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Starting a cookbook library, what are the best basics?

I only have two cookbooks right now, Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day and The Best of Chef at Home. The Chef at Home one I've never used since it was written for people who are incompetent... there's a recipe for grilled cheese. Anyways, if you were starting out a cookbook library, what are a couple of books you'd buy first?

Preferably with pictures!

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  1. You could build your library based on categories, Baking, Breadmaking for example or buy some good books overall. As usual my first suggestion, The Joy of Cooking.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ruthie789

      Joy of Cooking is my first recommendation, too. I've used mine (the 1973 issue, and the latest one) regularly, since the older one was new.
      Also, though nobody ever mentions Williams Sonoma recipes on CH, our copy of their Meats and Poultry cookbook has been a real keeper. Every dish we've made from that book has been delicious.

      1. re: kitchengardengal

        I do like those small WS cookbooks. We have several.

    2. You have introduced a conflict with your last remark. My best cookbooks have no pictures other than perhaps a drawing introducing each chapter. What I want is lots of words.

      1. Most of my favorites predate the "Preferably with pictures!" era of cookbooks.

        Entertaining by Martha Stewart would be my only recommendation.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Jay F

          Hi, Jay:

          No offense, but I absolutely *hate* this book. IMO, the recipes in it are only as good as the person MS paid to vet each one. About 1/3 turn out as if no one ever cooked them at all. I made the same cake recipe from this book 4 times--all with disastrous results--before I donated this book to Goodwill. Unless you're willing to "Julie & Julia" this book, I would not serve any prep in it to guests.


        2. My most used books do not have pictures... I have some beautiful books that have pictures....Cornneila Guest, Ina Garten, French Laundry at home....all are beautiful and pretty usefull

          1 Reply
          1. re: girloftheworld

            I do not enjoy cookbooks with pictures unless it is an instructive illustration. I find the glamorous picture books are meant for my coffee table as a decorative accent.

          2. Hi, Gnome:

            This is difficult to dial in.

            I think the biggest determinative factor is how comfortable you are in your own "cooking skin". Are you daunted by recipes? If you are, I would advise adding progressive complexity to your library (and simultaneously discarding) as you get more experienced. But if you're adventurous and not easily intimidated, you can start anywhere.

            IME, after what *kind* of recipes are included in a book, I look for clarity of expression, concision, and a "speak to me" connection with the author. Let me give you an example of what I DON'T mean: I *love* no-knead bread, recently popularized by the popularization of Jim Lahey. So I recently bought his book "My Bread" (title=first indication of wrongness). Decent recipes, but bad connection. I learned some recipes, but little else.

            If I were you--and I'm not--I might try Jacques Pepin's "Techniques". If you come 50% toward absorbing that one book, you will be a chef. He does what he does easily, from a love of a life of cooking, in a non-intimidating way. Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" might speak to you if you are a little more wonkish.

            Have Fun,

            1. I did this last year, so here's my suggestion - figure out something you want to cook. In my case, it was Thai food. Next step - research. I wound up picking up David Thompsons 'Thai Food', and taught myself how to cook from that. Next up? French. Rinse, repeat.

              If you try and assemble a basic library, you'll wind up with a ton of stuff you never use.

              1. Go to www.eatyourbooks.com site - you do not have to be a member to look at anything that interests you there. Sort their library by "most popular" and read through others' comments about books and recipes. Look at recipes in books that interest you, check the ingredients - do you like what you see? is this a type of food that you are excited to cook and eat?

                Another suggestion is to figure out your geographical interests (Italian, Chinese, etc.) and food types (vegetarian, fish, etc.) and method (stir-fry, roast, etc.); this will give us ideas what kind of books to suggest. Reference book or two are very useful and this is what people are recommending.

                Lastly, have a look at COTM books and reports - lots of good information there.

                1 Reply
                1. re: herby

                  Agree with regionalization of your library. There are so many good, and yet so many more poor, cookbooks available that I think a regional focus would be a good place to start. AFTER you decide what cuisine you're comfortable with.

                2. The Good Cook series by Time Life. I wish I had these when I started cooking. The meat books ( Poultry, Beef, Lamb) are especially useful as they cover different cuts, and all the typical cooking methods ( grilling, braising, roasting, poaching ect) with great pictures and detailed descriptions. Once you have the method, recipes just become an exercise in flavor profiles.

                  My first basic cookbook I bought as an adult was Joy of Cooking ( the 1975 edition). It ended up culled in a later move. I think the only recipes I cooked out of it was the baking ones. It had a lot of recipes that I would never bother cooking, it seemed to be fascinated with timbales and croquettes for example.

                  My cookbook shelves are dominated by books that focus on a specific subject or region, I really haven't found a basic cookbook that I like enough to recommend.

                  1. The Joy of Cooking explains everything in simple steps. This book literally taught me how to cook. I like the earlier editions because they include favorite recipes that later were eliminated, for example Roman Apple Cake which I must have made 500 times. As a public service, here it is for anyone who might not have the 1953 JOY handy:

                    Combine 1 1/4 cups flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup cold butter cut into bits, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 tsp cinnamon. Reserve half of the crumbly product. To the other half, add 1 egg, 1 tsp baking soda, and 1/2 cup sour milk (or sweet milk plus 1 tsp vinegar). Put this batter in a greased pie pan or 8-inch cake pan. On top of it, slice several cooking apples. Sprinkle the reserved crumbs over the apples. Dot with butter and sprinkle with cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. Bake at 350* for 45-60 minutes or until done.

                    1. I'd recommend the Joy of Cooking (mine is from the 60s), and Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook part I and II. I don't own it, but I have friends who love Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything as a practical guide.

                      The pictures part is tricky. In my experience, the category of classic foundation cookbooks, and cookbooks with lots of pictures tend not to overlap, and often the prettier a cookbook is, the less useful it is.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                        Agree with Hazan and Bittman as good all around references.

                      2. The Best Recipe (the old one) by Cook's Illustrated is my favorite because they explain the whys and wherefores of almost every ingredient for the recipes. I used to like cookbooks with pictures in them, but now I'd rather see words.

                        I also use Julie Child's Baking book, Dorie Greenspan's "Around My French Table", "Rosie's All Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar Packed Baking Book", and I have a soup cookbook that a co-worker put together 10 years ago which I love. I go through phases with cookbooks where I'll make a lot of recipes in a short period, and if they end up being good, the cookbook stays on my shelf. If not, it goes to Goodwill. I think I'm going to end up keeping "The Sprouted Kitchen".

                        Good luck. :)

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: ChristieKCooks

                          Cook's Illustrated is a very good source of instruction and results are always good.

                          1. re: Ruthie789

                            It's worth saving a search for CI and Cooks Country magazine annual hardbound editions on eBay. If you are willing to forego getting their recipes hot of the press, you'll save a bunch of money.

                            I am surprised more responses haven't mentioned Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. Its basic rules of ingredient proportion in a variety of baked items, sauces, stocks, etc., apply to cooking any and all ethnic/regional cuisines

                            1. re: greygarious

                              I'll second the recommendation for Cook's Country. I picked up 4 of them recently at a used bookstore and love how they have a mix of ingredient info/comparisons, recipes, and great photos.

                        2. The Way to Cook by Julia Child. Good range of recipes that are generaly foolproof. They can all be built on as well. I still refer to it for a target temperature or a specific technique now and then.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mike0989

                            Famed CH, MMRuth, taught herself to cook from this. I highly recommend it and used copies may be available since it's been out so long.

                          2. I happened to spot this query, gnome, and stopped and thought about the subject. (What cookbooks to start with - this from the perspective of having already accumulated a library over 40 years, 1500 or 1800 books all told, on food and cooking and beverages, building on smaller collection accumulated earlier by food-obsessed parents.) A few quick thoughts from that perspective:

                            -- Cookbooks I've found most insightful or useful are NOT this month's or year's best-sellers. (Think I already mentioned that in my Chowhound "profile" years ago.) Online buzz about cookbooks is dominated by recent titles, stimulated in turn by publisher marketing. But at any given time, the vast majority of cookbooks easily available for sale or in libraries are not "in-print" titles, meaning not currently warehoused and merchandised. Even the phrase "in print" is misleading because today "out of print" books are often as easy to get as "in-print" titles, thanks to firms like amazon.com serving as efficient clearing houses connecting buyers and sellers.

                            -- Another bias skewing popular advice is familiarity. If a book is a best seller, more people know about it, which surfaces in recommendations. (20 years ago, before CH existed, someone made a public Internet query like yours. Most respondents recommended Jeff Smith's "Frugal Gourmet" books because they were currently fashionable.)

                            Of titles mentioned so far in this thread I strongly concur about Marcella Hazan's two original "Classic" Italian cookbooks, in fact I've given them as gifts at least twice to friends building cookbook collections. They were later re-issued as a single volume but for space reasons it removed many of the secondary comments, anecdotes and quips that made the original recipes so memorable. There's a more recent new general Marcella cookbook but I haven't cheched it out yet so no opinion.

                            Also the Cook's Illustrated "Best Recipe" and "Complete Book Of" volumes on various broad topics have been very useful, they tend to collect recipes from many traditions, test them out, then comment on the cooking nuances. Reasonably well illustrated.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: eatzalot

                              eatzalot: "There's a more recent new general Marcella cookbook but I haven't cheched it out yet so no opinion."

                              Please ID, eatzalot. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_...

                              1. re: Jay F

                                Thanks for helpful link, Jay.

                                FWIW, "Essentials" (1992 I believe) is the consolidation and compaction of the two original books (The Classic Italian... and More Classic Italian...) which made M H famous. In order to understand the limitations of the combined volume, you need to have spent time cooking with the originals; I summarized it upthread. Looking at some CH threads I noticed someone cited the dread misleading phrase "out of print" re one of the original two separate books. The phrase is misleading because in reality it means the books are available on the USED market which today is about as easy as getting them new, if you order online. "Out of print" books that were popular titles have always been relatively easy to buy used, and today w/ online search it's effortless.

                                Besides, buying popular titles "used" is often a good move EVEN if still "in print" because it's often much cheaper for almost-new quality. They tend to depreciate quickly in price, just like new cars. That's my standard first preference today.

                                Don't yet have answer to the question above re newer MH book, again I can't even comment from experience, just saw promising comparisons online vs her other titles, will follow up if I can.

                                Speaking from broad experience though, there IS something to be said for seminal classics, in a library on this or other topics. It's remarkable how often the groundbreaking books are also among the very best, in my experience.

                                Another background detail: Marcella's "Classic" volumes are built on adapting to US home kitchens a selection of the traditional recipes in the de-facto Italian national cookbook, Ada Boni's "Talismano della Felicita," just as Julia Child's "Mastering" volumes adapted a fraction of Auguste Escoffier's "Guide Culinaire" (and Toomre adapted or rather translated Molokhovets, Gretel Beer adapted Duch and others, etc etc).

                                Various other Ital. c'bks in English are parallel adaptations of Boni, such as "The Romagnolis' Table," which preceded Marcella, and the famous Crown 1950 abridged US ed. of Ada Boni, somewhat dumbed-down but still way ahead of its time.

                                But for North American cooks just gaining experience, yet serious, I've personally seen nothing on Italian cuisine to surpass Marcella's original 2.

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  Hi, eatzalot, and thank you so much for your detailed response. I started with Marcella's original two. The first is really my favorite cookbook of all time. It's reached the point where if I use it anymore, it's going to break apart the way Mastering the Art did.

                                  So I bought the new version, Essentials. I find it interesting to read Marcella's thoughts on things after twenty years. And some of the recipes have changed: only 5 T of butter now in the onion-butter-tomato sauce.

                                  I have every one of her books. The most recent one I know of is Amarcord, which is a memoir rather than a cookbook. Is there another one after it?

                                  Again, thank you so much for your informative post.

                            2. For philosophy, Robert Farrar Capon's Supper of the Lamb, not a cookbook so much as a meditation on cooking. My own go-tos are anything by Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet), Alton Brown (especially I'm Just Here for the Food for the basics of how cooking works) and Fanny Farmer, cause that's what I learned on. Paradoxically, I like Peg Bracken's old, old I Hate to Cook Book - not for the recipes, but for the essays on the basics of shopping and cooking simple food.

                              Otherwise, I'd have to ask what types of food you like to eat before recommending any specific specialty books.

                              1. Pictures are excellent for instruction -- techniques, ingredients, cuts, what things should look like at certain stages of preparation.

                                In that line, I'd definitely recommend one of Jacques Pepin's technique books. I learned a huge amount from La Technique in the late 1970s-early 1980s, before I shed it in one of many moves. But I would have liked it even better with higher-quality, color photos -- which is what I understand is what's in the one that came out last fall, his Complete Techniques. Definitely take a look at a bookstore to see if it would be something you'd use; it's too big a purchase to make sight unseen. Or scout the used market for bargains on La Technique and/or La Methode.

                                The best of the how-to books include a lot of pictures -- Julia Child's The Way to Cook, Martha Stewart's Cooking School. But pictures of the finished dishes in regular cookbooks are not so important.

                                Beyond that, it's hard to conceive of a 'cookbook library' in the abstract. What kinds of books about food or cookbooks do you like to read and re-read? What kinds of food do you cook, or want to cook? Use the library to explore some of the suggestions here, and get a sense of what appeals most to you before spending a lot of money.

                                1. Joy of Cooking - the very best basic cook book.
                                  Any of James Peterson's books.
                                  I have rediscovered Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet cookbooks and must say they really are excellent for straightforward, no nonsence basic recipes.

                                  1. Michael Ruhlman's Twenty & Ratio (both are must haves, they are the only cookbooks that stay consistently on my counter)

                                    Ina Garten's Back to Basics or Foolproof

                                    Joy of Cooking and Cooks Illustrated are good starter books, they have a variety of recipes and instructions.

                                    If you want a certain genres of cookbooks, I would suggest:

                                    Cuban: Three Guys From Miami Cook Cuban

                                    Mexican: Anything by Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayliss

                                    Italian: Marcella Hazan or possibly Mario Batalli

                                    French: Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) or Jacques Pepin

                                    Indian:Madhur Jaffrey

                                    Baking: King Arthur 200th Cookbook

                                    Some expensive but worthy cookbooks are:

                                    Modern Cuisine at Home

                                    Larousse Gastronomique

                                    1. Mark Bittman, "How to Cook Everything" and "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." I know "The Joy of Cooking" but think Bittman is better. Besides standard American foods and dishes, 2000 of them, with a contemporary approach, he also brings in some from other cultures.

                                      What makes these excellent basic cookbooks is that the ingredients are properly measured, the processes are described specifically so you really know what to do, and no useful information is left out.

                                      Also, Bittman's approach is to offer a basic recipe and then variations - Everything Peas has a dozen of them - which encourages even a beginning cook to try her/his own variations.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: John Francis

                                        Just want to add that How to Cook Everything--The Basics (also by Bittman) includes lots of pictures, which may be a good compromise for the OP.


                                      2. You may want to check out YouTube. They not only have pictures but an entire video step by step on everything from boiling an egg to making the most exotic dishes - and most from very authentic sources (for example Indian food - from the grandma herself in India)... Just a suggestion.

                                        1. James Peterson: everything, really, but especially "What's A Cook To Do?"

                                          Ruhlman: again, everything. But Ratio would be the first choice.

                                          Sally Schneider, "The Improvisational Cook" (with the caveat that I've only read 1/4 of it)

                                          1. I'm a big fan of Bittman. Nothing against Ruhlman per se, although I don't always entirely enjoy his "voice". That ends up being the key for most people. With so much out there you have to find the teacher you like best.

                                            Perhaps he's not always thought of this way, but Jamie Oliver is another writer who I think presents cooking as accessible to nearly anyone and to me his recipes show it and the results show it.

                                            In Canada most anything published by Canadian Living can be a very good starting point for accessible recipes that should please a varied crowd.

                                            1. In your collection do you have a book titled "Let's Bake with Beulah Ledner" by Maxine Wolchansky

                                              1. My cookbooks are currently in storage. The two I saved out to use this summer are:
                                                Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison
                                                The Cooks Illustrated Cookbook (2,000 recipes one)

                                                So, I guess that means I found them to be my most useful cookbooks.

                                                Enjoy starting your library. Watch out....it can be come addicting!