I don’t much trust people who have highly evolved philosophies about trivial things — but cookbooks are not trivial things, so I have a highly evolved philosophy.
Here it is: Life is short, and so is shelf space in my small kitchen. Therefore, every cookbook has to do double duty. It must provide broad instruction about technique, life, and culture so that even a novice can start cooking intelligently; and it must be interesting over several decades, so that as I myself grow and mature, I find new heights in the book to rise to.
Is this too much to ask of a cookbook? Of course! But still, I can think of 10 solid cookbooks that accomplish this impossible task. Here they are, my absolute favorites for an ambitious kitchen that runs on a philosophy of learning, growing, and preparing tasty meals for a lifetime.
The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne
Is there an American cuisine? That’s a question food writers have debated for generations, agreeing only that American cuisine tastes very different in New Orleans than Seattle.
That said, for basic all-American dishes like popovers, pot roast with wine, chestnut stuffing, and fried green tomatoes, I love, best of all, Craig Claiborne’s no-nonsense compendium of nearly 1,500 recipes, first published in 1961 and subsequently ever-updated.
I like it even better than Joy of Cooking or the big three-ring-binder books, because the recipes are sophisticated and don’t try to baby you, and at the same time, they’re pared to the absolute minimum of necessary instruction.
For instance, the home-cured corned-beef recipe takes a mere three-quarters of a page but contains a lifetime of useful instruction.
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
As much as there is classic American cooking — oysters Rockefeller! — there is new American cooking, which is all about guacamole, lamb shanks with tomatoes and olives, salmon tandoori, and other clean, international flavors. For absolutely modern cooking, I love this streamlined and updated book, which presents the fastest, smartest ways to get your home cooking up to the minute.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Americans love Italian food — pizza, osso buco, shrimp scampi, ravioli, gnocchi. Yum. And the clearest and most comprehensive of all Italian cookbooks is this classic, which covers simple dishes such as Roman spaghetti with oil and garlic, and complex recipes such as whole squid filled with porcini stuffing.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
This book can be aggravating: The instructions go on forever and the techniques are painstakingly detailed. That said, it’s also a game changer. Just reading the recipes can expand your understanding of food; cooking them can lead to culinary epiphanies.
1080 Recipes by Simone Ortega and Inés Ortega
I’m on a traditional Spanish food kick lately: It’s an underappreciated cuisine, easy to pull off, and fun to eat. If you want to add some flair to your kitchen, this is the book to get — it features Spanish home cooking, and the food is sensible and good.
The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
This is a classic essential — one of my top cookbooks for any home collection. Why? Because it teaches you the basics you need to eat vegetables: stir-fries, soups, gratins, vinaigrettes, dressings, and mayonnaises. Plus, it’s also an encyclopedia of almost every vegetable — artichoke to zucchini — presenting both basic and advanced recipes, as well as thousands of good food ideas.
660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer
I’m an Indian food snob and an inexpert Indian cook, and for a while those two facts combined to make my life unpleasant. Then I got this book. It’s written by an Indian cooking teacher who understands just how Americans go wrong — and can go right — when making curries.
The book is chock-full of many good, basic ideas, like popping mustard seeds in a hot pan to cook with leafy greens. And it includes so many more-complicated options, too. There are a lot of meat recipes, a lot of veggie recipes, a lot of all sorts of recipes, making it a constant resource for getting a good dinner on the table.
Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison
This book changed my life. It’s sort of a botany geek’s way of looking at vegetables, grouping them by what’s related to what. But by grouping them together, in, say, the carrot family (carrots, fennel, celery, parsnip, cilantro), you learn in enlightening detail what goes well with what.
You also learn about obscure vegetables, because they tend to be cousins to popular ones.
This is one of those “teach a person to fish” books: Read it, and you will know what to do with vegetables known and unknown forever more.
The Great Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells
Are you a backyard-grill fanatic? A braising or roasting zealot? Then this encyclopedia of meat is for you. At 640 pages, it’s a doorstop full of good recipes for making the most of the meat in your life. Steve Raichlen’s The Barbecue! Bible is another essential if you’re an American barbecue lover.
Cooking Freshwater Fish by Lucia Watson
Saltwater fish are fairly well represented in the above books (although if you want a dedicated volume, James Peterson’s Fish and Shellfish is the one to get). American freshwater fish, however, are rarely given the attention they deserve, so here’s one for the anglers in the crowd: What to do with all the crappies, sunnies, bass, and walleye you haul into the boat? This is my favorite guide — and it also provides solid instruction on how to clean and prep freshwater fish.
Was it hard picking my top-10 cookbooks? Yes and no. I’m incredibly tough on cookbooks. They come free to me to review over the transom, day and night. The lazy and useless ones fill me with scorn. But the best, the ones here, the ones that give you more than you ever had any right to expect, the ones that enlarge your understanding of the world, those stand out like beacons on the shelf, always easy to see and remember.