Updated on 02.20.07

Don’t Know How To Cook, But Want To Learn? Here Are The Only Two Books You’ll Ever Need

Trent Hamm

Making your own meals at home is, quite simply, far less expensive than dining out or take-out or prepackaged meals at home. However, many people simply don’t do it for two reasons: it’s inconvenient and they have no idea how to prepare a good meal.

Let’s first address the inconvenient part: if your lifestyle makes things so busy that you can’t prepare a meal in the evenings (or at other mealtimes), you can still easily cook at home by preparing meals in advance and freezing them, especially “convenience” foods. If you spend a weekend preparing meals and storing them away, you can have home-cooked meals ready to go for most of a month without breaking a sweat – just pop them out of the freezer and into the oven, and you’re good to go.

Now, what about cooking? I’ve hinted many times on here that I’d love to start an “introductory cooking” blog, as food preparation is one of my passions. I enjoy nothing better than preparing a rosemary-crusted chicken with fresh vegetables and such for my family to enjoy. In fact, this has shaped one of my home purchasing criteria – I must have a fairly large kitchen, as our current tiny kitchen is slowly driving me insane.

Most people don’t have the time to go to culinary school, but thankfully there are many books out there that can teach you what you need to know, both in terms of techniques and selecting complementary foods and ingredients. Unfortunately, many of these books are just recipe collections that leave the inexperienced cook quite confused or overwhelmed with details – and makes the process much less enjoyable.

If you’re just starting to learn how to save money by preparing foods for yourself, here are the two books I would use for this process.

how-to-cook-everything.jpgThe first book you should buy is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything. Forget Betty Crocker or even Joy of Cooking (even given my attachment to the latter), this is the single best book I’ve ever seen for beginning cooks. This book is loaded with details on preparation, explaining the finer points of almost every common culinary practice. The recipes (and there are a bunch of them) focus on a merger of simplicity and flavor in an effort to show beginning cooks that it is indeed easy to create something delicious in the kitchen. Even today, I learn something new just by browsing through the pages of this book, even if I don’t use it as a day to day reference. If you just buy one cookbook ever, this would be the one to get.

the-new-best-recipe.jpgOnce you’ve mastered basic techniques, the second book you should buy is The New Best Recipe. This is a compendium of the best material from one of the best cooking magazines out there, Cook’s Illustrated. Mostly, this book contains the “best” recipes for over a thousand specific dishes, which makes it a spectacular reference when you’re trying to assemble the perfect braised pork loin and so forth. Not only that, it can provide a great starting point when you’re exploring the possibilities of a certain dish.

If you’ve mastered both books and are still reaching, you’ll probably want to dig into reference cookbooks for your specific culinary interests. My absolute favorite of these is Silver Spoon, a giant reference for Italian food.

Cooking at home is not only financially rewarding, it can be quite spiritually rewarding once you gain some basic skills. These two books are your best bet to turning your rudimentary cooking skills into kitchen magic.

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  1. Dave says:

    You HAVE to read Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here For The Food”, and his followup “I’m Just Here For More Food”. They really TEACH you how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe.

  2. Greg says:

    I submit “Joy of Cooking”, “Practical Cookery” by the CIA, and “Culinary Artistry” by Dornenburg and Page.
    “Joy of Cooking” because it provides the fundamental depth of an encyclopedic collection of recipes that can be tweaked using…

    “Practical Cooking” to educate you on the basic skills and “bricks and mortar” of cookery and…

    “Culinary Artistry” to enlighten on the rationale behind food combinations, spice and herb complementarity, ethnic food distinctions, and menu construction. This book in particular, shows that almost all recipes found in pulp cook-book and magazine columns are rote rehashings of long-known food/spice combinations.

  3. Jennifer says:

    What about The Joy of Cooking? It’s the one cookbook I use over and over again.

  4. 3bean says:

    Perhaps it goes without saying, but the more you cook, the easier it is to do and the better you become at improvising. If your initial cooking endeavors take an inordinant amount of time, keep at it. It WILL get better.

    I enjoy watching the HGTV show “What You get For the Money”. The show profiles ~5 homes in different cities all assessed at approxiamtely the same value. Infallibly, there’s always a shot of the homeowners cooking or chopping something in their gorgeous kitchens. I can tell who really cooks by watching the way they cut vegetables. So many of the people who claim they “love” to cook don’t seem to be able to slice an onion!

  5. donna jean says:

    I have to disagree on the “The New Best Recipe” book. I’m a major fan of Cooks Illustrated and have years of back issues that I refer to monthly for cooking ideas — however, they just don’t seem to be a good option for new or beginning cooks. While I love the approach of making the best deep dish apple pie, a newbie needs more practical advise on cooking and simpler recipes.

    While I agree with Dave that learning too cook is more relevant than following a recipe, I know that it is the following of recipes that will help you get a sense for what flavors go together and gives you the resources to get creative in the kitchen.

    I agree that “Joy of Cooking” is a good beginner resource to have on hand. That and knowing that you don’t always have to follow the recipe exactly — my family teases that I couldn’t if I wanted to — and that cooking isn’t always exact science.

  6. MM says:

    I’d like to remind everyone to either borrow these books from the library – or simply visit one of the numerous recipe websites where every recipe in these two books is probably posted: http://recipezaar.com/ is and excellent one.

  7. Debbie says:

    I knew someone would bring up Joy of Cooking in the comments, but I didn’t know half the commenters would. This is the worst cookbook I’ve ever seen for beginners. It makes cooking seem very complicated. For example, if they had a chicken casserole recipe, they couldn’t just have a chicken casserole recipe. They’d also refer you to the chicken stock recipe, the white sauce recipe, and the three-page treatise on selecting the best chickens based on which clucking noise they make when you poke them on the wing.

    I’m barely even exaggerating, and you know it. People who grew up cooking or watching people cook don’t realize just how much knowledge is involved, even in cooking from a recipe.

  8. donna says:

    The Silver Spoon is a great cookbook. It had everything I could possibly think of making. But I also love Mitchell Davis’ Cook Something and Kitchen Sense books. They are real gems. I refer to them all the time. Another good one that has paid for itself many times over is Brilliant Food Tips And Cooking Tricks: “5,000 Ingenious Kitchen Hints, Secrets, Shortcuts And Solutions
    It is great when you forget an ingredient and are wondering what to sub for it.

  9. dani says:

    I love, love, LOVE my “how to cook everything”. It’s not just about the recipe Bittman presents, but the little boxes where he tells you how to jazz things up, or easy substitutions…For me, who grew up with a mother making overcooked fish, italian dressing on chicken, and campbell’s soup casseroles, it’s been invaluable in teaching me how to COOK WELL.

  10. Amy says:

    How to Cook Everything is absolutely the best book for a beginning cook. It’s not the recipes, Bittman explains how and why they’re tasty, and teaches a whole approach towards cooking that’s straightforward and flexible. His new book “Best Recipes of the World” is also a very good choice – even more focused on basic techniques, but incorporating flavors from a greater variety of sources.

    The Joy of Cooking is a good reference book if you’re interested in becoming a more serious cook. Their discussions about ingredients and dish components (stock, piecrust, etc.) are really helpful, and exhaustive. But if your goal is just to put something tasty on the table for your family every night, you’re probably not that interested in reading about the difference between broth and stock, or how to choose a perfect endive. And, as pointed out above, their recipes tend towards the complex and multistep.

    I have mixed feelings about The New Best Recipe. One the one hand, the recipes work. Period. If you follow the steps exactly (and they’re all very clearly explained), you’ll get a great dish. For beginning cooks, this can be incredibly reassuring. But, many times you can get something 90% as good for 50% the effort, and reading the book as your first introduction to cooking could leave you feeling that it’s a much more tiresome and labor-intensive process than it actually is. If you want to figure out which way you’ll react, you can get a trial subscription to their website archive (www.cooksillustrated.com) and see how you like the recipes there, since it’s also a pretty expensive cookbook as these things go.

    Two online (and free!) resources that I use all the time are Epicurious (www.epicurious.com) and the Williams-Sonoma website, which has an extensive online recipe collection. Both allow you to search by ingredient, which is very useful if you want to figure out what to do with a random collection of ingredients sitting around in your refrigerator, or if you shop like I do based upon what’s fresh and on sale any particular week. They also have a wide variety of recipes from quick and easy to super-fancy for company. And, of course, free.

  11. Frank says:

    Ironically, one of the books that helped me learn to cook when I was first starting out was “How to Cook Without a Book” by Pam Anderson. The author (an executive editor at CI) presents simple combinations of ingredients and a cooking method to cover a large variety of the foods we eat. Everything from stir fries to homemade pasta sauces are covered, and the recipes are geared for weekday cooking.

  12. I love Best Recipe but I’m a true believer in the The Best 30-minute Recipe for quick tips and hints around the kitchen.

  13. Rob in Madrid says:

    Trent would love if you gave more ideas on eating on a budget. There is a myth in America that you can’t eat healthy on a budget (hense the reason why the poor are so fat). But in talking to many of our friends who spend much less on food than us and eat very well made me realize that is wrong. Problem is it takes time to re think your cooking and eating habits.

  14. Valencia says:

    I agree that The Joy of Cooking is not the best cookbook for beginners. The internet is my source for recipes that create great meals.

  15. bluewyvern says:

    I was very glad to see that you recommended How to Cook Everything. When I moved out into my first apartment, that was the book that my mother pulled out of her cookbook collection and passed on to me, and it has been invaluable. Apart from the recipes, which are straightforward and great, the sections on cooking techniques and how to buy and prepare different kinds of meats and produce are wildly helpful. I often have trouble finding this kind of thing on the internet — what I need is basic tutorials on how to cook a particular meat or dish, not a hundred different variations on the same (garlic-crusted! With plum sauce! Cajun kick! With organic pine nuts, saffron threads, and pickled baby octopus eyes, available at one of three upscale specialty Asian markets worldwide!).

  16. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    bluewyvern: Exactly. It is a great “first” cookbook because it focuses on the basics and the framework of how to do all of that jazzy stuff. The adventurous stuff can come later when you can do the basics with ease – that way, you don’t waste three hours making a plum sauce when you don’t even know how to prepare the basic dish.

  17. Hoepfulgirl says:

    Thank you for this! I am trying to expand my cooking skills! I will check them out.

  18. fandd says:

    I am so late to this party, but I have to mention my favorite cookbook – Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. My parents gave me a copy when I moved out on my own and it has saved me plenty of times.

  19. anonymous says:

    I second the Alton Brown suggestion.

  20. A in NC says:

    I second the recipezaar suggestion. I use it all the time. Especially good for REAL homemade things like pita bread, homemade sesame tahini (did you KNOW you could make your own), yogurt, tortillas, the list goes on and on!

  21. Molly says:

    I love recipezaar as well and belong to seveal yahoo groups devoted to food. My best recipes come from the internet.

  22. dlm says:

    Has anyone tried the Supper Clubs where the ingredients are chopped and ready for you — you just follow the recipes for 6 – 12 dishes? And what about hiring a good cook or chef to teach you the basics?

  23. Fred says:

    During the last turn down in the economy I was a laborer for a small construction outfit. It was wise at that time to update your current house instead of moving. I upgraded dozens of kitchens and baths. Every house had a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” There is a reason for that and now its a game for me to spot this book in every house I enter. I have a second edition that I am very proud of.

  24. michael bash says:

    I can only marvel that a person of such limited ability and experience in the kitchen should take the step to recommend cookbooks. Advise me on investing and other matters economic, but how do you have the courage (arrogance?) to choose among a plethora of cookbooks many of which you’ve never heard of muchless read? I appreciate what you’re doing; i read you every day, but celebrity does not bestow expertise. Stick to what you know, and leave other topics to those who know them.

  25. Neil says:

    The joy of cooking (1962 edition, hardcover, with two ribbon bookmarks bound into it) was the best 10 cent find I ever came across at a yard sale.

    Another good, all purpose cookbook is The Fanny Farmer Cookbook. A huge paperback thing with hundreds of classic recipes and instructions.

  26. Wren says:

    I had to laugh when I saw Joy of Cooking mentioned because of a debate that raged aout this book among a circle of foddies. We started talking about cookbooks and it seemed everyone owned JoC. Then one of the guys asked, “Ok, so we all HAVE it, but how many of us have actually cooked from it?” The table went silent. The majority of us had gotten the book as a wedding, Christmas or birthday gift. Two people bought it for themselves. Only ONE of us had ever made anything from it. (Same went for our Julia Child cookbooks, although we didn’t all have the same ones.)

    My choices for a beginning adult cook would have been the Bitmann book, Sally Schnieder’s A New Way of Cooking or Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food. For those who don’t care how or why and just want to know how much of what, the Fannie Farmer and New York Times Cookbooks.

    For young folks (teenagers) who don’t want to be talked down to, Marion Cunningham’s Learning to Cook with Marion Cunnigham is very good.

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