For some people, choosing a favorite cookbook is like choosing a favorite child. It might be even harder because there are hundreds of extraordinary books that have been published over the years. But the focus of this list is cookbooks you will want to use in your kitchen today.
Besides noting for the record that there are certainly many, many valid other choices, the following also needs to be explained. Most focused ethnic cookbooks (Mexican, Chinese) had to be skipped as did most books by chefs, books with esoteric or specific focuses (family, desserts, braising) and if you are a vegetarian, for example, your list might look a lot different.
With all of those explanations and qualifications out of the way, in no particular order, here are the 10 cookbooks that belong in everyone’s kitchen, if they don’t have a place already.
1) How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
When this book first came out, its hyperbolic title certainly grabbed everyone’s attention. But it turned out to be fairly accurate, and it’s certainly fair to say that this bestseller is a thorough and extremely well-written bible covering pretty much any recipe you can think of. It also has comprehensive information on techniques, ingredients and menus. Though over the book contains more than 2,000 recipes, Bittman identifies his “essential recipes,” so you don’t get lost in the volume. You will gain cooking skills and confidence from this book, as well an indispensible collection of recipes.
2) The Barefoot Contessa by Ina Garten
This is the one “personality driven” cookbook that made it onto this list, because Ina Garten’s accessible, crowd-pleasing recipes have made so many people feel like better cooks and better entertainers. Her sophisticated but unfussy dishes never fail to elicit those “oohs and ahhs” every cook is looking for. Many of these dishes have already become classics, like her Indonesian Ginger Chicken and Coconut Cupcakes. She has many other beautifully photographed books that make us want to run to the kitchen, but this was the one that started her ever-growing fan club.
3) Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker
What would a top 10 cookbook list be without this tome? It’s been called the definitive guide to American cooking history, and it lives up to that description. Originally published in 1936, the Joy of Cooking has been thoroughly updated for present-day kitchens, but has not lost its ability to act as an accessible chronicle of what good American cooking has been about over the past decades. With a matter-of-fact point of view, extremely detailed directions and a focus on homey classics, this is a book you will reach for over and over, when you are looking for that perfect chocolate cake, that roast chicken, that cornbread. Its trustworthy recipes and straightforward approach stand up to the test of time.
4) Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
The word “essential” in the title is completely accurate. Whether you’re trying your hand at homemade pasta and want the most precise, detailed instructions imaginable, or you just want a really authentic recipe for risotto, this is your book. Written in Hazan’s spirited, opinionated voice, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a compilation of updated text and recipes from her first two original works on Italian cooking. Hazan tells her readers that this book is meant to be used as a kitchen handbook ... for cooks of every level ... who want an accessible and comprehensive guide to the products, the techniques and the dishes that constitute imperishable Italian cooking.” Mission accomplished.
5) The Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen
If you only own one book on this subject, this is the one you want. The latest version of The Barbecue! Bible for this country’s (not to mention other countries’) go-to cooking method is smart, authoritative and bursting with information. FAQ’s are answered, color photographs illustrate the simplest to the most ambitious grilling methods and there are tips and definitions throughout. And then of course there are more than 500 recipes with well-researched dishes from other countries interwoven with American classics like burgers and pulled pork.
6) The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century by Amanda Hesser
Another cookbook that merits the word “essential” in the title, this is a walk down culinary history packaged up for a very modern kitchen. The book is huge, containing 1,400 recipes and the breadth of the material is useful, inspiring, educational and engaging all at the same time. Hesser presents the classics from the troves of the venerable New York Times’ 150-year old food archive, tested and often refreshed for today’s tastes, but always with a foundation of authenticity. Fricasse of Chicken with Tarragon, Perfect Pizza Dough and Al Forno’s Roasted Asparagus all snuggle up side by side in this volume, and some cool timelines give home cooks a nice sense of how food has evolved in this country.
This volume has been refreshed several times since its original publication in 1938. It would be hard to find a professional cook who does not have this book in his or her library, as it is literally an encyclopedia of all things food. It is crammed with definitions of culinary terms and techniques, figures in culinary history, kitchen tools and ingredients but it also contains more than 3,500 recipes. It sounds fancy, with its high falutin’ French title, but beginners looking to really understand what it means to sauté something, what scald means, or how to make a perfect chocolate pudding will find it extremely useful. While its focus is on classic European cooking, readers will also be able to find global information like the definition of basmati rice or a recipe for pad Thai, and the illustrations throughout are attractive and helpful.
8) Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
One of the undisputed queens of vegetarian cooking has updated one of her most classic works, and it is truly definitive. Madison is a brilliant combination of chef, teacher and writer. She demystifies vegetarian cooking for beginners, elevates the game for more advanced cooks and makes even die-hard carnivores want to bring more meat-free meals to the table. From creating a robust vegetable stock, to recipes for quesadillas, salads, gratins, roasted vegetables, and grain and bean dishes, this 1,400 recipe volume will leave the vegetarian cook wanting nothing. It also includes valuable information beyond the vegetarian world. A thorough A-to-Z vegetables chapter shows you what escarole is and how to prepare it, and other sections of the book focus on how to cook seasonally, cooking techniques like the proper way to hold a knife and how to plan a menu. Madison’s words are practical and clear, and her book is a pleasure and a comfort for home cooks, vegetarian or no.
9) Silver Palate Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso
The original came out more than 30 years ago, and a new version filled with beautiful color photos was released six years ago, but whichever version you find, you will fall in love with. Lukins and Rosso spawned a new generation of avid home cooks with their first collection of fresh, sophisticated and smart recipes, and it has stood the test of time. Imagine a world before balsamic vinegar and capers became everyday kitchen items -- a big chunk of thanks goes to these two women for opening up our eyes and our palettes. Chicken Marbella and Decadent Chocolate Cake are but two of the recipes in the book that have become entertaining classics. Quirky quotes and drawings, menus, ingredient info – everything adds up to a book that feels as special to read as to cook from, and will make you fall in love -- or re-fall in love -- with being in the kitchen.
10) Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease by Rozanne Gold
Rozanne Gold first made her mark on the cookbook world with a series of three-ingredient cookbooks that contained recipes shocking in their sophisticated simplicity. Now she allows herself to stretch beyond the three ingredient limit, but still clings fiercely to the notion of keeping things pared down both in preparation and in the list of ingredients. The book is stunning to look at, and the recipes are modern and viscerally appealing. If recipes with titles like Runny Eggs on Creamy Scallion-Bacon Grits or Heirloom Tomatoes with Lemony Tahini get your blood pumping, this book will inspire and instruct.