Cook books are far too easy to impulse buy: at their best, they are glossy and beautiful, landing somewhere between life manual and coffee table book. In buying a cookbook, you can convince yourself (if only for a moment!) that you’re going to start cooking more, throwing more dinner parties, breaking out of your old pasta-and-salad routines. I am guilty of all of this. But then what happens is that I have more cookbooks than I need, and more cookbooks than my shelves can hold, and it overwhelms enough to keep me from opening them.
While they can still be nice to page through recreationally, the best cookbooks are those you lean on when you need a better dinner for yourself, or a more impressive spread for your friends; they are the things that slowly but surely make you a better cook. Here, then, is a list of five—with one bar book for good measure—that will not only improve your cooking techniques, but also stay with you for years. Think of this as your capsule collection.
Julia Turshen’s 2016 book Small Victoriesis one of the most crowd-pleasing, reliable cookbooks you’ll find. It’s full of well-written, easy-to-follow recipes that are just one or two steps up from basic—think roast chicken with fennel and rosemary, kimchi fried rice with scallion salad, best-ever turkey meatballs. It’s the sort of book will actually teach you how to cook, with tips and variations nudging you along the way. (Each recipe details a “small victory” that you can achieve through cooking it.) I’ve made the fried eggs and yogurt roughly ten times in the past few months; these are recipes that stick with you far longer than one night.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Perhaps you do not know who Marcella Hazan is and that’s okay, really, but you should. In short: she brought Italian food to America’s home kitchens, first through this book, which is as direct and occasionally stern as a stereotypical Italian nonna. This is not the Italian food of your childhood red sauce restaurants, but instead the dishes that are actually traditional to Italy: pasta of every shape and size, gently simmered beans, olive oil-doused vegetables, real-deal risotto. Start with her famous three-ingredient tomato sauce, made from just canned tomatoes, butter, and onion; you’ll never buy the jarred stuff again.
Think of longtime cookbook author Deborah Madison as America’s very own Produce Mom. (She was once a cook at the San Francisco Zen Center, then went on to run a very successful vegetarian restaurant called Greens.) In this book, she organizes the spectrum of vegetables by scientific family, to give readers perspective on what it is they’re actually cooking and how and when it grows. The recipes range from simple (caramelized sweet onions) to dinner-party-worthy (sautéed zucchini with mint, pine nuts, and basil) to resourceful (radish top soup with lemon and yogurt). They’re elegant and rarely fussy. And if you’re trying to eat more vegetables, this is one of the best cookbooks you can buy.
The Food Lab
J. Kenji López-Alt
This is not a breezy weeknight cooking guide. But J. Kenji López-Alt’s six-pound cookbook answers all the questions you’ve ever had about cooking (When should I salt my steak? Why is there water leeching from my scrambled eggs?), plus a million others you’ve never thought to ask. He approaches cooking from an almost-exhaustingly precise and scientific angle, engineering recipes via hours and hours of testing. But the results are always reliable, well-vetted, and will make you a far better, far more knowledgeable cook. You’ll get thorough primers on basics (like breaking down a chicken), and inspiration for weekend projects (like southern-style fried chicken).
How to Cook Everything
This book is great. It’s like finding a dating site calledhotgirlswhoarenice.com and not getting catfished. It’s like finding a TV show that’s just called “Puppies Nuzzling” or “Bruno Mars Dancing.” [Ed note: “Uptown Funk” forever!] And, sure, it’s not going to teach you how to cookeverything, but if there’s ever a dish that pops into your mind as something you’d like to make for breakfast or lunch or dinner, this book will teach you how to get there. Want to make a frittata? It’s in here. Want to make pasta carbonara? It’s in here. Want to make pancakes that don’t come out extremely depressing? You guessed it; in here. These recipes are not usually best-ever or world-changing, but they are reliable—an important encyclopedia for any home cook.
The Bar Book
There are more definitive and more exhaustive cocktail books out there, but The Bar Book, by Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, hits the sweet spot between definitive and accessible. Think of Morgenthaler as your slightly bossy, slightly snarky friend who knows the answer to every cocktail question you might have. He patiently walks you through each aspect of a well-constructed cocktail—ice, proper measurements, syrups and juices, proper shaking technique, garnishes—at a good, conversational clip. The book offers enough recipes to give your home bar cart a jolt of confidence, and enough advice to give you the confidence to start experimenting on your own.