There are plenty of books out there for cooks who are just learning how to boil water—we get several of them sent to our office every month. But how many are actually worth a beginning cook's time, that teach without talking down? Sadly, just a few.
What cookbook would you give to a kid in college, or to a new cook to celebrate their first kitchen? Below, our picks for the books we'd give to anyone looking to learn the basics.
When my son Will went away to college, I wanted to give him a copy of Italian Easy by the wonderful chefs who founded The River Cafe in London, the late Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. But it was out of print at the time, so he left for college cookbook-less. But after he graduated I gave him a copy of Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking, by Mario Batali and Mark Ladner (Mark is the chef at Batali's Del Posto in New York City).
Will had worked at Otto (another Batali restaurant) when he was in high school, and because the book's recipes sounded so make-able and not intimidating, I figured there was a better than even chance that he'd actually cook from it. Alas, the book has stayed on top of a file cabinet in his old room in New York for years now. But now he's living in LA in a real apartment with friends and colleagues who love to cook. I'm going to mail it out to him. Look out, Will. Molto Gusto is coming your way. —Ed Levine, Serious Eats Overlord
A Serious Cook's Litmus Test
This one might not be for everybody, but my very first cookbook in college was Jacques Pepín's Complete Techniques. It's a sort of litmus test for a prospective Serious Cook. Do you stay up late at night under the light of your desk lamp, turning pages quietly so as not to wake your roommate, while you learn how to bone a chicken? (Jacques Pepín can bone a chicken like nobody's business.) Perhaps you should think about getting a job as a prep cook next summer while those other kids are off frittering away their time at the lab. —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Managing Culinary Director
The Illustrated Guide to Essentials
There are so many greats and classics that I passed over to recommend this one, but for a beginner cook, I love this book's comprehensiveness without being overwhelming, and its clarity thanks to the color step-by-step photos. Essentials of Cooking is a book that will teach a basic, solid method for roasting a chicken, butchering a fish (fin and flat), prepping vegetables, making sauces, and more. It delivers both fundamental recipes for things that should be in everyone's repertoire along with basic techniques that can be applied to anything. —Daniel Gritzer, Culinary Director
Mastering a Dish You Love
Rather than finding a 'one size fits all' solution, I'd recommend acquiring books about food you love. Master cooking one dish at a time rather than reading an encyclopedia. A few to start: son-of-Marcella Giuliano Hazan's Classic Pasta Cookbook was a comfort-food staple in my house growing up: simple recipes for soulful pasta meals. You can get a used copy for almost nothing.
Another oldie-but-goodie: Main Course Salads by Ray Overton. Some of the recipes are a little dated now, but several have been go-tos for years: a layered 'Mexican' salad with tomatillos, black beans, corn, and pepitas, for example.
Want to throw brunch parties or like breakfast for dinner? Then you need this brunch book. Great tips on everything from frittatas to ricotta pancakes. A roving brunch party is a great way to get together with friends without spending $13 on a plate of eggs. And no one will look at you funny if you pour another round of mimosas. —Maggie Hoffman, Managing Editor
I don't know if my early cooking years would've been the same without Rozanne Gold's Cooking 1-2-3: 500 Fabulous Three-Ingredient Recipes. When I was a teenager, my grandmother gave me Gold's recipe for a three-ingredient chocolate mousse (alarmingly creamy and delicious returns for such little effort), so there's definitely some sentimental value to my pick. But it's the complexity that Gold coaxes out of her exceedingly simple recipes that makes it such an approachable, and stress-free, introductory text.
Regardless of expertise, a dedicated cook should have an awareness of the essential role that each ingredient plays in a dish. Starting small, with just a few components, doesn't just build confidence—it allows you to develop a well-honed command of flavor and balance, an awareness of each ingredient's versatility. I've always felt that what separates great recipe sources from good ones is a commitment to a philosophy of cooking and food that exceeds the qualities of any single dish. Gold's books definitely fit that bill. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, Associate Editor
Minimum Effort, Maximum Reward
What was important to me in college when I was first learning how to cook? Maximizing reward for minimal effort with dishes that compound in flavor as they cook, preferably all in one big pot for a week's worth of meals. That meant braising, and All About Braising is one of the best treatments on the subject.
I agree with those who think it's more useful for first-time cooks to master a single technique rather than cook from a catch-all encyclopedia, and author Molly Stevens breaks down every stage of the braising process for cooks of all skill levels. From pages of notes on cooking vessels to detailed breakdowns of how a braise comes together, she takes delicious-yet-intimidating-sounding recipes like sausages and plums with red wine and makes you shout, yeah, I can do this! Oh, and the vegetable recipes are some of the best. —Max Falkowitz, National Editor
The 'Everything' Manual
When I was a senior in college I got a copy of How to Cook Everything and it turned me into the passionate home cook that I am today. Part cookbook and part reference guide, Mark Bittman provides basic recipes and techniques for just about everything (duh), with variations on every recipe to keep things interesting. For someone just starting out, I don't think it can be beat. —Ben Fishner, Ad Sales Account Manager
The Food Nerd Bible
It's not exactly a cookbook, but I'd go with Harold McGee's food science text On Food and Cooking. For me it mirrors the difference between high school and college: you're given a little bit more freedom to dictate what you learn (and what you don't). The book is setup in the same fashion. You're not going to read every page, but when you decide to enroll in Eggs 101, there's a whole section to feed your curiosity. —Paul Cline, Developer
All About Ratios
Ratio is the cookbook for lazy people, which is to say it's the perfect cookbook for the typical college kid. By focusing on the proportional relationship between ingredients, Michael Ruhlman makes it easy to adapt, scale, and personalize recipes. Ratio becomes a reference book for when you want to make something but don't want to follow a recipe. All you need to do is remember some numbers—multivariable calculus is not a prerequisite. —Leang Chaing, Sales Operations Manager
Seriously: The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. I really like the way she covers the basics; they're good habits to get into early. And these vegetable-focused recipes are definitely ones that you want in your repertoire. You can do endless variations on them once you get the hang of the main technique, and it's as good excuse as any to check out your local greenmarket. —Tracie Lee, Designer
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