Book-Off

Your Best Cookbook for Mastering the Basics

With recipes for kimchi to kombucha, tuna salad to tahdig, ramen to rosé jam.

by:
July  2, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

This review kicks off our brand-new, community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we're finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you. And so, let's hand it off to our community members Theresa Regan, Alison Mutter, and Melissa Staricha. Here are their reviews (and verdict!) on the best books on basics.


Hello! We are Alison, Melissa, and Theresa, and we reviewed five cookbooks for Food52’s Big Community Book-Off. The books were nominated by you, the readers.

The five cookbooks that were chosen, in the order that we reviewed them were:

  1. The Silver Palate Cookbook
  2. How to Cook Everything, 20th Anniversary edition
  3. Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking
  4. Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary edition
  5. Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 100th Anniversary edition

Our goal was to cook at least three recipes each from each cookbook, and the guidelines we chose to evaluate the cookbooks were:

  • How well did we learn basic cooking tips from the book?
  • How relative are the recipes from the book to the needs of today?
  • How easy does the author make it to vary or substitute ingredients used in the recipes?
  • Is the book well-organized with ease of finding recipes?
  • How tasty is the food we cooked?

Going into the challenge, none of us had cooked from all five books, but most of us had cooked from at least two on the list. As we evaluated the books before we started cooking, we were drawn to the more modern books on the list, like Salt Fat Acid Heat and How To Cook Everything as potential winners for the challenge. Theresa had nominated The Silver Palate, Melissa had nominated How To Cook Everything, and Alison had nominated Salt Fat Acid Heat. Let’s get on to the reviews.


Your 5 Best Books on Basics, Reviewed

1. Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins' The Silver Palate Cookbook

Photo by Amazon

The Silver Palate Cookbook is a surprising treat. Compared to when it was published, many of the recipes still hold up as tasty and inspired. Overall, the book had lots of creative meal ideas and numerous menus.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I still turn to my "Joy of Cooking," purchased around 1974, when researching anything (where else would I find both how to cook wild boar and the best recipe for corn fritters?) and I consider the brownies Cockaigne recipe unsurpassed. But I'm surprised by your choice of "The Silver Palate Cookbook" as a contender. I've used and treasured it for decades but always thought of it as more of a book for entertaining, not daily dining -- hence the portions for 6 or 12, not 4, and the tendency toward splurge foods. Instead, "Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Primer" is one of the books I still give to new cooks who want to learn basic techniques and become skillful and ease-filled home cooks.”
— Margaret L.
Comment

The book has its teaching moments—there’s a lovely spread on cheeses, for instance—that would’ve been essential in pre-internet days. While we can see why this book is a classic, it didn’t quite meet the mark as a basic book. The authors assume a good deal of cooking knowledge from their readers instead of teaching it along the way.

At times, the directions were a bit vague. The famous Lime Mousse instructs the reader to “Cook gently, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes a custard, about 8 minutes. Do not overcook or the eggs will scramble.” It would be nice to have more details about how to check the doneness of the custard, instead of a warning about what it looks like if it’s gone past its prime.

The Skewered Shrimp and Prosciutto has a confusing drawing of how to arrange the layers of shrimp, lemon, and prosciutto with little help in the directions.

Skewered Shrimp and Prosciutto (left) and Orange Mashed Potatoes (right).

We all agreed that, while the recipes were delicious, they could also trend toward the decadent. This would be a great book for a dinner party, but it was a bit more challenging to put together a quick weeknight dinner.

The recipes were also scaled toward parties and larger groups—one coffee cake recipe in the book makes three nine-by-13 pans of coffee cake without apology. The portion sizes for many of the recipes were also generous. I found myself quartering recipes to scale them down to serve two, even though the full-size recipe would serve a mere four to six. This made it more challenging to meet the needs of today.

There’s also less guidance for substitutions and creativity, especially for the foundation of the recipes. Dressings or vegetables can be swapped here and there, but there’s little other guidance for substitutions or variances. Some recipes seemed needlessly prescriptive. The Chicken Marbella called for four two-and-a-half pound chickens, which is a challenging size to find in the grocery store now.

This book was the most organizationally challenged. Recipes referenced in menu plans didn’t have page numbers attached, so we found ourselves constantly flipping back to the index to look up things. The Blackberry Mousse recipe showed up in the fruit section, even though there’s a separate mousse section. Certain vegetables got their own sections while others didn’t, and vinaigrette recipes were sprinkled across several chapters.

Because the flavors were big and bold, they created love or hate reactions at mealtimes. Out of the 17 unique recipes we cooked, 13 received excellent reviews. The Chicken Marbella was a classic, and the homemade stock took the Beef Stew With Cumin to a new level. The Salmon Mousse was polarizing in one reviewer’s household, and the Orange Mashed Potatoes, while flavorful, were jarring and unappealing. Melissa's husband commented that the only way they could be worse was if he’d tasted them after brushing his teeth. The fails were as spectacular as the wins. We found that the extra steps, like making your own beef stock or marinating things in the fridge overnight, as well as piquant additions like olives and strong vinegars, elevated everything from beef stew to simple green salads to new levels.


2. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, 20th Anniversary edition

Photo by Amazon

How to Cook Everything had the most mixed reviews from our recipe testing. We had big wins or strange fails, and several dishes landed in the mediocre middle.

As for basic cooking tips, How To Cook Everything did a decent job of explaining concepts, foods, and recipes while encouraging experimentation and creativity. We did struggle with vague directions and the lack of weight measurements in the recipes. It’s messy to measure out cabbage and leeks in cups, and baking without weight measurements can lead to less predictable results, which we experienced.

While we enjoyed more unique recipes like white beans with cabbage, pasta, and prosciutto, old standards like spaghetti with meat sauce came up lacking. This could be better, I’ve made this better, was a common refrain.

Grilled Beef Kebabs (left) and Cream Cheese Brownies (right).

It seemed that the simpler recipes that were more unique to this book had the best results, like Shortcut Kimchi and Grilled Beef Kebabs with lots of vegetables. Simple techniques like slow-roasting spareribs yielded flavorful, tender ribs, and chicken wings crisped to perfection in the oven, but we didn’t always like the flavors (“too ketchup-y!” wrote one reviewer about the barbecue sauce accompanying the ribs) that accompanied them.

Because this book is so big, it would be relatively easy to find recipes that support a variety of dietary needs and preferences. Substitutions abounded, and large charts encouraged pulling multiple recipes across the book to assemble stir-fries or soups. Creativity was encouraged with recipe titles like “Steak, many ways” that empowers the reader to cook how they can with what they have.

Overall, the book was well-organized. The index was very thorough, and there were bonus guides in the back recommending essential recipes, one-pot meals, and hidden gems. These helped to guide the reader, but let’s be honest—it’s a big book. That alone can be daunting to browse. Any cookbook this large could do with several layers of guidance for the reader.

Overall, taste reviews were mixed. We cooked 21 unique recipes out of the book, and seven received glowing reviews. This book seems like a great guide, especially for beginners, but if you’re looking for truly outstanding taste, a more specialized book is a better place to look.


3. Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

Photo by Amazon

Because we were familiar with the author from her Netflix series, we were excited to try Nosrat’s recipes. We found the book to be more of a guide to cooking than a traditional “cookbook"—less a compilation of recipes and more a discussion of the fundamentals of what makes food tasty.

The graphics would be very helpful to a beginner cook. Illustrations include what to look for when you poach, simmer, or boil, and what dried beans look like at various stages of soaking. For those of you who were wondering what to pair with an avocado, the author provides an entire Avocado Matrix.

The book is relative to the needs of today’s cooks. Nosrat offers substitutions and variations for most recipes. This is precisely the point of the book. If you keep in mind the four elements that make food taste good, you can learn to substitute ingredients and come up with variations on your own.

The book is well-organized. Part one is a lengthy discussion on the four elements of good cooking with a chapter devoted to each: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Part two is recipes and recommendations. The reviewers found the first part to be a bit scientific and maybe even tedious. When it came down to the recipes, we were a bit disappointed in the limited offerings.

Braised Pork with Chiles (left) and Winter Panzanella (right).

For the most part, the food we cooked was tasty. One reviewer found the Winter Panzanella a big hit, even in springtime! “The combination of the radicchio, blue cheese, and brown butter, with significant acidity from the vinegars = perfection.” The Pork Braised with Chiles was a big hit with one reviewer’s family. She found it to be: “easy to prepare and very flavorful, great for tacos.” Persian-ish Rice was “fun and yummy.” The Persian Roast Chicken, while a bit underwhelming in flavor, was quite juice and easy to prepare.

Although we really wanted to love this book, we found that not all recipes were hits. Lori’s Chocolate Midnight Cake had less flavor, was less sweet, and was a touch dry. Some of the recipes were found to be just okay, “nothing special” as was the case with the Shaved Fennel With Radishes and Pasta alla Pomarola. If you are interested in understanding the science of good cooking and how basic elements interact and contribute to flavorful food, this is the book for you. If you like to improvise and cook with what’s at hand, then you would find this book helpful.


4. Irma Rombaeur's Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary edition

Photo by Amazon

The Joy of Cooking's 2019 edition surprised us with its breadth, depth, and updates. We cooked 21 recipes out of this book, from Kimchi to Shrimp Scampi to Cherries Jubilee. Many of the recipes were appealing for a modern palate and accessible to the modern cook, yet the strong history of the book remains preserved in its many classic recipes.

The cookbook teaches methods well and spends ample time explaining ingredients and techniques. The “Know Your Ingredients” chapter at the end is a wealth of information. The book would be a great resource for a beginner cook who needs detailed instructions on whipping egg whites or how to sprout seeds. It was also the only book to have a dedicated section on food safety and nutrition guidelines, including how to read nutrition labels. While the book contains many classic American dishes, there were many international dishes, too. A cook could select comfort food favorites or stretch her cooking skills and knowledge of ingredients.

This book fit all of our needs well and included sections that the other books left out. There were instructions for making kombucha, yogurt, and sourdough bread as well as fermenting, preserving, and canning various other foods. The section on wild game has been updated, including advice on substituting game meats in recipes and experimenting with flavor.

Cherries Jubilee (left) and Sour Cream Apple Cake (right).

Lots of the recipes fit modern diets or lifestyle needs—there was a section on gluten-free baking and ample vegetable-forward dishes. The cocktail recipe selection was wonderful, and many of the drinks were written as single-servings, yet easy to scale up for larger groups. Further, many of the baking recipes have been updated to include weights, and there’s a large table in the “Know Your Ingredients” chapter about the equivalent weights of other common ingredients.

Many of the recipes have lots of adaptations or alternate suggestions for serving. A Classic Cream Pie recipe includes five variations for vanilla, banana, coconut, butterscotch, and chocolate, as well as multiple crust and topping options. The book isn’t so flexible that all the recipes have substitutions, but there is enough information within, and encouragement to experiment, that a curious cook could create what she needed, especially during a pandemic.

The book was structured well. The index is very thorough, and the recipes that rely on information in other parts of the book always list page numbers.

We all found the “action method” recipe style difficult to follow. The ingredients are in bold and listed in order of use in the recipe, with the recipe directions interspersed. It works well for easy things, like assembling a simple sauce or a salad, but it’s easy to get lost in the sea of text on each page. Because so many of the recipes have adaptations or modifications, the cook is required to keep track of where she is in the version she’s preparing instead of each recipe being laid out individually. For more complex recipes or multiple variations, it led to lots of flipping around between pages while cooking. While this style allows the authors to add a lot more recipes to the book and keeps the order very clear within a recipe, it takes practice to follow.

As far as tastiness, this book had the most wins out of what we cooked. Many of the dishes we would make again as written or adapt slightly to better suit our personal cooking styles. One reviewer of Italian heritage even commented that the Sausage and Peppers recipe just like her mother used to make. Another reviewer flambéed her first Cherries Jubilee to rave results. The extra splash of kirschwasser after the flames died out really made the dish special.


5. Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 100th Anniversary edition

Photo by Amazon

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is an American classic with a long history in the American kitchen. Lots of the recipes are simple but delicious and use few ingredients. While the newest edition updates many of the recipes, the soul of original remains.

Classic recipes abound, like Roast Beef Hash, Braised Cabbage, and dessert soufflés. So do a surprising number of recipes involving gelatin in savory applications. None of us were bold enough to try an aspic, but if you've been looking for a guide, this is the book for you. The newer recipes, like Eggplant Parmigiana and Chewy Brown-Sugar Walnut Cupcakes, preserve the vintage flair this cookbook has.

Each chapter in the book begins with a short teaching introduction, but the recipes don’t do a lot of handholding. It’s the opposite of modern recipes with pages of instructions–the recipe directions are often clear, short sentences. There are simple guides and illustrations. It inspires a certain confidence that the recipes are possible, even challenges like puff pastry. However, if something goes wrong, there isn’t much help to salvage something or learn how to fix it.

Because so many of the recipes are simple (and there’s a new section on microwave cooking!), the book meets the basic needs of today. The outdoor cooking section with grill recipes is a lovely addition. However, the breadth of the recipes hasn’t quite kept up with how adventurous the modern palate has become. It sticks primarily to historically American cuisine. There are fabulous bean recipes, including classics like Boston Baked Beans and Refried Beans, but don’t expect something like tempeh to make an appearance. It also still contains recipes for things that are harder to find for the modern cook—ingredients like beef tongue for sandwiches, suet in steamed puddings, or a whole roast suckling pig remind the reader of a different era in American food culture.

The book was well-organized and straightforward. The new edition includes helpful notations for vegetarian dishes, distinction for the new recipes added, and notations for recipes that are favorites. All the recipes mentioned from other parts of the book include pages numbers, which is very helpful. The index included everything in the book and laid out well.

The food was tasty, albeit a bit simple. With fewer ingredients and simple preparations, we made several classic dishes without a lot of fuss or difficulty. The book delivered for weeknight dinners, like the Tuscan Bean and Tuna Salad, and vintage classics like Fluffy Egg Nests and Angel Food Cake. Some of the baked goods we tried received mixed reviews, due to just how simple they were. It is definitely a back-to-basics cookbook, but we found it on the plain side after the more flavorful dishes we cooked from The Silver Palate and Joy of Cooking.

Fluffy Egg Nests (left) and Tuscan Bean and Tuna Salad (right).

Substitutions are possible, but the recipes are often simple enough that there isn’t a need to substitute. Many of the basic roasted meats rely on little seasoning beyond salt and pepper and lemon juice. However, the more complex dishes often have suggestions for alternative sauces or seasonings, and lots of the vegetable dishes simply use loose measurements like “butter” or “season to taste.”

There are also lots of suggestions sprinkled throughout the book on how to use up leftovers, which is a helpful feature none of the other books include to the same level. The book also encourages combining recipes. For instance, the cake chapter has lots of fillings and frostings, and often a recipe encourages the reader to experiment with different fillings and frostings for a basic cake recipe.


The Winner: Joy of Cooking

One of the our biggest takeaways from the challenge was how different the books were. Fannie Farmer, How to Cook Everything, and Joy of Cooking are all comprehensive recipe books that also do various levels of teaching. Salt Fat Acid Heat is half textbook and half cookbook, so there were fewer recipes to choose from. The Silver Palate is full of lovely dishes, but they all follow the style of Luskin and Russo, and the breadth of recipes and teaching wasn’t as comprehensive as the other three books.

After five weeks of reading cookbooks, cooking, eating, and cooking some more, the winner was Joy of Cooking! We loved the depth and scope of the recipes and information. The food was consistently delicious, when we cooked it following the recipes exactly. It was a great reference book as well, and we all learned something from it. The book is exactly the kind you want in your home during a pandemic—you can find basic comforts like chocolate chip cookies and macaroni and cheese, or use to find a recipe for that new vegetable that showed up in your CSA box. You can even follow their guide for sourdough bread (and it was the only book out of the five that had a sourdough recipe).

Well done, John Becker and Megan Scott—you preserved the classic appeal of the Joy of Cooking while updating it for the modern audience.

What's your favorite Joy of Cooking Recipe? Tell us about it in the comments!

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23 Comments

Margaret L. July 19, 2020
I still turn to my "Joy of Cooking," purchased around 1974, when researching anything (where else would I find both how to cook wild boar and the best recipe for corn fritters?) and I consider the brownies Cockaigne recipe unsurpassed. But I'm surprised by your choice of "The Silver Palate Cookbook" as a contender. I've used and treasured it for decades but always thought of it as more of a book for entertaining, not daily dining -- hence the portions for 6 or 12, not 4, and the tendency toward splurge foods. Instead, "Craig Claiborne's Kitchen Primer" is one of the books I still give to new cooks who want to learn basic techniques and become skillful and ease-filled home cooks.
 
Elizabeth E. July 15, 2020
I agree with "Joy" as the winner; I have cooked from various editions all my adult life. But I want to put in a word for the How To Cook Everything app, which I have installed on my tablet. The search function, ability to add my own notes, bookmarks, metric conversions, and embedded links to variations and related content make the app a great deal better than the book.
 
Cynthia July 11, 2020
I'm not surprised that the Joy of Cooking is the winner. I use it constantly as the ultimate reference if I have a culinary question. For example, after visiting Budapest, I was looking for a great Chicken Paprikash recipe and finally discovered that the J.O.C. had the best recipe. Also, during this pandemic, their recipe for Chicken Marengo and the short history about it helped me to create one of several history/cooking lessons I created for my grandchildren to help continue their learning during lockdown.
 
Emilie R. July 10, 2020
Not surprising that Joy of Cooking won - it's the best cookbook. I still go to my grandmother's 1940s edition. It's fascinating to see how differently we eat now compared to then. Your review has made me want to get the latest edition. Thanks.
 
Lisa July 10, 2020
This might be surprising but as an avid home cook and cooking instructor I have never owned Joy of Cooking, The Sliver Palate or the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I guess I have always leaned towards speciality cookbooks mostly. I might have to check those out..☺️
 
dnkil July 10, 2020
Some of the recipes in Silver Palate may be decadent but the Garden Vegetable Lasagna is still some of the best lasagna I've ever eaten. This book is still my go-to gift as a wedding present.
 
John_Becker July 9, 2020
Small correction: the 2019 edition is not the same as the 75th anniversary edition, which was published in 2006. I guess that makes this our 88th anniversary edition, but who's counting :-)
 
John_Becker July 9, 2020
On behalf of myself, my wife Megan (and the whole fam), I would like to thank everyone who nominated Joy for this contest--and especially Theresa, Allison, and Melissa for finding so many of our new recipes, improvements, and countless tweaks. I cannot tell you how much this means to us. Having nine years of work acknowledged--to be seen for our contributions to a multi-generational cookbook--fills us with joy.
 
franchesca B. July 7, 2020
My first and favorite go to cookbook and I have fifty! Chicken Marbella is a favorite recipe....
 
amylou61 July 7, 2020
I'm not surprised. The Joy of Cooking has been my go-to cookbook for over 40 years. Their recipe for Quick Banana Bread is a favorite, and I love the addition of dried apricots.
 
dinaofdoom July 6, 2020
Threw out all my Bittman books and erased all the bookmarks after the Salty debacle. I'm not spending my hard earned money on white male cis racist apologist bs. I'm disappointed this site would continue to promote him.
 
Jeff A. July 11, 2020
Are you as stupid as you sound?
 
529hh July 14, 2020
I’ve tried several of Bittman’s recipes and they’re absolute failures. While I don’t disagree that you should dump his cookbooks, how can you sit there and fling mud at someone who purportedly “accidentally” took the name and who, furthermore, rapidly apologized and changed the name? Do you have some mysterious, evidence to the contrary?, is it so much of a stretch to think that multiple people could find “Salty” an appropriate name for a food publication?

Grow up. Everyone is looking to have their feelings hurt in this day and age. Next time structure a well thought out response for why readers should avoid Bittman’s recipes. Doing so is a far more effective use of your time.

 
Jeff A. July 15, 2020
Still sound stupid and vindictive.
 
529hh July 15, 2020
My comment wasn’t discounting yours. I was agreeing with you and disagreeing with the original poster.
 
NE1410S July 5, 2020
Couldn't agree more with the winner! JOC was my first cookbook coming out of undergrad 30+ years ago and I STILL use it. It's a great reference tool and my "go-to" in a pinch. I love to cook and probably have over 60 cookbooks, however JOC is reliable as sunrise. Anyone that cooks needs this one in their kitchen; it's a worthy investment.
 
Liz D. July 5, 2020
I basically learned to cook by reading "Joy of Cooking." My mom gave me a copy when I moved out of the house at 18, and I used to sit on the couch at night and just read it. I have my Mom's old one from the 60s, the one I got when I moved out, and a copy of the 75th Anniversary edition. I use it all the time as a reference for basics, the substitution tables are helpful, and it's a good place to start for a technique when I'm trying to create something myself. I was glad to see that others found it as useful.
 
katallred July 5, 2020
I’m not surprised that Joy of Cooking won. It’s been my secret weapon for all things cooking since I was given a copy as a wedding gift in 1999. My old copy is now tattered and stained and has a broken spine so I bought a new one last Christmas. I couldn’t bear to part with the original so now I have two!
 
bjb0777 July 5, 2020
Tomato aspic!! I make it once or twice a summer and at Christmas!!My husband bought me the new edition of Joy for Christmas to replace my old tattered one...and the first thing I look for was to see if the aspic was there!! Luckily it was. Use the book for many things..cooking times ,etc as well as many basic recipes!
 
Kim July 5, 2020
I received a copy of Joy when I got married in 1997 with a personal note in it about how the giver had been gifted this book and it was her most used cookbook. My favorite recipe that I make most often is the Banana bread; I get requests for it. I believe it’s the order of mixing of ingredients and that you should have them at room temperature that make a difference. Plus, butter :) I also make the pie crust and it turns out perfectly every time.
 
Suzanne B. July 5, 2020
I am 74 years old and taught myself to cook with Fannie Farmer and the Joy of Cooking. I still consult my venerable copies of 50 year old editions, and I always write out my adapted recipes in the "Fannie Farmer" style, because it makes more sense than separate ingredients and directions sections. I was surprised that the Cooks Illustrated Cookbooks were not included, because they are all amazingly helpful if you are cooking something new. For a Texas girl, the Helen Corbitt cookbook was also seminal. I still bake her cornbread. And of course, the various southern "Junior League" cookbooks like The River Road Cookbook, although I never even knew anyone in a Junior League. Great article!
 
M July 6, 2020
I recently made a recipe dating back to the early 1900s, and absolutely loved that ingredients and steps were intermingled. It would become unwieldy for mise-en-place-ing complicated recipes, but it makes many recipes a much easier experience.
 
Emilie R. July 10, 2020
I learned how to make candy from my grandmother's JoC. I hope they still include the excellent "ball" instructions for judging candy syrup doneness.