6 Essential Cookbooks for the Kitchen Newbie

In eighth grade, I took “Life Skills,” a rebranded home economics class that went over how to make basic recipes — pancakes, chocolate fudge, quesadillas, and English Muffin pizza. (We covered all the food groups.) Magnanimous eighth graders distributed their goodies to favorite teachers and friends and so did I, bearing my paper plates like I was a Michelin-starred chef, not a kid with semi-edible fudge that threatened to pull off thousands of dollars worth of braces.

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That class sparked my interest in cooking. But high school was a blur, college even more so, and it wasn’t until I graduated that I realized no one was going to feed me at 6 p.m. except myself. My wallet couldn’t say yes to takeout forever. So I did what I always do when I don’t know something: I went to the library. Here are the six cookbooks that were gifted, bought, or found that taught me everything I know about how to cook:

(Editor’s note: We’ve added links to the books to purchase, but we also want to encourage you to shop at your local bookstore). 

The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer

This book is THE cookbook. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages, it has every conceivable American recipe ever created. I have a vintage version, but a newly updated edition came out in 2019, bringing a much-needed freshness to this classic. It’s less a cookbook than a rite of passage, but I know it will never steer me wrong for comfort food staples like roast chicken, potato salad, or any sauce I need in my toolkit. I still turn to it whenever I’m just not sure how to make something the way my mother would.

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food” by Mark Bittman

Oh, so you don’t want 10,000 ways to make aspic? Consider this the more modern version of “Joy of Cooking.” What I love about this book is that every recipe is simple and easy to make. It may take time, but it won’t take more than 5-10 ingredients, many with pantry staples. My go-to stir-fry recipe comes from this book. He also includes easy-to-understand diagrams so you can pick up techniques along the way.

Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook” by Kristin Magloire

Consider this your Greatest Hits Album in your cookbook collection. “Genius Recipes” came from Kristin Magliore’s blog-turned-media-outlet Food52, where readers submit their favorite recipes of all time. The best are voted on and tested — these first 100 started it all. Every recipe in here is one of the greatest things I’ve ever cooked or eaten. I would buy this again for the tomato sauce recipe alone (from culinary goddess Marcella Hazan).

The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion: The All Purpose Baking Book” by King Arthur Flour

This is my baking bible. The recipes are precise and easy to follow, and most importantly, they turn out perfectly every time. I never have to worry, as long as I follow the instructions exactly. My banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, lemon cake, birthday cake…it’s all here. And if I do need help, I can call King Arthur’s Baker’s Hotline.

The Oh She Glows Cookbook: 100 Vegan Recipes to Glow from the Inside Out” by Angela Liddon

I’m not a diehard vegan, but for the last four years or so, I’ve transitioned to mostly plant-based eating. What I love about this cookbook is that the recipes feel well-rounded. I have comments scrawled at the top of so many other vegetarian or vegan cookbooks that the recipes would “Taste better topped with salmon/chicken/steak,” because making balanced and filling vegetarian recipes that taste good can be challenging. “Oh She Glows” nails it every time, and I never miss meat or dairy.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking” by Samin Nosrat

Consider this more of a textbook than a cookbook. Samin Nosrat skyrocketed to fame in 2018 after publishing this book and filming a series of the same name on Netflix. By the time I picked this up, I had the basics of cooking down, but I didn’t understand the chemistry of why some things taste good and others don’t. I often refer back to certain chapters when improvising a pantry meal from whatever’s at hand. There’s almost nothing lemon juice or vinegar can’t do to add brightness and zing to an improvised dish, the acid balancing out the rest of the flavors. The four basic elements — salt, fat, acid, and heat — are all you need.

Originally published on October 7, 2020. 

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