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:
- The Silver Palate Cookbook
- How to Cook Everything, 20th Anniversary edition
- Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking
- Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary edition
- 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.
1. Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins' The Silver Palate Cookbook
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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