On The Simple Dollar, I’ve often written about my love for cookbooks. My friends and family know about this and often give me cookbooks as gifts for the holidays, which means I’ve actually reached a point where my cookbooks fill up a small bookshelf and I have to be selective about what I keep and what I pass along to others.
I enjoy several kinds of cookbooks for various reasons. I like ones that have a lot of basic recipes I can trust and modify. I like ones that are reference works for ingredients and equipment, like lists of spices that go well together. I also really like ones that focus on technique. And I like ones that are focused on “framework recipes,” where you can kind of fill in the blanks with what you have on hand. The only ones I generally don’t like are ones that are just collections of complicated recipes without any sort of theme or pattern; I can do without them. A cookbook should either answer a question very quickly, show me how to do something or inspire me to try something new that builds upon what I already know — and ideally do more than one of those things.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to read many, many cookbooks and evaluate which ones really worked well for me as well as ones I’d suggest to others in specific situations. A few years ago, I shared a list of my current cookbooks, and more recently I touched on this a bit in a reader mailbag answer. I felt like it was time to come back to this topic and see what has changed.
Here are seven cookbooks that I recommend from the perspective that they genuinely helped me become more frugal and flexible in the kitchen. I still use most of these for reference, even after cooking at home for years and years and preparing a wide variety of things. Beyond these, I tend to collect cookbooks that are about techniques and preparations of very specific things, like books on making fermented foods or an entire cookbook about egg preparation. Online, my go-to website for cooking information is Serious Eats; the information I find there counterbalances what I find in my cookbooks.
Let’s get started.
My default cookbook recommendation for everyone is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
If I were to recommend a single cookbook to someone who was just getting started with cooking at home, or a single simple reference cookbook for a home kitchen, I’d choose How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
This cookbook deals with most of the common meals people might prepare for themselves or their families in a typical American home kitchen, starting from an assumption that you know almost nothing about cooking at all. The early pages walk through some of the most essential kitchen skills that everyone should have, folding those skills directly into very simple recipes like scrambled eggs that people can make if they’re completely new to the kitchen.
Most of the book focuses on very simple versions of recipes for common things like pizza dough, baked bread, rice and so on, focusing on technique and not assuming anything of the reader, but doing so in a very friendly and approachable way.
For my first couple of years of home cooking, this was my default reference book. I used it for everything. Our copy has earned a lot of stains on the cover!
Since then, the cookbook has been revised a few times and while I’ve stuck with our old copy (those stains are memories!), I’ve reviewed the newer editions and the changes are mostly related to clarity and organization. For someone starting out, any edition is well worth picking up.
For “default” recipes and techniques that aren’t in that book, I use Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer et. al.
Over time, I found myself wanting to move a bit beyond what I found in How to Cook Everything. The basic pizza dough recipes in there were great, but what if I wanted a thinner crust? There was a bit of info, but not a ton. How to Cook Everything offered suggestions on how to prep a lot of vegetables, but what if I have something more obscure because it was on sale, or what if I wanted to try something much different with an ordinary vegetable?
That’s exactly where Joy of Cooking comes in. It’s a big, thick tome, numbering more than a thousand pages in length in the version we have, and the pages are packed with info.
In my experience, Joy of Cooking is a much more robust reference for general purpose cooking at home than How to Cook Everything, but I think it expects more of the reader. Whereas in How to Cook Everything, Bittman will explain things in great detail, Joy of Cooking might explain a technique once in a spot two hundred pages away, or it might just assume you know how to do this simple thing. There is a ton of knowledge there, but it kind of assumes you know how to do basic things like sauté vegetables and grill a steak.
I find that Joy of Cooking is a pretty great all-purpose reference for where I’m at right now. If I don’t have a “niche” cookbook on a specific topic that I want to know something about, I’ll turn to Joy of Cooking.
I will say that, of all the cookbooks I own, this is the one that works best in digital format. Part of the reason is that, because this is such a multipurpose reference guide and it’s so long, it’s quite valuable to have an easy search function. The index is robust, but it doesn’t find everything. This is a great one to have in Kindle or another e-book format simply because of the searching capability. I actually think of my digital searching in Joy of Cooking as being my “food Google.”
When I need something “quick and cheap,” Budget Bytes by Beth Moncel is what I turn to.
If your primary aim for home-cooked meals is that they are both quick and inexpensive, Budget Bytes is a really good collection of strategies and recipes.
This cookbook really aims for being at least somewhat adventurous with the recipes while still keeping costs low. The dishes bounce through a lot of culinary traditions, giving recipes for all kinds of meals in a cost- and time-conscious fashion.
What really stands out for this cookbook, however, is the section at the beginning, which focuses on properly stocking one’s pantry. A lot of the recipes in this cookbook lean heavily on having a reasonably well-stocked pantry that you can just assume is already in place so that you can get the one or two additional items that the recipe calls for.
Recent readers of The Simple Dollar know that we cook in an “ingredients first” fashion, which means we rely on a heavily-stocked pantry and complement that with what’s on sale at the grocery store. While Budget Bytes doesn’t completely go down that path, it does lend itself to a strategy of seeing what’s on sale and making meal plans accordingly.
The book I wish I had when I was trying to keep myself fed on about $1 per meal is Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown.
When I was in college, living in a tiny apartment with friends and trying to make it on the least amount of spending possible, I often had to get really creative with my food. I ate a lot of ramen, sure, but I tried all kinds of different things to minimize my food costs — some of them good, some of them bad.
Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown is basically a distillation of the “good” amongst those things I tried, and I would have loved to have this book back then. It aims directly for the “cheap” side of cooking at home, aiming for recipes that revolve around low cost staples — beans, rice, chicken, peanut butter and things like that.
The book’s focus is on how to use those low cost staples in a variety of different ways so that you can keep the cost of an average meal very low. The book’s claim is that it aims to show people how to eat on $4 a day, which is roughly what the daily food stamp budget is for people.
While I don’t turn to this book often, it is one that will never leave my shelf because it tackles the issue of extremely low-cost cooking more effectively than anything else I’ve ever read. If I am ever in a financial pickle, this is the book I want to have for a cookbook. If I ever have a friend in a serious financial situation, this is the book I want to lend them.
It’s also worth noting that the author, Leanne Brown, has made Good and Cheap available as a free PDF e-book, so you can download it and read it for yourself!
The book that taught me “framework cooking” (and one I come back to often) is Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.
As I mentioned earlier, we try to cook our meals in an “ingredients first” fashion, meaning that we aim to have a well-stocked pantry of nonperishable goods so that we can easily focus on on-sale perishables at the grocery store and combine them to make good meals.
How do we do that, though? Ratio by Michael Ruhlman is where we learned the strategy in essence, and I still refer to it quite often.
The idea of Ratio is that most recipes boil down to certain ratios of ingredients — one part this, two parts that, four parts this, three parts that and cook until done. The book points out how some ratios pop up over and over and then distills those recipes down to a ratio into which you can fill in the blanks yourself.
For a simple example, Ruhlman talks about how most bread items are a ratio of five parts flour to three parts water. The variations in bread simply come from how long you let it rest, how long you knead it, and the exact flour you use. It turns out that this is mostly true — almost all bread recipes boil down to this ratio.
Basically, this is a nudge to get out there and experiment and try things. It reveals what’s going on behind a lot of recipes and gives you what you need to start making your own recipes that will actually work, and ideally on the fly. I often look through this book for the ratios when I’m just completely going off on my own when trying to make something, and it almost always results in something that’s at least decent and sometimes quite good indeed.
As our family eats mostly vegetarian, I find The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison to be invaluable for knowing good things to do with different vegetables.
When I don’t know how to cook a particular vegetable, particularly when I want to figure out how to use that vegetable to make something hearty for a family meal, this is almost always the book I turn to these days.
The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a wonderful compendium of recipes and ideas with a strict vegetarian focus. The reason I find some much value in this book is that I can just assume everything in here is vegetarian without having to dig through the details of a recipe from a non-vegetarian cookbook.
This book has singlehandedly raised my appreciation of a ton of different vegetables because it introduced me to how to properly prepare them in a way that accentuated them rather than just treating them as an afterthought to the side of the meat, which is what non-vegetarian cookbooks often end up doing with vegetables.
That being said, some of the recipes and techniques in this book are complicated and time-consuming. If you’re looking for a lighter introduction to vegetarian cooking, How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian by Mark Bittman is a wonderful option.
My favorite cookbook to just sit down, leaf through, read and learn something is The Food Lab by J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt.
When I’m simply sitting down to leaf through a cookbook with the purposes of getting a new idea or learning something new, this has been the one I have grabbed the most over the last year or two.
It’s almost strange to call The Food Lab by J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt a cookbook. Rather, it feels more like a collection of really well organized and thoughtful short articles on a wide variety of food topics. They often do include recipes with them, but much of the focus here is explaining why these recipes work or how you should do some particular part of the recipe different than the standard method.
Rather than being a reference itself like most of my other cookbooks are, I read this for entertainment and refinement of the things that I do from other cookbooks. The basics of how to bake bread might come from How to Cook Everything or Joy of Cooking, but then I’ll find some article in The Food Lab that discusses how to bake bread and offers some little tweak that just improves things or changes it in a worthwhile way, and I learn something because of it.
This is easily my most “readable” cookbook. I just enjoy sitting down and reading it, and I usually walk away with something useful. That’s really all I can ask from it.
Rather than just buying a cookbook right away, consider seeing what your library has to offer.
Before you buy anything, take this list of cookbooks to your local library and see if you can find copies of them. Check them out, take them home and use them. Make some of the recipes in them, or simply leaf through them at your leisure to see how much value you get from them.
I tend to prefer cookbooks to online resources because I’m not afraid to flop a cookbook on the counter while cooking and page through it with a sticky finger, but I would be loathe to do that with a tablet or my phone or with a library copy. So, when I take home a cookbook from the library, I do keep it away from the kitchen. Rather, I’ll read it and maybe awkwardly prepare one or two things from it and see how valuable I think it will be.
It’s worth noting that you can somewhat regularly find used copies of Joy of Cooking in used bookstores or secondhand shops, and occasionally you might see some of the others. Also, Good and Cheap is available as a free PDF from the author, as noted earlier.
Spending a bit of time finding the right cookbook is definitely a good choice. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will steer you in the right direction and help make you a master of your home kitchen.