Find our top nine picks for the best general cookbooks published in the United States since 1987.
In this first category, General Cookbooks, we include compilations, comprehensive instructive tomes, and books with wide-ranging
focus. These are the best nine books in no particular order.
1. Martha Stewart’s Cooking School: Lessons and Recipes for the Home Cook By Martha Stewart, Clarkson Potter, 2008. Hardcover. $45; 504 pages
Those irritated by her big media personality are likely to forget that Martha Stewart long ago made pin-perfect instruction the heart of her industry. Few personalities in modern cookery insist that information be presented with this much patience and precision. There’s no arrogance in these pages, only a genuine desire that readers learn proper technique en route to becoming capable cooks. There are lots of visual cues to lead even novices confidently down the path to success.
The greatest strength of this is the photography—Stewart has a precise instinct for the steps that require more in-depth detail.
The plethora of color photos peers into mixing bowls and stockpots. Textures are tangible, and you’re able to know exactly
what your batter or stew should look like at each critical stage. The writing favors Stewart’s “of course you can do this”
tone, as if success were a universal birthright, no room for argument.
If there’s any criticism, in fact, it’s that recipes are not the focus: Technique is. Each recipe is carefully selected as a vehicle to guide readers through a particular cooking method. It’s far more textbook than recipe book. But it’s a classic.
GIVE THIS TO: Methodical, visual learners with varying degrees of experience. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century
By Amanda Hesser, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Hardcover. $40; 932 pages
When you have 150 years of recipes at hand (not all the ones that are fit to print, presumably, but a formidable pile), and you’re The New York Times, your book takes on the mantle of historical document. The risk is ponderousness. But Times columnist Amanda Hesser, acting as wry docent and curator, does a brilliant job keeping the musty-dusty feel out and herpaper’s knowing perspective in. This is a great gray book, of course, but a genuine reading pleasure.
In a 1940 Sazerac cocktail, Hesser says the bitters “hover over the rye like a citrusy mist.” She warns the reader to avoid
the Oriental Watercress Soup (1949) if pork liver is unavailable, and admits mistakes of her own: “I used globe artichokes
rather than Jerusalems—somehow I failed to make the obvious connection between Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Most recipes are fairly recent, many from food notables and chefs, and there’s a nice balance of European, regional American, and global flavors. Many recipes contain serving suggestions, derived from other recipes in the book.
GIVE THIS TO: A reader, a lover of food heritage, a serious cook of at least intermediate skills. —Phoebe Wu
Delicious dish to try: Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew, pictured
By Nigel Slater, Penguin, 1999. Paperback. $29; 288 pages
“I passionately believe that anyone can make themselves something good to eat.” This is how Nigel Slater opens the introduction to his lovely book. And from there he spells out his philosophy and charms the cook along the way. He disarms with his natural humor, zest for cooking, and gorgeous writing.
He’s at once a practical and sensual cook, not one to elevate cooking to art, yet he pays attention to every meaningful detail. “The best bits of all are the treasures hiding under the roast bird—those gloriously gooey, chewy bits that others miss,” he says of a roast chicken.
Most recipes in Real Cooking are simple, with appropriately short ingredient lists. Potatoes are roasted with only lard and salt, no herbs, no embellishments,
but the results are magical. And Slater’s warnings are laugh-out-loud hilarious: “I would love to suggest that you don’t have
to [peel the potatoes] but they will develop the hide of a rhinoceros.”
Slater spends time focusing on foods that are “worth cooking.” He doesn’t have time or patience for fussy haute cuisine or fancy, expensive equipment. Reading his informative cooking and shopping tips gives you the impression he’s guiding you through the market, pointing out the freshest and best, and standing confidently at your side at the stove. He punctuates it all with a wonderfully refreshing sense of humor. “And don’t forget to bring something home for the cat” he says of a trip to the fish market.
Within the pages of this unassuming book lies a unique and delicious mix of flavors.
GIVE THIS TO: Passionate and adventurous cooks of any skill level. —Julianna Grimes
Delicious dish to try: Slow-roasted onions with melted cheese, pictured
Edited by Ruth Reichl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Hardcover. $40; 1,024 pages
With more than 1,000 recipes filling more than 1,000 pages, this thunker of a book shares an ambition with The Essential New York Times Cookbook—to be a lively, modern compilation of recipes by a publication with a claim to some cultural importance (alas, the publication died). There is less obsession with history here, and more focus on method, ingredients, techniques, and shopping, with a modern take on each. But Editor Ruth Reichl’s warm voice runs through it, and the mix of recipes is both practical (Tuna Pasta Salad) and surprising (Goat Tacos).
On one page, you’ll find tips for using leftover ham, elsewhere a sidebar devoted to “Some Favorite Sea Vegetables.” That
tension between the everyday and the exotic keeps the content fresh, interesting, and comprehensive—you have all the recipes
you need to get supper on the table Tuesday night, as well as for the swanky engagement party you’re throwing for your best
friend. A large section of suggested menus (some with humorously unceremonious titles like Winter #3) shows you how to pair
recipes for all kinds of occasions.
There are no photos, lest the book get so large it need its own wheelbarrow, but the definitive voice of Gourmet magazine stands in, with stylish confidence.
GIVE THIS TO: The urbane completist, the recipe forager—the cook with some ambition. —Ann Taylor Pittman
Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook
By Jamie Oliver, Hyperion, 2007. Hardcover. $37.50, 448 pages
Really, does any food person transmit the joy of cooking and eating better than Jamie Oliver at his best? He is neither sloppy-silly nor puffed-up and overentangled in professional technique. Despite his successful restaurants, he comes off as a cook’s cook, not a chef. Oliver has suppressed his early laddishness to become the sort of cook we would all like to be: confident, precise in technique, casual in execution, open to shortcuts, and able to summon gestures and language that make you want to enjoy things the way he does. “Just letting it slowly blip away in the oven,” he writes about a stew, “with the sauce becoming more and more intense, is the nicest sort of cooking there is.” Lovely word, “blip.” About a potato salad: “If you ever get the chance to buy fresh horseradish at a farmers’ market you must give it a try—the heat is fantastic and goes right up your nose.”
Cook with Jamie is unabashedly British, and while this book journeys nicely through dishes (and requisite techniques) from appetizers to desserts and is subtitled “My Guide to Making You a Better Cook,” it is not for beginners who can’t figure out that beef shin is beef shank. The deliciously simple design, lovely photography, and recipes that make you smile and want to cook them now, such as “Real quick mussels spaghetti in a white wine and basil oil broth,” make this book stand out.
GIVE THIS TO: An accomplished cook still on the learning curve, wanting to try new things, willing to embrace Oliver’s perky Britishisms. —Scott Mowbray
Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease
By Rozanne Gold, Rodale, 2010. Hardcover. $35; 340 pages
Rozanne Gold built her fame on ingenious, stripped-down three-ingredient cookbooks, but really found her voice last year by liberating herself to use a few more ingredients in dishes that are still elegantly, inspiringly simple. Recipes are either quick-cooking; have short, mainstream ingredient lists; or contain make-ahead components. What’s so impressive is that so many dishes take sophisticated little twists and turns. A pasta dish with caramelized onions, peas, and mint has a dash of fish sauce to punch up the umami.
This is one of those books that make you want to leap up and start cooking. Gold is a precise writer: Her recipe titles and headnotes are vivid. (For example, she notes that frozen peas tossed in with crunchy-crumbed cod “also get roasted and take on a comforting starchy texture.”)
Interesting and fresh flavor combinations are a constant. In the Poultry chapter, Gold offers Sautéed Chicken with Roasted
Grapes and Grape Demi-Glace, a stunning five-ingredient restaurant-quality dish.
This book is far from comprehensive, compared to many others in this category, but it importantly elevates the quick-and-simple concept to a new level, becoming a benchmark. And length ain’t everything.
GIVE THIS TO: The busy, adventurous cook with a discerning palate. —JG
Delicious dish to try: Nutella Sandwich Cookies, pictured. The chocolate-hazelnut spread both flavors the batter and serves as the filling for the sandwich.
The New Best Recipe
By the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen, 2004. Hardcover. $35; 1,028 pages
There’s an intensity, at times slight mania, on every page in this book. Each recipe begins with a dense preamble, detailing the arduous trial-and-error testing process. The upshot: The pros tried every possible avenue to produce each recipe and present you with their most desirable and reliable version of the dish. In other words, you learn from their mistakes without having to make them yourself—and, if you want, you can read all about the process of discovery. This book is nothing if not thorough. It can, sometimes, wear a cook down. But the knowledge is encyclopedic, and the voice lies somewhere beyond authoritative—in the land of bow ties and test-kitchen brigades.
GIVE THIS TO: Perfectionist cooks of all skill levels who like a thorough, if slightly nerdy, approach. —JG
How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food
By Mark Bittman, Wiley, 2008. Hardcover. $35; 944 pages
Graze the food blogs and you’ll find that the 13-year-old How to Cook Everything is still almost universally loved as the best resource for a fledgling cook. The audacious, brilliant title is of course ridiculous: One book can’t cover all bases. But the recently revised version of this classic includes 2,000 recipes plus kitchen tips, shortcuts, basics, ingredients, and flavors. In other words, most everything.
When recipes include ethnic or other hard-to-find items, sidebars offer sources or subs. Bittman demystifies cassoulet and calls the dish “glorified beans.” His interpretation takes 40 minutes to prepare (as opposed to days). Indeed, this book foreshadows Bittman’s New York Times success as The Minimalist. (Bittman is also a Cooking Light columnist.)
Everyday technique is his forte, and his confident voice is present throughout.
GIVE THIS TO: Recent college graduates or anyone starting out on a cooking path. —SM
Ad Hoc at Home
By Thomas Keller, Artisan, 2009. Hardcover. $50; 359 pages
Calling Chef Thomas Keller “detail oriented” is like calling Mondrian “into straight lines.” Keller is a noted perfectionist whose most celebrated restaurants—the French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in New York City—set a new standard for very pricey, very fine dining, rooted in French technique. Ad Hoc at Home contains Keller’s idea of “family-style recipes” and home cooking. Some dishes you’ll recognize: fried chicken, beef stew, split pea soup. They just happen to be the best versions of those dishes you’ve ever had, precisely described and luminously photographed in a gorgeous oversized book.
Make no mistake, this is not home cooking as you or I know it. It’s Keller’s home. And although none of the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home call for exotic restaurant equipment, it takes plenty of work and attention to detail to hit the Keller high notes. But if
you’re inclined to roll up your sleeves and stretch a bit, the book delivers. Keller’s beef stew involves subrecipes for
braised beef short ribs and an onion-tomato soffrito mixture that cooks for about five hours—but anything less would fall
short of perfection. And in the end the dish is not about showmanship but stupendous flavor.
Ad Hoc at Home is probably the closest any of us will come to a private cooking lesson with one of America’s great chefs.
GIVE THIS TO: A seasoned, adventurous home cook looking to up her game to wow friends and family. —Tim Cebula