1. Betty Crocker 1950 Picture Cookbook Absolutely gloriously retro. There are 7 basic food groups instead of four, the recipes use butter instead of oil, and there are helpful tips on stretching your meat dollar with rice and noodles and cream sauce until it's practically transparent. I wouldn't make all of the recipes in the book--I've never dared brave the appetizer's section--but it's still my go to for basic baking and comfort foods like meatloaf and Mac and Cheese. And the "tips for housewives" are good for hours of priceless merriment.
This one is also really excellent for a beginning cook or baker, because there are pictures and detailed instructions for things like how one creams butter, beats egg whites, or even boils an egg. Practically says "take the egg and crack it" for those who might otherwise think it went in, shell and all.
2. The Cooks Illustrated Omnibus There are fewer page-long descriptions of the theory and process behind the recipes--but there are a whole lot of recipes. And while they're fussy, they're easy enough to follow, and they're frequently best in class.
3. Fast Food My Way and More Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin These are simple recipes that take only minutes of prep time--but unlike most things that take only minutes of prep time, they are actually delicious. They're great for busy professionals or couples who want to make a little bit of really good food in a hurry.
4. Slow Cooker Revolution by America's Test Kitchen These recipes are not as fast as the typical "put in three pounds of stew meat and two cans of cream of mushroom soup". The results, however, are much, much better, and there's a nice variety of recipes--we've made everything from Lamb Vindaloo to the Buttermilk and Scallion Mashed Potatoes. They can usually be prepped ahead of time and put in the slow cooker in the morning; when you come home ten hours later, you've got a neat kitchen and a delicious meal waiting for you.
5. Best Simple Recipes by America's Test Kitchen Another great book for busy professionals. As a distinctly amateur cook of Asian food, I particularly recommend their stir fry recipes, which may not be authentic, but consistently taste great.
6. I'm Just Here for the Food and I'm Just Here for More Food So, I don't actually like many of Alton Brown's recipes. What I like is learning the theory behind how my recipes work, and getting tips like cooking my pancakes on a 350 degree electric griddle (absolutely perfect results every time, and it can be done at the brunch table). Even though I don't use many of his recipes, he has made me a much better cook.
7. Mastering the Art of French Cooking You must have it, if only because this is the woman who weaned America off of the idea that canned Cream of Shrimp Soup could make any dinner an elegant party. Like most people, I use it mostly for small dinner parties where I can spend three days prepping my Boeuf Bourguignon. But it's incredibly useful for theory and technique, and in fact, there are a great number of simpler recipes if you look for them. If you find this a little too intimidating to start out, her Way to Cook is a somewhat more stripped down technique-and-recipe book that produces uniformly excellent results without some of the OCD Cordon Bleu flourishes.
8. Julia Child's Kitchen Wisdom It's an odd little book--essentially, her notebook of tips and tricks. (My favorite: if you don't want all the calories of a cream soup, simmer a few spoonfuls of rice or diced potato in it instead. When you puree, you'll get a lovely creamy texture.) Particularly recommended for a beginning cook.
9. Ad Hoc at Home Thomas Keller's idea of what one whips up on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not the same as most cooks'. His recipes are exacting, and often require hunting down ingredients that most of us don't necessarily have on hand. (Thank you, internet!) On the other hand, the results are inarguable. The best fried chicken I've ever eaten, the iceberg-and-blue-cheese salad taken to sublime heights. Indispensible for those weekends when you're feeling ambitious. Just understand that it may take the whole weekend.
10. How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian As you can see, I mostly do not tend towards the slim specialist volumes. Marc Bittman's two books are big doorstops, packed with recipes. They're like the anti-Thomas-Keller; the recipes are designed to be simple and easy to put together. Unlike most recipes that are designed to be simple and easy to put together, the results are nearly uniformly excellent. I've never made a bad meal out of these books. How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is an absolute must-have for a vegetarian or vegan, whose cooking repertoires can get so easily get monotonous.
11. Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking and Marcella's Italian Kitchen I grew up with these books, and they're still my go-to for Italian. It's authentic, fairly comprehensive, versatile . . . and delicious. The pesto is by far the best recipe I've ever had, as is the bolognese (and the recipe for making lasagna from it).
12. Maida Heatter's Dessert Books Many of these are out of print, but you can order them from Amazon. I have her Great Desserts, New Book of Great Desserts, and her Cakes book; my mother has even more.
I may be excessively attached to these books simply because I grew up with them, but I rather like their 1970s/1980s sensibility--a sophisticated, almost austere, take on baked goods. These are most definitely recipes for adults, not for kids. She became famous in the great era of Taking Cooking Seriously, so--unlike most modern baking books--the recipes are often quite exacting and time consuming, involving somewhat excessive fussing with parchment paper.
The results, however, are worth it. She's especially good with chocolate, which she clearly loves (she has an entire book of chocolate desserts). I am not myself a chocolate freak, but she's who I turn to when there's a chocolate freak coming to my table.
13. Rose Levy Berenbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible I find it very hard to learn pastry techniques from a book. Most baking is chemistry: put in the ingredients in the right order, bake at the right temperature, and the reaction automatically follows. But pastry, more than any other kind of baking, relies on look and feel. Birnbaum, however, is a gifted writer who manages to convey what you need to know almost as well as you'd get it from standing at your mother's right elbow.
14. The Gourmet Magazine omnibus In many ways, the magazine's swan song; I would love it just as a memoir of a bygone era when dinner parties and holidays started with poring through Gourmet. Luckily, it's also a great cookbook. The recipes are excellent, with a nice variety of easy and difficult. An indispensible asset for dinner parties, because I guarantee you can find a large, delicious meal entirely within its pages . . . and pages . . . and pages.
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