Whether you're an old hand in the kitchen or attempting a home-cooked meal for the very first time, a good cookbook can prove extremely valuable. In addition to teaching you the culinary basics, they will get you familiar with some great recipes that can be used again and again. Here are five tomes that should be in every amateur chef's pantry.
Title photo by Tim Sackton.
The below five cookbooks are all perfectly suited to beginners. They all go into plenty of detail for newbies and are chock full of lip-smacking recipes. Here they are, in no particular order:
Alton Brown is a man who needs no introduction, especially for those of us looking to capture the essence of great cooking without spending too much time, energy or money in the kitchen. His recipes are smart, his explanations are based in science and good logic and his goal is to help people get in the kitchen and make great food while learning all about the things they’re making in the process.
All of that shines through in I'm Just Here for the Food, one of his earlier books (and full disclosure, sitting on my desk right now.) Alton doesn't just teach you how to cook — he teaches you how cooking works. He explains the principles behind frying, baking, searing and grilling while simultaneously showing you how to make some of his favorite dishes. He explains how solids can behave like liquids, why frying food doesn't always have to be greasy, how baked goods get fluffy, and more. If you're interested in learning about the science behind cooking, it's a must-have in your kitchen.
Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is available in many forms — the cookbook, a web site and even a mobile app for iOS devices. All versions and flavors are packed full of great recipes and brilliant photos and illustrations that show you how to make the dishes in the book. This book really will show you how to cook anything — not because it's particularly stuffed with recipes, but because the recipes that do feature are so instructive that once you understand how they work, you'll be able to make just about everything.
Like most of the books here, Bittman doesn't just explain how to make specific recipes, but also goes into detail about how cooking works. You'll learn the techniques required to make each of the dishes he describes, which is infinitely useful for beginners in the kitchen; so if you're worried that making a stew sounds like too much for you, you'll learn how to dice first, how to simmer, what constitutes low heat and so on, all while you cook something that will hopefully be a crowd-pleaser at the dinner table. Best of all, Bittman includes variations and options on each dish and technique so you can customize it and tweak the flavors to suit your personal tastes.
The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook is one of those books you may already have in your bookshelf. It's been in print since 1930 and has been a household staple in many, many kitchens. Odds are if you don’t have one, your parents or grandparents just might. The book starts you with the basics, like explaining different cuts of meat, different edible parts of vegetables and how they're best prepared; all with tons of great tutorials that have been continually updated over the past 15 editions with modern cooking techniques and recipes.
Even the binding of the book — heavy paper in plastic comb ring binding — is designed to stay in the kitchen with you while you cook. There are scores of photos to get you inspired and ideas to personalize those dishes for you and your family, ranging from succulent roast turkey to quick-n-easy fish tacos.
The Joy of Cooking is another one of those seminal cookbooks that you can probably find on your parents' bookshelf. Initially published (self-published, no less) in 1931, the book has subsequently become a must-have cookbook for both home and professional cooks. There's also a web offering and iOS app for those who prefer digital cooking references.
The book is an almost encyclopaedic tome of recipes and information for anyone looking to stock and prep a kitchen or learn to cook just about anything under the sun. There are recipes old and new, as well as chapters on what exactly constitutes pantry "staples", or how curing and preserving meat works and so on. It's worth pointing out that this is a bit of an old school cookbook — there's plenty of narration, but it’s not out to tell you a story or teach you the principles behind cooking. It's a bit of a textbook and one you can always refer to later if you want to know how to make something or need a baseline recipe to work with.
Cook's Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking is another book that attempts to teach the reader more than a collection of recipes. You'll learn all about how high heat develops flavours, the mechanisms behind slow cooking methods like braising and the dispelling of various cooking myths, like "searing in" juices.
A huge array of recipes are also included, with each one illustrating specific points in the book. As you walk through each major point about food science, you'll be creating delicious dishes that put these new skills to the test. The book packs hundreds of classic Cook’s Illustrated recipes too, so even if you're already familiar with the processes that make good food good, you'll be able to use the book as a reference. We've even featured a number of videos and tutorials from the book here at Lifehacker in the past.
This week's honorable mentions go out to The Betty Crocker Cookbook, a great reference book of over 1500 recipes that range from simple, easy to make dishes to gourmet masterpieces designed to wow dinner parties. There are even chapters on canning, pickling and preserving your own food.
Also worth a mention is The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. It brings together some of the best recipes, all tested and vetted by the folks at Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, into one thick reference tome that will help you make just about anything you can think of.