I'm a restless sleeper by nature, and it's because every night I go to bed with unsanswered questions.
Recipe books are all well and good if you want to know how to get from point A to point B, but what really gets the creative juices going are those rare books that don't just give you a bus pass to roast chicken, but they actually teach you how to drive that bus. I'm talking books that focus on the importance of good technique as much as they do on recipes. It's these books that will give you the freedom and knowledge you require to explore cooking on your own, giving you the wherewithal to put your personal stamp on your cuisine, rather than being shackled to specific recipes.
These are books for the kitchen nerd in all of us. The ones who want to know the hows and whys of cooking. The ones who lie restlessly at night, unconsciously kicking their bed mate and thinking, why was my roast chicken dry? What's wrong with beating my batter? And for the love of god and cupcakes, why couldn't I just add all the eggs at once?!?
For Everyone: On Food and Cooking
My dog-eared, note-riddled, heavily stickied copy of On Food and Cooking ($26.40), by Harold McGee, is the most important book in my library. I take it with me nearly everywhere I go, as you never know when you'll need to look up precisely what chemical it is that makes cinnamon taste like cinnamon, or at what temperature ovalbumin begins to coagulate. Of all the food books I own, this is the one that gets opened the most. It's written in a style entertaining enough that it makes for a good way to kill an hour on the subway, but detailed enough that you don't feel like it's written for dummies, which too many pop-science books seem to do.
It's the archetypal work of food science for real cooks, and should be required reading for anyone aspiring to become a chef, or to take their home cooking to the next level. That said, it's a fascinating read even for non-cooks.
For the Ambitious Home Cook: The Science of Good Cooking
Cook's Illustrated has made a name for itself with its no-nonsense recipes and writing designed to work every single time. They may not be the most glamorous foods in the world, but I'll take reliable and just plain good over glamorous any day of the week. With Cook's Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking ($23.48), by The Editors of America's Test Kitchen, they've taken their typical rigorous approach and upped the science by a degree of magnitude, organizing the chapters by basic scientific principles in cooking ("Concept 2: High Heat Develops Flavor," or "Concept 6: Slow Heating Makes Meat Tender"), with hundreds of recipes that make use of these concepts.
While some of the concepts seem oddly specific ("Grind Meat at Home for Tender Burgers" and "Vodka Makes Pie Dough Easy," are both great tips, but don't seem exactly like primary principles to me), all of the information is presented in clear, concise, and non-stupid Cook's Illustrated fashion. Typical of their business model, some folks might notice that much of the material is recycled or reprinted from their other books and the magazine, but the new context in which the work is presented makes it a valuable addition to the shelves of both the armchair food nerd and to the serious home cook alike.
For the Home Salami-Maker: Charcuteria
For a while, it looked like charcuterie—the craft of preserving meat—was going to end up relegated to obscure places like high-end kitchen basements and France. Then Charcuterie ($21.82) by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn came along and started a whole new revolution in home production of salami, ham, terrines, pâtés, and the like. It's quickly become the definitive book on the subject and continues to sell incredibly well a couple years after its introduction for a reason: the recipes don't just work, they teach you why the recipes work.
If you've ever had the vaguely hipster desire to make your own sausages, cure your own hams, or smoke your own bacon, there is no guide more thorough or easy to use.
For the Curious: What Einstein Told His Cook
What Einstein Told His Cook ($10.85), by Robert L. Wolke, is like the bathroom almanac of cook books. Presented in easy-to-read question and answer format, it's not exactly the resource you go to when you have a real hardcore question about food science, but it's accurate, informative, and above all else, fun. It's the kind of book you'll pick up, read for a few minutes, then stop to say to yourself, "Huh, I didn't know that," before putting it down and running around to look for someone to impress with your newly learned facts.
For the Brainiac: Ideas in Food
Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot have been on the cutting edge of the modern food and blogging movement since its very inception. These folks were blogging over at Ideas In Food back when I barely knew what a blog was, much less a sous-vide cooker. As pioneers in the field, their exploration into modern foods and techniques have shaped the work of thousands of young cooks and established chefs. Always written in a clear, clean manner with gorgeous photography, they define what good food blogging should be, and their energy, passion, and deep knowledge of the subject bleeds through the computer screen.
Their first book, Ideas in Food ($15.65) compiled much of what they'd learned in their experiments into a single volume designed for both professional chefs and home cooks alike. So while you may find recipes and techniques that require specialized chemicals or equipment, you'll also find excellent recipes that will work for any home cook, like great no-knead brioche or perfect macaroni and cheese.
Their new book Maximum Flavor should be out in August of 2013. I'm really looking forward to it.
For the Modernist: Modernist Cuisine At Home
I'm sure you've all heard of Modernist Cuisine ($553.68), the book that many writers and chefs are calling the most important food book ever written. Produced by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, chef Maxime Billet, and a crew of cooks, designers, and photographers, the six-volume monster of a book was the first to extensively study, research, collate, and present modern cooking techniques and technologies in a single, gorgeously photographed encyclopedic resource.
It also cost as much as an encyclopedia and, at least for the home cook, was largely impractical in its recipes. This year, the same team released Modernist Cuisine At Home ($119.32), a single volume book with the same attention to detail and photography, but a decidedly more home cook-friendly approach to recipe development and data presentation.
Don't kid yourself. The recipes still aren't quite Taste of Home level of simple, and their presentation still takes a bit of getting used to (recipes are presented in a unique tabular format), but for the ambitious, the methodical, the completionist, or the simple lover of really good-looking books, Modernist Cuisine At Home should be at the top of the list.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.