Starting my own cookbook library, where to start?

This is a spin off of the how many cookbooks do you have thread. I really only own 1 cookbook and it was a gift. I don't find it very useful for what I need. I think I would call myself an intermediate cook. Certainly not a beginner but there are some skills I am working on that I think will make me more of an advanced cook. Namely timing and mastering some basic techniques that I think will come with repetition.

What I am looking for to start my collections are some good all around cookbooks. What is something that you use the most when you want to look up a technique or a basic recipe, like how do I poach fish? How to caramelize onions? I like having these things because even though I don't have to read through the instructions every time, just opening to that page is enough to jog my memory.
And I am also open to some cuisine or subject specific cookbooks.



lifeandlarder February 5, 2014
You only need one or two 'basic' books. As an avid reader and collector (and hopefully one day - writer) of cook and food books, they are the ones I regret most buying. I started young - about 15 or so - buying food magazines and books. An encylopedic book is great to learn about tools, ingredients and cuisines, but the internet (and Food52) have really replaced those type of books today. All the same, its nice to own at least one. After that, perhaps buy your favourite chefs' book. Like millions of other, I love books like Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Zuni Kitchen, Ottolenghi, and Stephanie Alexanders' The Cook’s Companion. These are all classics but as relevant today as they were when published. I find the best books are not just a collection of recipes, but include stories and tips, and are actually a good 'read'.
And by not only buying books published in my own country (Australia), I learn different techniques, discover new ingredients and dishes and expand my generally expand my cooking repertoire. I just need some more shelves in my kitchen!
Author Comment
My suggestions are anything from America's Test Kitchen, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and either CookWise or BakeWise by Shirley Corriher. I own the complete America's Test Kitchen book which includes all recipes from their shows up to 2012. Personally, I found the volume that went up to 2010 a little more in-depth, but the newer version is still something I reach for time and time again. Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher (like America's Test Kitchen) will explain in scientific and layman's terms WHY recipes work - and why they might not. Knowing how ingredients work alone and in combinations helps you make successful alterations to a recipe or keep you from straying whenever appropriate. My food has been substantially better for a lot of the techniques I learned. I usually shy away from any books from modern television personalities as I have found the contents to be a lot of fluff and little content. Those recipes are always available online and I will save my precious shelf space for books with a lot of reference value.
Kim G. January 29, 2014
My favorite cookbook is the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. It is full of gorgeous pictures of food and every recipe makes my mouth water. If you are looking to learn more about the basics of cooking and the science behind how cooking works, the Science of Good Cooking by Cook's Illustrated is great.
rldougherty January 29, 2014
I have a lot of the basics (Bittman, Waters, The New Basics, Julia Child)--however, I don't always find myself turning to them when I am planning meals for the week. I recently purchased cookbooks for my boyfriend's sisters, who are both beginning cooks. I considered a comprehensive cookbook, but I thought about what makes me want to eat and cook and ended up catering my choices to the way they eat and the food they like. One of them got Nom Nom Paleo and the other got Around My French Table. After presents they were excitedly paging through the cookbooks and not sure they would have been too interested in a more comprehensive book. While the basics have a place on my shelf, I think it is important to pick out out something that will get you cooking and gets you really excited to dive into the kitchen. Perhaps it is a specific chef or a type of cuisine--for me I'm really into Thai right now and am loving Katie Chin's "Everyday Thai." I also love looking to Ina Garten and Giada DeLaurentis cookbooks for weeknight meal inspiration.
savorthis January 29, 2014
I would say that in addition to any cookbooks you might get a subscription to Cooks Illustrated. Their articles help you understand the science behind cooking without being too sciency and they have a real consumer focus- so they rarely have ingredients that would be out of budget, ability or accessibility.
M.McAwesome January 28, 2014
So many great responses! Thank you. I have lots of used bookstores near me so I will be on an adventure to find some of these great titles.
pierino January 28, 2014
The cool thing about shopping in used bookstores is that you probably won't find what you are looking for BUT you will stumble on something unexpected and great.
sexyLAMBCHOPx January 27, 2014
I relied on Cooks Illustrated when I started to cook, because I needed visuals and background (and practice) to achieved desired results.
ChefJune January 27, 2014
The two Food52 cookbooks are wonderful resources and full of prize-winning recipes that work. :)
Sewassbe January 27, 2014
Joy of Cooking is my go-to reference book, but I also love vintage cookbooks.

If you're looking for unconventionally delicious flavors and lots of vegetables, I've found myself turning to Deborah Madison's "The Savory Way" quite a lot recently. The recipes are mostly not too hard and are pretty delicious.
luvcookbooks January 25, 2014
I want to chime in with another vote for "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. It is my go to cookbook and the one I would save from the fire first. I also use Marion Cunningham's "Fannie Farmer" and "The Joy of Cooking". I have several editions of the Joy of Cooking which are really fun to compare. I also have the 1950 Betty Crocker, which has been re issued in a facsimile. I also have Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs' "Essential NYT" but it is fancy to me. Nigella Lawson is a good starter author, she makes everything seem manageable and is un snobbish. There are so many good cookbooks!!!! I like The Poor Poet's Cookbook, that's another nice starter. Look on alibris, they carry cookbooks for very little that are gently used. Have fun and let us know what you find!!
dymnyno January 25, 2014
I would find one great general cook book, like The NYTimes, etc. Take the time to peruse it in the store before investing to determine if you like the format the the language it uses. I buy cookbooks one at a time and I never consider a book that does not have at least one recipe that really speaks to me and makes me want to delve into the rest of the book. I have been doing this for over 35 years and have gone through cycles of French, Italian, Mexican, Indian plus many more cuisines and techniques to amass my collection.
pierino January 25, 2014
A good place to start is in a used bookstore. Good stores buy collections and estate sales. Powells in Portland is a great example. You can shop on-line at
A terrific book if you can find a copy is Jacques Pepin's NEW COMPLETE TECHNIQUES. This was originally published in two volumes, LA TECHNIQUE and LA METHODE, now combined in a single updated volume. This isn't a book of recipes rather it shows you how to accomplish essential kitchen jobs.
I had the originals which eventully fell apart. Recently I found the newer book at Powells for about half price.
If you do want recipes ZUNI CAFE is a fine place to begin. Judy Rodgers was a much better cook than Alice Waters could ever dream of being.
Based on its current fadishness as an ingredient (check out the latest contest)someone is certain to come up with something like "1,500 Ways to Cook Kale."
dymnyno January 25, 2014
I could spend days in Powells in Portland!!!
petitbleu January 25, 2014
I would definitely start with the Joy of Cooking and How To Cook Everything. I also advise you not to get an older edition of the Joy--the older ones are wonderful, but they're not up to date. The most recent edition, published in 2006, is based on the 1975 edition (a classic) but contains updated information on ingredients, cooking techniques (which is especially important when it comes to things like canning and preserving), and recipes that weren't hip back in the 70s (Saag paneer, asopao de pollo, and Spanish garlic soup, for instance).
But really, it all depends on what you're into. In addition to basics, you'll want to explore areas that are of interest to you, otherwise those cookbooks will just sit on the shelf. Is there a particular field of cooking you're wanting to explore?
Pegeen January 25, 2014
Brette's list is great - for starting out, Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" and Amanda Hesser's "The New York Times Cookbook." If you want to learn more about particular cuisines - Italian, Mediterranean, etc., I would just post another thread asking about cookbooks for verticals.
aobenour January 25, 2014
There was a wonderful book published last year called "101 Classic Cookbooks" - or something like that. It contains a list of classic books, information about their publication and influence, and recipes. I've had it out from the library for months and use it as a guide for finding new (old) books
Sam1148 January 24, 2014
The Way to Cook by Julia Child.

The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcel Hazen

Actually, visit some thrift stores and look at what they have. You can normally get Joy of Cooking and Way to Cook for a couple of bucks or less. The better homes and garden books are also in the thrift stores; and are suprisingly well done. Another classic for California or SW cooking is "Sunset Magazine" cookbooks. I still use their books for tex-mex recipes and sauces.
sfmiller January 24, 2014
I recommend "The Way to Cook," too.

It's not a compendium like "The Joy of Cooking" or "How To Cook Everything" (both excellent books). But I like the logical, systematic way in which it breaks down particular cooking methods, applies them to a selection of recipes, and then shows how you can do variations on those recipes.

In that sense, it seems to be the sort of book the original poster was looking for.
Susan January 24, 2014
Go to the library! You can check out cookbooks to read and try at home without buying them until you know you're happy with the results.
TobiT January 24, 2014
Joy of Cooking. Not the most interesting or innovative, but extremely informative when you want background on a basic technique. I have lots of cookbooks, but whenever Ian trying a new recipe (from a cookbook or from some other source) I always take a look at a parallel or similar recipe from Joy as well to better understand the technique I'll be using and to confirm that the recipe I musing is not way off base.
Also, I enjoy Larousse Gastronomique just for fun. I learn a lot about some classic French dishes, although I have to confess I've never actually made anything from it!
Finally, Barbara Kafka's Roasting is a great way to learn about ... you guessed it... Roasting meats and veggies.
JaneEYB January 24, 2014
The New York Times Essential Cookbook by Amanda is a really good all-round cookbook. There are quite a few beginners/cooking school books by people like Martha Stewart, Barefoot Contessa, James Peterson, etc which will explain the basic techniques.

For everyday, easy but delicious recipes Melissa Clark's One Good Dish and With a Good Appetite are wonderful. And Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, Notes from the Larder and Tender/Ripe books are classics - a great read as well as fab recipes.

If you want to branch out with some ethnic recipes, I can highly recommend all 3 Ottolenghi cookbooks.
EmFraiche January 24, 2014
I really like Alice Waters "The Art of Simple Food" for a good go-to reference cookbook. I used it all the time in grad school when I would bring home new or unusual vegetables from the farmers market and need some idea of what to do with it. Her recipes are simple, but she gives good advice on classic techniques and recipes.
cookinginvictoria January 24, 2014
Brette's list is wonderful. As an addendum to that, if you are interested, here is the link containing the posts (over 300 of them!) about how the community chimed in, ranking their favorite cookbooks: There are some real gems listed here.

My favorite all-purpose cookbooks that have taught me about various technique include How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers, and The New York Times Essential Cookbook by Amanda. These are books that I return to again and again. I also highly recommend books by Marcella Hazan, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.
sexyLAMBCHOPx January 24, 2014
Not a book suggestion, but Food52 has a regular column, Beyond Basics, sometimes with videos:
Author Comment
Joy of Cooking is my absolute favorite! I would also suggest a textbook for culinary students. The text that I used was "Professional Cooking" by Wayne Gisslen. I found it very easy to follow, and gives step by step instructions on every technique. Plus, it answers the whys of cooking techniques, which will make anyone a better cook, professional or not!
M.McAwesome January 24, 2014
I think maybe when you get down to it, the question is: What book do you go back to over and over again for the basics? What one do you use as your trusted source? Most of my info I get off the internet but that takes quite a bit of verifying and cross referencing to make sure I have quality advice and instructions. I am a researcher by nature so I get sucked into that process but I need something quicker when I am trying to get food on the table on a weeknight.
Pegeen January 24, 2014
Marie, always a good question. So many readers here will be able to help you. Because of a home natural disaster, I have decided not to buy any more books. Anything I need to know, I'm sure I can do on Kindle or via the library.
Brette W. January 24, 2014
Here's a great place to start -- it's the Food52 community's list of top 10 cookbooks!
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