The 10 Cookbooks Every Home Cook Needs, According to a Bookstore Owner

Do you have them on your shelves?

November  3, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

What are the cookbooks that have changed the way you cook? The ones that have taught you something new about a technique, or introduced you to ingredient you didn't know you loved. Books with multiple dog-eared pages and floury thumbprints on the corners. The ones with recipes you make near-weekly; that you serve at every gathering with friends; that you've all but memorized. The ones that you'll keep in your collection for life.

Celia Sack, owner and buyer at San Francisco's Omnivore Books on Food, knows a thing or two about these kinds of books—her beautiful store features hundreds of them, both modern and vintage. And this weekend, she's celebrating 10 years of connecting home cooks with the books that inspire them. We recently spoke with Celia about the the best tip she's ever learned from a cookbook; the delights and challenges of owning her own small business; and the 10 essential cookbooks every home cook needs on their shelves.

Congratulations, Celia, and happy birthday to Omnivore!

BRINDA AYER: What attracts you to a cookbook and makes you want to recommend it to others?

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Top Comment:
“Well, I'm still proudly and often turning to the earlier Joy of Cooking. And, with some shame because so much fat in the recipes, to the first Silver Palate. Feast of Santa Fe is another oldster that I keep turning to. My favourite new book from the current millennium is the Food Lab, because science in place of dogma (and great results).”
— S. R.

CELIA SACK: I love books on food from faraway places—places you've imagined or maybe been to on your honeymoon, and want to return to. When I look at a Sri Lankan cookbook, for instance, and see swaying palms, elephants, tea plantations on the cover, I'm totally curious to know how the food relates to the surroundings depicted. Nearly every recipe uses coconut oil? Amazing! I also look for books by international publishers, who are physically located near the places they publish on—like a book on Thai food from an Australian publisher. The unique relationship between the countries shines through in these kinds of books. Last, I totally judge a book by its cover. Since there are so many cookbooks to choose from, why would I pick one up that's not going to compel my customers to open it?

BA: How have cookbooks changed over the last 10 years?

CS: One of the biggest changes we've witnessed is the loss of the dust jacket. When I first opened Omnivore, every book was in a dust jacket, but British and Australian publishers were leading the charge to move toward plain covers. It's funny, the change kind of coincides with restaurants getting rid of tablecloths! Also, I'd say about 90% of photographs used to be on glossy paper in the US, whereas British and Australian publishers always used matte. We quickly adopted this here, realizing it added a nostalgic and deeper feel to the books.

Thematically, cookbooks are once again putting emphasis on teaching techniques rather than just individual dishes, which leads you to be more creative in your kitchen. If you know how to make a braise (a simple set of steps involving a protein, vegetables or fruit, and a liquid like wine or cider), you can make up any combination of ingredients you like. This is very empowering; it brings us back to a time when cookbooks instructed the reader to "make a batter," and they knew how to.

BA: What are some of your favorite tidbits from cookbooks over the past decade?

Some of my favorite techniques come from chef and cookbook author Judy Rodgers' books, on how to roast a chicken: Always buy a small (2 to 3-pound) chicken, which will be juicier. Wash and pat it dry, then keep on a plate in the fridge for 2 days in order to dry the skin and get it really crispy when it roasts. I follow these tips no matter which roast chicken recipe I'm preparing, as they are foolproof!

BA: What are the best and most challenging aspects of running a cookbook store?

CS: Actually, the best and most challenging aspects are the same: Socializing with customers. I love to chat with them about their interests, answer questions about cooking and my shop, and so forth. But I exhaust myself doing that; in all these years in retail, I've never really learned how to reserve my energy, so I sometimes go home pretty depleted. I'd love to figure out how to give my best self to my customers and still keep some for me and my family.

The other challenge/positive is the small space I have. In a shop of just 500 sq. ft., there's very little storage and so I've had to learn to be a tight orderer. We lost a garage space we used to rent up the street a couple years ago (both for my shop and the pet store I co-own with my wife next door), so the back of the shop is like a submarine sometimes!

BA: What are the 10 must-have cookbooks for every home cook?

CS: There are tons to choose from, but here are my picks:

  • The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
    Edna's recipes and writings about Southern cookery make me want to be a better cook. My favorite of her recipes is the Pan-fried Sweet Potatoes.
  • The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
    People think an Alice Waters recipe must be difficult, but the truth couldn't be more opposite. Try the tortilla soup as proof!
  • My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer King
    Even without pictures, this book taught me how to cook Indian food with intelligence, confidence, and ease. Her fish in banana leaf parcels is a recipe I turn to time and again.
  • Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
    Andrea teaches the essentials of Vietnamese cooking in a totally accessible way, with easy substitutions in case ingredients, like crab tomalley, are hard to find. My favorite recipe is the Crab and Shrimp Rice Noodle Soup.
  • Rose's Baking Basics by Rose Levy Berenbaum
    A new addition to the canon, Berenbaum teaches us how to bake everything from brownies to birthday cakes, bread, pizza, and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are the cookbooks you turn to, time and again? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • S. Rose
    S. Rose
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    Brinda Ayer
Brinda is the Director of Content at Food52, where she oversees all site content across Food52 and Home52. She likes chewy Neapolitan pizza, stinky cheese of all sorts, and tahini-flavored anything. Brinda lives in Brooklyn with 18 plants and at least one foster pup (sometimes more). Find her at @brindayesterday on Twitter and Instagram.


S. R. November 10, 2018
Well, I'm still proudly and often turning to the earlier Joy of Cooking. And, with some shame because so much fat in the recipes, to the first Silver Palate. Feast of Santa Fe is another oldster that I keep turning to. My favourite new book from the current millennium is the Food Lab, because science in place of dogma (and great results).
Nancy November 10, 2018
Yes! By old Joy of Cooking do you mean the 1975 one, before they modernized the content in 1997 or made the 75th anniversary edition in 2006? (Thuugh, to be fair, some people swear by not at those editions). I loved the 1975 edition and only lost it in a move when it was falling apart. If not that, what old edition?
Also have many recipes from Silver Palate, like their rice salad, that I love and still make.
Nancy November 4, 2018
Generally a good list, though I do wonder on the criteria used for choosing (recent sales? volume of food by restaurants?)
Some quibbles...
There could be other fine vegetarian cookbooks, influential or path-breaking (e.g., Laurel's Kitchen).
Choose one book for California cooking (either Judy Rodgers or Alice Waters), not two. Leave a little more space for other American, rest of world.
There should be (at least) one book on American meat cooking - grilling and/or barbecue.
And does Rose's book include bread? If not, a bread book (e.g., Beard, Clayton, Leahey).
Last, if we're talking great cuisines of the world, why no Chinese cookbook?
Brinda A. November 6, 2018
Thanks so much for these awesome suggestions, Nancy! Definitely all worth adding to a home cook's repertoire :)