 by Julia Child. She has some very good descriptions on how to do things. The Art of Cooking Volume 1 and 2 by Jacques Pepin also has a lot of detailed descriptions. There are a couple of bread recipes that I like in there and he gives step by step instructions on boning out a chicken and stuffing it. Also, I use Joy of Cooking for ideas and Better Homes and Garden for some of the older things that I make.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: whinendine

                          Thanks for the reply. Is the Julia Child book centered on French cuisine? I've always assumed it was.

                          1. re: claritas

                            Yes, I guess you don't want that. Sorry, it just sprung to mind because of the great details in the book - i.e. making a stock, information about flour (American) that kind of thing.

                            Oh, I see someone mentioned James Beard. I use his books on occasion especially for meat temperatures and has a lot of recipes.

                          2. re: whinendine

                            at the risk of flames, i actually don't like to rec this book for a beginner-- it can be too fussy and intimidating, and frankly, a bit boring, and can be a turn off. of course mtaofc is a classic, and a great cookbook, but it's more of an intermediate-advanced volume. a great french cookbook with classic and fundamental, but very accessible recipes would be something like elisabeth luard's small volume "classic french cooking." beautifully written, and bonus for cute, portable and inexpensive.

                          3. The New James Beard, Knopf, 1981. About 1000 recipes of all types, and there is nothing excessively fancy about Beard's approach to food.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: GH1618

                              Thanks for the reply. I will check this out. However, I am concerned about this book bring dated. What do you think?

                              1. re: claritas

                                I just recently bought mine. Beard is always sound on fundamentals. The "new" JB was written late in his life to replace his earlier work from 1959 and benefit from his experience over the next twenty years and changes in his approach, as he discusses in its introduction. Because it is "fundamental" it hasn't become obsolete, but it certainly is not nouvelle. As you wrote, you want a collection, so from time to time you will supplement your collection with cookbooks containing newer ideas and which have a narrower, possibly specialized focus. These will not replace your few "fundamental" books. The best of these should not become obsolete for a long time.

                                1. re: GH1618

                                  That is true. Fundamentals should stand the test of time.

                            2. I forgot to mention that pictures are actually very appealing to me. A book with great pictures would be appreciated. The top cookbooks I am considering (Joy, Best Recipe, Cook Everything) actually have zero food photographs. I was kind of sad to see that.

                              Does anyone know of any cookbooks (that meet my aforementioned criteria) with beautiful food photography to showcase?

                              15 Replies
                              1. re: claritas

                                No pictures in The New James Beard. If you want a large, broadly-based cookbook with pictures, I suppose that would be Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

                                1. re: GH1618

                                  +1 on JC's TWTC--lovely photos in that book, which, while grounded in French cuisine and technique, is much less intimidating than Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Great recipes, with lots of variations, for classic dishes, many of which, while "French," have become standards on North American menus.

                                  1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                    Thanks! I wonder: have Julia's books ever been revised (i.e. are there recent editions)?

                                  2. re: GH1618

                                    I will be checking out Julia's Way to Cook. It seems like a good alternative to 'Mastering'. What do you think?

                                    1. re: claritas

                                      That's certainly a better choice. "Mastering" is for experienced cooks with a serious interest in French cooking. I saw a used copy of TWTC in a bookstore recently, but it disappeared before I had a chance to decide if I wanted it, so I have no experience with it, by the way.

                                      Powell's has several, new and used, hardback and paper:


                                    2. re: GH1618

                                      +2! I love Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but The Way to Cook is much more accessible. It's also not a rehash of MTAOFC: I'm making a rabbit stew from The Way to Cook this week, and that recipe does not appear in the first volume of Mastering. The photos (at least in my volume) are dated, but the techniques are mostly not (exception: aspics, though who knows, maybe they'll come back some day). Like other "serious" books, it focuses on master recipes and variations on them. If you cooked through it, you'd certainly become a very accomplished home cook!

                                      May I suggest books narrower in scope than the encyclopedic ones? I own quite a few books already mentioned, and I do check them out when I need to know, say, a basic recipe for pancakes. But I turn to smaller, more specialized books that focus on a particular cuisine and its relevant techniques far more often (for me that would be French bistro fare, mostly). And one shouldn't underestimate what can be learned from memoirs and philosophical food books. Breadth is nice, but depth is also rewarding, even for those newer to cooking.

                                      1. re: caseyjo

                                        Thanks for the word on more specialized cookbooks. I have not completely turned my eye on them. I just really want a big 'all-you-can-make' book to serve as an omni-guide. I will start exploring more specific areas soon.

                                        1. re: claritas

                                          that's what I like about Joy and BHG -- there's a little bit of everything, adapted for the average home chef -- and the recipes are tasty. All of the recipes I have tried are really good -- and for the French/Mexican/Italian/other culture foods, they do at least a respectable job of copying the flavors of foods you might not be familiar with.

                                    3. re: claritas

                                      After giving some thought to books "centered on" North American cooking with lovely photos, let me throw these suggestions out:

                                      Saveur: The New Comfort Food--while it features "food from around the world," most of these are dishes that have found their way onto N. American tables, are part of a melting pot cuisine--potato latkes, fettuccine Alfredo, vegetarian lasagne, German split pea soup, Thai red curry, beef empanadas, chicken tikka masala as well as paprikas, grilled lobster, etc. This lovely book is also filled with Saveur's trademark gorgeous photography.

                                      Food 52--you probably don't *need* this book as you can find pretty much everything in it (and more) on the Food52 website, but I love it for many of the same reasons I find The New Comfort Food so appealing--an eclectic collection of delicious, do-able recipes accompanied by lovely photos.

                                      1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                        Thanks! I had read somewhere that Saveur is renowned for their great photgraphy. I will be checking out their cookbook. But do you think it van stand alone as a foundation cookbook? It seems to focus on what they have termed 'comfort food'. Will the coobook be best for supplementary use?

                                        I will be addinf Food52 to my website rounds.

                                        1. re: claritas

                                          I don't know if I'd call it a foundational cookbook, but the term "comfort" is used loosely (and it's so relative, of course). Fish Vera Cruz style and grilled lobster, delicious as they are, aren't what come to mind when I'm conjuring "comfort food." I guess I think of it more as a collection of of representational dishes from the melting pot, with fab photos.

                                          1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                            Sounds good. Maybe I'll make it my 'feast-my-eyes' cookbook.

                                        2. re: nomadchowwoman

                                          nomadchowwoman - thanks for the intro to Food52. Is this a go-to for you? I just put it in my favorites and will investigate when my eyes aren't half closed - but I have been finding that epicurious and food network are my go-tos as they have the ordinary people's reviews and comments.

                                          1. re: smilingal

                                            I love the cookbook. The website is a great resource, too, but I find it somewhat cluttery. But, you know, that is just me and my (challenged) ability to focus. (The crawlers at the bottom of the TV screen still drive me nuts.) Really interesting recipes though.