For most becoming a half-decent cook is like becoming a superhero without a superpower; you feel you’re missing some God-given gift.
We’ve all watched the shows, Master Chef and the like.
Home cooks without prior formal training execute dishes worthy of praise from globally-recognized, renowned chefs and restaurateurs like Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastiniach.
You wonder: “How do I get that good?“
For the longest, I tussled with the same thought with questions springing up like sugar-induced, zippy kids on a trampoline:
Where should I start?
What books should I read?
What techniques are essential to master above all?
Does practice make perfect?
I’m sure you can relate.
Below is a short, actionable list of books you can own to let your inner chef flourish, with a little bit of reading and a lot doing and learning.
For the Visual Learners Who Need Hand Holding
How to Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food–With 1,000 Photos
Bestseller “How to Cook Everything The Basics” comes from the perspective and knowledge bank of one of the country’s most widely-respected food writers and author of 20 acclaimed books, Mark Bittman.
Aimed at kitchen novices this installment is as unintimidating, as it is indispensable with 1,000 vivid, instructive photos giving step-by-step, fool-proof direction.
Call it the modern cook’s first essential guide to going from PB & J’s every night to executing pancakes one day, and mac and cheese the next.
Korean-American restaurateur, author, and host of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious, David Chang, boldly stated “Had Mark published this book earlier, I would not have had to go to culinary school. This is a comprehensive guide to making delicious food.”
Mark Bittman believes “Cooking, at its heart, is simple and straightforward. Even if you’ve never picked up a pot or pan in your life, you can—and should!—enjoy some time in the kitchen every day”.
Thus, you can forget about being bombarded with overtly complex techniques, exhaustive steps, and unreachable ingredients.
Simplicity is key here.
Reviewers have weighed in complimenting the book’s ease of use, and simple ingredients.
One reviewer commented “The recipes are simple, and simple generally means cheap” and in spite of, finding the recipes to be delicious without the fancy ingredients.
Other reviewers loved the addition of invaluable tips and tricks, variations and explanations scattered throughout every chapter.
Depending on where you are in your beginner’s stage, the book may come off as rudimentary.
I’m talkin’ “A-B-C, 1-2-3” easy as a mildly experienced cook.
If you’re looking to move past simple dishes and mix in more adventure, rely on other featured books to scratch that itch.
The Bottom Line
Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food is your friend to the covering your basic need to conquer weeknight dinners without a hitch, and proclaiming “I can cook.”
For the Beginner, Who Enjoys the Classics
America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Become a Great Cook
You may know America’s Test Kitchen from their wildly popular television shows with more than 4 million viewers tuning in, bestselling cookbooks, magazines, websites, and/or their cooking school.
There’s no doubt ATK’s fantastic team of test cooks eclipse their former successes.
Testing kitchenware, recipes, and everything in between in an exacting, comprehensive zeal for discovering the best of the best, ATK has built a sound reputation and impermeable trust as a result.
Nothing less was expected, and everything beyond when ATK published their Cooking School Cookbook.
Over 800 pages; 2,500 color images; 600 + recipes with all the explanations of core techniques your heart can take, ATK’s Cooking School Cookbook is here to show you how to cook– the test kitchen way.
The stand out feature in ATK’s Cooking School Cookbook is the sheer volume of color photos for every recipe tutorial; each tutorial is accompanied with 20-35 images.
For readers who are visual learners, or hesitant in the kitchen to move to the next step it’s a major plus with one reviewer stating:
“…..When I hold this book and get [the] picture by picture tutorials on recipes, I know that I’m going to learn how to do them accurately from beginning to end.
There are 35 pictures to show you how to make sticky buns with pecans. It’s hard to get that kind of in-depth tutorial just anywhere“.
Reviewers also appreciate the “What Can Go Wrong” charts covering a wide range of common errors cooks can look out for, as well as the “how-to” explanations to why a recipe works, how to recover in case of total disaster plus using tools correctly.
Too, the concepts are meant to have longevity in your journey, ultimately fast-tracking you to total kitchen domination, with one reviewer confirming this commenting :
“… It TEACHES. In each chapter, after you read and learn, there are an array of recipes that will incorporate what you just read about.
I cannot emphasize enough how much my knowledge of how to cook has skyrocketed after…
And somehow, unlike any book I have ever read about how to cook, the concepts STICK.
Breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts, meats, birds, vegetables, soups, sautee[s], pie crusts.”
Recycled recipes; not all, but some.
When you hear these two words together, as a cook, you might accuse ATK of being — dare I say– lazy.
However, while some reviewers are bothered by the resurgence of the familiar, others view the recipes as integral to the learning foundation laid out in the book as they incorporate the concepts above.
Many also find the recipes to be dependable, and modern.
The Bottom Line
No matter how long you’ve been a cook– 2 days; 19 years; 40 years, professional or non-professional and whether you own 10 cookbooks or 90 cookbooks –you can learn something new a tip, trick or technique from ATK.
For $29 there is nothing to lose, and a lifetime of dependable recipes, and techniques to cherish.
The Beginner Cookbook for The Aspiring Chef
The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America
A whopping 900 recipes.
Over 800 full-colored photos.
The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institue of America is one hunk of a book and a domineering force in the culinary world of must-have text for those ready to be taken seriously.
Paul Bocuse calls it “the bible for all chefs” in the evolved 9th edition of CIA’s most well-documented and researched book that for years has sat mighty in the kitchens of chefs– those aspiring and expert.
In the 9th edition, CIA emphasized a user-friendly format and acts as a reliable reader’s guide for executing core techniques, beginning with a simple formula.
Then CIA takes a look at the method-at-glance, squeezing in expert tips and using clear step-by-step photography and finishing with recipes using basic techniques.
Complete with 36 chapters, The Professional Chef is the ultimate all-in-one guide into navigating the workings of a professional kitchen.
Separated into seven parts — “The Culinary Professional“, “Tools and Ingredients in the Professional Kitchen“, “Stocks, Sauces and Soups“, “Meats, Poultry, Fish and Shellfish“, “Vegetables, Potatoes, Grains and Legumes, and Pasta and Dumplings” , “Breakfast and Garde Manger” and “Baking and Pastry” — each chapter offers an extensive learning platform with corresponding recipes to sharpen your understanding.
The techniques are modern and written in a fashion relevant to the modern-day culinary industry; teachable and applicable, graphic photos are littered throughout each chapter.
An inkling of what you’ll learn includes:
– Mise en Place (Featured in every chapter)
– Identification of meat, poultry, & game; fish & shellfish; fruits, vegetables & fresh herbs; dairy & egg (includes a purchasing guide); dry goods
-Stocks, Sauces and Soups
– Steaming and Submersion Cooking
– Cooking Pasta and Dumplings
The Professional Chef can rest on its laurels as being arguably the most dependable textbook for a well-rounded culinary education; there is very little you won’t learn or can’t build on post-reading.
The recipes are written to feed large groups of people (10 servings) akin to a restaurant setting so you’ll have to scale down.
The Bottom Line
The Professional Chef is a staple for all chefs and a go-to reference for avid home cooks.
A personal favorite, I can bet as sure as the arrival of the sun at sunrise, when you’re done working through this book, have the knowledge to make restaurant-quality dishes at home.
Dedicate a few lazy Sundays to reading and working through this user-friendly workbook and great dishes for years to come are in order.
For the Science Nerd Who Needs More Background Information
The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
In the New-York Times bestseller, winner of the James Beard Award for General Cooking and IACP Award Winner, The Food Lab by Serious Eats “Nerd-in-Residence” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt seeks to answer all your questions no matter how terrible you are at cooking in his debut cookbook.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Serious Eats, with a particular interest in whatever Kenji cooks.
His wisdom and inquisitive passion, and careful use of ingredients are the sole reason why every recipe he crafts hit all the right notes; a product, too, of his obsessive testing.
Every recipe builds an indestructible wall of trust.
The New York Times calls this book “The one book you must have, no matter what you’re planning to cook or where your skill level falls.”
And I call it the one book you must have if you want fool-proof recipes with ample scientific explanation to cue several “light bulb” moments.
With a clear, and unpretentious voice, The Food Lab picks through scientific questions concerning food and is –in Kenji’s words featured in “Why This Book?” excerpt– “... a thorough examination of classic recipes.
You’ll find out why your fried chicken skin gets crisp, what’s going on inside a potato as you mash it, how baking powder helps your pancakes rise…
You’ll discover that in many (most?) cases, the most traditional methods of cooking are in fact not the ideal way to reach the desired end results”
López-Alt, J. Kenji. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science (p. 20). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Kenji’s writing reads like his blog posts– informal and clear — weaving in personal stories and passionate explanations even for otherwise boring, monotonous subjects like picking the right cookware.
He addresses “controversial cooking questions” like:
“What is the best time to salt a steak?”
“What is the optimal cook time for a boiled egg, or the best method to make an omelet?”
“What is the best way to shape and cook a hamburger?”
“What is the best method to roast a turkey, or to make homemade stock?”
as one reviewer puts it, delving deep into explaining why the recipe and technique work with photos of experimentations to prove his theory.
Kenji is meticulous in his ingredient pairing; a handful of recipes are a dense long list of ingredients and accompanying techniques.
” I found some of the recipes needlessly complicated for a questionable benefit.…Bolognese sauce with about 20 ingredients?” one reviewer inquired.
However, more than a few recipes don’t add to the pile.
Another thing: you won’t be whipping up any sweets with this book.
If you follow his column and read his book; you’d know Kenji isn’t as enthusiastic about desserts as he is entrees and sides.
Look to Pastry Wizard, Stella Parks instead.
The Bottom Line
This is less of a recipe book and more of a “How and Why?” cookbook.
If you’re a bookworm, who loves to read and is enthused about the science behind food with the reward of the killer, ultra-delicious recipes you’ll enjoy this book and share it with your friends.
If you’re not, you’ll still stay for the recipes, and refer back post a kitchen screw-up.
The Fly-By-Seat of The Pants Cook Who Doesn’t Want to Rely on Recipes
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
In my earlier days of cooking, I was quick to backlog every delicious recipe I discovered and then– like a baby bird from its nest–I wanted to set out on my own adventure.
“Finally!” I shouted in an exclamation of freedom, a book independent of recipes.
Ratio had arrived in the mail and instantly turned my world upside down.
I’ll put it to you like this: If you ever wanted to throw biscuits together without the experiencing the look of defeat after peeking in the oven to see, not only, flat biscuits but biscuits as pale as a ghost; you need to pick this book up.
We’ve all gone through imposter syndrome, where we feel maybe we’re just good at following recipes and not much a true cook at all.
Then we find a book that stumps out all of our pesky doubts, allowing confidence to root and burgeon.
Cooking becomes easy, fun even.
You know your stuff, and only resort to an ingredient list when you want to try something new.
Michael Ruhlman’s backs this care-free experience.
His book was described by NY Times as being “ all about using proportions, not ingredient list“.
He rather you remember simple ratios instead of following recipes all of your life because he believes when you know simple ratios you know thousands of recipes.
With thousands of recipes, you know the variations too; you’ll practically become a foundational cooking encyclopedia.
What to know what’s inside?
Ruhlman’s book is organized into 5 parts–Dough & Batters; Stocks; Sausage, Mousseline & other meat-related ratios; Fat-Based Sauces; Custards– where he unveils 33 ratios including:
- Cookie Dough
Recipes in Ratio aren’t tweaked for you, instead, Ruhlman offers tips to assist in the desired outcome; like for thinner, light pancakes less liquid can be used.
Just know: basic recipes are featured but the variations are up to you.
The Bottom Line
For the Beginner Who Only Wants Healthy Food
Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans by Michelle Tam & Henry Fong
What I love about Nom Nom Paleo is the flavor combinations are simple, tasty and well-executed.
The recipes are staples, and can quickly be intertwined for everyday meal planning as she illuminates simple, ingredients.
While the recipes are simple and easy to make a few Amazon reviews suggested some recipes have inaccessible ingredients.
As someone with a demanding work week and limited grocery retailers, I understand how searching for fussy ingredients deter even the most well-intentioned cook.
You albeit throw the book away, as it’s left alone to collect dust.
However, with the modern world we live in, any ingredient is accessible from the internet and applicable to household budgets with proper planning and usage.
All it takes is a little bit of digging.
The Bottom Line
If you are inclined to purchase any of the above books after reading, please show support by purchasing through the links above.
Thank you in advance!