Jamie writes in:
What cookbooks do you recommend for someone who is just starting out on their own?
I’ve made no secret over the years that I love cookbooks, to the point that family and friends often just find interesting cookbooks (particularly ones focused on more obscure topics) to give to me as a gift. Earlier this year, in fact, I had a friend text me a picture of several cookbooks she bought for me for $0.50 apiece at a yard sale where the person had a ton of cookbooks; she went through and found some unusual ones that she thought I’d like. It took $3.50 to put a huge smile on my face.
Part of the reason that I love cookbooks so much is that I love making food items and beverage items at home. I love being able to customize them and make them the way I want, from the ingredients I want. It saves a ton of money and often results in much better food.
There are times when I’ll devote whole weekend days to making foodstuffs, but most of the time, I’m really practical with cooking. I have three kids that are in upper elementary and middle school, which means that our life schedules are entering a phase where simply having a family dinner together can be like threading a needle sometimes. I want to be able to make low-cost home-cooked meals, sometimes in very small timeframes, so that we can eat dinner together as often as possible.
What this means is that several times a week, if you peek in our house, you’ll see me or Sarah in the kitchen with a cookbook flopped open on the table as we attempt to prepare some meal. Maybe it’s me on the weekend trying to figure out how to make some strange fermented food, or on a weeknight trying to put together a casserole that can be on the table at precisely 5:45 so that we have time to eat and our two oldest ones can be on their way to practices by 6:15. Maybe you’ll see Sarah loading something in the slow cooker in the morning or trying to bake a cake on a Saturday afternoon.
I enjoy using cookbooks. I enjoy sitting down and just reading them, looking for new ideas and techniques. I enjoy having them around for reference, too.
The question that is really being asked here is this: what cookbooks do I consider to be the essential ones on my shelf, particularly ones that are useful for someone relatively new to preparing food at home?
I went through our cookbook collection and came up with a handful.
It’s worth noting that when I’m discussing these cookbooks, I strongly encourage you to check them out from the library rather than just buying them. Borrow these for a few weeks, read through some of the material in them, and try using them for a few recipes and techniques. Decide for yourself if this book works for you or not. Then, if it does click, look for it on discount. You’d be surprised how many of these can be found at used bookstores, for example, or at library book sales.
First, however, let me talk a bit about how I chose these.
What Makes a Good Cookbook?
There are really four things I look for in a cookbook.
First of all, it needs to have a technique focus. I shouldn’t be in a situation where I read a recipe and wonder, “How on earth do I do this?” If it’s a new technique that isn’t a super-common one, there should be a technique section in that cookbook or enough of an explanation right there that I’m not lost. Techniques are the key. I don’t mind it if I don’t quite understand the technique from reading it, but it should be named and identified clearly enough that I can turn to Youtube for more visual instruction, as it can be hard to describe some techniques with words and pictures. Tell me enough and show me enough that I can either figure it out with just that book or I can figure it out with a Youtube search.
Second, the recipes need to have at least something of a low cost focus with reasonably accessible ingredients. A cookbook that contains lots of ingredients that I can’t find within a twenty mile radius of my home is not very useful to me. I need to be able to find almost all ingredients in the cookbook at local grocery stores and food co-ops and ethnic groceries. There are several of these around here, but some cookbooks end up talking about things that you can seemingly only find if you know a monk in rural Indonesia, and that’s basically useless to me. The ingredients for the average recipe in the book shouldn’t cost me a lot.
Third: at least some of the recipes need to be reasonably quick or reasonably hands-free. I like having some cookbooks and some recipes that are very time and focus and effort intensive, but a good reference cookbook for general use should have a lot of quicker recipes that people can actually prepare on a weeknight evening.
Another thing: it needs to be able to physically lay flat on a table. If a cookbook can’t do this, I’m frustrated with it. This isn’t an absolute do-or-die rule, but I have passed on cookbooks that couldn’t lay flat on a table. This is important because I often have them in the kitchen, open on a table before me, and I don’t want to deal with cookbooks that won’t stay open. Spiral binding is good, as are most thick hardbacks. Paperbacks and some thin hardbacks are often terrible (but not always).
It’s worth noting that the list below is only a selection of our overall cookbook collection. We have a lot of cookbooks we’ve collected over the years and I’ve found value in all of them, but they’re not all ones I would directly recommend for someone aiming to have a few good general purpose cookbooks for a frugally-minded kitchen. They’re either incredibly focused (like Egg by Michael Ruhlman, which is more than 200 pages of incredible detail on various ways to prepare eggs) or loaded with complex recipes that I wouldn’t really recommend to someone who wasn’t at least somewhat adept in a home kitchen.
Here are a bunch of cookbooks that I recommend for any frugally minded home kitchen, even for people completely new to home food preparation.
How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
If I were to make a single cookbook recommendation for anyone who is starting to cook at home, it would be How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, hands down. It works as a tutorial on how to cook at home, starting with extremely basic recipes and techniques that I would trust my nine year old to do and building from there. It also works as a pretty robust reference for basic techniques and recipes for a lot of things you might cook at home. The recipes are simple to follow and just work, plus any techniques are explained extremely well. I turn to this by default when I’m figuring out the basics of making something at home; there’s a decent chance that anything I can think of that isn’t really esoteric is probably discussed in this book. The ingredients are never unusual or hard to find and the recipes are almost always a breeze to follow. There’s almost nothing else I could ask for in terms of a single cookbook for the beginning and intermediate home cook.
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is basically the same cookbook with the sections on meats removed and replaced with additional material for preparing plant-based meals. Our family mostly eats vegetarian for health reasons, so this one has actually seen more use over the last few years than the original.
The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Marian Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker
Our copy of The Joy of Cooking looks like it has been beat to death. It has a handmade paper “dust cover” on it because the cover was actually partially burnt while in use. It has spills on it in several places. Some of the index pages are unreadable.
How did it get into that state? It was used – hard.
I would describe The Joy of Cooking as being a similar combination of techniques and recipes as How to Cook Everything, but with a step up in complexity and with a rather quirky tone in places. While there is definitely a lot of overlap in content between the two books, The Joy of Cooking definitely gets into more complex recipes and techniques and covers some things that How to Cook Everything doesn’t touch. It also tends to make some more assumptions of the reader, assuming you know a lot of basic techniques in the kitchen. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s a good “next step” after How to Cook Everything.
I tend to use How to Cook Everything for a quick reference for basic weeknight meals or weekend lunches. I turn to The Joy of Cooking for weekend meals when I’m trying to make something amazing, or when a weeknight meal isn’t turning out like I want. The Rombauer/Becker clan usually has the answers I need.
The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Much as how The Joy of Cooking is a great “next step” all-around cookbook complement to How to Cook Everything, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a great “next step” all-around cookbook for vegetarian food to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. In fact, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is probably my most referred-to cookbook over the last few years as my family has transitioned slowly to an almost entirely vegetarian diet.
Again, what makes this book excel is the strong focus on technique, the clear explanations of everything, and the wide range of topics in a single volume. There are a ton of techniques and recipes and ideas and variations and “what to do with this ingredient” jammed into this book, and thus it functions as my default for figuring out what to do with a bunch of excess radishes (for example). While I find that How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is more accessible for quick weeknight meals, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is invaluable for weekend cooking when I have more time.
If you’re a vegetarian (or nearly so) and at least somewhat experienced in the kitchen, this is the best single volume to have, in my opinion.
Ratio by Michael Ruhlman
Ratio is probably the most unexpected choice on this list as it is probably the least like a traditional cookbook, but I felt strongly compelled to include it here because it’s done so much to help mold how I actually cook frugally in my kitchen.
The idea behind Ratio is that almost everything you prepare in a kitchen is essentially just a proportional mix of a few things by weight. For example, pancake batter is a ratio of 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part butter, and 2 parts flour. You can then vary these as you like – use whatever flour you want, use a variety of liquids for the liquid part (milk, yogurt, and so on), use butter alternatives for the butter, and so on.
Basically, the entire book is a framework to encourage you to experiment in the kitchen. It gives you a bunch of principles to stick with, then basically says “Go try this.” There are a few bits and pieces that hold your hand, but much of the rest of the book is just general frameworks and a few tips here and there.
This book gave me the courage to experiment in the kitchen, and to understand that even if something doesn’t turn out as you imagine, it’s usually good if the ingredients are good and you learn something, too. More than anything else I’ve ever read, it made me feel unafraid to try new ingredients and just start throwing together meals from the pantry in a pinch. Yeah, some of the things I’ve made have been weird and a few have been downright bad, but most have been quite good, a few have been amazing and well worth repeating, and it has eliminated most of my kitchen fears of “I can’t do this” or “This will be disastrous.” I still refer to it all the time for some starting points and ideas.
Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown
The entire purpose of this book is to present a variety of tasty and fairly healthy recipes trimmed down to the lowest cost possible, hence the subtitle “Eat Well on $4/Day.”
This is the best single cookbook I’ve seen if your focus is on keeping your food costs as low as possible. Most of the recipes are very simple and straightforward, which means that this book is really good for someone who is new to cooking at home.
I often turn to this one during times when we’re trying to really trim our food costs and “get back to the basics” for a while. I also use it as a nice parallel to Ratio, because this book does a great job of pointing to inexpensive ingredients that work well together that I can plug into some of the ratios from the other book. In other words, Good and Cheap serves wonderfully as a jumping off point if you’re wanting to keep costs low but want to start experimenting more and building confidence in the kitchen.
This one is available as a free PDF, but I have the nice compact print version on my shelf.
Love Your Leftovers by Nick Evans
This is the reference book when it comes to leftovers. How do you store leftovers? How do you cook to maximize the utility of leftovers? How do you deal with texture changes? What are good ways to remix a ton of different common leftovers? That’s what this book addresses, and it does it very well.
This book is usually the first place I turn to when I have some leftovers from a meal and don’t know what to do with them, or I have a ton of a particular ingredient that’s going to go bad and I want to have some ideas of what to do with all of this if I cook all of it.
This leads directly into a book on a similar topic…
The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen
This is the best single book I’ve found on meal prepping and preparing parts of meals in advance. I use it as a reference whenever I’m doing a big meal prep or I want to try to prepare something new for freezing.
To be clear, meal prepping means that you’re making a complete meal in advance and freezing it at a mostly-finished point so that it can easily be pulled from the freezer and popped in the oven to finish cooking. This means that, for example, you could make a few pans of lasagna on a lazy Sunday afternoon, then just finish cooking it in the oven on a busy Thursday evening, giving you a great home-cooked meal.
There are so many little useful tips in this book. It’s just full of little things that have refined what I’m doing whenever I’m making meals in advance. For example, the realization that I should put scrambled eggs in the fridge when making breakfast burritos and then pull them out to assemble the burritos cold is genius, because the eggs will “sweat” during this process and if you use a cloth or a paper towel to absorb that “sweat,” your actual breakfast burritos won’t be nearly as “wet” when you cook them later, turning them from soggy messes into deliciousness.
While we’re looking at America’s Test Kitchen offerings…
Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution by America’s Test Kitchen
Let’s start with the obvious question: where is “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 1”? The reason I don’t rely on that one is that most of the recipes in it require a lot of steps, and that’s the very thing I don’t want when making meals with the slow cooker. For me, almost all of the time, the slow cooker is a tool of convenience, so I don’t want complex recipes that require a lot of steps.
On the other hand, Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution really nail what I want from a slow cooker reference book. It explains strategies for cooking lots of different types of things in the slow cooker and offers a bunch of simple recipes for actually preparing things.
These two books are my default reference for things to do with the slow cooker, which we use frequently during busy parts of the year.
The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila
This is probably the most “off the beaten path” book on this list, but I’ve used my copy so much that I feel like I almost have to include it here. It became a portal for me into a world of fermented foods, homemade condiments, spice mixes, and all kinds of homemade foodstuffs, and it’s still the best one-volume coverage of those topics I’ve found.
If you’re interested in taking your home food preparation to the next level and making a lot of the basic ingredients for meals for yourself – sauces, condiments, spice mixes, and so forth – from very basic ingredients, this is a great starting point and reference. While this can definitely save you a little money and can definitely result in some tastier dishes, this is probably not a great time investment unless you’re really into this as a hobby.
Use the Library!
To close, I want to repeat what I said earlier in the article: use the library for these books! Don’t just go out and buy them! See if your local library has a copy, take it home, go through it, and try some of the recipes and techniques for yourself. See if it clicks for you. If it does, then, and only then, look for a copy of the cookbook, preferably a used one.
That being said, these books are really the core pieces of my cookbook library and the ones I continually turn to. I have quite a few other cookbooks that focus in on narrow topics, like the aforementioned Egg, several books on fermentation, a book about sous vide cooking, and so on, but these are the ones I rely on for a wide variety of low-cost home cooking strategies. I hope you’ll find some of them to be useful, too.