Cooking has long remained one of the most elegant pastimes and an art form that is respected the world over. Few have the ability to successfully cook professionally, but all have the opportunity to perform as a chef at home in the ultimate pursuit of perfection.
It has never been clearer that the home cook is capable of earning the respect of the professional chef. From television shows like MasterChef and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives that celebrate the home cook going pro, it is finally understood that a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu or the CIA isn’t a guarantee you’ll be successful. Today, home cooks are inspiring the world, and many are taking their culinary skills as seriously as the restaurateurs of the world.
As a culinarian and food critic, I am often asked by family and friends where I draw inspiration from. Though I rarely use recipes that aren’t my own, I do own a small library of cookbooks that I’ve learned from and that continue to inspire me when I’m in the mood to cook but can’t figure out what I want to make.
There are three things I take into account when preparing food.
1. It must be beautiful.
It has to have panache; it has to be artistic and ideally, there should be some showmanship involved. After all, food is art.
2. It must taste phenomenal.
If it’s not perfect, don’t serve it. Anything short of perfection is an insult to the ingredients, so it’s important that every piece of food served to a guest be perfectly cooked, taste appealing and compliment the palate.
3. It must be special.
No longer is serving a T-bone steak sufficient. There must be something that lends to the artistry of the food. There is no honor in mediocrity. Whether that means using a unique salt to season the meat or creating a spectacular glaze to serve with it, there must be something exceptional done to elevate the ingredient. Granted the ingredients should speak for themselves and be the star of the show, but in the same way women wear makeup, it should accentuate their beauty rather than masking it.
It is these three factors that I also consider when buying a cookbook. Sure a basic cookbook is important to have on hand, but it’s the ones with passion that really speak to me and inspire me to be better.
Here is the list of the twenty cookbooks I think are worth having in your kitchen. Whether you follow the recipes exactly or just use them for inspiration, the choice is up to you. But, I guarantee you’ll find each of these is worth every penny.
The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America
A textbook for the chef, this is an excellent source of fundamental techniques that every cook should know. From learning how to make a roux to essential information on safe food handling practices, this is one of those books that will continually come off the shelf when you’re in need of a quick refresher. In addition to being an excellent guide, it also has almost 1000 recipes that cover contemporary and classic recipes. No kitchen is complete without this book, and it’s often referred to as ’the bible’ by professional chefs. Click here to buy it today.
The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
This is the most frequently used book on my kitchen shelf. It’s basically an encyclopedia of flavors and shows you what flavors work well with others. This book is best used by seasoned chefs and experienced home cooks, but it’s one that can be found on the steel counters of most professional kitchens. It is the winner of the 2009 James Beard Book Award for Best Book and is the number one reference book in my opinion. Click here to get your copy.
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal
There is no arguing that The Fat Duck is one of the most revered restaurants in the world and that Heston Blumenthal is a culinary genius. This book is huge, and it’s fantastic. Forget recipes, this is the kind of book you’ll read on the couch as you curl up with a cup of tea. Starting with its humble beginnings and its rise to three Michelin stars, Heston inspires us to realize dreams can come true. After a fascinating introduction, we’re given a window into the world of his restaurant with fifty of his best recipes. Please note these recipes are not for the faint of heart and will challenge even the most seasoned professional. However, if you enjoy the showmanship of cooking, this is one of the few cook books that will encourage you to use ice baths, dehydrators, nitrogen and vacuum pumps. Click here for your copy.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
The quintessential French cookbook, this is a classic staple that every home cook should have on their shelf. Although Julia Child often receives most of the credit for this masterpiece, it’s actually the combined efforts of three chefs including Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholie. The real treat of this book is that it focuses on classic French cooking and adapts it for novice American home chefs. There are two volumes, and we recommend keeping both on file. You won’t regret it. Click here for a copy.
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
The most authentic Italian cookbook probably ever written, Marcella Hazan did for Italy what Julia Child did for France. An essential guide for everyone, this is one of the few cookbooks for beginners that even the most celebrated chefs rely on. If you enjoy classic Italian cooking, this is the only cookbook you’ll need. Click here to get one.
Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman
From salted, air dried ham to Maryland crab, scallop, and saffron terrine, this cookbook takes the fun of charcuterie to a whole new level. It has the basics like sausage, terrines, and pâtés, but goes further by exploring recipes for olive and vegetable rillettes and duck confit. It’s a book that once caught my eye at the store, and I bought on a whim, but it’s one I regularly go back to, and that hasn’t collected dust over time. Click here for a copy.
Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
If you’re a home cook who is just looking for a selection of easy and satisfying recipes to try, this is probably the best cookbook for the novice. I’m not sure a single cookbook has ever been as popular as this one. It’s full of timeless recipes and covers all of the basics from knife skills to setting a table. It doesn’t see much light anymore, but it’s also one cookbook that my wife isn’t allowed to donate or throw away. Click here to get your copy.
Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dormenburg and Karen Page
From the authors of The Flavor Bible, this is another book worthy of space on the shelf. Unlike The Flavor Bible, this book is excellent for the novice home cook. As Molly O’Neil once wrote in The New York Times, “Dornenburg and Page provide food and flavor pairings as a kind of steppingstone for the recipe-dependent cook…Their hope is that once you know the scales, you will be able to compose a symphony.” Click here for a copy.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
Hailed by Time magazine as “a minor masterpiece”, this cookbook is a classic staple every home cook needs on their shelf. The book focuses on teaching us where our food comes from and how to turn simple ingredients into something extraordinary. It’s inventive and addictive and a book you won’t be able to put down. Remarkably inspirational. Click here for a copy.
The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
The New York Times once called Napa Valley’s French Laundry “the most exciting place to eat in the United States.” This cookbook is a testament to that. With unique tips like squeegeeing the moisture from the skin on fish, so it sautées beautifully, to repeatedly washing bones for stock there are tips and tricks in this book you won’t find anywhere else. It’s the techniques detailed in this innovative cookbook that made The French Laundry what it is today. This is a prized book on my shelf but not one I recommend for the beginner. Click here for your copy.
The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss
When I decided I no longer wanted to cook for fun but actually wanted to elevate my abilities, The 4-Hour Chef was the first book I bought. Focused on transforming the home cook into a professional chef, this book explores the adventure of cooking in new and profound ways. If you are looking to become a professional chef, or you simply want inspiration, this is one textbook you need on your journey. Click here for a copy.
Grand Livre de Cuisine by Alain Ducasse
A series of books worth collecting, my personal favorite is the second volume which is Ducasse’s Culinary Encyclopedia. Granted all of the books are superlative, it’s this book that perfectly describes why Alain Ducasse is one of the world’s finest chefs. Unlike most of the cookbooks in my collection, this one really focuses on the art of making desserts, pastries, sweets, and bread. It includes 250 recipes, and all of them are chosen from a collection of dessert menus from his restaurants. Click here to buy a copy.
Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller
Another gem by the talented Thomas Keller, Ad Hoc at home focuses on family-style recipes that transform imaginative cooking into comfort food. Staple dishes like chicken pot pie and biscuits are elevated in a way only Keller could come up with. The recipes are inspired by his Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, and all are playful and perfect for families. Focused on down-to-earth, truck-stop classics, it covers basics like traditional grilled cheese sandwiches and hearty beef stroganoff. This book is perfect for parents who are in desperate need of kid-friendly recipes or beginner cooks wanting to learn the basic hamburger and how to truss a chicken. Click here to buy it.
White Heat by Marco Pierre White
Forget the traditional recipe book, this is a celebrated memoir that has managed to influence the careers of several Michelin-starred celebrity, chefs. Often referred to as ‘gastroporn’, this is one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Food critic Jay Rayner said it was “possibly the most influential recipe book of the last 20 years.” Click here to get a copy.
Le Cordon Bleu’s Complete Cooking Techniques by Jeni Wright
An absolutely prolific reference book for the aspiring chef, this cookbook covers 700 techniques and 200 recipes by the renowned Institute. From everyday recipes to learning how to recreate a restaurant-quality dish, this book is one reference book that’s in my top five. Click here to get one.
The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen
If you’ve read any of my barbecue and grilling guides, you know that outdoor cooking over an open flame is one of my favorite seasonal pastimes. For those wanting to master the basic techniques and recipes, there is no book like The Barbecue Bible. It will teach you everything from how to light the grill to the type of charcoal you should select and what tools to use. It’s a compendium of knowledge and one that every aspiring pit master should have on their bookshelf. Click here to get a copy today.
Boy Meets Grill by Bobby Flay
Few chefs consider grilling anything more than just a hobby, but celebrity chef Bobby Flay made a career out of it. Arguably one of the most celebrated grill masters, he takes everyday ingredients from the supermarket and elevates them in ways you never thought of. He’s written many books on grilling, but this is one I keep going back to and the one that made him the king of the grill. Click here for your copy.
The Big Green Egg Cookbook by Lisa Mayer
The Big Green Egg is probably the most revered barbecue on the market. In my opinion, nothing compares to it. We recommended it in our barbecue and grill guide, and now we’re suggesting the cookbook that its loyal followers look to for advice. If you own a Big Green Egg, this book is full of recipes that are tailored exclusively to the grill. It’s not the most read book on my shelf, but it’s one that I always recommend. Click here for a copy.
Weber’s New Real Grilling by Jamie Purviance
The Big Green Egg is a fantastic grill, but my Weber Kettle is the one I cook on the most. Weber is the quintessential American barbecue, and this book has classic American recipes perfect for any backyard party. Whether you’re the suburban Dad cooking for your family, or you’re hosting a neighborhood block party, this book is the one you want at your fingertips with the Kettle is your grill of choice. Click here to get a copy.
Meat: Everything You Need to Know by Pat LaFrieda
Just the name is enough to make most people look at this book, but the fact that it’s written by Pat LaFrieda is what keeps people coming back. LaFrieda is one of the most acclaimed butchers in the world, and he takes his carnal knowledge of meat and teaches you everything you need to know. This book is a must for the carnivore. Click here to buy it.
From online apps and websites to book store shelves littered with cookbooks, there is no shortage of recipes available for the home cook and professional chef. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them are geared to the mindless drone who thinks pepper is spicy, and spray cheese is edible. Far too often do cook books cater to the mass population. Chances are if you consider the Olive Garden a quality Italian restaurant you won’t like any of my recommendations. However, if you look at food as art, appreciate fine dining and respect the appeal of family-style meals elevated than hopefully at least one of the books mentioned above will be enjoyed by you. What’s your favorite cook book? What’s your favorite recipe?