In my last class someone requested that I write a blog post listing my favorite cookbooks. Writing such a post is not, as it turns out, such a straight forward thing to do. I use cookbooks in many different ways—probably the least of which is for recipes. Good recipes can be found everywhere...even not-so-great cookbooks will occasionally have a good recipe or two. So, recipes alone are almost never the reason I recommend a cookbook. To me the most valuable cookbooks are the ones that teach and the ones that inspire—and this is what I have focused on as I have compiled my list. It is a rare cookbook that teaches and inspires and provides good recipes...these cookbooks are the gems and I have included a few books that I consider to be in this category. But also, because cookbooks are published every day...and foods and styles of cooking are constantly coming in and out of fashion...this list of cookbooks also includes some of my newer books that are inspiring me right now.
These first few books on my list are good reference and/or foundational cookbooks:
The New Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman is probably my main source for technical understanding of the processes of cooking and baking. Madeleine is scholarly, thorough—almost exhaustive—and opinionated. If whatever I'm looking for isn't there, her complete bibliography will get me where I need to look next. I learn something every time I pick up this book. Interestingly enough, it is not a book that I pick up to find recipes. Her recipes are well-written and they work, but they are mostly of a different style than how I normally cook.
The Joy of Cooking. I have the 1997 "All New All Purpose" edition of this classic. This is not a book I grew up with. My mother relied on Betty Crocker and started me out on the Fannie Farmer cookbook. But as I began cooking professionally, I noticed that "Joy" was the American standard that most chefs reached for when they needed a reliable recipe for a basic preparation. And this is exactly what I use it for. I don't find the recipes to be particularly inspired or inventive...but then, I don't pick this book up for inspiration. I turn to this book when I need to find out what a classic standard should look like, act like and taste like.
The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. This is my main cake reference. It is excellent—technical, detailed and very user friendly. She gives all of her recipes in weights and volumes. I use her chart of the weights of common baking ingredients all the time. I also have a copy of her new Rose's Heavenly Cakes that has a wide variety of interesting, beautiful and tasty cakes. The first book is a nuts & bolts book. This new one is inspirational. I find the recipes in both books to be very reliable.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. A near exhaustive reference on vegetables and the myriad of ways to use them—both as the main course and side dishes. Inspiring and usable. If you are trying to add more vegetables to your diet, this is the book to get.
Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters. This is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. Excellent information on vegetables. Excellent and inspirational recipes.
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. This is the book I am currently recommending for people learning to cook or setting up a new household. Not just reliable, basic recipes, but also a philosophical approach to cooking and eating. Outstanding.
Cookwise and Bakewise—both by Shirley Corrhier. I put these two books on the list because I use them for scientific/technical information—particularly baking. She presents information in a conversational and accessible style. But I never use the recipes. I believe that her recipes work, but they are typically not to my taste. I consider the previous six books I have listed to be essentials for my cook book library. These two are nice—but only if you have room.
The next few books are books that I turn to over and over again for inspiration (all given to me by someone who knew my tastes pretty well...Thanks Nancy!):
The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. I almost put this cookbook in the reference section because I use it as a reference. Judy Rodgers is a natural teacher. Her sections on the roasting and pre-salting of meats are alone worth the price of this cookbook. Her descriptions of methods and processes are eloquent and complete. A book for the intellectual cook. Her reliable recipes are interesting, understated and a bit out of the ordinary.
The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helms Sinskey. Seasonal recipes in a menu format. I love this book. The recipes are just the kinds of things I like to eat and for the most part are very reliable.
Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin. Another menu format cookbook organized by the seasons. Inspiring. I love her flavor combinations. Also stretches my natural Italian/French interests into Spain.
My favorite French Cookbooks:
A trio by Patricia Wells: Bistro Cooking, Simply French, Patricia Wells at Home in Provence. Patricia Wells is probably the reason I love regional French food.
The French Farmhouse Cookbook by Susan Herrman Loomis. Susan writes well-researched cookbooks filled with well-tested recipes. In my opinion this is her best book—written about a place and a culture that she knows and loves. It is a treasure trove of regional French recipes.
Simple French Food by Richard Olney. Another one for the intellectual cook. Beautifully written. I cook from this one—it is filled with good information—but I also just love to read it.
My favorite Italian Cookbook:
The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. A book devoted to the northern region of Emilia-Romagna. If you haven't noticed by now, I love cookbooks with lots of well-written, informational text. This book falls into that category. I have mentioned in previous posts that her descriptions of how to make fresh pasta and soft polenta changed the way I cook.
Other old friends (in no particular order):
Michael Chiarello's Casual Cooking. I like Chiarello's palate and flavor combinations. This is my favorite of his books.
Fresh from the Farmer's Market by Janet Fletcher. Reliable and simple recipes to go with the market season.
Frank Stitt's Southern Table (I like his new one Bottega Favorita, too). I love Frank Stitt's style and approach. His recipes might be a bit beyond the reach of a beginner, but if you are at home at the stove, his books are lovely.
All of the Chez Panisse Cookbooks—Pasta, Pizza & Calzone, The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Chez Panisse Cooking, Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, and Chez Panisse Fruit. For me, and for the way I love to cook, the Chez Panisse books are the gold mine.
Just for fun, I thought I would add a list of a few of the books that are relatively new to my collection and that I am enjoying now. They may or may not be books for the long haul...but right now they are inspiring me.
Martha Stewart's Cookies
Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi
Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen
A Cook's Guide To Grains by Jenni Muir
The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook by Michelle & Philip Wojtowicz
A Platter of Figs and other Recipes by David Tanis
I have of course left a lot of books out (books by Joyce Goldstein, Elizabeth David, Paula Wolfert....). But I have to stop somewhere so I won't overwhelm people. I love cookbooks and have been collecting them for a long time. It would be great to hear back from readers about their favorite cookbooks...and why their particular favorites make the cut.
I would like to add that I will continue to mention favorite cookbooks occasionally in my blog posts. I always make a point to share where the inspiration for a recipe I am posting came from (if it is traceable)...or cite the source if it is a recipe I am passing on unchanged. I will also continue to recommend and mention the cookbooks that are currently inspiring me and teaching me.
As a footnote, because this post seems an appropriate place to mention it, I want to point out that I have redesigned my recipes page. I have organized it by categories so that it will be easy to locate a recipe—even if you don't know exactly what you are looking for. I hope you enjoy it!