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Best Cookbooks for Beginners

124 posts in this topic

Until the very last few months, my daughter has been way too busy with work, school, and having babies to make a serious effort at learning to cook. But she has just decided to take a year's hiatus from work and learn. She has access to my 1000+ cookbooks but nothing seemed to catch her fancy.

Then I bought her a copy of 'The Kitchen Counter Cooking School' by Kathleen Flinn.

It has changed her life.


Edited by Jaymes (log)

I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I'll second the recommendation for an older copy of the "Joy", and add that older "NY Times" and "Fannie Farmer" are excellent standby cookbooks for beginners.

Is she in any way interested in bread? If so, "Bread" from the Good Cook series is a must-have.


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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I'll second the recommendation for an older copy of the "Joy", and add that older "NY Times" and "Fannie Farmer" are excellent standby cookbooks for beginners.

I'll third that. All are good to start with, and good to have on the bookshelf later on.

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Also, if you can find one, look for the 1920's era "Purity Cookbook" - it's very basic, the 20's editions focus on savings, and it contains all of the know-how necessary for more complex dishes later on in one's cooking life. I learned out of a 1922 Purity, which I still have and use regularly. (And if you like, I'll scan it and make the pdf available - it's a truly remarkable cookbook).


Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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Is she interested in cooking, or just in eating decently? Judging by the experiences of many friends, the problem with the bigger all-encompassing cookbooks is that they can be overwhelming for a novice who just wants to make a simple meal. Bittman is great (I've got how to cook everything and its vegetarian sister and find them very useful), but there are so many choices it can also be paralysing.

I so agree with you! I adore Child and Pepin and have the leisure time now to read them and attempt their recipes but if I were a med student in training for a spot on an Olympic team I'd be paralyzed by them. I suggest something like Martha Stewart's Everday Food. Easy shopping, easy prep, relatively healthy, a photo of every dish as I recall and not the least bit intimidating. There will be time for the classics later one hopes. Just my opinion.


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.” William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Now that I think of it, I've probably used The Professional Chef for reference more than any other book, since I got it a number of years ago. The link is to the 8th edition and I have the 7th and don't know what the difference might be.

It's a large, literally heavy book, and somewhat expensive, but it's a great resource and I wish I'd had one back when I started cooking halfway seriously. Not sure if it's worthwhile for a beginner though, especially as all the recipes are for fairly large quantities of food. But they're all in weights and it's easy enough to scale them down with a hand calculator.

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Sooooooooooo sorry!

I take it all back

MS is a delicous somewhat older person that did have her day

it must have been the

turpentine in tonights retsina

Ill have to leave the rest of the case in the cellar for 20 - 30 years.

then Ill apply it to my shingles.

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I learned to cook from Cook's Illustrated magazine. Their "The New Best Recipe" book is a compilation from the magazine.

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What kind of foods does she like? I think that's probably the best place to start. I personally got started with Child and Pepin, but I also was very interested in French foods and technique. I've given relatives CI's Best Recipes where some of them have devoured it, loving the explanations and analysis, where others have left it on the shelf and stuck with their Rachel Ray books.

Some modern books that aren't overly technical that I've enjoyed are:

Pintxos by Hirigoyen

Simple to Spectacular by Vongerichten

Japanese Cooking (A Simple Art) by Tsuji

Pretty much any of Rick Bayless' books

The Les Halles Cookbook by Bourdain

Any of these are definitely approachable to someone who is interested in cooking but not in spending the entire day in the kitchen. In fact, the vast majority of these recipes take 30 minutes or less of active prep time, and all have the kinds of foods that you can serve for parties etc. The Vongerichten and Bourdain books also are nice in that they provide basic instruction on the techniques that they use for the dishes.

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I think we need to know what kind of food she's into and how dedicated she will be before we make any recommendations...

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Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food" books are really good for the basics. Very approachable, but in a way that led me to 'invent' sous vide (only to quickly find that I was 40 years too late).

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I might get laughed off the forum for this suggestion, but I was in a similar situation with a friend of mine a couple years ago. He was an only child, who sincerely didnt know how to use the microwave. Shows up to college, completely unprepared and starving. The first cookbook I bought him was The Betty Crocker Cookbook. The recipes are simple, she will have heard of all the ingredients, and they are affordable to a poor college student.

This of course, is assuming that she has little desire to cook beyond feeding herself what reminds her of home, anymore ambition and The Way to Cook is perfect.

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I like How to Cook Everything. Approachable and comprehensive.

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I gave a couple of different Now You're Cooking cookbooks to a friend when I was teaching her to cook. They are decent adult beginner cookery books - no talking down to the student. She has since passed them on, but still credits them with a good part of her early culinary education.

This is a woman who was kicked out of one of James Beard's bread classes cause she just couldn't get it!

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Beards Theory and Practice is great if you can find it.

Sent from my Droid using Tapatalk

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How To Cook Everything is a solid recommendation. Pepin's new book Essential Pepin is excellent as well plus it has a DVD demonstrating kitchen techniques.

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I agree that it would be helpful to know what she likes to eat and if she really wants to learn to cook or just needs a bunch of good, simple recipes.

As a doc, I can say that I enjoy books that take a scientific view of cooking, which is why I like the Alton Brown books and CI. Alton is fun to read too. As is Bourdain in Les Halles cookbook, if she likes his somewhat raunchy style (I do). I have only made a few recipes out of his book but I have really enjoyed reading it.

How To Cook Everything and Joy of Cooking (I have an older edition, can't speak to the newer ones) are nice to have, because if you think of something you want to make, the chances are that you can find a recipe for it in one or both books. I used Joy almost daily when I was in college.

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I would think that a lot of these suggestions would be intimidating to a 20-something with little cooking experience who presumably in under time pressures. I would try to ease her in gently with books that have helpful explanations and maybe photos to help her understand the processes and the final dish.

There is a good beginner's book from Phaidon 'What to Cook and How to Cook It' by Jane Hornby - good step-by-step photos but not too basic or simplistic.

The new 'Cook's Illustrated Cookbook' - over 2,000 recipes from 20 years of the magazine - has no photos but good explanations.

Finally, it would be worth taking a look at Ina Garten, Ellie Krieger or Alton Brown. I know these Food Network authors aren't in the league of Marcella, Jacques and Julia but they are much more approachable for someone young and new to cooking.


Jane Kelly

Co-founder of Eat Your Books

www.eatyourbooks.com

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My daughter and daughter-in-law, neither one of whom could cook much, both very much enjoyed Raising the Salad Bar.

Salads seemed approachable and do-able, and there definitely is some cooking involved - chicken breasts, fish filets and other meats, pastas and rice and assorted starches, dressings, etc. Plus, it's definitely encouraging to have some easy and non-intimidating kitchen successes right away.


I don't understand why rappers have to hunch over while they stomp around the stage hollering.  It hurts my back to watch them. On the other hand, I've been thinking that perhaps I should start a rap group here at the Old Folks' Home.  Most of us already walk like that.

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I'm not sure some of these would get much use, things like how to cook everything etc get the least use in my house, kind of a last resort if I can't figure out what to do with something. Not to say they aren't great, but there are no or not many photos, which all by itself could be a deterrent for somebody that doesn't cook much.

I'd probably think outside the box, figure out what kind of foods she likes. Maybe Thai? Italian? Indian? And then get a very nice well illustrated book like that for her, guessing that trying to make something she really likes in a restaurant might be a fun project. At least that's how things really started for me, when I bought a copy of Thailand - the beautiful cookbook at CostCo. I always cooked something before, roast chicken, bbq, etc, but with that book I expanded on every day stuff I had learned along the way. Also some Italian cooking bible I picked up at the bargain tables was very useful to me early on. Lots of photos, great recipes. Especially the photos made me cook, as I had little experience aside of my "standards". But seeing something wonderful "I want to eat that NOW" certainly helped.

This has not changed much for me by the way. Publishing books with gorgeous photos has become a lot easier and cheaper than it used to be and I rarely pick up books that don't have photos but cost the same as some similar book w/o photos. I'm a visual person.

Cooks Illustrated books do little to nothing for me, I subscribed for years, but eventually dropped it once the homey stories and the "we're gonna try and fake this takes 47 hours to make meal and prepare it in 47 minutes" seemed to either take over or get noticed more by me. Add the goofy drawings, just not my cup of tea.

One book I recently got, The Family Meal by Adria, might also be interesting for a novice. To me it's a book that actually has too many photos (almost illustrating how to boil water) but for a novice it might be a great introduction to some more advanced things as well and the recipes seem largely doable w/o hunting through specialty stores.

on a last note, if she watches some cooking shows, it might be nice to get her a book by one of her favorite starts, even if it's some no cook like Rachel or the butter lady from the south, or yes, even Martha. If she likes any of these people, having their voice and banter in mind while cooking might help her over some obstacles and make it more fun. She can then graduate to real cooks later on :laugh:


"And don't forget music - music in the kitchen is an essential ingredient!"

- Thomas Keller

Diablo Kitchen, my food blog

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I think that Alice Waters's The Art of Simple Food might be a good choice. It's got a good section about ingredients and equipment, how to cut things, etc., and the recipes are not dumbed down but many still should be manageable for beginners.

I have the vegetarian version of How to Cook Everything; while I appreciate Bittman's approach, and all the basic information he provides, and his encouragement to experiment, I do think the sheer volume of recipes and endless variations might be intimidating to some as a first cookbook.

Also worth considering how interested / motivated the recipient is, and what types of things they like to eat.

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I would think that a lot of these suggestions would be intimidating to a 20-something with little cooking experience who presumably in under time pressures.

I agree too, and as the request is for books that will be a gift there's no way of knowing how interested the recipient will be in learning about cooking...

In my experience, Jamie Oliver's books stand out because people actually cook from them! This might sound bizarre if you're into food and have libraries of cooking books, but I've got a number of friends who have only a passing interest in cooking and the only recipes they make are from Jamie Oliver books. Other books just gather dust...

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OP still hasn't returned to thread...

The following cookbook recommendations assume that she lives in the US.

If she is dedicated, and likes traditional European food, then I will add my name to the list for The Way To Cook. It was my first serious cookbook, and between the photographs and the text, is an incredibly straightforward guide.

If she's a natural experimenter, thrifty and interested in American home cooking and regional cuisines - and likes to read good prose - then I'd suggest starting with any book by John Thorne. Simple Cooking is an easy way in. Similarly straightforward and readable books are Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and Miriam Ungerer's Good Cheap Food.

If she likes Italian, then she can't go wrong with Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Apologies to OliverB that it doesn't contain any photos, but it is extremely easy to follow and very reliable. But if she's starting from a position of ignorance, it's essential that she read the introductory chapters on ingredients and techniques.

For (Delhi) Indian, Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation To Indian Cooking or Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking.

If she's into Mexican, Chinese or Thai cooking, there are a wealth of cookbooks out there but with the exception of Fucshia Dunlop they may be for the more advanced cook.

I'd agree with other posters that Bittman's How To Cook Everything might be a bit much to start with. The Joy of Cooking, at least for me, is more of a reference book than a guide - albeit one I consult frequently.

edit: A possible more modern, multicultural possibility, with lots of photos, would be David Tanis, A Platter of Figs. Or for Italian food with a touch of England, The River Cafe Cookbook.


Edited by patrickamory (log)

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Well you can shoot me if you want, but the Martha Stewart Cooking School book is an excellent reference. Say what you want about the lady, but the book is good regardless. I'd also recommend How to Cook Everything by Bittman as others have said. Spend the rest of the money on a decent knife or two and decent pan.

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