Cooking 101: Instructional Cookbooks

Cookbooks can contain a wealth of information beyond just recipes. Some cookbooks act as an anthropological record of society and culture  at a given point in time. Some are instructional. Some whimsical. Some humorous. What? You’ve never read a funny cookbook?  They’re out there, if you just know where to look.

I read cookbooks like some people read novels. I could go on and on about my favorite cookbooks, because I’m kind of dorky like that, however since the list is fairly extensive and y’all have lives outside of reading my little blog, I thought I would start with the ones that inspire me and make me a better cook.  When I first learned to cook, cookbooks were my lifeline. I followed the recipes to the letter because quite frankly, it never occurred to me to deviate from the text.  As I grew *ahem* older, I wanted to be a little more creative and cook from instinct.  I am passionate about food, so I want to know the how/why behind recipes and cooking methods so that I fully understand the process and improve my own abilities.

I firmly believe that anyone can cook great tasting food after gaining a little insight into ingredients, and cooking methods. (Yes, really!) Nothing is too difficult when you break it down into baby steps, which is what I hope to convey with the recipes posted here on Comfortably Domestic. I want you to see the food, want to devour it, and be confident enough with the method that you are inspired to try it at home.

So whether you want to learn the basics of how to cook, or just want to learn more so that you become better at the craft, here are my favorite instructional cookbooks:

The Best Recipe by the Editors of Cooks Illustrated magazine.

This is by far one of my favorite method cookbooks because they not only give you a recipe, but also a page or two of text explaining what flavors/textures they were trying to achieve, and the different methods/ingredients that they played around with to achieve the desired result.  This is great because you can learn from their mistakes, or find a different recipe if their end results don’t match your own preferences.

For example, say that you want to make creme brulee. You read that their desired texture for cream brulee is firm and eggy.  You prefer a make smooth and creamy creme brulee, so you know to look for a different recipe.  No wasted effort and ingredients!

The Best Recipe also provides detailed illustrations for just about every cooking or preparation technique.  This is very helpful if, like me, you buy a semi-boneless leg of lamb for Easter dinner, and didn’t realize that removing a stinky lymph node would be required before cooking.

Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker

I have a vintage copy of Joy of Cooking, and it is probably my number one resource for ingredient and method research.  The first 1/3 of the book  explores different types of heat, ingredients, and cooking methods. With thousands of recipes, each new recipe category has text explaining any new methods needed for that chapter. The sourdough method and recipe that I posted in my Fear Not Bread series last fall are from this cookbook.  This is a great book for a things-Grandma-should’ve-told-you-about-cooking approach to the basics and beyond.

I’m Just Here For the Food by Alton Brown.

Famed host of Food Network’s Good Eats, Feasting on Asphalt/Waves, and Iron Chef America, Alton Brown knows how food works.  He is a technical guy that set out to write a cookbook that focused on the foundation of all cooking: heat.

He begins by explaining how to read a recipe, then explores the different types of heat, and the methods of searing, roasting, braising, boiling, and frying, with categorical recipes for each.  I’m Just Here For the Food earned him the coveted James Beard Award–which is the equivalent of winning the Culinary Super Bowl. The book is very conversational, somewhat kitschy, and easy to understand. Oh, and he’s funny!  Any cookbook author that makes a This Is Spinal Tap reference in his text is all right with me.

“This one goes to eleven.” 

I’m Just Here For More Food by Alton Brown.

In his follow up to I’m Just Here For the Food, AB explores the realm of baking. (Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking)  He explains that all baking can be broken down into six major mixing methods, and provides numerous recipes for each method. This book is a great starting point for any aspiring baker.

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

Founder of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant, and well known proponent of the Slow Food Movement, Alice Waters minimalist approach to delicious food hinges on the use of fresh, local, sustainable ingredients obtained directly from farms or farmers markets.

She explains her culinary philosophy, as well as how to cook from scratch, and plan menus.  The recipes are simple, and easy to follow.

Much of the book is dedicated to ingredients: what they are, when they are in season, and what to do with them. The Art of Simple Food is a must for anyone wanting to cook from scratch, and eat responsibly.

Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

I picked up Culinary Artistry based on the recommendation from a chef of one of my favorite local restaurants.  Half of the text is like listening in on conversations with James Beard Award winning chefs talking about how they feel about the food they create.  Think chef-as-artist.  Chefs discuss their menus, techniques, provide a sample menu, and offer a few recipes.  Sounds pretty dorky, eh? Well, it is, BUT…

…the other half of the book is full of these nifty little ingredient spreadsheets. The primary ingredient is listed in bold type, along with when it is in season. Then they list all of the other ingredients that will compliment the primary ingredient, along with the best cooking methods to use.

Seriously–how cool is that?  Definitely worth the price of admission.

The Food Matches Made in Heaven section is an invaluable resource when trying to cook from scratch, cook on the fly, or even see what can be combined with stuff already in the pantry to make a meal.

If you are exceptionally dorky like me, you’ll get a kick out of the food anthropology tidbits scattered about.

Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating by Mark Bittman.

Food Matters is heavy on New York Times columnist Bittman’s no-nonsense approach to eating responsibly for the environment, and your body.  Before your eyes glaze over, know that his approach to responsible eating does not demand subsisting solely on beans, rice, and tofu, or being deprived of comfort food.

Because y’all know that I’m all about comfort food!  I also happen to live with 5 males that would not eat rice with beans or tofu if their lives depended on it.

The recipes are a collection of simple combinations of fresh food, punctuated with a lot of great add-in ideas.  Bittman is also the author of How to Cook Everything, and many other cookbooks featuring simple, approachable recipes.

So there ya have it–my favorite instructional cookbooks. Think of them like a Cooking 101 course in the privacy of your own home.

BTW–NanaBread did a great post about her favorite cookbooks, here.

Not-so-fineprint: None of the authors, their publishers, the James Beard Foundation, or have any idea who I am.  I think it would be super cool if they did, but for now I will just stalk appreciate them from afar.


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  1. says

    This is a great post. Seriously! It was very clearly explained, and got someone who’s “challenged” in the cooking department to think about what I’d begin reading if I ever decide to kick my husband out of the kitchen (he’s the family chef) and take over that arena.

    • says

      Christine, you should totally pick up a book or two from the library. Alton Brown’s are great for “newer” cooks because of the how/why explanations. Do it for no other reason that to shock your husband so he won’t make any more snarky comments about your cooking skills on your blog. 😉

  2. says

    Awesome post! I love hearing what inspires other cooks, and I’ve used that knowledge to add to my cookbook collection over the years. I love that your Joy of Cooking looks well-worn. That’s a great sign that a cookbook is loved. If you’re shopping for used books and see a cookbook covered in food spatters, you know it was loved and used often. I also rely on the Tasty Kitchen page of the Pioneer Woman’s website now. It’s like having access to the world’s largest church or family cookbook. I could browse those shared recipes for hours. Thanks for sharing your favorites, Kirsten. I’m going to have to hit the book store now!

    • says

      Thanks! I love seeing what inspires others to cook or create, too. I was cracking up when I saw your cookbook post, because I had started one of my own, which got very, very long, so this post was the edited version. I really like TK for the same reason that I like “church lady cookbooks,” because just about every recipe is tried, true, and a favorite. My TK recipe box is bursting with things that I want to try.

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing! Very interesting! I don’t own that many, because I’m too much of a rebel to follow a recipe accurately (except when baking, and even then it doesn’t work anyway. Too done, not done enough, etc.) So, many of the few cookbooks I own are about my love for books. Like Ming Tsai’s, and Wolfgang Puck’s. I’m never gonna cook that stuff, but I appreciate the book, so I own it and sometimes look through it. I guess I treat them the same way I treat coffee table books! :)

    Great post!

  4. says

    What a great list! I especially like the Food Matches Made in Heaven. I’ll be back to check out some of these that are new to me.

  5. says

    This is a great list – I’m particularly fond of the America’s Test Kitchen/Cook’s Illustrated book. Mainly because I have an addiction to ATK/CI…Cook’s Country Cookbook just came in the mail two days ago and I haven’t put it down since. There needs to be a Cookbook AA. Just sayin’.

  6. says

    This is great! Now I want to go buy a bunch of cook books! I have always loved watch AB–even my husband likes his show because it is so informative.
    Thanks for this!

  7. says

    I love cookbooks, but I have to admit I don’t really read a lot into things. My husband is obsessed with Alton Brown, but for me I just like to cook without thinking a lot about it. My favorites include How to Cook Everything, any cookbook by Cooking Light, and The Joy of Cooking. I recently borrowed The Whole Foods Cookbook from the library. I am excited to read that.

  8. says

    How cool that you have a vintage copy of The Joy of Cooking. My daughter Kristin and son-in-law Shawn are the cooking experts in our family, and they have quite a cookbook collection, too. One of Kristin’s tips is going to appear in a cooking magazine, too!

  9. says

    I LOVE The Best Recipe! Cook’s Illustrated is my go-to source when I am trying to figure out how to make something new. I just love the science behind everything. That cookbook is also my standard wedding gift.

  10. says

    I teach cooking -“FACS” the course is Cultures & Cuisines, at our local high school… I just found your website while doing some research on eggs. Loved your step by step method of cooking hard boiled eggs. Used the recipe for my class. Have a husband who has a man crush on Alton Brown, have three boys, read cookbooks like novels too and have all of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and found MAD Hungry by Lucinda Scala Quinn. as well as the books you mentioned. I am a big fan of your site.

    • says

      Wow! I’m honored that you used my recipe for your class, Kate. We seem to have quite a bit in common. Any mama of boys that reads cookbooks like novels is welcome around here any time! Thanks again for the Easter recipe idea!


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