Your 10 Essential Cookbooks, and Why They Still Matter

June 25, 2012

Food52's Editorial Assistant (and college student) Brette Warshaw is curating her very own first kitchen -- and she needs your help. Last time, you helped her start a knife collection. Today: The cookbooks every First Kitchen needs, and why.

Ideal Bookshelf

I’m the first of that generation: the generation that grew up with computer class in grade school, that got cell phones for their thirteenth birthdays, that played video games after school and ate Cookie Crisp for breakfast. You thought we were spoiled, ruined -- that our brains would turn to mush. You were worried we’d lost all values, that we were glued to our laptops, that things like pens and paper and books were irrelevant, useless, and tired.

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So why, after asking you about cast iron pans and knives, did I ask you for your 10 essential cookbooks?

I asked you because to me and my generation -- the Twittering, Facebooking, Youtubing, Pinteresting, brain-turned-to-mush generation -- cookbooks still matter.

They, like a seasoned cast iron skillet or the sharpest Santoku, are things I will covet even past the days of my Second or Third or Fourth Kitchen, when my shelves are lined with egg cups and porridge bowls and vintage salt shakers. I will continue to page through them and to grin, to stare at them in the aisles of bookstores, to run my hands along their covers and feel their weight in my hands.

The question is: why? Why, when there are dozens of gorgeous cooking ebooks and apps, countless blogs, and when a website like FOOD52 exists, are cookbooks still essential?

Written-in cookbook

They, of course, are reminders of the past; they capture what one person, or group of people, was cooking in a certain place and time. Yeah, that’s cool. But as much as they’re about what they did -- those accomplished chefs, bakers, and home cooks -- they’re tanglble proof of what I can do.

I can. I can. In a world where the future is uncertain, where definitions are changing and lines are blurring, where the forks and spoons and knives of life are present and unavoidable, the words “I can” are powerful. If I follow these steps, I can make Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon. I can make Dorie Greenspan’s chocolate éclairs. I can make Yotam Ottolenghi’s tempura. With some kitchen twine and courage, I can even make The New York Times' turducken. 

And now, thanks to you, I know which cookbooks will line my First Kitchen -- at first, maybe only on this printing, but soon, for real. Some are classic, some are new, but all are about the future: you’ve shown me what I can do, and now, when I get the right tools for my First Kitchen, what I will do.

So, below, I present to you the final list of The FOOD52 10 Essential Cookbooks – and the opportunity to get a printing of all of them from Ideal Bookshelf. If you do own any of these, spend some time today paging through them, bookmarking them, even writing in them. They’re proof of what you’ve done -- and what you can do, and will do. 

Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer 
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
The Silver Palate by Sheila Lukins and Julee Russo
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser
Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London's Ottolenghi by Yotam Ottolenghi
Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Why do cookbooks still matter to you?

As usual, I'll be pinning everything I'm coveting to my First Kitchen Pinterest board, so check it out!

Next time, I'll be covering cutting boards, and I could use your help! Email me at [email protected] with your First Kitchen recommendations -- your favorite tools, your favorite cookware. All wisdom is appreciated.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Maria Bakris
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Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


Maria B. January 11, 2022
I have one, It may be too old for you youngster's, This Cookbook, was from my Mother.
When I am looking for anything ,I will find the answer in the , Culinary Arts Institute, Encyclopedic Cookbook, Copyright 1948. I am 77 years young, and still like to cook and bake.
Mickey November 14, 2014
I would add The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen to this list. The original, not the low-fat version.
Ena M. June 2, 2014
You need "The Vegetarian Epicure" by Anna Thomas. No kitchen should be without it, carnivore or anything in between! Try to find a first edition from 1972, although she updated and added to it, the first edition is a standard.
andrea G. February 16, 2014
I love the list but agree that Fannie Farmer should be in there.
ChefJune February 10, 2014
As handy as it is to google a recipe, for those of us who are readers, I suspect we will ALMOST always prefer to hold a book in our hands. Not to mention the "authorities" whose recipes and advice we trust. The "Essential" list may be different for each of us, but that's the beauty of choice. I have and have cooked through both volumes of "Mastering," but for me, the Julia book I still consult most is "From Julia Child's Kitchen."
Ana L. February 4, 2014
Love it. Pass the book. Have you looked at The Everlasting Meal? I'm getting that next time I'm in the U.S. as my belated birthday gift...
Claudia January 30, 2014
The Best Recipe - they do what most of us have no patience for....lots and lots of trial and error. They taught me to pan fry a perfect small feat.
jamcook January 22, 2014
Oh..and if you are now going to try the recipe ...for the crisp I use a cup of flour and 3/4 cup of sugar , and add more cinnamon. Even the classics get tweaked!
jamcook January 22, 2014
Ummm..The book you show open with the apple crisp recipe checked is the Eleventh addition of Fanny Farmer...and I just made that apple crisp yesterday! It is the old standby , by which I judge all apple desserts. But Fanny Farmer is not on your list! This is a now out of print edition , before the Marion Cunningham revisions. You can probably still find it in your mother's or Grandmother's kitchen. It is certainly on my list of 10, but I think people are either Joy of cooking folk or Fanny Farmer folk. Fanny always wins with me. Try the Denver Chocolate pudding!
jonathansabaker January 15, 2014
Nigella Lawson's How to Eat is hand's down my number one cookbook, and thats out of about 200 I have lying around! Simple, good, stress free food minus all the overly styled and photo-shopped photos that seem to litter every other cookbook
Cataluna6 January 21, 2014
I agree, I really enjoy Nigella's approach to cooking and has often led to me making my own tasty discoveries when I've played with a recipe.
Kitchen G. January 12, 2014
If I had to get the list down to just one, it would be The Joy of Cooking. It's like having a dictionary. Ah, but how I adore Julia Child! No collection could ever be complete without her.
KellyinToronto November 24, 2013
I learned how to cook all over again with Nigella Lawson's "How to Eat".
Tucker &. September 29, 2013
Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin - probably out of print, but if you can find it used....grab it!
soojasaurus September 17, 2013
I'm actually obsessed with Baking with Dorie Greenspan, its just so much better than googling a random cupcake recipe. There's a story, there's the feeling that there is some one teaching you how to bake. Plus it feels more authentic when you crack the spine of that new book, or it automatically opens to an old standby.
Meade F. September 3, 2013
I love the Canal House Cookbooks!
SBMCW November 30, 2012
I lean towards cookbooks that inform on many levels. I find James Peterson's books meet that criteria. Hazan and Hesser meet the criteria. Patricia Wells' books are very good. Jamie Oliver - when a English bloke had the #1 selling Italian cookbook in Italy that says something. Judy Rodger's Zuni Cafe is another cookbook that teaches in a very pleasant manner. Bittman’s books are like having an old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica around – great and succinct resource. I bought the Balthazar cookbook first and foremost because of the way it felt in my hands and then discovered the book was very informative. However, one good cookbook doesn’t mean they will all be good. Alice Waters’ “Green Kitchen” was as disappointing as the earlier books were great – think she phoned that one in or at the very least it was a conference call.

Interestingly, The Silver Palate showed a much different and fun path then Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the Joy of Cooking books. I think that book was a major paradigm shift in the way people thought about cooking – no right way – no wrong way but your way with some guidance. Having said all that – a cookbook, glass of wine, a rainy sleeting day, nonchalant fire in the fireplace and a list of things to do completed – priceless.
Tucker &. September 29, 2013
The Silver Palate is amazing, especially the baking end of it. But, still, my greatest influence has been Jacques Pepin and Beard on Bread. Both give you the concept, the instruction, and the ability to improvise.
Larry B. August 15, 2012
I have nine of these cookbooks, the only exception being "Plenty." The list is fairly strong, but "Plenty" is a stretch, too new and too untested. And the inclusion of "Around my French Table," as excellent as the book is, might be a reflection of including something that is recently published. Additionally, the "Silver Palate," as fun as it was when published, is a quixotic choice; are we still cooking Chicken Marbella?
Sara S. September 29, 2013
I agree, all the way!
around T. July 12, 2012
Ginette Mathiot's "I Know How to Cook" is one of my favorites, my sister gave me a copy after high school graduation and it made me feel like such a grown-up cook! Also, Robuchon, and anything by Sanjeev Kapoor for Indian cuisine.
fiveandspice June 26, 2012
I just couldn't agree more with every word of this! Another great piece, Brette. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Love the final list too!
Brette W. June 27, 2012
Thanks so much, fiveandspice!
hbomb June 25, 2012
This might be going to far as this pick is most useful if you are interested in canning, but I absolutely love Eugenia Bone´s Well Preserved. The actual recipes are creative, sophisticated, very easy to prepare and probably easy to find subsitutes for the home canned ingredients. No book has taught me more about cooking or has improved my cooking so dramatically. Not all the recipes for putting up food involve hot water bath or pressure canning.

Re: Plenty, I waited so long to get the book and when I finally did I was so entranced by it, but I am now having a hard time getting into it.
Brette W. July 2, 2012
I love that cookbook! Thanks hbomb!