Cookbook recommendations, 2017.

This is mostly the same as last year, with the same changes I make each year, adding one or two new titles I own and can recommend; I’ve also added notes on some newer titles I don’t have yet or haven’t sufficiently tested. As usual, 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.

New for 2017

I’ve got one new recommendation this year, but it’s a bit of a tentative one because I don’t think it’s suitable for everyone. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen a handful of fresh pasta dishes that I’ve made over the last few weeks; those recipes have all come from Flour + Water: Pasta, a cookbook from the chef/owner of flour + water in San Francisco. The restaurant is nationally renowned for its fresh pasta dishes, and this cookbook is a grand tour of regional Italian cooking, with just about any style of pasta you can imagine, and the best directions on how to form, knead, and shape the pasta that I’ve come across. Every pasta dish I’ve made from this book has come out great the first time. There’s a catch, however: the non-pasta aspects of the recipes are poorly written and were clearly never tested by any non-professionals. One recipe calls for starting a sauce by cooking onions over high heat … for eight minutes, which is fine if you want to burn them (you don’t). Times and temperatures are off throughout, so if you’re a novice in the kitchen, this isn’t the book for you. If you’ve cooked a lot, especially Italian sauces, then you’ll spot the errant directions and make adjustments as you go. And the pasta is truly spectacular, enough that you might do as I did and spring for a garganelli board (used to shape a specific hand-rolled noodle).

Essentials

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.

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.

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. As I write this in December 2017, I just pulled it out again last night for some ideas, and ended up making his roasted shiitake salad with celery, oranges, and ponzu sauce. Acheson also has a new book out for 2017, The Chef and the Slow Cooker, which I haven’t seen yet (I don’t use my slow cooker very often) but I’m comfortable recommending because his other books are great.

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.

Experts

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, came out in May 2017; I’ve tried four recipes so far, with the chicken thighs adobo and spicy green pozole both hits.

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.

Bread

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 good value at $24.

Gift guide for cooks, 2017 edition.

As usual, this is a repost of the previous year’s list, with new items I’ve added clearly marked, and some minor edits to the rest. There’s very little new for 2017; I just didn’t buy or get as much stuff this year, because I really don’t need anything, and I gave a lot more money to charity this year in the wake of this fall’s hurricanes. Enjoy and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” over the last couple of years, but most of them are like this 2014 gem from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (my next upgrade – looking at this Cuisinart model), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved in 2013. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I will post an updated list of cookbooks I recommend in the next few days; in the meantime, here’s last year’s list.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, although I have a discontinued model with a different handle. It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. It’s also nearly 60% off right now, a steal at $38.50, so while in past years I’ve steered readers towards the $36 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended, at these price points I’d say go for the Henckels.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $13. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife at $15. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $27.50 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. The boning knife I own, from Henckels, appears to be discontinued, but there’s another Henckels 5.5″ boning knife for $26 that looks like it has the same blade. A boning knife is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion.

I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener in 2015, buying this Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 3 Stage Sharpener, a manual sharpener that turned out to be both easy to use and very effective; I sharpened every knife I own and even a few pairs of scissors, including the kitchen shears some of you saw me using to spatchcock this year’s Thanksgiving turkey.

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

I got a Lodge 10″ carbon steel skillet for Christmas in 2015, and I love it. It’s not as nonstick as the cast-iron one, which I’ve had for years and thus has built up more of a coating, but for getting a pan rocket-hot quickly and working fast on something small, it’s great. I’ve found that the more I use it, the more resistant the surface becomes to sticking – even eggs – and it is the ideal skillet for making the dramatic, puffy pancake known as a Dutch baby.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.5 quart Lodge model, a pretty good value at $60 considering how heavy and durable they are.

I upgraded my stockpot last year with this $30 Excelsteel 16 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. I make stock constantly throughout the year; I buy whole chickens, break them down myself, and freeze the carcasses and necks for future stocks. I also made a turkey stock after Thanksgiving with the backbone, neck, and the picked-clean roasted carcass, and the result was so full of gelatin that it was solid at room temperature. (It made an unbelievably rich turkey and soba noodle soup.) I needed a good stockpot since my previous one’s pseudo-nonstick finish had started to fade; this pot is also taller and heavier so it holds the heat in more effectively and I can do a double batch with two chicken carcasses and plenty of aromatics. I usually have to get at the interior bottom with a little Bon Ami, though. It’s also been my go-to pot for sous-vide cooking, since it’s deep enough to hold my circulator.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for under $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I use my digital instant-read thermometer almost every night, and I’ve run through at least three of them over the last ten years. Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. I now own four silicone baking mats, two of which are amazon brand, now listed at two for $14 but which I got cheaper on Prime Day this summer.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this AWS Digital Pocket Scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I finally killed my digital candy/frying thermometer this year, replacing it with an old-fashioned, $7.50 analog frying thermometer. I use it for jam, macarons, and my various deep-frying experiments (see the sous-vide discussion below). You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

I haven’t included this on past lists, but I do use my OXO potato ricer for mashed potatoes – it’s much better than a so-called “masher,” which is otherwise useful for guacamole or for crushing fruits while making jam but makes lumpy mashed potatoes.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

I don’t have this exact brand/model, but I love having a few silicone ingredient cups in the kitchen. I use one for measuring and pouring out coffee grounds, and I often have another one next to the stove with salt or freshly ground pepper or toasted sesame seeds to add to something right before serving.

Now, for the expensive stuff:

* New for 2017: I finally caved and upgraded my food processor to this 14-cup Cuisinart model, although mine is black and has a slightly different model number (which I can’t find on amazon). You can get a 7-cup model for $100, and it will probably be fine for most home cooks. I have a few recipes I make regularly that require the larger capacity. I have also noticed that the blade on the new model is the sharpest thing I own. I’m actually a little scared of it. But you kind of need a food processor for things like pesto, hummus, mayonnaise, pie or biscuit doughs (if you don’t want to or can’t do them by hand), and my favorite pumpkin pie recipe.

* I’ve gone full geek, getting an Anova sous-vide immersion circulator for $99 (pot not included) and using it frequently for cooking chicken legs, chicken breasts, steak, pork, duck, even salmon. Serious Eats has many recipes for it, and I’ve used their chicken thighs recipe many times, often cooking entire chicken legs that way. (I’ve discovered that, if you can handle some spattering, you can take the drumsticks, pat them dry, then bread and deep-fry them for some of the juiciest fried chicken you’ll ever taste.) I’ve cooked skirt steak, which can be tough even when cooked medium-rare, sous-vide and it melted in our mouths. Sous-vide cooking takes time, and some up-front investment – I caved and bought a FoodSaver vacuum-sealer, although you can do it with zip-top bags too – but once you use it you’ll find it indispensable.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. I used it at Thanksgiving 2015 to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is down to $328 (from four bills), but that’s too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is about $270 right now. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this Hario V60 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. (You can probably beat that price by $30-40 if you shop around.) If you get your ratios right – for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast – you’ll get great crema, 30-32 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel. I weigh the beans, grounds, and output on the AWS digital scale I mentioned above, which came recommended by a barista at Lord Windsor Roasters in Long Beach, California.

Gift guide for cooks, 2016 edition.

As usual, this is a repost of the previous year’s list, with new items I’ve added clearly marked, and some minor edits to the rest. I rewrite these posts in full every few years when there’s enough new material to merit it. Enjoy and feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” over the last couple of years, but most of them are like this 2014 gem from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (my next upgrade – looking at this Cuisinart model), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved in 2013. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, although I have a discontinued model with a different handle. . It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $55, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $13. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife at $15. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $27.50 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. The boning knife I own, from Henckels, appears to be discontinued, but there’s another Henckels 5.5″ boning knife for $26 that looks like it has the same blade. A boning knife is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion.

I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener last year, buying this Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 3 Stage Sharpener, a manual sharpener that turned out to be both easy to use and very effective; I sharpened every knife I own and even a few pairs of scissors, including the kitchen shears some of you saw me using to spatchcock this year’s Thanksgiving turkey. (Note: I think this may be why my kitchen shears didn’t work so well this year.)

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

New for 2016: I got a Lodge 10″ carbon steel skillet (over 50% off right now, at $21) last Christmas, and I love it. It’s not as nonstick as the cast-iron one, which I’ve had for years and thus has built up more of a coating, but for getting a pan rocket-hot quickly and working fast on something small, it’s great. The only thing I haven’t had luck with in this skillet is eggs, which stick to pretty much anything non-Teflon if I’m the chef.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.5 quart Lodge model for $86.

I upgraded my stockpot last year with this $30 Excelsteel 16 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. I make stock constantly throughout the year; I buy whole chickens, break them down myself, and freeze the carcasses and necks for future stocks. I also made a turkey stock after Thanksgiving with the backbone, neck, and the picked-clean roasted carcass, and the result was so full of gelatin that it was solid at room temperature. (It made an unbelievably rich turkey and soba noodle soup.) I needed a good stockpot since my previous one’s pseudo-nonstick finish had started to fade; this pot is also taller and heavier so it holds the heat in more effectively and I can do a double batch with two chicken carcasses and plenty of aromatics. I usually have to get at the interior bottom with a little Bon Ami, though. It’s also been my go-to pot for sous-vide cooking, since it’s deep enough to hold my circulator.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for under $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I use my digital instant-read thermometer almost every night, and I’ve run through at least three of them over the last ten years. Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. I now own four silicone baking mats, two of which are amazon brand, now listed at two for $14 but which I got cheaper on Prime Day this summer.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this AWS Digital Pocket Scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I finally killed my digital candy/frying thermometer this year, replacing it with an old-fashioned, $7.50 analog frying thermometer. I use it for jam, macarons, and my various deep-frying experiments (see the sous-vide discussion below). You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

New for 2016: It’s a unitasker, but the Twist’n Sprout – yes, whoever named that should be fired into the sun – does core Brussels sprouts faster and less perilously than a paring knife could. There are two sharp blades at opposite sides of the device, and once you’ve trimmed the very bottom of the sprout, you impale it on the central spike, then twist the sprout to remove as much or as little of the core as you’d like. I used it to get through two-plus pounds of Brussels sprouts at Thanksgiving this year and it absolutely saved me some time.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

I don’t have this exact brand/model, but I love having a few silicone ingredient cups in the kitchen. I use one for measuring and pouring out coffee grounds, and I often have another one next to the stove with salt or freshly ground pepper or toasted sesame seeds to add to something right before serving.

Now, for the expensive stuff:

* New for 2016: I’ve gone full geek, getting an Anova sous-vide immersion circulator (pot not included) and using it frequently for cooking chicken legs, chicken breasts, steak, and pork. Serious Eats has many recipes for it, and I’ve used their chicken thighs recipe many times, often cooking entire chicken legs that way. (I’ve discovered that, if you can handle some spattering, you can take the drumsticks, pat them dry, then bread and deep-fry them for some of the juiciest fried chicken you’ll ever taste.) I’ve cooked skirt steak, which can be tough even when cooked medium-rare, sous-vide and it melted in our mouths. Sous-vide cooking takes time, and some up-front investment – I caved and bought a FoodSaver vacuum-sealer, although you can do it with zip-top bags too – but once you use it you’ll find it indispensable.

* I’m looking to upgrade, as I mentioned above, but I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $130, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. I used it at Thanksgiving 2015 to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is down to $328 (from four bills), but that’s too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is about $270 right now. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this Hario V60 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. (You can probaby beat that price by $30-40 if you shop around.) If you get your ratios right – for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast – you’ll get great crema, 30-32 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel. I weigh the beans, grounds, and output on the AWS digital scale I mentioned above, which came recommended by a barista at Lord Windsor Roasters in Long Beach, California.

Cookbook recommendations, 2016.

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.

Essentials

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.

Experts

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.

Bread

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.

Gift guide for cooks, 2015 edition.

With only a few minor new recommendations from last year – a knife sharpener, a small digital scale – I’m reposting the 2014 guide with the additions marked as such. Enjoy, and as always, feedback and suggestions are welcome.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” go by already this fall, but most of them are like this one from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (new bowl but original motor), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved in 2013. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead. I’d rather be cheap when it doesn’t matter and spend the money when half price means a quarter of the value.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, the “four-star” model (which just refers to the handle style). It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $100, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $9. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife for $7. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $21 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. I also own this exact Henckels boning knife, which is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion. I do not own a home sharpener.

New for 2015: I finally caved and bought a home knife sharpener this year, buying this Chef’s Choice Diamond Hone 3 Stage Sharpener, a manual sharpener that turned out to be both easy to use and very effective; I sharpened every knife I own and even a few pairs of scissors, including the kitchen shears some of you saw me using to spatchcock this year’s Thanksgiving turkey.

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.8 quart Lodge model for $97.


Isn’t she lovely?

New for 2015: I also upgraded my stockpot this year with this ~$40 Excelsteel 16 Quart Stainless Steel Stockpot. I make stock constantly throughout the year; I buy whole chickens, break them down myself, and freeze the carcasses and necks for future stocks. I also made a turkey stock after Thanksgiving with the backbone, neck, and the picked-clean roasted carcass, and the result was so full of gelatin that it was solid at room temperature. (It made an unbelievably rich turkey and soba noodle soup.) I needed a good stockpot since my previous one’s pseudo-nonstick finish had started to fade; this pot is also taller and heavier so it holds the heat in more effectively and I can do a double batch with two chicken carcasses and plenty of aromatics. I usually have to get at the interior bottom with a little Bon Ami, though.

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for about $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I love this digital instant-read thermometer, which at $10 is cheap enough that I don’t feel bad when inevitably I drop it into something and ruin it. (I’ve only done that once.) Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. In that same 2003 order, I bought my first Silpat silicone baking mat; I now own two and won’t bake cookies without them.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this AWS Digital Pocket Scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I’ve also done horrible things to this digital oil and candy thermometer over the ten years or so that I’ve had it, including making forty or more batches of jam, dozens of batches of macarons, and engaging in numerous deep-frying experiments, and it still rocks. You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

New for 2015: I don’t have this exact brand/model, but I love having a few silicone ingredient cups in the kitchen. I use one for measuring and pouring out coffee grounds, and I often have another one next to the stove with salt or freshly ground pepper or toasted sesame seeds to add to something right before serving.

Now, for the expensive stuff:
* I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $100, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. I used it this Thanksgiving to make the carrot soup in Hugh Acheson’s The Broad Fork. The blender is nearly $400, however, too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is about $265 right now. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this Hario V60 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. If you get your ratios right (for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast), you’ll get great crema, 32-35 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel. I weigh the beans, grounds, and output on the AWS digital scale I mentioned above, which came recommended by a barista at Lord Windsor Roasters in Long Beach, California.

Cookbook recommendations, 2015.

I rewrote this post from scratch last year, but since this year I only have a few titles to add, I’m retaining most of last year’s text underneath a top section outlining a few new books I like (and one I’m going to recommend sight-unseen because of who wrote it). So as with last year, I’ve grouped them 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.

New for 2015

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Hugh Acheson’s second cookbook, The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruits, this spring, and it’s become a staple in my kitchen – one of the books I go to first when I am looking for a new idea for a vegetable dish, or when I bought something at the local farmstand despite lacking an actual plan for 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.

The book I recommend but haven’t bought yet – I think Santa will be bringing me this one – is 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. (Speaking of which, I’ll be spatchcocking my turkey this year, per Kenji’s column, with a salt rub the night before.) He’s shared a bunch of the recipes and essays from the book on various sites already and did a great too-short interview with the Sporkful’s podcast as well. His science-based thinking is kind of like a Mythbusters approach to cooking: People say you should do X, but does X actually work? And what’s the science behind it? Alton Brown has always argued that cooking is the science of applying heat to food; Kenji takes that to a new extreme in his writing, and assuming I can lift the 960-page tome (there’s a Kindle edition too) I expect I’ll use it heavily.

Also new to my shelves this year: Top Chef contestant Korean-American chef Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles, which offers his fusion of Asian (mostly Korean but occasionally other cuisines like Filipino) flavors with classic Southern dishes, like his fried chicken, which he partially poaches first in a Filipino adobo vinegar mixture, or his seasonal kimchi recipes to replace the boring cole slaw on your table … Kevin Gillespie, the runner-up to the Bros Voltaggio on Top Chef’s epic season 6, put out a new book this spring called Pure Pork Awesomeness, which a reader was kind enough to send along; it’s all about the pig, with a lot of big, heavy dishes that are probably best suited to feeding a crowd … 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.

Essentials

There are now 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.

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.

Experts

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). As of this writing, the kindle edition is only $7.28, over 60% off the hardcover price.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery 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 and real white chocolate to do it right).

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.

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 (his sweet potato gnocchi are now a Thanksgiving tradition for us; the lemon curd chicken is at least a twice-a-month dish around here and perfect for guests) 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.

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 have both recently entered my cookbook rotation as well. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks – there’s a lightly sardonic aspect to much of his writing 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 a lot of harder-to-find ingredients, 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.

Bread

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 finally, while it’s not a cookbook, Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, is just $3.99 right now for Kindle, and it’s a riot regardless of whether you like to cook.

My 2014 gift guide for cooks.

My analysis of the Mariners’ deal with Nelson Cruz is up for Insiders.

I’ve seen a few “Christmas gift guides for the cooks in your life!” go by already this fall, but most of them are like this one from Grub Street, with recommendations for things that no one could possibly need – a “rosemary stripper” (I have two of those; I call them “hands”); a “banana slicer” (use your paring knife, genius); a $140 toaster (makes toast); and a $1600 set of Thomas Keller-branded pans, which, unless he forged them personally out of pure adamantium, are a colossal fucking waste of money. These are not gifts to by the cook in your life; these are gifts to buy the person in your life who pretends to cook but really just likes playing with toys. Toys don’t make you a better chef; they just make you a less socially responsible one.

I do have a few pricier toys in my kitchen, but aside from one, they’re all highly functional, at the middle to low end of the price range for their jobs, and built to last a long time. I’ve had my chef’s knife for over a decade, my food processor for 17 years (new bowl but original motor), my Dutch oven for about eight years, and just replaced my 18-year-old stand mixer when we moved last June. You are free to call me cheap, but I think I’m just prudent. I’ll spend money in the kitchen if it gets me something I need. I will not spend money to get a famous name, a fancy design, or a paperweight to live at the back of a gadget drawer until we move again. If I can make do with something I already have in the house – binder clips, a (clean) putty knife, a (clean) paintbrush – I’ll gladly do that instead. I’d rather be cheap when it doesn’t matter and spend the money when half price means a quarter of the value.

Therefore, what I recommend here – for your cheffy friends or for yourself – is largely what I own and use. If what I own isn’t available, or isn’t good value for the price, I recommend something else. I am also willing to answer any and all questions about these or other suggestions; if I include it here, that’s an endorsement that it’ll be money well spent. I’ve already posted my cookbook recommendations in a separate entry.

The most important tool for any cook is a good chef’s knife, and I love my Henckels 8″ chef’s knife, the “four-star” model (which just refers to the handle style). It’s a workhorse, has only needed professional sharpening once, and is a comfortable grip and weight for my rather small hands. However, it’s $100, and I doubt it’s worth the premium over the $30 Victorinox 8″ chef’s knife, which America’s Test Kitchen has long recommended and, therefore, so have I.

The basic knives any home cook must have are a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread (serrated) knife. The bread knife is good for more than just slicing bread – serrated blades are safer for slicing tomatoes, and they’re excellent for chopping chocolate and other hard foods. I have another Henckels four-star model, also eight inches, but the same blade is available with a different handle for just $9. You might look at a 10” blade if you get a lot of large, artisanal loaves. Any strong paring knife will do, such as this OXO 3.5″ paring knife for $7. With a modicum of knife skills, you can tweak and hull strawberries with one of these without any risk to your fingers or waste of fruit. It’s also good for cutting citrus supremes, slicing apples and pears, pitting olives and cherries, and other fine-motor-skills work.

I do have two other knives I use frequently, but they’re not essential for most cooks. One is the santoku, a very sharp knife with a thin edge but wide body that’s ideal for slicing vegetables and hard fruits; I recommend a 7” blade, which you can get in this two-santoku Henckels set for $21 and just … I don’t know, regift the 5” version or something, because I can’t see any use for it. I also own this exact Henckels boning knife, which is ideal for breaking down a whole chicken – it’s substantially cheaper to buy a whole chicken (sometimes called a broiler-fryer, usually 3-5 pounds total weight) and cut it into parts, and you get the bones to make stock – or for deboning other cuts of meat like short ribs. Some folks recommend a flexible blade instead, but I have never used that kind so I can’t give an opinion. I do not own a home sharpener.

My pots and pans aren’t a single set any more; I have some remnants from an All-Clad anodized aluminum set I got with rewards points in 2001, but have swapped out certain pieces to get better nonstick (coated) skillets. What you really should get for your loved one (you may include yourself in that category) is a a 12″ Lodge cast-iron skillet, an absolute workhorse that can handle about 90% of what I need from a skillet or a saute pan. I still use a nonstick skillet for egg dishes, and a saucier (sadly one that’s no longer made) for sauces or custards, but the Lodge skillet is past a decade old and just keeps getting better. The work of seasoning them is nowhere near as arduous as you’ve heard.

If you want to splurge on something, get an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, great for soups, stews, braises, deep-frying, jam-making, and caramelizing huge batches of onions. Cast-iron doesn’t distribute heat well, but it holds heat for a long time. These pots are heavy, but I use mine for every saucepan duty that doesn’t involve boiling water or cooking grains on their own. They go stove to oven (as do the skillets) and can take the hours of low heating required for a proper braise. I own a Le Creuset that I got on sale at an outlet store because the color was discontinued; if you’re not quite that fortunate, try the 7.8 quart Lodge model for $85.


                           Isn’t she lovely?

I don’t own a proper mandolin slicer, but I do pretty well with a handheld mandolin for about $20 that works great for things like root-vegetable chips or thinly slicing onions. I love this digital instant-read thermometer, which at $10 is cheap enough that I don’t feel bad when inevitably I drop it into something and ruin it. (I’ve only done that once.) Amazon tells me that I bought my Microplane classic grater in November of 2003, and I’ve had their coarse grater for almost that long. The former is great for zesting citrus fruits or grating nutmeg; the latter is ideal for creating a snowfall of hard cheese over a pasta dish. In that same 2003 order, I bought my first Silpat silicone baking mat; I now own two and won’t bake cookies without them.

I own two scales – a chef I’m friends with on Twitter made fun of me for this – one, this American Weigh pocket scale for weights up to about 2 kg, which is ideal for precise measurements like grams of coffee (more on that in a moment), and a larger scale that’s long discontinued. This $13 Ozeri scale looks like a more than adequate replacement, measuring up to 12 kg; I rarely need to measure more than about two pounds of anything, maybe a little more for some large-batch baking but that’s about it. You need at least one good scale if you’re serious about baking, though; the best bread and pastry recipes all use grams, not cups or liters. I’ve also done horrible things to this digital oil and candy thermometer over the ten years or so that I’ve had it, including making forty or more batches of jam, dozens of batches of macarons, and engaging in numerous deep-frying experiments, and it still rocks. You absolutely must have one of these to make caramel, any kind of jam or preserves, or true buttercream frosting.

Other things I always appreciate getting or often end up buying for myself: Wooden spatulas (not spoons), silicone spatulas, good (not decorative) metal measuring spoons, Pyrex or similar measuring cups for liquids (never measure liquids in a plastic cup designed for measuring solids).

Now, for the expensive stuff:
* I believe this Cuisinart classic 7-Cup food processor is what I own; we got ours in 1996, and in all that time I’ve just had to replace the plastic bowl, which cracked during a move. At $100, it is an essential, at least in my mind; it makes so many things easier, from pie doughs and biscuits to pesto and hummus and nut butters and mayonnaise (although I do that by hand because I’m a wacko) … and the pumpkin pie I make every Thanksgiving.

* I have this Vitamix 1782 TurboBlend “food preparing machine” (it’s a blender, stupid), and it’s amazing. I can make smooth vegetable soups with it, no cream required; don’t toss those broccoli stalks, just peel, quarter, and roast them, then blend them with some vegetable stock and season to taste, maybe with some basil oil and toasted pumpkin seeds on top. It’s nearly $400, however, too much if you’re just making milkshakes and smoothies (and there is nothing wrong with just making milkshakes and smoothies). You’ll probably be fine with just a basic blender and the food processor.

* I have the 5-quart KitchenAid stand mixer, which is down to $229 right now after a $50 rebate. I kind of wish I had the next model up, mostly for bread-baking, which is still a bit of a chore for this model, but it’s great for everything else – mixing up cookie dough, brownie batter, quick breads, whipped cream, and Italian meringues (for macarons). The pasta-maker attachment is overpriced, but it does the job, and the grinder attachment has been good for me in a handful of uses, especially for turning stale bread into bread crumbs.

* Coffee is my big kitchen weakness, at least when it comes to spending money; I’m fortunate to have a few friends in the industry (whom I met through social media) who work for direct-trade roasters and have tipped me off to good sources of coffee and helped me pay for the gear I own, which is wonderful but expensive. The Baratza Virtuoso burr grinder is the least expensive grinder of its kind and caliber; when my first one had an issue with the motor, I sent a quick video of it jamming to Baratza and had a new machine within two weeks. I do make pour-over coffee at home using this 8 ceramic dripper, but my preference is espresso, for which I use a Rancilio Silvia machine that is a wonder. The boiler is huge, so it bounces back quickly between shots and you can heat up the steam wand before your shots go cold. If you get your ratios right (for me it’s 17.5 to 19 grams per double shot, depending on the bean and roast), you’ll get great crema, 32-35 grams of output in 25-30 seconds, with almost no bad pulls. I use it every morning and I miss it when I travel.

I’m also a big fan and customer of Penzey’s, a chain of spice stores that also does a brisk mail-order business. They offer gift boxes and a la carte purchases; I buy nearly all my bulk spices from them as well as vanilla beans and Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Buy a box of bay leaves and a jar of whole nutmeg seeds and the recipient will have reason to remember your gift for years to come.

Cookbook recommendations, 2014.

I can never decide whether to copy and update last year’s post or to rewrite it from scratch, but this year chose the latter course of action to try to reflect how I’m cooking and using cookbooks right now in my (brand-new!) kitchen. I’ve grouped them 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.

Essentials

There are now 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.

Baking Illustrated is 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.

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 yet to cook from his sequel on fruit, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard.

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 in its directions. 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.

Experts

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. I gave a lot more detail on this book in last year’s guide.

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). As of this writing, the kindle edition is only $2.99, over 90% off the hardcover price.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery 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 has the homemade Oreo recipe I made for Halloween (but you need black cocoa and real white chocolate to do it right).

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.

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 (his sweet potato gnocchi are now a Thanksgiving tradition for us; the lemon curd chicken is at least a twice-a-month dish around here and perfect for guests) 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.

Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South and season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook have both recently entered my cookbook rotation as well. Acheson’s book reads the way he speaks – there’s a lightly sardonic aspect to much of his writing 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 a lot of harder-to-find ingredients, 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’ll mention here that several readers have suggested Edward Lee’s Smoke and Pickles to me as one of the best of the many Top Chef contestant books out there, but I do not currently own it.

Bread

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. His pizza dough recipes are fantastic, and unlike a lot of the crap I’ve found online or in other books, you don’t need any sugar to make them.

And finally, while it’s not a cookbook, Anthony Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, is just $2.99 right now for Kindle, and it’s a riot regardless of whether you like to cook.

Gift guide for cooks, 2013 edition.

Back in 2010 and 2011, I wrote a pair of posts offering gift ideas for the cooks in your circle, but never put together a single omnibus post that covered what I use in the kitchen on a daily basis. Here’s my attempt to do so, covering three core categories: Knives, pots and pans, and essential tools. If you think something’s missing, you’re probably right, so throw a note in the comments for me.

Knives

You need three, at least, but might not need more if your cooking needs are basic. Everyone needs a chef’s knife, and as long as the blade is good, the only variable that matters is the comfort of the handle, which is a personal choice. I own a Henckels model I got in the late 1990s, but the folks at Cooks Illustrated have long recommended the Victorinox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife, which is cheaper but just as strong, lacking Henckels’ brand-name and maybe losing a little comfort on the handle. The best value among Henckels knives is this 8-inch chef’s knife, only $12 more than the Victorinox model; I can’t compare them directly but have been very happy with the Henckels knives I own.

You also need a bread knife, which is a long knife with a serrated edge, for slicing bread but also cutting grapefruits and tomatoes and even for chopping chocolate. This Henckels 8-inch model is identical to the one I own except for the handle style.

The third knife you probably should own if you want to cook is a paring knife, great for … paring things. Actually, the main thing I use my paring knife for is hulling strawberries, which is quick and safe work (you rotate the berry, not the knife) once you get the motion down. It’s good for fine work, but I use mine less often than I use the other two knives. This Victorinox paring knife is under $8, a better value than the Henckels model.

If you want to expand your set, the next two I’d suggest would be a slicing knife and a santoku. The slicing knife has a narrower blade, so it’s not for chopping but rather for long, even cuts in something like a steak or cooked turkey or pork loin. You could also get an electric carving knife for the latter, which does make life easier although I admit blades with motors make me somewhat nervous. A santoku is a Japanese knife for chopping and dicing vegetables, with an extremely narrow cutting edge on a wider blade, great for plants but not so much for animal products. Amazon has a two santoku set from Henckels over half off, $22 total, which has to be a temporary sale. I own a Henckels santoku with a different handle and it’s very useful for thin, precise cuts of vegetables, and it’s frighteningly sharp.

The last knife I own is a boning knife, used for basic butchery (breaking down a chicken or a duck, but not, say, a whole cow) where you’re separating meat from bone. The key there is a flexible blade that bends without breaking and is extremely sharp. I bought a Henckels boning knife off eBay a decade ago for $20, under half what they go for now on Amazon. I don’t have a specific recommendation as the Victorinox models all look too thin for the way I use mine – which, by the way, I used to take apart a 13-pound turkey this morning so I can cook the legs (confit) and breasts (roasted) separately.

Pots/pans

I’ve owned some All-Clad anodized aluminum pots for over a decade, but have gradually adjusted to add some stainless steel pieces, non-stick skillets, my trusty 12” cast-iron skillet from Lodge, and one Le Creuset Dutch oven that I got as a gift several years ago. The anodized aluminum pots are easy to clean and heavy-duty enough for everyday cooking, but you don’t need to spend for All-Clad (I actually didn’t pay for them either, getting through a credit card rewards program).

For non-stick, I’ve had good luck with fairly cheap pans from Wearever, who now offer a three-pan set for $23 via amazon that includes both of the ones I own. Treat them right – no metal utensils, don’t let them heat up all the way while empty, don’t put them in the dishwasher – and they should last for years. For eggs, which will stick to pretty much anything, these skillets are essential, but they’re also great for frying a potato rösti or fish fillets.

I tweeted about my Lodge 12-inch cast-iron skillet, which I’ve had for at least a decade and still use all the time. I originally bought it because Alton Brown told me it was the only way to cook proper Southern fried chicken, which was true, but it’s now my go-to vehicle for any kind of pan-frying where I’m using a half inch of oil or more, up to deep frying (which I do in my Dutch oven). I also cook pancakes in here, using bacon fat as the grease. The only issue I’ve had is that smaller stoves don’t play that nicely with its wide base, so if you have a 30” stovetop or just know your burners are small, go for the 10.5” model (found in the same link) instead.

The stainless steel items I use are both from Calphalon’s Simply Calphalon collection, a 2.5-quart saucier and a 3-quart lidded saute pan, although I don’t think either is available any more. Calphalon does offer a ten-piece Simply Calphalon starter set, with a saute pan and two skillets but no saucier, and while I’m sure the skillets are wonderful I’d still want to supplement them with non-stick ones like those I mentioned above.

The Le Creuset Dutch oven is a luxury item, although you can get one a lot cheaper if you have an outlet near you and don’t mind buying a discontinued color. Le Creuset products are made of cast iron but the surface is enameled, so it’s nonstick and doesn’t require seasoning. If you can afford one, you won’t regret the purchase, as they’re so heavy-duty they’re perfect for any kind of braise or stew, or even stovetop dishes like risotto, where you want even eating and a wide opening for steam to escape. It is also by far the best way to deep fry anything, as long as you have a candy or frying thermometer; it holds its heat and the deep sides limit spatter. (Don’t buy an electric deep-fryer; the reviews on those are consistently terrible.) I’ve linked to the size and model I have, a seven-quart version, as the nine-quart is too big for consumer stove burners and is also too heavy for easy transport when it’s hot. The seven-quart is fine for cooking a five-pound pork shoulder or enough short ribs to feed 3-4 people.

The one essential addition to your pots and pans, based on my own usage, is a slow cooker, sometimes called a crockpot. If you don’t like the idea of leaving the oven on all day while you’re at work, or want more precise temperature control over a praise, a slow cooker allows you to program time and temperature and just forget about it until it’s done. I’ve used mine for short ribs, stews, carnitas (braised pork shoulder with onions and some herbs, in which the pork ends up braising in its own fat and juices), even sauces. I own this Hamilton Beach six-quart model and have been very satisfied with it, as it’s big enough for my needs and the ceramic liner is heavy enough to retain its heat for a long time after the cooking has stopped.

Essential tools

One new recommendation for this year is Freshpaper, which you can buy direct from Fenugreen, the manufacturer, and can also buy in any Whole Foods as well as many other health-food stores. The product is amazing: small squares of paper soaked in various herbs that have antimicrobial properties, so fruits and vegetables placed on the paper or in a bin with the paper won’t spoil as quickly. I’ve been using Freshpaper for a year or so, and it absolutely works, even on quick-to-mold foods like berries. I keep one in each crisper drawer in the fridge, one in the fruit bowl on the counter, and one in any clamshell package of berries we buy. The manufacturer also donates a package to a food pantry or charity for every package they sell. The paper is even compostable, if you roll that way, so it’s more environmentally friendly than the ethylene absorbers you’re supposed to throw in your crisper drawers.

I don’t think any kitchen tool has had the impact of the Microplane grater, which is now ubiquitous in professional kitchens and on cooking shows, replacing the rougher cheese-grater style in many applications, including grating nutmeg and zesting citrus fruits. Amazon reminds me that I bought my Microplane classic grated ten years ago this past weekend, which is a little eerie, but it’s as good as new and I just busted it out the other day. I also have their coarse grater, which I use more for grating hard cheeses to finish a dish, since it produces light snow-like flakes and doesn’t tear apart whatever you’re grating.

I’ve previously recommended this Kyocera hand-held mandolin and am actually due for a replacement, as I managed to crack the frame of mine through overuse. The blade never lost any sharpness, though, which is what they promised. It’s great for making very thin slices (with four thickness settings) of vegetables for salads, for quick pickles, or for potato or other root vegetable chips. (Sweet potato chips are my favorite, fried till just slightly colored, dusted with sea salt and smoked Spanish paprika. Way, way better than sweet potato fries.)

The rest of my kitchen tools are prosaic – tongs, rubber spatulas, and wooden utensils, the latter mostly flat-edged spatulas. I mostly use metal tongs, but for working with nonstick cookware or the cast-iron skillet, my OXO nylon tongs is indispensable. Others you can pick up just about anywhere that might make good gifts, especially as stocking stuffers: small digital thermometers, a metal steamer basket, good vegetable peelers (I like Oxo’s Y-shaped and straight peelers, and a OXO Good Grips Serrated Peeler, Black for fruits like peaches), whisks from 10” long to miniature ones (great for whisking salad dressings or hot cocoa), Silpat non-stick baking mats, dishers/cookie scoops (a #20 size is great for dishing muffin batter into tins), these silicone ingredient cups (which I own and love), a Rabbit Corkscrew (I got one years ago on sale for $10 and it’s fantastic), Vacu-Vin wine stoppers to keep wine fresh (I believe they work, but I’m not a wine expert by any means) … I could go on and on. These are just things I find useful on a regular basis around the kitchen, so you’ll have some confidence that the gift you’re giving won’t end up at the bottom of a drawer until the recipients sell their house. At this point, in an era when none of us actually needs anything for Christmas, that seems to me like the ideal kind of gift.

You can see previous versions of this post here (small items) and here (larger items).

If you liked this post, please check out my updated list of cookbook recommendations too.

Cookbook recommendations, 2013.

I’ve only made small edits and additions to this post, which first appeared in November of 2012. The most significant change is the inclusion of two new books, including Richard Blais’ first cookbook, which I review towards the end of the post.

If you want the quick-and-dirty shopping list version, here are three cookbooks I am always buying as gifts, especially for newlyweds who tell me they don’t really know how to cook:

  • Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto
  • Joy of Cooking (1997 edition)
  • Baking Illustrated
  • I’m often asked to recommend a cookbook for readers – maybe for a novice, maybe as a wedding gift for someone, maybe for someone changing his/her diet – but I haven’t done an omnibus cookbook post in two years. With a few really strong new ones entering my collection this year, it seemed like a good time to revisit the subject.

    Just for background, I’m mostly a self-taught home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking class. When I was in grad school, I was free every day around 2 or 3 pm, while my wife, a preschool teacher at the time, would get home at 5:30 and be exhausted, assuming she hadn’t caught one virus or another from the kids, so I took over the cooking. At first, I was pretty awful at it, both in terms of the end product and in my capacity to injure myself through fire or blade. I must have really enjoyed the process, though, because as opposed to my usual habit of giving up on anything I wasn’t good at the first time, I decided to figure out how not to suck at cooking.

    My two main sources of early cooking instruction were Alton Brown’s Good Eats TV series and the 1997 edition of the classic American cookbook Joy of Cooking. With Good Eats airing in repeats on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, you can just set up your DVR to record them rather than buying the overpriced DVD sets, but the companion books, starting with Good Eats: The Early Years, are worth owning for the revised (usually re-tested) recipes and the commentary on each episode. Brown’s techniques always revolve around sound science and increased efficiency, whether it’s a faster way of doing something or a way to reuse an existing kitchen tool for a new purpose. He’s goofy – belching yeast sock-puppets are just never not funny – but always educational. And of all of his recipes that I’ve tried (more than I can count), only one, the squash dumplings, didn’t work for me, and that was fixed in the companion book.

    Joy of Cooking is always my first recommendation for people who are either just learning to cook or who are looking for one cookbook to rule them all. There are many editions available and there are some wide variations from one to the next, but the ’97 version has served me extremely well for its tremendous breadth of recipes – that’s still my go-to book even for Italian classics like pesto Genovese or shrimp scampi – and for the clear, logical recipes. For this edition, the publisher hired food writers to rewrite most of the recipes in the book, losing the folksy prose that charmed readers of earlier editions, but ensuring that the recipes were easy to follow and worked properly. Each recipe in Joy lists the ingredients in bold face at the point in the recipe where they’re used, rather than listing them all at the top. If you don’t succumb to the temptation to skip your mise en place – prepping and measuring ingredients before you start any cooking – this makes it much easier to follow the recipes and reduces the odds that you’ll skip an ingredient.

    If you’re interested in preserving fruits or vegetables, I have used Joy of Cooking: All About Canning & Preserving for nearly a decade. It’s out of print but amazon has used copies for $4 and up at that link.

    The new essential cookbook that I recommend to readers of any experience level is Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto, a book I own myself and have given away as a gift. Its recipes require a slightly higher skill level than Joy, but Ruhlman’s twenty section essays – on basic techniques like poaching, braising, and frying, or core ingredients like onions, eggs, and salt – build up your knowledge on each subejct from the ground up. It’s the kind of book that might intimidate a rookie but, if you try some of the recipes, will leave you impressed with your own capabilities. I reviewed Ruhlman’s Twenty in full last November.

    (I should say I’m a firm believer in the adage that if you can read, you can cook. Cooking is not an innate skill that some of us have and some of us lack. It takes attention, it takes patience, it helps if you understand some basic math and science, but at its heart, cooking is about following instructions. Follow those, and you’ll produce something worth eating.)

    Ruhlman’s earlier book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, is another must-have but is for intermediate home cooks and above because it makes assumptions about the reader’s experience and comfort level with certain techniques or foods. The book’s recipes are largely presented as ratios that can be scaled up to produce the desired quantity. If you want to make biscuits, you need 3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid. The specifics are largely up to you, and there are brief discussions of your options, but again, Ruhlman is largely assuming you know how a biscuit or a Hollandaise or pâte à choux and is describing each recipe in terms of its foundation.

    For anyone looking to eat more vegetables, whether or not you’re a vegetarian, I now have two strong recommendations. One is Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, which I reviewed in September. Ottolenghi isn’t a vegetarian but every recipe in this book is, with vegetables always the star ingredients, often augmented by butter and/or cheese, but mostly prepared in ways that evoke the essential flavors of the central vegetable. Cutting and browning endives in butter and a little sugar before coating them with cheese and bread crumbs and baking them helps bring out some of this chicory relative’s sugars while taming its strong bitter flavors to a point where the cheese (gruyere or talleggio) can at least compete for your attention. I’ve also found his mixed sauteed mushroom recipe, with soft goat cheese used in lieu of sour cream, to be a great hearty sauce over fresh whole-wheat papparedelle for a warm winter main course.

    The other vegetable-centric cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Tender, easily the most beautifully shot cookbook in my collection. Slater is a very famous food writer in England who has just a small cult following here, but Tender deserves a much wider audience for its focus on vegetables from seed to table. His gardening advice hasn’t helped me much because you can’t get a much wider gap between soil types than England and Arizona, but his dishes, many of which do contain meat but still accentuate the vegetables, are subtle showstoppers, turning some very ordinary veg – the more mundane and kid-unfriendly the plant, the more Slater seems to adore it – into warm, glowing, gorgeous dishes. Tender is the book that got me to buy and cook an actual pumpkin (not from a can), a process that, with about a tablespoon of added brown sugar led to this:

    For the advanced home cook – or even the professional – in your life, go for The Flavor Bible, which isn’t a cookbook at all. The authors, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, interviewed dozens of professional chefs about what ingredients went well together, and tabulated the results in this book. Look up an ingredient in The Flavor Bible and you’ll find a long list of good partners, with ingredients that were mentioned more often earning bolded entries. For example, parsnips are in season right now in much of the country, and the parsnip entry first says they should always be cooked, and work well when baked, boiled, braised, fried, grilled, mashed, pureed, roasted, or steamed. When the authors asked chefs about parsnips, the most-mentioned ingredients were butter (including browned butter) and nutmeg, both appearing in bold, capital letters. Bolded entries, mentioned less often than those two ingredients, include apples, chives, cream, curry, garlic, ginger, maple syrup, olive oil, parsley (a relative of parsnip and carrots), pepper, potatoes, sage, salt (duh), brown sugar, thyme, and root vegetables. The entry also includes about fifty other ingredients that work well with parsnip and were mentioned at least once by the interviewed chefs, and then concludes with five “flavor affinities,” combinations like parsnips + honey + mustard or parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes. Some entries have “Holy Grail” pairings, marked with an asterisk and mentioned by a large portion of the chefs they interviewed, like plums and Armagnac or lamb and rosemary, and some entries have “avoid” sections, like parsley and dessert. There are even sections for national cuisines – if you want to know what flavors work well in Afghan or Eastern European cuisines, for example, they’ve got you covered. What The Flavor Bible doesn’t do, however, is tell you what to do with these pairings. There are assorted quotes from celebrity chefs describing specific dishes, but the book contains no recipes. They assume you have the recipes and techniques and are looking for inspiration.

    The best book I’ve found for desserts, and one of only two America’s Test Kitchen books I own, is Baking Illustrated, which has most of the basic desserts you’d want to make, including a pie crust (for lattice tops, like the one in my Twitter avatar, but functional in any pie) that works as reliably as any I’ve ever tried. The writing can be cloying, especially when they go into more detail on failed kitchen experiments than I ever needed (if you’re going to describe something that didn’t work, at least make it funny), but the recipes work and their pumpkin pie is bar none the best I have ever tasted, one I make at least once every year.

    For bread baking, I am an unabashed acolyte of Peter Reinhart and own several of his books, including The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Whole Grain Breads (most of the same breads as the first book, but in whole-wheat, multi-grain, and 50/50 variations), and the more accessible Artisan Breads Every Day. His pizza doughs are pretty foolproof; I add a tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to his 100% whole wheat pizza dough and it’s strong enough to stretch it to translucency without tearing. (Sometimes I tear it anyway because I’m clumsy like that.) His pain a l’ancienne white-flour baguettes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice are absurdly easy if you have a stand mixer or food processor (this $100 Cuisinart model is the current version of the one I’ve used for fifteen years) and never fail to get raves when I bring them to friends. I’ve made his focaccia, his cinnamon rolls, his struan, his challah, his pitas, and his wild yeast starter, which I kept going for about a year and a half until we packed up the house in Massachusetts. His books even have recipes for international breads like pumpernickel, panettone, hutzelbrot, and stollen, as well as Ethiopian injera and crackers like lavash and graham. Go with Artisan if you’re a bread-baking rookie, or the others if you have more experience or want books that will focus on baker’s ratios and allow for more ingredient substitutions. I reviewed the first two books at length back in 2009.

    Three more quick recommendations:

    * If you’re adventurous in the kitchen, or if like me you’re a Top Chef fan, I highly recommend Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate, which I reviewed earlier this year. Blais’ style in his two runs on the show was highly inventive and sometimes just plain strange, but in a good way, and the cookbook mirrors a lot of that style. Our two favorites by far are his lemon-curd roast chicken (which later becomes a pressed chicken terrine, also found in the book) and his sweet potato gnocchi, the latter of which is the only way my daughter will eat sweet potatoes – and which she loves to mix and roll out with me. There’s also an extensive seafood section that I haven’t explored due to my wife’s allergy to shellfish, and Blais also starts with a number of condiments and side items like various pickled vegetables, sauces, vinaigrettes, and smoked items that you wouldn’t normally smoke, including aioli (mayonnaise). It’s a lot of fun but does assume at least a moderate skill level in the kitchen.

    * If you have a slow cooker, go with ATK’s Slow Cooker Revolution. I don’t own the full book, but have a magazine version they sold when the book first came out, including about a third of the main book’s recipes, and they’ve all worked on the first try, including a surprisingly flavorful bolognese sauce that makes enough to freeze for one or two future meals (you lose a little texture, but the flavors remain strong), a beef burgundy stew that gave us about three dinners’ worth, and a white chicken chili that is surprisingly low in fat.

    * I’ve recommended Julia Child’s slim $11 book Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which does, indeed, include wisdom from the woman who introduced America to French cooking, in the past because Child was so influential and important that she belongs on this list, but her most famous cookbooks are already dated. This book focuses on the bare essentials in the kitchen, including the basic vinaigrette formula I’ve been using for years, mother sauce formulas, simple instructions for roasting or braising major cuts of meat, souffles, breads, custard, and even baking-powder biscuits so you can make strawberry shortcakes.

    * A cookbook I’ve owned for a few months but haven’t been able to use much yet: Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, by the Persian writer Louisa Shafia. Focused on seasonal, plant-based recipes, it’s more useful for side dishes than mains, and the flavor profiles tend toward the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Persian ends of the scale, although she does include a number of east Asian ingredients including tofu, yuba, and agar-agar. Shafia also includes side notes on gardening, avoiding processed foods, and sustainable eating. If you’re concerned about matters like your carbon footprint or reducing your meat intake, it looks like an ideal book – but with the caveat that I have yet to begin my attack, starting with the Winter section.

    * Finally, two non-cooking books that are about food, written by very highly-regarded chefs: Yes, Chef by the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef (and Top Chef Masters winner) Marcus Samuelsson; and Blood, Bones, and Butter, by self-taught chef/entrepreneur Gabrielle Hamilton, one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.