If you can imagine this, there was no internet when I first started cooking as a young newlywed, many (many) years ago. I bought a few cookbooks, subscribed to Gourmet magazine, and slowly found my way as a cook and baker. Over the years my cookbook collection grew, I added a few more magazines to the fold, and of course, discovered the internet.
Today, between the food blogs I read regularly, and websites such as Epicurious and Food52, I rarely refer to (or buy) cookbooks any more. In fact, about a year or two ago I did a ruthless purge of books that hadn’t been cracked open in ages. I scanned the one or two recipes that were still in rotation and donated the books to my local library. But there were some books that I wouldn’t dream of parting with. A few I’ve had forever, others added as recently as last year. And I started thinking about why I still needed these books.
In a time where a quick “search” can provide any recipe, cooking tip, or menu suggestion you could ask for, why would you still need cookbooks at all? I think it comes down to something that is almost undefinable. Similar to why some people prefer hard copy books over the Kindle, or DVDs over the iPad. There’s just something special about pulling out a beloved book, reading a back story or a thorough explanation that demystifies a new technique, that can’t be replicated on a screen. The real “keepers” are stained and dog-eared, with cracked bindings and lots of scribbled notes in the margins.
What follows is a totally unscientific, completely personal, and utterly emotional list of beloved cookbooks. It was fun to compile this list and see the range and how they reflect my evolution as a cook and a mom over the years.
Join me, won’t you? What are some of your “must-have” books that will always have a place on your kitchen shelf?
JOY OF COOKING
Let’s begin with the three books that will form the foundation for any cookbook collection – starting with my very favorite (and a classic, too):
When the 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking was published in 2006, I decided to finally add it to my library. And it remains one of the most referred-to books in my collection. While I may peruse the internet when tackling a new recipe or technique, I always sit down with this book and read what they have to say about everything from how to make perfect crepes and popovers, to refreshing my memory on hard-boiled eggs or making a roux. It’s like having that beloved aunt or grandma – you know, the one who knows how to make anything – right there with all of the answers.
THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK
So much to love about this book. Written by my favorite food writer, Amanda Hesser, The Essential New York Times Cookbook is as much a wonderful book to read as it is to cook with. Covering 150 years of New York Times recipes, Ms. Hesser personally made each and every one of the more than 1,000 dishes in the book. It is filled with her own notes and insights, historical facts and trivia, and suggested accompaniments for each recipe. A must-have.
HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING
None other than Mario Batali has said that How To Cook Everything is the only cookbook he needs. This is an essential “go-to” resource for any level of cook, and for everyone who appreciates clear, well-organized recipes that use simple techniques and no fancy equipment. There are hundreds of vegetable and legume recipes, many many under-30-minute options, and charts and sidebars galore to point you to cooking times, techniques, and what Mr. Bittman calls his “essential” recipes.
ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING
The world of ethnic cooking and cuisine is vast. And as the cookbooks that fill this category are just as endless, I’m going to focus on my two favorite types of international cooking, and the must-have books to go with them.
Want to learn how to cook Italian food? I mean, beyond spaghetti and meatballs? Then Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is the book for you. A compilation of Marcella Hazan’s earlier two classics, this is the definitive resource for Italian cooking. Relying on easily sourced ingredients and very simple techniques, this tome beautifully illustrates why Ms. Hazan is credited with introducing authentic Italian cuisine to American kitchens.
I love love love Mexican food. And am a big fan of Rick Bayless. But I avoided his earlier books as they were too complex – and time consuming – for my lifestyle. Enter Mexican Everyday. Mr. Bayless has brought to the home cook fresh, delicious, and authentic Mexican recipes – ready in 30 minutes or less. Even better, each recipe is complete enough that no side dishes are needed, and there is no hesitation (or shame!) in including canned and prepared ingredients.
When my daughter became a vegan – just over a year ago – I found myself in a strange new land of cooking. And at first it seemed as if I were destined to serving fake food (egg replacer, anyone?) and bland, boring dishes. But I was thrilled to discover many great books and websites devoted to making amazing, flavorful, real food – and this book, Veganomicon, tops the list. Hundreds of delicious, easy to make recipes (without relying on weird or hard-to-find ingredients) will take the fear right out of going egg-, meat- and dairy-free. As a committed baker (with a daughter who has a committed sweet tooth), I am also grateful for the inspired desserts and baked goods included too. If were to recommend just one vegan book, this is the one.
THE CAKE BIBLE
If you want to learn how to bake a cake, The Cake Bible is the book for you. It’s been in my collection for about 25 years, and I have another copy stored away just in case as I can’t imagine moving through my kitchen without it. Rose Levy Beranbaum set the bar for every other baking book out there. She breaks down the process step-by-step to guarantee successful, delicious, PERFECT results every time. There isn’t a cake I’ve made from the book that has not been a hit on the very first try. Her yellow butter cake has served as the base for every occasion cake I’ve baked for my family for over two decades. And I’ve lost count as to how many lemon poppy and chocolate espresso loaves I’ve given to teachers, friends, tutors and coaches over the years. A must-have for anyone who wants to bake well, but is intimidated by the process.
THE GLUTEN-FREE BAKER
Full disclosure: I do NOT own this book, as no one in our family has a gluten intolerance. But I felt it important to include one in this round-up, so I did a survey of bloggers and cooks that I know and trust – and The Gluten-Free Baker came up time and time again as a must-have. I focused on a baking book because going gluten-free poses a much greater challenge for baking than cooking, and this one is an essential guide for anyone who wants to bake while avoiding gluten.
MOMOFUKU MILK BAR
Here’s where it gets personal – as in, my personal favorites, must-haves, and go-to’s. And first up is a book that – on the face of it – you might think too quirky or esoteric to hold a permanent spot in collection. But you would be so, so mistaken.
Milk Bar is the bakery offshoot of the famed Momofuko restaurants. And though I had been a long-time fan of their iconic Crack Pie, I never knew that a cookbook existed, until a good friend gave it to me a number of years ago. Game. Changer. Not only does Milk: Momofuku Milk Bar contain recipes for cookies, cakes, pies, and more that will BLOW YOUR MIND (compost cookies? cornflake crunch? birthday cake layer cake?), it is one of the best written baking books I’ve ever laid hands on.
Explicit instructions are crucial when baking and so often books are too vague or non-specific. Not here. Christina Tosi has devoted an almost fanatical attention to detail, that as a longtime baker I appreciate so much. Not to mention that every dessert in this book is wow-worthy. Though many of the recipes are long – and some contain as many as four different “recipes” within – none are complicated, and the directions are so clear that even a novice baker is assured success. And you will fall in love with Christina Tosi’s humor, tough talk, and unabashed love of such low brow ingredients as boxed cake mix and Funfetti frosting.
MARTHA STEWART’S CAKES
You can read my review of Martha Stewart’s Cakes (and check out a great recipe too!) here. I feel like this is a perfect companion to The Cake Bible, as it reflects how we’re baking today. There are as many “everyday” cakes as there are cakes for a special occasion. Several recipes include variations on a basic cake. There are gluten-free and vegan recipes too. And I love the suggestions (and recipes) for frostings and unusual garnishes. There are even gift-wrap ideas!
MARTHA STEWART’S COOKIES
Yes, another “Martha” book – but it is THE only cookie book you will ever need. Seriously – I love Martha Stewart’s Cookies. Cleverly organized by texture (like “Rich and Dense,” “Soft and Chewy,” “Crisp and Crunchy”), and filled with every type of cookie you could possibly want, this book has it all. And, like the Cakes book, it is filled with gorgeous photos, helpful tips, and gift packaging ideas.
THE SMITTEN KITCHEN COOKBOOK
Anyone who knows me (or reads my blog) will not be surprised to see this book on my list. Smitten Kitchen was the first blog I ever read, and I’ve lost count as to how many recipes I’ve made (and loved) from this funny, warm, accessible cook. I pre-ordered (and anxiously awaited the arrival of) Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook the moment I heard about it, and it did not disappoint.
Filled mostly with new recipes, along with some favorites from her blog, the book’s tone is welcome and familiar to anyone who reads Smitten Kitchen. If you’ve ever made a failed dish and were convinced that it was not you, but the recipe, then you will love the way Deb cooks. She tweaks and adjusts relentlessly – working out all of the kinks – to ensure that you have only success. Reading this book is like having Deb right there next to you – telling you yes, you can do this!