I am a huge proponent of cooking at home using as many basic ingredients as you can. Not only is it less expensive, it’s also potentially much more healthy than eating prepared foods, and with practice, it doesn’t really require all that much effort, either.
Since writing several posts about my passion for cooking and the cost benefits of it in the past, I’ve exchanged many emails with readers who have wanted to know more. One reader asked a particularly interesting question that I thought I would share with all of you (I added a link to an earlier article to clarify):
You talked about good cookbooks for learning before, but you also talk about how you didn’t actually learn how to cook from them. What did you actually learn from? How do you actually cook? What books do you use for reference? What ones are in your kitchen right now that you use regularly and inspire you to cook even when it takes a lot of time?
First of all, I now rarely use recipes when I cook. Recipes are truly great for learning how to make something, but once you’ve made it several times, digging out the recipe is usually a waste of time. Unless I’m learning a new technique or trying something completely outside of my experience, I don’t use recipes at all, and I quite honestly feel awkward sharing recipes on here because I usually do them completely on the spur of the moment. It is for this reason that I recommend cookbooks that cover a lot of techniques without getting complicated instead of books merely full of recipes.
That doesn’t mean that I eschew cookbooks – I really love ones that are full of creativity and technique and really inspire me to try new things – and also show me how to do it. I don’t like cookbooks that merely tell me how to follow a recipe, but instead break it down into things that I can learn and take away from the material to try with other things.
Having said that, my kitchen bookshelf actually only has four books on it. Most of them are stained, spotted, discolored, and otherwise made to look disgusting; for that reason, I actually keep them in a cupboard out of sight. I mostly rely on them for two things: inspiration and technique. If you’re just looking for recipes to follow, well, these books might not be the best help in the world.
Joy of Cooking This was the book that taught me how to cook, but it was like drinking from a fire hose. It’s basically a general reference for American cuisine and is almost always my starting point if I don’t have a clue where to start looking. If you are thinking of buying a copy, avoid the 1997 edition as it is quite different from the others and from my eyes not nearly as useful; the link above goes to the 75th Anniversary edition, which is much better.
The Silver Spoon I am a sucker for Italian food and there is simply no better reference for Italian cuisine than The Silver Spoon. Some of the recipes in here are pure craziness, but almost all of them have a nugget or two of technique or inspiration that can be pulled out and combined with other things. This is perhaps the best “bag of tricks” I have in my cupboard.
The New Best Recipe Most of the time, I prefer to experiment in the kitchen, but when I actually follow a recipe (usually because it has to be good), I turn to this one for recipes on most things. I also use it as the starting point for interesting variations – for example, I love to make homemade brownie recipes with Kahlua or raspberry liqueur or Irish cream mixed in, but the foundations of the brownie recipe come from this book.
Happy in the Kitchen I found this one wandering through the food section at a Barnes and Noble. Most of the time, I’ll grab a cookbook I haven’t seen before, browse through it, realize it didn’t surprise me at all, and drop it back on the shelf. I did that with this one, figuring it would be just another collection of recipes, but what I found was actually a collection of crazy and simple techniques. This is one that has found me plowing through each section doing things that seem bizarre (chicken sausage with a Saran Wrap casing, for example) but that turn out amazingly well. If I’m ever wanting a creativity boost in the kitchen, this one does the trick.
In all honesty, I have never kept another cookbook in my life – my wife keeps a few semi-random ones, but the rest have just simply gone away.
One final element, though, is perhaps the most essential of all (at least for me): an online subscription to Cooks Illustrated. I used to subscribe to the print edition, but the online archives are much more useful to me (mostly because they’re searchable). Cooks Illustrated is pretty much the only cooking magazine worth bothering with. You can try out their archives with a free 14 day trial.
Other than Google, these are all the resources I use in the kitchen. There are a few other books I am interested in acquiring, but those are mostly left for gift-giving occasions (a cookbook is a great gift, trust me).