Many home chefs are familiar with the feeling of looking at a row of cookbooks collecting dust, the recipes within untested and uneaten. It can be hard to find a trustworthy home reference, as the art of cooking is usually passed on from person to person. For the uninitiated, cookbooks are at best an imperfect substitute for a kitchen mentor and teacher. However, excellent cookbooks do exist, and by keeping in mind your own cooking needs and preferences, you can easily build a home library of recipes you’ll turn to again and again.
First, consider what you really want from a cookbook. While many people end up collecting cookbooks with the aim of expanding their repertoire or exploring a new type of cuisine, many people don’t really want a challenge in the kitchen, but the ability to prepare food easily and quickly. Those who enjoy exploring new ingredients and new techniques will want to collect a variety of cookbooks, but the rest of us should concentrate on finding a good reference work. When looking at a new cookbook, try to ignore the pretty pictures and focus on the recipes. Are they easy to read? Do the ingredients seem familiar and affordable? Are the recipes balanced with good advice on technique and inspiration for further experimentation? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” you may have a keeper. It also helps if you find the book’s prose engaging; a cookbook you enjoy reading will be a cookbook you enjoy using.
Of course, it also pays to consider the opinion of experts. Classics such as Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything or Julia Child’s The Way to Cook have many proponents; these tomes pair recipes with guides to kitchen equipment, various cooking techniques, and ingredients. For many home cooks, the gold standard remains The Joy of Cooking, which has been a mainstay on kitchen shelves since the 1930s. Now in its eighth edition, it has won numerous polls, both among professional chefs and home cooks. Those who want a complete guide to the basic elements of cooking likely need look no further.