Some of our cookbooks, as viewed through a cell phone
because my camera is in Mr. Scrimp's car
But, if you haven't had the time that we have to figure out what cookbooks you want or need, to accumulate things secondhand or pick them up in wanderings around the bookstore--if you aren't the kind of person who already hoards cookbooks and loves to try out new recipes just for fun, I'd like to make some recommendations. These are fab if you are just starting out with learning how to cook, or if you, like us, have been cooking for years. I consider them essential.
I considered linking to these on Amazon, but if you're like me, you'd probably go look at the Amazon page and then just try and buy these from Half.com instead, so I leave that all up to you.
1. The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker
No kitchen is complete without this book. If you live on your own and don't own it, get it. Buy it used if you must. Buy an ancient copy. Steal your mom's (if you think you can get away with it).
I will warn you, it's not a modern-style cookbook. There are no photos, only a handful of antiquated line drawings, and page after page after page of recipes, packed in as tightly as can be. Just sit down and read through it sometime, though. Skim the index. Acquaint yourself with the way their recipes are worded. I can't even count the number of times I've referred to this book over the years since I first began to learn how to cook.
2. How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
Like The Joy of Cooking, this is indispensable. Consider it essentially as a recipe encyclopedia, full of delicious things waiting to be discovered. This was a Christmas gift to us last year and I love it. If you made the hummus recipe I posted a few days ago, you may be interested to know that it is a modified version of the recipe in this cookbook.
For those of you who don't eat meat, Bittman also has published How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I don't own that one, but it comes very highly recommended from several friends of mine who love to cook as much as I do.
3. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee
Although this has recipes in it, it's not strictly a cookbook. Rather than simply cataloging hundreds of recipes for you to try, admirable as that is, Harold McGee sat down and wrote a book about what it is that makes those recipes work. This has everything from a discussion of the chemical composition of eggs to the genus of the mold that makes blue cheeses delicious (it's a strain of penicillin. Who knew?), to quick and easy ways to make creme fraiche at home.
Anybody can follow a recipe. If you're going to become truly comfortable in the kitchen, though, you're going to have to go beyond just following a cookbook. McGee's book will empower you to be more bold and creative in your cooking because you will know why certain things work in cooking and baking, and why other things never can, no matter how good they sound in theory. If you've ever had a question about why a cookbook tells you to do something nonsensical, this book will probably answer it.
Allrecipes.com is, of course, not a printed cookbook. It's essentially a giant recipe swap. It is also my go-to place for finding new recipes when I'm bored, in a hurry, or trying to come up with something to make with specific ingredients that I already have on hand.
You can search by ingredients, type of meal, or other keywords. Many recipes are submitted with photos, and are rated by other users of the site. People leave comments with suggestions for tweaks to the recipes, or warnings about common pitfalls. I try to stick to four or five star rated recipes and always check the comments first, and I've never had it fail me yet.
Of course, there are so many cookbooks that you can find and enjoy beyond these. I haven't even mentioned my beloved Julia Child or Madhur Jaffrey, or the battered copies of Escoffier and Larousse Gastronomique on our shelves. I've often even had luck finding great recipes (and wonderful food for the gastronomic imagination) in the richly illustrated and photo-heavy cookbooks that they sell in the bargain section of stores like Borders.
But these four (well, three books and a website) are the ones I turn to most often for my day-to-day cooking needs. Now go, go obtain them. Read them, savor the ideas in them. Turn the recipes over in your mind. And then start cooking!