Updated on 05.30.07

My Kitchen Bookshelf

Trent Hamm

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.

JoyJoy 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.

TNBRThe 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).

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  1. nightingale says:

    Two things I’d like to add:
    First, I find that there is no reason to pay money for recipes at all. If I need a book quite often yard sales and libraries have them for free or almost free, but most often I use the internet. Allrecipes.com is 99.9% free, has nutrition info, great reviews and suggestions, and often even has pictures. Plus I can always email my mother for tips…
    Secondly, I think one of the best things for my kitchen and my cooking doesn’t actually come from my kitchen. At least in New England there are stores where I can get a hot rotisserie chicken for about $4. That chicken cones ready to eat and with some side dishes can usually feed four people as is, but since I live by myself I can stretch it to last about a week. I have 2-3 meals of breast meat, and the rest of the meat gets split between a soup (5-6 meals sometimes), a quiche (4-5 meals) and if there is enough left over, the freezer for future cooking. I also can make broth by boiling the carcass.
    It’s certainly something to consider, especially if meat is expensive and energy for the oven is also rising in cost. Some stores sell the hot birds for $7 but even then I think that’s still a deal, considering how much I get out of it.

  2. Ted Valentine says:

    A great way to learn is by watching the food channel. I recommend Tyler Florence Food 911 (he goes into people’s homes and shows them how to cook) and Alton Brown Good Eats (Explains the science behind cooking). All the recipes are available free on the website.

  3. D. says:

    The title of Mark Bittman’s cookbook “How to Cook Everything” is a bit misleading, but it’s also a great resource. It was one of the best wedding presents I received. I’m not a cookbook person either, but I’ve surprised myself with how often I’ve pulled it off my shelf to use it. I use it especially for vegetables I’ve never cooked with before, or when I’m looking for inspiration. It’s mostly a tutorial on food, with recipes merely thrown in for illustration – but it’s also a great book to curl up with (if you’re a food nerd like I am).

  4. Kate says:

    I fully endorse Trent’s recommendation of the New Best Recipe. I trained as a chef at the CIA and also worked professionally as both chef and baker. This cookbook initially did not interest me because the recipes are so basic. And yet on second inspection, this is a great cookbook precisely because the 1000 recipes included therein are canonical and have been perfected through painstaking research. It’s not a cookbook to provide inspiration, per se. You won’t find creative new ways to serve dinosaur kale, or guidance on vertical haute cuisine appetizers. It’s a cookbook to turn to for perfection in the foods we like to eat everyday. Eggplant parmesan, spaghetti carbonara, brownies, twice-baked potatoes, meatloaf. This is a fantastic book for those who want to learn to make “normal” meals at home that will taste great.

  5. Rob says:

    Second on the New Best Recipe and Cook’s Illustrated recommendations – they know what they’re doing, and more importantly, they tell you what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and how you can avoid what they did wrong in the future.

    I would also recommend, if you like the Cook’s Illustrated format, watching “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS to see them do what they do best.

  6. Rob in Madrid says:

    Trent perhaps if you don’t want to start posting recipes online (can understand that one) just ideas of what kind of things you might cook. Most of us wouldn’t have a clue where to even begin so general ideas would be great.

    For example I made a tuna casserole today.

    Besides that I second the idea of buying a precooked chicken. They generally cost the same as uncooked chicken and can be stretched to several meals.

  7. Andamom says:

    I actually created a post back in April on “What’s for dinner tonight” (http://andamom.com/?p=18). In it, I write about some of the cookbooks we use, food magazines, and other dinner options.

  8. George says:

    Trent: As always, a great blog. I’m surprised that you left Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” off this list, particularly since you previously said “If you just buy one cookbook ever, this would be the one to get” and “Even today, I learn something new just by browsing through the pages of this book. . . ” Have you thrown your Bittman away, or is “I have never kept another cookbook in my life” a slight exaggeration? :)

    Not calling you out, mind you, just a fellow Bittman fan that uses this book 2-3 times a week. Please keep up the great work and good luck with the house.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Bittman’s book is really useful for the beginning/intermediate cook, but most of the techniques in it are relatively basic. I can flip through it and get an idea or two, but as a pretty experienced home cook I get much more use out of the four books above. I would recommend Bittman over any of those for someone just starting out, though, and if I was starting over from scratch, Bittman is what I would get – I was mostly just addressing what I use frequently as an intermediate to advanced home cook – frequently enough to keep it in my kitchen to have on hand at a second’s notice.

  10. How do you teach a wife who readily admits she’s a bad cook but refuses to read books?

  11. Beth says:

    Dy: your wife may not care to learn. Will she wash the dishes if you cook?

    Trent: does the online Cook’s Illustrated contain 100% of the printed content?

    I used to buy cookbooks until I realized I was just buying into the fantasy of perfectly cooked meals presented to an admiring audience. Now I check them out from the library and make sure I use several recipes before I ask for the book for my birthday. I have a foot-long shelf full of cookbooks but I mainly use Joy of Cooking and The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (for my vegetarian lunch group).

  12. Rob in Madrid says:

    As an afterthought, our problem isn’t cooking it’s eating. We have a freezer full of meals we never got around to eating. I love cooking on the weekend During the week neither of us have the interest in a big meal so it’s something quick and simple. Bowl of cereal peanut and jam sandwich (made with heavy german rye bread) or perhaps an egg and then depending on how late it is some sliced and diced veggies followed by a yogurt before bed. Weekends one day we have a salad next day a big meal, but do you cook or reheat one of meals in the freezer?

  13. Paul says:

    We’re hooked on the “American Test Kitchen Cookbook”. It includes postmortem comments from the chefs on why they picked a specific technique when cooking the recipe.

  14. Rich G. says:

    I’ve been thinking about a new cookbook recently and keep telling myself that with sites like recipezaar.com (GREAT site that I can spend an hour on without even noticing!) another cook book would be just a waste of money.

    I’m leaning towards a cookbook now though. I’ve got to do something with that gift card right? Why not spend it on “The New Best Recipe” then I ask myself.

    Do you have any recommended cooking sites that you reference quite a bit? Recipezaar.com is my favorite, only just now found out about allrecipes.com from comments here.

  15. Erin in Texas says:

    Some of these cookbooks I use on a regular basis. On addition I would make, especially if you like to bake, is Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour. I bake for several reasons – I know what is going into the snacks my kids eat as well as saving money. I mean who wants to spend $3 plus dollars for a dozen cookies at the grocery bakery?! This book provides a lot of good information about baking with various whole grains that I have applied to other recipes I have. Everything has turned out to have a great taste (i.e. you don’t realize that it is whole grain) and I know that we are actually getting some decent nutritional value in the baked goods we are eating.m Keep the doctors away!

    I have been using this cook book since December and my whole family has demolished everything that I have made from it.

    Note that there will be some increased costs as whole grain flours are more expensive than regular flour, but I think overall it has been worth it.

  16. elkit says:

    I second Ted’s recommendation for Alton Brown, who explains the science behind how to cook and bake things. I’ve learned quite a few new tricks from him.

    And Dy, if your wife doesn’t want to read books, maybe she’d like to watch food shows on TV?

  17. Rhonda says:

    Rich G: One site that you might like is http://rouxbe.com/. They do everything as a mini video, including all the little tips and techniques and some of the more unusual ingredients. You will need headphones/speakers as all the videos are narrated.

    I blogged about Rouxbe a few weeks ago: http://sandgroper14.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/oh-yummmmm/

  18. Sean says:

    I’ll second the Silver Spoon. Man, talk about some AUTHENTIC italian recipes. It’s a hefty tome, and not for a beginner cook, but it has everything you could ever want to know about italian cooking. Plus some of the photography is just beutiful.

    Also, I have alot of love for Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, since this is the book I learned to cook from.

  19. Thoglette says:

    For those of you able to find Penguin published books (.uk, .nz & .au at least) track down
    Stephanie Alexander’s “The Cook’s Companion”
    ISBN 0670863734 or 1920989013 (2nd ed)

    It is the perfect gift for a would-be cook, even if the ingredient list has an antipodean bias. It is one of those reference books which I return to again and again.

  20. Rich G. says:

    @Rhonda: Thank you for the recommendation. It’s opening in another tab now.

    RE: The New Best Recipe: I just went to the bookstore and saw it for the first time. This isn’t a book. It’s a tome. It’s a chock-block to keep semi-trucks from rolling down hills. This book is, at a rough estimate, 850lbs of non-colored pages of moderate type size waiting to rip my cupboards off the wall. It’s a book that will be stored at usage height so I never have to pick it up again. This is a book you move away from and buy another one just so you don’t have to lift it. This is a really big book!

    (I’m only kind of kidding – I’m on a work trip and was going to buy it on the trip, but it’s too big for my luggage and my clothes and I’m guessing throwing away a pair of jeans so I can take a cookbook home with me would not be in keeping with the theme of this site so I chose to not do that.)

  21. MVP says:

    We have several versions of the old standby Betty Crocker cookbooks, which are really handy for basics such as sugar cookies and baked chicken. One handy guide we recieved as a wedding gift is Dining on a Dime. It’s got all sorts of penny-pinching suggestions for saving leftovers and making substitutions – admittedly, some are very off-the-wall, but take ’em or leave ’em. And then a couple basic vegetable cookbooks that give a variety of ways to cook veggies, in alphabetical order. It’s really great for those strange veggies you pick up at the farmer’s market, or for trying someting different with all those tomatoes left in your garden. One more that gets a lot of use is the Barbecue Bible. It’s helped us hone our grill skills using a variety of meats and veggies.

  22. Pam says:

    I’ve been referring to http://www.allrecipes.com lately. I found some great recipes there, and even better, reviews of most recipes. The reviews give ideas on how they tweaked the recipe to their own taste. Very helpful.

  23. Stephan F- says:

    We love Cook’s Illustrated. We’ve finally settled on that and Cooking Light as we actually cook from those magazines and the recipes work and taste good, without fiddling with it. I love how they work out all the details of getting the recipe to work and explain what they did wrong, which is very helpful.

    We also love Alton Brown’s Good Eats. His explanation of how cooking works is going to be a major part of the beginning science curriculum for my children.

    For each of these it isn’t the recipe that is important, you can get recipes free anywhere. But the work and science behind the recipes that really make a difference. That is worth far more then the cost of the books.

  24. Chris says:

    I like the idea of cooking from scratch. It saves money and is healthier.
    I have got into purchasing a whole chicken rather than pieces and worked out that it saved 15-20% off the price, and I get to make real chicken stock, which is delicious.

    PS love this column, it is really good, nice work.

  25. de says:

    america’s test kitchen explains the science behind the techniques, which applies to additional recipes and makes a better chef

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