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Cookbooks that made you a better cook?

I'm still such an amateur, but a whole lot better than I used to be.

It seems like my cooking will plateau, and then...I discover a new cookbook and learn something that takes everything up a notch.

Working with Patricia Wells's Trattoria and Bistro Cooking did that for me. Left me with a much better intuitive feeling for how certain cooking methods work (properly salting pasta, using bouquet garnis, etc.). Same with Yan-kit So's Classic Chinese Cookbook -- so precise on cooking methods and what you're trying to achieve. America's Best Recipes has done that for me with some baking techniques.

So I'm curious...what cookbooks have transformed your cooking and made you a more competent, confident cook?

I'm particularly interested in bread baking, if anyone has suggestions.

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  1. To be clear, I mean they made you a better cook all round, even when you're not cooking a recipe from that book.

    1. The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon, for a general philosophy of cooking, and The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken for bringing humor to the process and for encouraging following one's own instincts ("Don't like X? Then leave it out - although leaving the chili powder out of chili is rather pointless and you may as well make something else"[paraphrased since my copy's not at hand]).

      Running a close third is Claiborne's Herb and Spice Cookbook, a really big revelation in the early 1970s.

      2 Replies
      1. re: tardigrade

        Thanks for bringing up The I Hate to Cook cookbook by Peg Bracken. I didn't learn to cook by her but 40 years ago it was amusing.. I still like that book...

        1. re: tardigrade

          I read Supper of the Lamb my undergrad senior year, and started cooking for myself about a year later in grad school. Other than browsing my mom's cookbooks it was my first serious cooking reading. The second piece was Joy of Cooking, especially the ingredients and methods chapters. I bought Larousse Gastronomique a few years later.

        2. Cooking from Amish Country by Marcia Adams and the PBS series way back when. It really isn`t anything technical but it helped me to define the type of cooking that I like. Simple, savory and comforting.

          1. anything James Beard (bread, pasta, American Cookery is my favorite)

            1. Have you looked at Ruhlman's book 20?

              That book is totally technique driven and I think would be along the lines of what you are looking for. Tom Collichio's "think like a chef" is another cookbook thats about a lot more than the recipes.

              For me personally, The Thomas Keller Books and the 6 volumes of Modernist Cuisine have taught me more than just about anything else.

              6 Replies
              1. re: twyst

                Oh and not a cookbook at all, but "the flavor bible" is an invaluable resource for cooks who like to experiment.

                  1. re: chefathome

                    So good I even bought a copy for my iphone ><

                1. re: twyst

                  I think I learned the most by watching "Essential Pepin". But this is a show, not a cookbook.

                  If I had to choose a cookbook, I would choose the 6 volumes of Modenist Cuisine too, plus Modernist Cuisine at Home. Not for the Modernist methods, which I rarely use. Instead for the fact that they cove nearly every aspect of cooking. For example, the chapter on food safety has changed the way I cook because I now understand that time plays a role in addition to temperature. Dishes I've made for years are improved by small changes to my method. I like MCAH because it simplifies things to the most important elements. The misnamed "fat-free" Mac-n-cheese alone is worth the price. Or the carrot soup.

                  1. re: ttochow

                    Ha! Ha! If this thread had the title "cookbooks that had the biggest impact on your wallet?", Modernist Cuisine would definitely win. None of this stuff is cheap.

                2. Julia Child's "The Way To Cook", made our Xmas roast goose feast 100 times easier, non-greasier, & more delicious. For that alone, I thank her in spades.

                  1. Ruhlman's "Ratio", Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone", and an old L'Escoffier (found in my local library).

                    All changed the way I think about food.

                    1. As a young cook I was given "Larousse Gastronomique" which really helped me to learn about ingredients, techniques, and so on. It really inspired me to create and become more curious and inquisitive about food and cooking in general. This passion drove me to become the cook I am today. I still love to curl up with this book and just relax and absorb.

                      More recently, "The French Laundry" helped me really elevate my dishes with greater attention to detail. The "River Cottage Meat" book made me more mindful of how I select happier meat.

                      "Marinades, Rubs, Cures, Brines and Glazes" really made me sit up and take notice of how drastically flavour can be improved by marinating, brining, rubbing... I love this book. Same with James Peterson's "Sauces" and "The Herb and Spice Bible". Since I first read the latter, I got into dry roasting/grinding whole spices like never before. Mark Bitterman's book "Salted" changed how I view/use various finishing salts. It is a very specific book, yes, but really stands out in my mind.

                      ETA: McGee's "On Food and Science..." would be in the top 5 in my culinary library. Not a cookbook but really helped me to understand food science in a new way.

                      All the above have been lifechanging and revelationary in my growth as a cook.

                      1. The usuals:

                        Marcella Hazan's first two books, now compiled as "Essentials..."

                        Julia's "French Chef Cookbook" and "Mastering the Art..."

                        And a couple of less usuals:

                        anything by Giuliano Bugialli

                        "Entertaining" by Martha Stewart

                        1. "The Campus Survival Cookbook" . My older sister gave it to me when I moved off campus in 1972. In retrospect, it was as much a cooking course as a cookbook.

                          1. oh, and the books from cooking school: Gisselin, a baking one, and a garde mange book, love that one for the sausage recipes!

                            1. I'm very much a learner cook as well despite cooking for years. Ruhlman's twenty has been very helpful. I don't use the recipes much but I learnt an awful lot from that book. Even things as simple as boiling vegetables have improved.

                              This may sound odd but the River Cafe Easy books have also helped me pay more attention to the quality of my produce. The recipes are so simple they need fresh, seasonal ingredients.

                              1. I don't always follow recipes in cookbooks, but i read the recipes religiously. The explanations to me are better than the actual recipe. Diana Kennedy's Mexican cookbooks are so valuable in that way. Unless its a baking recipe, whose specific chemistrydemands clash wildly with my ADD. My husband, on the other hand, has OCD and is an excellent baker. He's a very good cook, too, but he needs a recipe.

                                1. For me it was The Gourmet's Cook Book: Hungarian Cuisine by Elek Magyar.

                                  I rec'd this book as a gift from a friend while I was in university. He'd travelled home to Hungary for a visit and gifted me w this book in the hope that I'd make him some traditional dishes he'd loved growing up.

                                  Up to that point in my life I'd cooked because I loved to do it but hadn't much considered the impact it had on other people. (other than knowing they'd been fed of course)

                                  I'll never forget the night he and a group of our friends came over for dinner and how much that particular friend raved about the dishes I'd prepared. He took great pleasure in pointing out other dishes he loved that I might want to make and others were weighing in with their suggestions as well. I was totally floored. Who knew that cooking could provide so much joy to others.

                                  I'm not Hungarian btw but I have prepared a number of dishes from that book over the years, always with pleasure.

                                  I treasure this book.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. Jacques Pepin's La Technique. I owe whatever I have in the way of knife skills to Pepin.

                                    The Vegetarian Epicure, Anna Thomas Useful principles for putting together meals and menus, imparts a real feel for cooking. <--(which I largely had, growing up in a household where food and cooking were of interest, but VE was encouraging and confidence-building.)

                                      1. re: enbell

                                        I just bought Ratio - so far I'm loving it.

                                      2. Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea"

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          Ipse - I haven't read the book in a long time.

                                          What in it made you better?

                                          1. re: karykat

                                            Patience and perseverance.

                                            (It's worth another read. Knock it out in 2-3 hours, easy.)

                                        2. I am still a amateur as well, having started to learn about 5 years ago. But, the first book (well books really) that helped me out a lot was Ina Garten's "Barefoot at Home", and Tyler Florence "Ultimates". When I first was learning I did it from the food network, and bought these two books because Ina and Tyler were my two favorites. But, I've cooked a lot out of both of them and learned a lot about cooking with actual ingredients (not putting stuff from boxes together).

                                          Now I get most of my recipes from online though, and have been experimenting more recently with Asian cooking.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: juliejulez

                                            I've often given Ina's books as gifts to new cooks julie. It's nice to have a book you can count on for the recipes to turn out. I recently gave one to my niece who loves to watch food tv but had't had a lot of luck cooking recipes she'd found on the internet (Pinterest mostly). She took to Ina's book (Barefoot Contessa Cookbook) immediately and it really helped build her confidence that she could make meals that turned out beautifully.

                                            1. re: Breadcrumbs

                                              Indeed... and having that knowledge base makes it easier to find recipes online that will actually turn out... there's a lot of bizarre stuff floating around on the internet but thankfully I can usually tell if it's going to turn out.

                                          2. The Time-Life series woke me up to food and travel at a very impressionable age. Made me take out my camera and really use it. Made me look at grocery shelves in a different way. Made me fearless to travel and learn that food opens doors. Made me think of cooking and baking as one pot with many legs. T-L taught this chick to experiment for life.