This year’s cookbook post is pretty much last year’s cookbook post with a couple of little changes up top – one new rec, one book I want because the author is great, and then the same standbys I always recommend. I’ve grouped my suggestions into categories: The essentials, which any home cook regardless of experience level should own; the advanced books for expert home cooks; a few cookbooks from Top Chef-affiliated folks that I recommend; and bread-baking books, all by one author because I’ve never needed any others. My gift guide for cooks is in a separate post, detailing essential and frivolous toys for the chef in your life.
New for 2016
I added just one new cookbook of note to my collection since last year’s post – I’ve acquired others, but there’s only one I can really recommend. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mammoth The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, named for Kenji’s acclaimed and indispensable column over at Serious Eats, is a must for any advanced or aspiring home cook. Unlike many of the books here, The Food Lab is a better resource for its text than its recipes – I’ve made a bunch of dishes from the book, with a few that just didn’t work out (e.g., the pork shoulder ragout), but every page seems to have something to teach you. The one caution I’ll offer is that it doesn’t include any sous-vide recipes, which is something Kenji does a lot on Serious Eats’ site, although he does have a section on replicating the sous-vide technique using cheaper materials like a portable cooler.
The book I don’t have yet but am hoping to get in the next, say, 27 days, is Alton Brown’s latest, Everyday Cook, which I think is his first cookbook that isn’t somehow branded with the Good Eats title. I’m a longtime fan of that show and of Brown in general – many of his recipes remain staples in my kitchen – but I haven’t used his books much because they’ve often repeated what was on TV. This book looks like a departure for him, and he’s said he was able to do some stuff here he couldn’t do on television (because lawyers). Plus I just enjoy his humor and writing style.
There are two cookbooks that I insist any home cook have. One is the venerable Joy of Cooking, revised and altered through many editions (I own the 1997, now out of print), but still the go-to book for almost any common dish you’re likely to want to make. The recipes take a very easy-to-follow format, and the book assumes little to no experience or advanced technique. I still use it all the time, including their basic bread stuffing (dressing) recipe every Thanksgiving, altered just with the addition of a diced red bell pepper.
The other indisputable must-have cookbook is, of course, Ruhlman’s Twenty, by the best food writer going today, Michael Ruhlman. The book comprises twenty chapters, each on a technique or core ingredient, with a hundred recipes, lots of essays to explain key concepts or methods, and photographs to help you understand what you’re cooking. It’s my most-used cookbook, the first cookbook gift I give to anyone looking to start a collection, and an absolute pleasure to read and re-read. Favorite recipes include the seared pork tenderloin with butter and more butter; the cured salmon; the homemade mayonnaise (forget the stuff in the jar, it’s a pale imitation); the pulled pork; all three duck recipes; the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (using a modified double-boiler method, so you get something more like custard than rubber); and the homemade bacon. I’m trying his weekday coq au vin recipe tonight, too. Many of these recipes appear again in his more recent book, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, along with more egg basics and a lot of great dessert recipes; and Twenty itself builds on Ruhlman’s Ratio, which shows you master formulas for things like doughs and sauces so you can understand the fundamentals of each recipe and extend as you see fit.
I’ve long recommended Baking Illustrated as the perfect one-book kitchen reference for all things baked – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, and more. It’s full of standards, tested to ensure that they will work the first time. You’ll need a scale to get maximum use from the book. I use their pie crust recipe, their peach pie recipe, their snickerdoodles recipe (kids love it, but moms seem to love it even more…), and I really want to try their sticky toffee pudding recipe. The prose can be a little cloying, but I skip most of that and go right to the recipes because I know they’ll succeed the first time. That link will get you the original book from the secondary market; it has been rewritten from scratch and titled The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book, but I can’t vouch for it as I haven’t seen the new text.
If I know someone already has Ruhlman’s Twenty, my next gift choice for them is Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, a book about vegetables but not strictly vegetarian. (There’s a lot of bacon here.) Each vegetable gets its own section, with explanations on how to grow it, how to choose it at the market, a half-dozen or more basic ways to cook it, and then a bunch of specific recipes, some of which are just a paragraph and some of which are a full page with glorious pictures accompanying them. The stuffed peppers with ground pork is a near-weekly occurrence in this house, and the warm pumpkin scone is the only good reason to buy and cook an actual pumpkin. I own but have barely cooked from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, because it’s more focused on desserts than savory applications.
Another essential if you want to cook more vegetables is Hugh Acheson’s 2015 book The Broad Fork, which has become the first book I consult when I have a vegetable and am not sure what I want to do with it. Acheson conceived the book in response to a neighbor’s question about what the hell to do with the kohlrabi he got in a CSA box, and the whole book works like that: You have acquired some Vegetable and need to know where to start. Organized by season and then by plant, with plenty of fruits and a few nuts mixed in for good measure, the book gives you recipes and ideas by showing off each subject in various preparations – raw, in salads, in soups, roasted, grilled, pureed, whatever. There are main course ideas in here as well, some with meat or fish, others vegetarian or vegan, and many of the multi-part dishes are easy to deconstruct, like the charred-onion vinaigrette in the cantaloupe/prosciutto recipe that made a fantastic steak sauce. Most of us need to eat more plants anyway; Acheson’s book helps make that a tastier goal. It’s also witty, as you’d expect from the slightly sardonic Canadian if you’ve seen him on TV.
You know, a lot of people will tell you go get Julia Child’s classic books on French cuisine, but I find the one I have (Mastering the Art) to be dated and maddeningly unspecific. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom is a slimmer, much more useful book that focuses on the basics – her explanation of vinaigrettes is still the gold standard, and her gift for distilling recipes and techniques into simple little explanations shines here without the fuss of three-day recipes for coq au vin. Oh, that’s in here too, but she does it in two and a half hours.
The The Flavor Bible isn’t actually a cookbook, but a giant cross-referencing guide where each ingredient comes with a list of complementary ingredients or flavors, as selected by a wide range of chefs the authors interviewed to assemble the book. It’s the book you want to pull out when your neighbor gives you a few handfuls of kale or your local grocery store puts zucchini on sale and you don’t know what to do with them. Or maybe you’re just tired of making salmon the same way and need some fresh ideas. The book doesn’t tell you how to cook anything, just what else to put on the plate. Spoiler: Bacon and butter go with just about everything.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is an outstanding vegetable-focused cookbook that uses no meat ingredients (but does use dairy and eggs), although Ottolenghi’s restaurant uses meats and he offers a few suggestions on pairing his recipes with meat dishes. The recipes here are longer and require a higher skill level than those in Tender, but they’re restaurant-quality in flavor and presentation, including a mushroom ragout that I love as a main course over pappardelle with a poached egg (or two) on top and my favorite recipe for preparing Belgian endives (a pinch of sugar goes a long way).
Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook ($10 for Kindle right now) is is easily the best baking book I’ve ever seen, but unlike Baking Illustrated, the recipes are written for people who are more skilled and incredibly serious about baking. Ingredients are measured to the gram, and the recipes assume a full range of techniques. It has the best macaron recipe I’ve ever found – close second is I Love Macarons, suggested to me by Richard Blais’ pastry chef at the Spence, Andrea Litvin – and the Bouchon book also the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa to do it right, and I use buttercream as the filling instead of their unstable white-chocolate ganache).
Bobby Flay has an absurd number of cookbooks out there, but the one I like is from his flagship restaurant Mesa Grill, which includes the signature items (including the blue and yellow cornbread) and a broad cross-section of dishes. There’s no instruction here at all, however, just a lot of recipes, many of which have an absurdly long list of ingredients.
For the really hardcore, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is an essential kitchen reference, full of explanations of the chemistry of cooking that will make you a smarter cook and help you troubleshoot many problems at the stove. I haven’t read it straight through – it’s 700-plus pages – but I’ll go to the index and pull out some wisdom as needed. It also explains why some people (coughmecough) never acquired the taste for strongly-flavored cheeses.
April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig has the duck fat-fried potato recipe that got my daughter hooked on the dish, as well as a good selection of staple sauces, dressings, and starches to go along with the numerous meat dishes, including some offal recipes, one of which (made from minced pig’s heart and liver, with bacon, onion, and breadcrumbs) can’t be named here.
Top Chef Division
Richard Blais’ Try This at Home has become a staple in my kitchen both for about a half-dozen specific recipes in here that we love (sweet potato gnocchi, lemon curd chicken, arroz con pollo, sous-vide chicken breast) and for the creativity it inspires. Blais has lots of asides on techniques and ingredients, and if you actually read the text instead of just blindly following the recipes, you’ll get a sense of the extensibility of the basic formulas within the book, even though he isn’t as explicit about it as Ruhlman is. His second book, So Good, comes out in May 2017.
Hugh Acheson’s first book, A New Turn in the South, and Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook are also regulars in my cookbook rotation. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks, so that it comes off more like you’re hanging out with the guy, talking food, rather than taking instruction. His bacon-wrapped whole fish recipe is unbelievable, more for the powerful aromatics (winner, best use of fennel) than for the bacon itself. Dieterle’s book requires some harder-to-find items, but his side essays on specific ingredients run from the mundane to the esoteric and drop a ton of knowledge on how to choose and how to use. My particular struggle with both books is that they use a lot of seafood, with Dieterle’s including a ton of shellfish; my wife is allergic to shellfish, so I don’t even bring that into the house any more, which requires some substitutions and means there are some recipes I just have to set aside.
I’ve owned and given away or sold a lot of bread-baking books, because nothing has been able to beat the two masterworks by baker/instructor Peter Reinhart, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Reinhart’s books teach you how to make artisan or old-world breads using various starters, from overnight bigas to wild-yeast starters you can grow and culture on your countertop. If that seems like a little much, his Artisan Breads Every Day takes it down a notch for the novice baker, with a lot of the same recipes presented in a simpler manner, without so much emphasis on baker’s formulas, and is a steal at $20.00.