Faith Durand knows from cookbooks. She's been writing for one of my favorite sites, The Kitchn, since 2006 and has been the lead editor there since late 2007. She's also the author of Not Your Mother's Casseroles and Bakeless Sweets. Along with Sara Kate Gillingham and the rest of the Kitchn crew, she just released a pretty new book as well.
Perks of Faith's job at The Kitchn include a nonstop flow of new cookbooks to check out—more volumes than most of us can find space for. But how do you cull the keepers from the pack? I asked Faith a bit about what she looks for in a cookbook, and her favorite books for beginner cooks, for making sweets, for healthy eating, and more. Here's what she had to say.
How many cookbooks do you own? (Picture me snickering.) I have no idea. I tend to count books in terms of BILLY bookshelves (you know, the ones from IKEA?) and I have at least 1 1/2 BILLYs of cookbooks. I have a lot of cookbooks sent to me and while I wish I could keep all of them, I rather desperately need to cull for space. I hang on to the ones that inspire me particularly or that are good reference guides.
What would you say makes a great cookbook? I think my favorites fall into a few distinct categories. First, books that are references or compendiums of the essentials. The older edition of Joy of Cooking that I grew up with comes to mind, as does How to Cook Everything. Then there are the books that really teach and inspire by explaining something new or so well.
What is your most treasured cookbook? I think I have the most nostalgia and fond memories associated with a book called More-With-Less, a cookbook put out by the Mennonites, and used constantly by my mother while we were growing up. It has a focus on cooking simply, with simple and inexpensive ingredients, and it puts cooking with family at the center. That book (and its sister books, like Extending the Table) also brought a lot of international food into our house, from African to Latin American.
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are the books I've cooked out of the most over the years. It's odd to mention them as lesser-known, as I think that Laurie Colwin is much loved (and much missed) and her work is so fantastic. But I don't hear her recipes mentioned as much as her writing, and I love the idiosyncrasy and the emphasis on the comfortable and the homey. I think of her lemon rice pudding, adapted from Jane Grigson, with strips of lemon peel baked right in; and her general penchant for British-inspired desserts, like honeycomb mold and coffee fluff.
I also think that The Commonsense Kitchen by Tom Hudgens was one of the most underrated books of the last few years. So comprehensive and sensible.
Last but not least, Ferran Adrià gets a bonkers amount of accolades, but I feel like his quieter, staff meals book, The Family Meal, with menus, timelines, and step-by-step photos for every recipe (!!!) was absolutely amazing and deserved a lot of more attention than it received.
What cookbooks do you recommend for beginner cooks? Well, The Kitchn Cookbook of course! Ha—aside from shilling for our own book (which I really do think is fab for new cooks...and oh—I would recommend the sheet-pan supper of roasted chicken thighs and butternut squash, served over polenta with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar) ... I often recommend Bittman. And the aforementioned Commonsense Kitchen.
What cookbook taught you something new? The book I've cooked out of the most this past year is Pok Pok. I thought that Andy Ricker and J.J. Goode did such a good job of translating a very specific set of flavors into the home kitchen. They were telling a very particular story about Thai food, with a cast of characters and a spectrum of tastes, and I learned so much about Thai technique and flavor from cooking through that book. I'm also impressed, having eaten at Pok Pok in both New York City and Portland, at how well the recipes reflect what is served in the restaurants. They didn't hold anything back in the book.
What cookbooks inspire you to eat healthier? Two books that are the very top on my to-cook-out-of pile are Bryant Terry's Afro-Vegan and Diane Morgan's Roots. Any book that inspires me to cook more frequently and more creatively with vegetables is something I consider a healthy influence.
Any favorite books for baking? I have such a crush on Michel Richard. His Sweet Magic is so clever, playful, and delightful. And then of course, Dorie Greenspan forever. Her Baking From My Home to Yours is my go-to source for recipes that I KNOW will work.
What cookbooks do you love for the photos and design? Nearly any book that earns a forever spot on my BILLY shelves has an element of design or photography that I think is beautiful. This ranges from the elegant drawings in the Chez Panisse cookbooks, which were some of my earliest aspirational influences, to Aya Brackett's photography in the new Jennifer Mclagan book Bitter. So moody and drama drama! (And tobacco panna cotta, WHAT.)
If you could have one cookbook author over for dinner—someone alive today or not—who would it be? What would you cook for them? Laurie Colwin, hands down. I'd make chocolate pudding and beef stew and ask her to tell more stories about terrible dinner parties.