The most recent compilation of every season of America's Test Kitchen in one volume is GREAT. ATK is a great show and the accompanying cookbooks are very thorough and detailed. Each recipe has something innovative about it and you're given a great explanation of the science and technique. While in culinary school it was recommended to us that we use ATK as a resource and even after many years I refer to their shows and texts.
Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" is a good basic. If the reader has more advanced interests, Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" is a classic. "The Joy of Cooking" is another classic.
Anything Cooks Illustratted
Second BOTH of the above!!!!
June is a trusted source on General Cooking.
My preference would (still) be Julia Child's "The Way to Cook." or Anne Willan's "LaVarenne Pratique." or both. and if you can find a used copy of Jacques Pepin's La Technique.
A coffee-table sized book from the 1980s ' Cooking A -Z', published by the California Culinary Institute. Available on out of print book sites for just a few dollars. It sits on the shelf next to the books mentioned here, and I pull it out more often when I need to know how to do something.
Susan is a recipe tester for Food52.
I love Alice Waters "The Art of Simple Food" and also agree that Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" is wonderful.
It's not a book, but the professional chef iPad app (by the culinary institute) is great because it goes over technique for classic dishes and basics like stock and has some demonstration videos. It is rather expensive, but I do use it as a reference.
lloreen, cannot agree more. Actually there is The Professional Chef textbook too, but the app takes it to the whole new level! And for more detailed / scientific side, I turn to McGee...
ESSENTIALS OF COOKING, by James Peterson (New York: Artisan, 1999). About as sexy as pale pink whales on kelly-green, wide-wale cords but incredibly useful for someone who learns visually. Lots and lots of close-ups include cross-sections of a steak with bullet-point captions detailing what you look for in distinguishing rare from medium-rare, medium, and well-done meat. You see a hand holding a chef's knife AT the handle, fingers away from the top of the blade, and so on. Franco-centric and a tad "haute cuisine" with an emphasis on what to do with animal-based foods, but there is quite a bit for the beginner on how to trim, core, seed and skin produce, how to put together a pasta dough and infuse oil. Photographs also offer step-by-step guidance.
Ratio by Michael Ruhlman
Pepin's La Technique is wonderful. Includes a detailed discussion of pans, how to hold and use a knife. Lots of photographs, which are not used and Bittman's book and Cooks' Illustrated (just drawings)
I want to put in a plug for the good old fashioned 'Joy of Cooking' as a stellar Cooking-101 course for the motivated home cook. A great door into the word of home cooking, and it stands the test of your ongoing development – ever available as a encyclopedia-like reference book, & standard-bearer by which to compare & contrast adventurous preparations of old standards.
Like the Test Kitchen book described above, 'Joy' gets to the science of things; most sections are prefaced with an informative "about:" introduction – i.e. about pie, about bread, about tomatoes, whatever. A quick consult reveals 4 pages of 2 columns each of introductions and abouts for the chapter on savory sauces and salad dressings – tools, heat, color, quantity, keeping, ingredients, thickeners (two fat paragraphs dedicated to roux), serving & deglazing. Exhaustive & basic.
My mom's deep vintage copy includes recipes for squirrel and pigeon; my 1978 printing copy doesn't go quite that far, but does give good instructions for singeing & plucking a bird, and tells me what to expect when buttering a 250lb side of beef. Great reading! Love 'Joy'!
I use a Cook's Illustrated online subscription as a basic reference for pretty much everything and they've never failed me. The Joy of Cooking is also a helpful starting point. And if you like Italian food, can I suggest Marco Canora's Salt to Taste? It's got really excellent descriptions of all the basic techniques of Italian cooking with enough sensory detail so you can really develop a feel for when to take the duck is cooked or the risotto is ready.
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