The Kitchn has been running a series of the contributors’ 5 favorite cookbooks, and I thought I’d join in. I don’t tend too cook from my cookbooks very often – I have a regularly recurring goal of using them more, in fact – but there are definitely some that I use more than others. I can tell which ones they are, because they’re messy. Things have been spilled on them, pages are dogeared and in some cases stuck together, pieces of paper with single-lady serving-size conversions stick out of the top, there are notes in the margins, and there’s water damage all over the place. But cookbooks are working books, and I know that if I’ve had one for a while and it’s not been somehow messed up, it’s not a cookbook for me.
I don’t have a big cookbook collection – they probably wouldn’t fill an entire shelf on a standard bookcase. At this point I look at them more as reference materials than anything else. I have a one in, one out rule for cookbooks, so I’ll be getting rid of one of the books that didn’t make the cut next week when I get my hands on the Joy the Baker Cookbook. Another will be out the door later this year when The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is released. (So, you know, if you’re feeling like I’m awesome and you’d like to express that in paper, and be thanked with something delicious? Get on it.)
Betty Crocker’s Cookbook – This is my go-to when I’m looking for a classic or foundational dish. My waffles and pancakes come out of this book, as do my spice and carrot cakes. My copy was my Mom’s, published in 1983 (the 10th printing of the 1978 edition). It has clearly seen better days – the cover has come off completely, but luckily the body is still intact. You can pry it from my cold, dead hands (along with my chef’s knife). I think that this book is for me what Joy of Cooking is for others. I have a copy of that, but there’s something about the tone that just isn’t appealing.
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving – A great starter resource for canning. Tons of wonderful recipies with variations as well. This also has a great introductory section on canning, and has several useful appendixes that include an altitude chart, a troubleshooting table, and a produce purchase guide that lays out weight and volume. It’s a great first book for a home canner. The recipes aren’t particularly exciting, but once you work through a few of them you’ll have the basics down and can go out and pull up one of those more interesting recipes online that isn’t particularly detailed.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone – Interspersed with the recipes are fabulous tips on things like converting hot soups to be served cold, and identifying different types of greens. My pizza dough recipe comes from this book, as well as an amazing basil puree. It’s a homey book, and I like the tone in which it’s written – very friendly and accesible. Yes, it’s a vegetarian cookbook, but the focus is on creating delicious food, not on things like “normally this is served with xyz meat, but here we’re using blahdeblah instead.”
The Gourmet Cookbook – This is one that I really don’t use much at all, which is saying something given that I’ve already told you how little I use my cookbooks to begin with. I tend to cook from this book when I am looking for something very specific, or am cooking for a party – I can always find something interesting to cook up and bring with me. For example, the carrot sandwiches I recently made for my bookclub came from this book, and there’s a wonderful recipe that recreates boxed yellow cake, but from scratch. (Just the thing to bring when you offer to bake a cake for a birthday party and are told that the birthday girl’s favorite cake is funfetti. No offense to boxed cake mix, but that’s not how I roll.)
When I was devising the list, I wound up with a four-way tie for the fifth book, so I chose the one that I’ve been using the most lately, and also think is an excellent resource for cooks of all abilities:
The Best 30-Minute Recipe – This is a Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen book, which means that these recipes have been tested to within an inch of their lives. The test kitchen chefs have cooked and re-cooked recipes, trying new techniques that can speed up a recipe without losing the essence of the dish. The steps are laid out clearly, and there are tons of great explanations – some that elaborate on how they eventually wound up with the recipe written the way it was, others that are tips for successfully cooking it in the 30-minute timeframe. They also include lots of bits here and there that talk about particular types of food products, and they have a knack for explaining things that I think is very welcoming to a novice cook, while still being interesting enough that I just read a two-page spread on cooking pasta. I firmly believe that anyone who thinks they can’t cook can pick up this book and successfully make something (provided they can follow directions).