Where Does a Newbie Start?
Hi all - I'm a newlywed & a teacher with very little time on my hands. I've never had an interest in cooking until now. I have a few cookbooks but a lot of the recipes seem quite complicated and I'm not even sure how to begin... any recommendations for great books/blogs/websites that will help a newbie like me begin to actually LEARN how to cook...? Seems like such a dumb question but any help would be greatly appreciated; hubby and I are both tired of eating mac & cheese for dinner! ;)
One suggestion is to buy a copy of "Joy of Cooking". Not only do you get many very easy recipes, but you get lots of basic instructions on cooking, cooking terms (what does it mean to "cream" the butter?), etc.
Right now, my favorite cooking blogs are (in no particular order):
If you don't mind paying for a subscription, then America's Test Kitchen is good. Although, their recipes sometimes get a bit involved, I think.
I learned so much just reading Joy of Cooking cover to cover. I can't say that I was a total newbie as I'd always had a knack for cooking from childhood, but just reading the sections between the recipes was very educational.
I'm sure you're to busy for that kind of reading, so maybe Youtube?
yes JoC is a classic. I too prefer the 70's edition.
it doesn't have many show-stopping recipes, and includes some charming anachronisms, but it covers the basics on vocabulary and processes and is a real-building block. the chapter on "Know Your Ingredients" is worth the purchase price alone.
Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" series of books is pretty darn good as well but the guy is so prolific that someday we'll be able to fill a wall with his volumes unless/until you develop specific areas of interest.
I strongly recommend general books designed for the novitiate. Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, and some local spiral bound fund raising cook books are great to get started. They are great at teaching techniques with readily obtainable ingredients.
Branch out into specific cuisines as you desire. Again stick with the standards. Child for French, Hazan for Italian, Kennedy for Mexican. The joys of the near and far east I leave to those more conversant in STARTER cookbooks.
I would not recommend spending a ton of money on knives or pots and pans until you and yours discover you actually like cooking. Search Chowhound under cookware for exhaustive research and opinions.
As for learning techniques, Youtube for free beats any basic cooking class at your local school or cookware store.
Betty Crocker cookbooks are great for the new cook. Easy to follow recipes with photos. Over time you will gain experience and feel more confident about your skills in the kitchen. May I suggest that after you try a new recipe, you add little notes for future reference somewhere in the border around the recipe (example- hubby really liked this, seemed too salty, needed to bake longer than stated, use more onion next time). We all make mistakes. Don't get discouraged, instead, learn from them. The best thing a young cook can have is a good quality, really sharp knife. Good luck to you!
re: hill food
I have some of my Aunt Bea's cookbooks. She was an amazing baker, and she made copious notes. Notes on what she did that worked, ideas for next time, warnings on recipes she hated, quotes of kind or snarky things her family or friends said. It makes me smile to see that big loopy writing -- I can hear her laughing as I read.
Pick a few dishes that you and your spouse like to eat - meatloaf and mashed potatoes, lentil soup, fried rice, whatever.
Then search for instructional videos and watch a few to get a general sense of what to do. Finally, hit the library and check out a couple of the general overview types of books mentioned here. Without spending a dime, aside from ingredients, you can get your feet wet and start preparing things you will like.
And read the WFD threads here, of course!
I agree. The most important thing is that you learn to cook what you want to eat!
That said, I echo the recommendation of a Betty Crocker cookbook, which was what I learned to cook with. Plus, I really like the Silver Palate Cookbook: well-written recipes that give you sophisticated results without any special skills or equipment. There are more go-to recipes in that book than any other I have.
I like Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything for advice on what to do with various vegetables and cuts of meat. Some people think his recipes are too dumbed down, but sometimes simplified is better. And he gives you multiple variations for everything from marinades to meatballs to brownies.
It's research and learning - things you're familiar with, being a teacher. Cooking and baking are lifelong learning opportunities with a really big return on your effort.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes or to experiment - even failures can be pretty good (certainly better than pre-fab mac n cheese!)
A simple roasted chicken with steamed vegetables is easy. Surely you've made salads? Learn to make a simple vinaigrette and you will be happy you did so. A salad a day is a healthy way to learn some basics and provide a part of your daily meals.
I know you say you don't have a lot of time, but really this would only be a committment of a few hours one evening...community education. Check out your local community ed classes. There are almost always classes designed for the beginning cook that are almost always a bargain and depending on your interests usually have some sort of theme (and you can take the class together).
One of the best things my mother ever did for me was sign me up for community ed cooking classes when I was in high school. My first one, I remember they taught us roast chicken, pork stirfry, and chocolate cake. The instructor gave us lots of useful tips, instructed us on proper knife handling, and came around to each person to help modify our knife grip and cutting skills.
That, in addition to reading a cookbook like Joy of Cooking cover to cover like it was a novel are probably the most helpful, imo.
Get ideas, Google, get in the kitchen. For me while I did grow up in a family of women who love to cook I hated cooking until probably only 8 or so years ago. Now it feels sort of like second nature in way, but mostly through trial and error, Google, Chowhound, etc. I like to read as much as I can and then jump into the fire and learn. Get an idea for a meal - perhaps focus on a tomato sauce and then learn as much as you can and you'll not only pick up a lot of cooking techniques from that that can be used for anything in the kitchen but you'll learn about the science of cooking and learn to figure out how to improve a dish.
I agree with everything posted, especially the joy of cooking. It is very comprehensive. In addition I would suggest all the barefoot Contessa's books. Her recipes are great and very easy!
Let us not forget Chowhound as an excellent resource. For every question you have there is a CH'er with an answer--or maybe 100! Cooking can definitely change your life for the better.
And don't forget what Julia Child said:
“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook--try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
Don't take on too much at one time. Read, watch videos, grab a cooking partner, ask questions at the market. They all work towards learning.
I learned by taking one challenge on at a time. Take on one new recipe a week. By the end of the month, each month you're menu building, thinking about ingredients, practicing your knife skills, learning what you like and how much time is involved. You're also learning what you don't like, why seasonal food shopping matters.
What recipe you begin with isn't really the challenge. Start where you're the most curious to learn.
yeah - there was a time when I was working insane hours and didn't feel like pursuing much of a social life. I found a previous tenant's old J of C in a drawer and cooking became mine and how I spent my evenings.
one week (actually for a couple of weeks) that meant perfecting a simple white sauce, bechamel, veloute.
so many things are based on those. later spun that off into egg based sauces and then got bored and Spring came, so the techniques considered centered around salads (like IMHO a darn good Caesar) and the grill and various marinades and methods for cheap cuts.
it was just simple steps taken one at a time.
although I would warn that baking cakes and pastry is different and really can't be 'ad-libbed' the way cooking can. you really have to follow a recipe to the letter - unless there's an obvious misprint and it call for 1 tsp sugar and 1-3/4 cup salt (it happens)
This is what I did. Started cooking about 15 years ago with Joy of Cooking. I'd choose about 3 new recipes per week and would make them on weekends, then relied heavily on Epicurious and Cook's Illustrated recipes.
I still like the Epicurious website because of their ratings/comments. I think I've been able to avoid a lot of not-good recipes that I would have otherwise tried out of a cookbook.
Have also learned a ton on this site! I'm still firmly in the learning to cook phase and CH has taught me things I wouldn't even have known to ask about.
I still try new recipes each week. The method still works for me too.
Honestly, I can easily fall weeks on end with meals that only require assembly; tastes of this and that, that become a well dressed meal plenty of times during a month. Sometimes I don't have time or don't need to fuss over a recipe in order to get a nice meal on the table. I think we all do that-no recipe required; just the combination of some nice foods that go well together. But, when I'm eager to try a new idea/recipe/menu plan I'll make time, figure out and tweak what I liked about the recipe (or not). The cookbook Jerusalem is a prime example. I dug deep into that cookbook for weeks. Figured out what I liked most and then tweaked those ideas into meals of my own creation. I tend to use recipes as a guide today but years ago I would have followed each to the letter because I wasn't as comfortable to riff. Now, I read a recipe and think: how can I change this up?
The abundance of food blogs, food magazines online and sites devoted to cooking styles is so endless, it's not confidence I'm lacking==it's time to try them all! Young people starting out have so many basic advantages as new cooks/bakers that I didn't have. What I had were grandparents who cooked/baked and loved food.
I agree with all the suggestions. Need to have The Joy of Cooking, and one of these: Betty Crocker, Good Housekeeping or Fannie Farmer. I also really like "How to Cook without a Book", it's not an all-inclusive "bible" like the ones mentioned above, but it does give some nice recipes and sound techniques.
If you tend towards vegetarian or just want to cook foods that are a bit more healthy, my other go-to cookbook is 1000 Vegetarian Recipes. Not just for vegetables, but even for recipes for muffins and other baked goods. (And I've been cooking for over 30 years.)
As you have found out, there are tons of "recipes" out there. Each one just different enough to cause gridlock in someone's mind who wants to make good food!
I highly recommend Michael Ruhlman's Twenty. It's techniques that help you to first think about cooking, and then understand different elements in cooking. He has recipes that illustrate all the techniques.
So my suggestion is to not follow recipes, but learn techniques and then you can create your own recipes, or riff on someone else's recipes because you know WHY things work or don't work.
Yes, get one of those big, loose leaf books by Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens for the standard recipes. Like Betty Crocker's Cooky book from fifty years ago. It's still a standard because it has all the cookies everybody grew up with. Yes on Ina Garten's books. Her recipes work. I never found America's Test Kitchen trustworthy - not the magazine or the cookbooks.
For learning methods, by all means look at YouTube first. You just won't believe the instructional videos available.
Assuming you and your new husband are new to cooking this could become a great activity you do together as a way to relax at the end of the day- its also more fun!
The short lived magazine "everyday food" is now a great website with simple fast recipes and videos targeting the busy time pressed cooks:
I would strongly suggest you do some cooking and prep over the weekend or when you have free time so that later in the week you can reheat a stew, or have all your ingredients prepped and chopped to make meals that much easier.
If your hubby is also interested in learning, both my husband and I have done a few date nights taking classes (Saturday or Sunday) at our local Sur Le Table. If you have something like that in your area, that is a good way to pick up the basics. I took a knife skills class and two years later an advanced knife skills. Those two classes, along with a class on sauces, have been more beneficial than I can say. In the 2nd knife skills class they taught us how to rock the knife and I learned that I could cut so much faster and probably exponentially safer by this method.
When I was a young newlywed, eager to try anything, my go-to books were Joy, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer. They are all careworn, stained and broken at the spines, but I still have my favorites in each.
After a while, I got a subscription to Bon Appetit. I learned about more exotic and unusual ingredients there, and prepared maybe one recipe from each edition. That was a great learning experience. What I really learned was not to be afraid of the ingredients.
I'd pick menus I liked and ask people here how to cook them, step by step. Different posters will critique and offer suggestions, variations, shortcuts, etc. As for cookbooks, Joy, Fanny, etc. offer zillions of great ideas, but I find them a little overwhelming. I'd start with most anything by Alice Waters. Her simplicity and appreciation for ingredients changed the way I think about cooking.
Before you buy any particular book, go to your local library and look at some of the books suggested.
In particular, I think the cookbooks by Ina Garten (e.g. Barefoot Contessa) are written with good precision and detail and they cover a lot of basic recipes. Some cookbooks aren't very precise and assume that you are already an experienced cook.
If a cookbook uses a term you aren't familiar with, check for a video on youtube.
Finally, see if there is a culinary school in your area that offers classes for amateurs. There are several places near me that offer basic classes and even some couples cooking classes. I've taken a number of classes over the years and nothing beats being shown how to do and then getting the opportunity to try it out. One of the best classes that I ever took was a knife skills class.
If your mother or mother in law can not teach you a few tricks I think finding as many cooking classes (start with the basics) and going to those. Even the most experienced cooks can learn in a cooking class. I had a mother who was a great shopper and scratch cook....I learned at her knee BUT I took a full year of HomeEc. in the 7th grade and the majority of it was like a culinary class. That is where I really learned about agriculture.....food production.....nutrition....techniques....and on and on. I also lean very heavily on Ina Garten and Emeril when I want to try my hand at new unfamiliar recipes. Never fails....perfection!!!!!!! They are online@FoodNetwork and YouTube.Bon Appetit!
You have received a lot of good advice so far. I highly recommend looking into what your library has in terms of cookbooks. You can check them out and see what works for you and then purchase what you like.
Food co-ops, kitchen stores like William Sonoma and some grocery stores have cooking classes that are just a few hours long.
I really like the Pioneer Woman blog. I love her site because the recipes are so approachable. I don't have TV so I have never seen her show, but some friends of mine have been inspired to cook more often after watching the series.
re: free sample addict aka Tracy L
I love the Pioneer Woman's blog, too! I find her funny and I really do enjoy her recipes. She includes a lot of pictures on her blog, as well as pretty detailed instructions, so not bad for a newbie. Not to mention, her recipes aren't ever complicated to begin with.
I will probably get electronic rotten tomatoes thrown my way for saying this, but Rachael Ray was who got me cooking everyday. Her 30 minute meals show was on when I was cooking dinner. Her "you can make good food from scratch in a reasonable time frame" with "a little help from the store" resonated with me. It wasn't scary. I could do this. I was a newlywed with a ton of new registry cook ware I wanted to put to use. I started with Italian american classics, then expanded from there. I'm now (8 years later) getting ready to delve into Indian food. Hoping Santa will bring the cookbooks I want to help.
And then just practice practice practice. And don't be afraid of mistakes or throwing out the unsuccessful attempts (here's looking at you horseradish mashed potatoes . . .)
All good advice given, especially watching videos, and lots of things to try. May I humbly offer some thoughts:
DON'T try a recipe with fresh tomatoes (i.e. marinara) right now. Unless you can currently get delicious sun ripened tomatoes. Cook seasonally. I bring this up because it is always a nice and rewarding beginner recipe to try.
DON'T buy a hundred spices to make Indian, Thai, etc. food right now. Wait till you decide you really do enjoy cooking. Meanwhile, DON'T buy a jar or bag of all-in-one Indian, Thai, etc. seasoning. Just be patient and cook the fundamentals. Like. . .
DO roast something. It can be store-bought pre-seasoned roast or a pre-packed oven-ready pork loin or a chicken you season and truss yourself. You'll find immense satisfaction and confidence when you roast a chunk of meat and reap the benefits for meals to come. The leftovers open up so many avenues and dishes to build upon. And it's really easy.
DO get yourself an instant read thermometer. Before you buy another pot, pan, or knife, as long as you have something functional, buy yourself an instant read thermometer for $15. Essential if you are a carnivore and useful for all cooks.
I'm going to bang out a squash soup recipe today. Cold and snowing - perfect. I first found the recipe in one of those Silver Palate girls' cookbooks, but I have it in my computer from an online source. It has my notes from previous attempts with this recipe. Preparation notes and possible "improvements." I actually have a lot of recipes like this.
I'm telling you this because it is something you can do. When you have a few spare minutes, you can find a recipe that appeals to you on line, download and save it, and print it out. It's yours; you can add notes to the file forever. The absolute worst thing that could happen is that you make a LARGE FONT note that says "DON'T MAKE THIS AGAIN."
You mentioned you don't have a lot of time.
How you cook depends a lot on your personality. If you are a very organized sort you could consider spending a few minutes with your partner BEFORE you go shopping and you both deciding on a basic menu for the coming week. Come up with a list of ingredients for each meal. If I were meal planning now I'd be thinking of making a meal you liked well enough to eat the leftovers on another night in the week. Trouble can be with this idea is you must REALLY like that meal to have it in your fridge. Never think of uneaten food in the fridge as 'left-overs'. Think of them as 'pre-made meals'.
If your personality is more 'what do we feel like tonight' then try to have those ingredients you like at hand.
Agree. Definitely get 'The Joy of Cooking'. Youtube is an excellent source for info.
To avoid disappointment with your dishes IMO you need to stay as close to the recipes as possible.
This morning I decided to use some of last nights leg of lamb in a curry. Not a dish I've ever made.
I googled and quick scanned a dozen recipes and watched a few vids on Youtube and got the general list of common ingredients and got a sense of how to put the curry together.
That's the sort of back ground research I suggest. Organize your ingredients and away you go. Best of success and welcome here.
I had a chemistry professor who cautioned the class against "cook booking" experiments.
Many cookbooks instruct one to add 1 cup of this, 1/2 cup of that, cook for xx minutes. ATK (Cooks Illustrated), Alton Brown's Good Eats, and Serious Eats all explain why one adds what they add and why they add it when.
I would rather learn why and when to add something vs just how much.
You definitely need a copy of Joy of Cooking, Fanny Farmer and/or Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything in your collection. But for a beginner, these books are daunting. Joy of Cooking has more than 4000 recipes. Where to start? I agree with the suggestion of Ina Garten's books for inspiration - the others have no photos.
I also like Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers for meals that you can get on the table after work. - easy to understand steps to follow for the recipes and basic how-to-cook information for beginners. Not overwhelming. You and your spouse can eat well as you become more experienced and you will know what to tackle next.
Some blogs such as Pioneer Woman are helpful as they have photos and instructions for each step.
My current favorite cook book for step by step is Cooks Illustrated Cooking for Two- it's an annual series- pick a year.
The recipes are fussy but comprehensive with mostly good results and if you didn't really like the dish you haven't got leftovers to deal with.
One tip I can give you, don;t confuse complicated.... with ..... lots of ingredients. My mom would not even look at a recipe if the ingredients list was more than 5 things. Typically most of a long list are herbs and spices to give your food wonderful flavor. Keep a well stocked spice cabinet, learn the flavors you and your hubby gravitate toward and you can doctor up almost any simple recipe with the flavors you like using a spice cabinet.
I've learned more about cooking from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking than from any other source. I like to learn the concepts of cooking rather than just hopping from recipe to recipe.
I would also recommend, as a new cook, that if you are using recipes you find online, choose recipes that have been rated and reviewed hundreds of times, and read the reviews because they often have tips and alterations that are very good. I made the best cheesecake of my life (best I've cooked, best I've eaten) a couple of weeks ago and it was prepared using a combination of an online recipe and some great advice from one of the reviews.
I have several suggestions:
Record and watch the following cooking shows: Alton Brown's Good Eats; America's Test Kitchen; Cook's Country; Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa; Rachel Ray's 30 minute meals.
Become a premium member of http://www.americastestkitchen.com/
at least for the first year. They have loads of instructive material, explanations, videos, tested recipes.
Unlike a lot of people I do NOT recommend buying one of the 500 - 1200 page mega books to start out with. They are just too intimidating. Here is a list of a few books that will do wonders for you. Pick one or all. Buy them used and buy them cheap.
“How to cook without a book” by Pam Anderson It will help you immeasurably. http://www.amazon.com/How-Cook-Withou...
Martha Stewarts” Cooking School http://www.amazon.com/Martha-Stewarts...
Cooking Know-How http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Know-Ho...
Cooking Basics for Dummies http://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Basics-...
The fact is...this stuff just isn't that hard. There are about 15 cooking techniques. Once you know them and some knife skills, you have all you need.
Look these techniques up on the web and learn them. Find some recipes that use those techniques and try them.
After that it is just a matter of finding the recipes you like. You do that. You will know more than 80% of the home cooks out there.
Wet Cooking Methods:
Simmering & Boiling**
Blanching & poaching
Braising & stewing**
Dry Cooking methods:
Sauteing & pan frying**
Roasting and Baking**
Broiling and Grilling
The methods I list together on one line are very similar to each other. Learn one and you are very close to knowing the other.
** These techniques are more useful and therefore more important to know.
Finally, You need to, fairly quickly, develop 20 “go to” dinner recipes.
Start with a meatloaf. I recommend Alton Brown’s. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...
Pulled pork is easy and inexpensive and the left overs freeze well. A slow cooker works great for this and I highly recommend you get one. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...
Swiss steak is great. It would be nice to have a 5-6 quart enameled cast iron dutch oven but it isn’t absolutely necessary for this dish. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...
You need a pasta dish. These are very versatile and easy. Here is a link to recipe with several variations. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...
Get a risotto/ Rice pilaf recipe. These are easy and endlessly versatile. Here is a risotto. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...
Here is a Rice pilaf. They are very similar dishes and techniques.
Develop a stir fry recipe. Here is one with a lot of variations. http://allrecipes.com//HowTo/super-ea...
Develop a pot roast recipe. http://www.cookingindex.com/recipes/5...
Last but not least. This is not the first newbie learning to cook thread on this site. Here is one : http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7596...
There are several more. Use the search function to find them. Search with terms like newbie; "learning to cook"; "First cookbook";
I apologize for the lengthy response but it will be helpful.
First off, give yourself a pat on the back for deciding to develop a skill that will make you healthier and wealthier as time goes on. Make a pact with your husband that you will both approach the results of cooking attempts with an open mind and a resolve to say "thanks, that was good."
Many years ago, Peg Bracken wrote a couple of "I Hate to Cook" books. They are out of date, and I am not recommending them (although there are a few recipes I use often that came originally from these books).
However, she had some important advice to newbie cooks; well worth remembering.
If the recipe calls for an ingredient that you don't like or don't have, feel empowered to leave it out or substitute, unless it seems like the signature ingredient. (Leaving chili powder out of chili might not get you to anything like chili.). But you can leave capers or thyme or green peppers or whatever out of anything. Note: this does not apply to cake baking!
Fancy cookbooks will suggest a whole menu, made up of several dishes all requiring a lot of time and work. Don't try it! Make one thing that has protein and veg, or protein and starch, and a VERY easy dish or two with another veg/starch.
Don't feel guilty for taking shortcuts -- everybody has their own strong points and no-one is best at everything. Make a good meal, but buy the bakery cake and rolls. Start with a rotisserie chicken from the grocery, but make a good veggie pasta dish to go with it. It's all good.
My own advice: not Peg's: Google is your friend. Find a recipe in one of your cookbooks, for a dish you already like (maybe you had it at a restaurant or your mom made it?), and then google the same recipe.
Visit a few of the sites that show up.
Focus on sites that provide feedback in the form of comments and ratings, so you can find out if people really made the dish and how it turned out.
Compare a couple of the results that seem highly rated, so you can see differences and similarities. Go ahead and cook whichever recipe you like, and make some notes on the page or paper.
Remember what sites you have tried recipes from, and which ones you can trust.
Beware of big compilation sites that have a bazillion recipes posted. Even with a lot of reviews, the results are kinda mixed because you don't get to develop any faith in the recipe poster.
My own favorite trustworthy sites, good for a beginner:
and also, though I don't read her any more, I remember her directions being very complete:
When I decided I wanted to learn how to cook in my mid 20s, I started with trying to replicate a dish I had at a restaurant... it was just a simple pasta with a red cream sauce and spicy sausage, but it got me started.
Then, I started watching the Food Network on Saturday mornings. I learned the most from Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, and Tyler Florence. I then bought a couple books, Ina Garten's "Barefoot at Home", and Tyler Florence's "The Ultimates". Then I just started cooking my way through those books. If I saw a term or ingredient I wasn't familiar with, I googled it. Youtube videos are helpful for learning a technique.
I bought "How to Cook Everything", but like others mentioned, I found it overwhelming. I still have it, but have maybe opened it 3 times.
I also picked things that I liked to eat, and practiced making them different ways. For example, I think I've made oven baked chicken fingers 10 different ways (the ones with cornflakes as the crust is my favorite). I've made all different kinds of meatballs.
Later on I branched out into different types of cuisines. Like, "Mexican Everyday" by Rick Bayless has been a great book to learn mexican food, but hasn't been too difficult.
One other thing I did that was helpful for me, was taking a knife skills class. It was just a short 2 hour class at a kitchen supply store, but I learned a lot and also got a chance to try out lots of different types of knives. I ended up buying one of the knives after the class and it has become my most important tool.
Lastly, the advice about not being afraid to sub things out or buy something at the store is good advice. Often making a meal can end up being overwhelming, so don't make it too hard on yourself. It's fine to buy jarred pasta sauce if you only have 30 minutes to make dinner.
One that I own is one of my favorites. "How To Cook Without A Book" by Pam Anderson, a food consultant (not from Baywatch). The book has very basic recipes along with variations of them. I suggest that you borrow a copy from your local library or have the library make an interlibrary loan if they don't have it.
I'm nthing a bunch of recommendations for Joy of Cooking. I think of myself as a pretty good cook, but I still turn to it as a reference when I don't necessarily know how to do things other recipes tell me to do. I just find the explanations clear and easy to execute, which isn't always true with other cookbooks.
You should also check out our CHOW Easiest Way video series: http://www.chow.com/videos/show/the-e... The test kitchen covers a lot of different kinds of dishes, with techniques that aren't too fussy and should be within the reach of a novice.
These replies are good. But more important than books is the experience of doing something and then extending that skill. My cooking began with scrambled eggs when I was a kid. Be aware with all your senses so that you let the food teach you more than a book. That said, besides Joy of Cooking and other books mentioned below, there are several good books that I think really help you get beyond a recipe-driven approach. The first is Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which imparts some basic skills through some interesting good recipes. (I love his approach to roasts.) The second is Alice Water's Simple Cooking. (I haven't seen the sequel to it yet.) The third, is the "Tante Marie's Cooking School" cookbook, by Marie Risley, probably available only used on the net. A great cook I know learned to cook from her. Many of the chapters end up with a "how to cook without a recipe." It takes all the fear out of messing around in the kitchen. Of course, YouTube is a gold mine, though not all that glitters is gold. But lots of things that sound complicated in print turn out to be amazingly easy if you see it being done: for example egg pasta and bread. Finally, expect to make mistakes. Our seasoned cook today burnt a cherry pie to cinders. She forgot it was in the oven and went to do some cleaning in the pantry. We all had a laugh. Nobody gets it perfect. Not even Julia Child.