Principles and rules are intended to provide a thinking man with a frame of reference - Karl Von Clausewitz
I learned to cook from cookbooks.
That was more than 30 years ago. My love affair with cookbooks has continued unabated. I collect them. I read them like novels. I spend a lot of time with them when perusing used bookstores. Each one has a story to tell good or bad.
I use a wonderful computer program from Collectorz.com to keep track of the books – and the corresponding apps for iPod and Kindle - to make sure that I don’t buy a copy of something I already own. I’ve been with them almost from the start and they keep making improvements. They also have apps for tracking music, games, movies and comics.
It is via their Connect service that you can browse the stacks of my cookbook library here.
I am often asked to recommend a cookbook, most recently in a podcast interview with Donnie Burtless of Buffalo Eats. It may be a starter cookbook or a book for a particular subject or ethnic cuisine. I have thought for some time that it might be useful to do a series of blog posts describing those cookbooks I consider “go-to” volumes. These are not necessarily the best cookbooks, nor the most authentic cookbooks, nor the most popular cookbooks, nor my favorite cookbooks. Rather, these are the cookbooks I find myself turning to time after time as reliable sources for culinary information.
Soon after I began to cook seriously I began giving cookbooks as gifts. For the beginning cook the choices were The Joy of Cooking as a general purpose resource and the New York Times Cookbook for an international flavor. For more advanced cooks my selection was Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. These were also books that I suggested when asked for recommendations. All three of these books are still solid choices, worthy of gift or favorable mention.
While those remain good choices, these days my selections are different. Time has passed and the cooking world is not remained static. For the advanced cook I would choose Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. For an international cookbook it would be David Rosengarten’s Dean and Deluca Cookbook (wouldn't mind an update - stuff is more familiar and). For an all-purpose cookbook, and my selection for this first blog post, it is How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
No. Despite my Sister-in-law's assertion that once you own it you shouldn’t need another cookbook, the title is puffery. Well intentioned, but puffery nonetheless. That said, it is a pretty thorough tome. It covers all the basics, and gives some solid variations on each theme.
Unlike Joy, it lacks instructions to gut and clean a fish (with illustrations) and you also won't find directions (with pictures) demonstrating the proper method for skinning and dressing a rabbit or squirrel. (Both grace the pages of the 1975 edition, but not in my earlier 1943 edition of Joy.) What you will find are a logically arranged series of recipes, clearly explained in both concept and process together with suggestions for variations on the theme.
Each chapter begins with a couple of “essential” recipes, marked with a handy “*” icon. There are additional icons for recipes that are fast, make ahead, or vegetarian. It is thorough yet unassuming.
It is the kind of reference you wish you could carry everywhere, but it’s a bit bulky for that. It weighs in at almost 5 pounds. Luckily, there is a convenient app (iPod only), which also happens to be one of the best cooking apps on the market.
I read in one commentary about the revised edition that it had a “reduced emphasis on professional techniques”. On the contrary, what I found lost were detailed drawings and directions useful for the home cook, and not something that one would only expect to be used by a restaurant chef.
That one observation aside this book remains an important work and a wonderful initial building block for one’s cooking library.