My Five Essential Cookbooks

By Ezra Klein


I’m all about the holiday buying guides. I just want people to help me consume. And frankly, I want to help you consume, too, because I care very deeply about the economy and we need! to! induce! demand! So. Cookbooks

How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition) by Mark Bittman: The only cookbook I’d actually term essential. With it sitting heavily in your kitchen, there’ll never be an ingredient you don’t have some information on, or a technique you can’t look up, or a basic recipe you can’t see explained. And Bittman, happily, knows his audience: The writing is clear, the instructions simple, and the food good. I’m actually of the opinion that no kitchen should be without it.

Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking by Fuschia Dunlop: My favorite type of food to cook is Sichuan food, and this is my bible. Everything I’ve made from here has been fantastic. Worth buying for the Kung Pao, Ma Po tofu, and Sichuan green bean recipes alone. Also for all the other recipes. Particularly good food for winter.

Molto Italiano by Mario Batali: Extremely solid Italian cookbook. Simple recipes, and the most beautiful food photography I’ve just about ever seen. Batali is considered one of the few celebrity chefs with serious kitchen cred, and this book shows why.

100 Ways to Be Pasta by Wanda Tornabene, Giovanna Tornabene, and Carolynn Carreno: This book came into The American Prospect as a random review copy three years ago, and I’ve been using it ever since. Great pasta recipes, and great advice on the basics of cooking pasta. Turned out you need a lot more salt than I thought.

Think Like a Chef by Tom Collichio: I wasn’t expecting much when a friend gave me this cookbook. It’s slim, and Collichio spends a lot of time on TV. But it’s actually great. What it’s not, however, is a cookbook. It’s more of a primer on recipe construction. There’s a lot of writing, and even a bit of theory. Collichio will start with one ingredient — say, roasted tomatoes, or wild mushrooms — and then build dozens of different dishes around them, ranging from tarts to entrees to desserts. The idea is to get you thinking about how to create your own recipes around whatever sounds good that week. And it works, or at least it did for me.

What’re your essentials?

Image used under a CC license from Patrick Q.

14 responses to “My Five Essential Cookbooks

  1. verplanck colvin

    a subscription to cook’s illustrated. I also enjoyed Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for the Food.”

  2. “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison. Not just for vegetarians, this a very comprehensive guide to vegetable and grain cookery. I have given this book as a present probably 20 times and that’s Church.

    “Olive and Caper” by Suzanna Hoffman. Greek! Very fun and the recipes work really well.

    “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden. James Beard called it a “landmark” when it was first released and I agree.

    “The Foods and Wines of Spain” by Penelope Casas. Aging nicely, this treasure is dense with excellent recipes and lore.

    “Recipes from Paradise” Fred Plotkin. He writes sometimes like he’s been recently offended by somebody, but this look at Liguria and its food is awesome. there’s 18 recipes for pesto.

    “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” Marcella Hazan. The Italian Julia Child sums it all up.

    God I could go on and on. I have 200 or so. Christ, I’m eating a frozen burrito right now. Why?

  3. I also enjoy Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, as well as Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and by Mollie Katzen are great as well….great books for beginner vegetarian chefs…

  4. I’ve recommended and typed up as emails so many of the recipes in Annie Sommerville’s Fields of Greens that I almost no longer need the book—all of my favorites are archived digitally. I discovered it back when I was still cooking things like kraft mac and cheese with frozen veggies stirred in, but it remains totally relevant to me a decade later.

    My new favorite though is Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions; it should be the companion cookbook to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. It’s awesome.

  5. 1.) James Beard’s “Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. ”
    Great book on the fundamentals of cooking. Probably the first cookbook I ever read that went beyond recipes.

    1.) Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook”
    Opened my eyes to the importance of selecting the best quality ingredients, and the value of developing a relationship with the people who grow your food. “Art of Simple Cooking” is another great Waters book.

    1.) James Paterson’s “Sauces”
    Classic tome on virtually every sauce you can imagine from the classic five “mother” sauces, to modern reductions and integral sauces. Reads almost like a chemistry book.

    4.) Larousse “Gastronomique” The definitive encyclopedia of cooking. I’ll reach for it to find a recipe, end up perusing it until my wine glass is empty, and ask “How did I end up reading about the difference between american, french, and british cuts of beef?”

    4.) Paul Prudhomme’s “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen”
    Brilliant collection of classic Cajun recipes and history. Probably the most labor-intensive recipes I have attempted. When you get one right, it’s like magic.

    Madison’s VC4E is another favorite, but you all beat me to it.

  6. An old copy of “The Joy of Cooking.” I’ve never looked at one of the newer editions, but my grandmother’s (now my mother’s) copy of the 1975 edition is some of the most interesting food reading I’ve ever done. Lots of useful recipes (especially for anyone who likes to bake) and obscure things like how to prepare all sorts of wild animals.

  7. 1) Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero: Veganomicon- making this vegan food is great ’cause it’s tastes AMAZING (especially the Penne a la vodka with almonds instead of cream) and you get to feel smug because you’re being all environmentally-conscious.

    2) Bill Granger. bill’s food (sometimes called just bills). Amazing book. Everything is light and fresh and oh-so-tasty, and generally not too difficult. I’ve frequently had people ask where I bought something I made from it.

    3) Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. It’s got everything you could ever need to know.

    4) More Bill Granger: Sydney Food. His recipe for coconut bread is this is the reason I came to love Brunch.

  8. The Joy of Cooking! I was raised on it and have several incarnations of it–the least favorite of which, I must admit, is the most recent, somewhat yuppified version.

  9. My desert island, with a nice kitchen and nearby farmer’s market, cookbooks are:

    1) The New Best Recipe, Cook’s Illustrated
    This is my cooking bible. If you enjoy Cook’s Illustrated, then you need to own this. Their other innumerable cook books are hit and miss, much like their magazine articles, but NBR is 100% foolproof IMHO.

    2) I’m Just Here for the Food, Alton Brown
    Short on recipes, but long on theory… but explained in way anyone can understand. Great for people like me with an analytical background who don’t like the standard vagueness and voodoo of most recipes.

    There’s a lot of others I like and ones that have neat recipes, but those would be the essentials.

  10. This is for desserts only, but Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible are incredible. The recipes are like lab notes — if you do exactly what she tells you, you end up with these awe-inspiring creations without having had to do anything particularly impossible.

  11. I handle the family cooking and my wife does the baking. Perfect division of labor.

    My 5 essential cookbooks:

    An ancient edition of Betty Crocker, the same era as the Better Homes cookbook in the photo (which I also have and never use). If I could only have one cookbook, this would be it.

    The 1975 (I think) Joy of Cooking. I had to learn a lot before this one was good for me. Now, wow, I get a lot of use out of it. It’s got everything.

    Steve Raichlens “How to Grill”, the best grilling book ever! (If the list was longer I’d add any Paul Kirk book on bbq and the Williams-Sonoma book on grilling.)

    Gourmet magazine produced a big yellow cookbook; I don’t remember the name of it. For entertaining, it’s hard to top this one.

    365 Ways to Cook Chicken–there are some very good recipes here and you can’t beat it for everyday cooking. Sometimes you just need to get dinner on the table!

  12. I have been enthusiastic about the preparation of food since I was in high school in the 1960’s. Over the years I have been collecting cookbooks, a few really stand out as the best:
    1. I grew up on The Joy of Cooking, and still use it as a solid basic cookbook. I have an old 1970’s copy – definitely better than the newer ones.
    2. The Harrowsmith County Life Baking Book. Country Life was a wonderful magazine that folded years ago. All of their cookbooks are exceptional, full of excellent reader’s recipes.
    3. Time-Life’s “The Good Cook” series. Great for step-by-step instructions and recipes culled from many unusual sources. Each book is on a different food category like vegetables, poultry, pies and pastry, beef, etc.
    4. The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. Loaded with wonderful recipes.

  13. Pingback: Tannin Salon: Grape Juice Primers « The Internet Food Association

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