The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.
Short of enrolling in a cooking school, is there not a more direct, less haphazard way to arrive at a fuller idea of the theory behind good cooking? One gets the sense that chefs and cookbook authors are in possession of some magnificent guidebook full of culinary insights, consulting it to construct their dishes and revealing its secrets to everyday cooks only in fragments. No book could live up to that hyperbolic image, but I was still surprised, after roughly a year of searching, to find that there are very few books that concisely articulate the concepts that underlie good cooking, in a way that neither patronizes nor overwhelms. One might call what I was looking for “a metacookbook”—a book not about a certain cuisine or style of cooking, but about cooking itself—and I found good ones to be surprisingly rare.
One of the reasons for this is that the standard recommendations for a concept-based book about cooking are not completely helpful. Many of them, I found, were not metacookbooks at all, but rather in-depth guides to mastering the fundamentals of a classically respected cuisine (most often French or Italian) or matter-of-fact catalogues of cooking techniques, such as how to poach an egg or make a soufflé that doesn’t cave in. And of the recommendations that did fit the category, few struck a readable balance between in-the-weeds scientific digressions and everyday pragmatism. After reading through about a dozen metacookbooks, I did eventually arrive at the sort of knowledge I’d hoped for, but I also saw how some were much better than others at getting me there. Of all of them, my favorite—and the one I’m most likely to recommend to a beginning cook with even a faint desire to improve—is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is out this week.
But before getting to Nosrat, I started where nearly everyone appears to start: with Mark Bittman. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was the first book several people (and websites) recommended to me when I first described the sort of knowledge I was after. Indeed, it was the first cookbook I ever received, from a gift-giver who correctly guessed that it would satiate my culinary curiosity (or, less charitably, that it would finally stop me from hovering over the stove, asking questions about every step of a preparation).
People start with How to Cook Everything for good reason: It is near-encyclopedic and approachably written. Moreover, it is highly reliable; when following one of its recipes, disappointments are rare, especially compared to what comes of cooking from the recipes that can appear at the top of Google results. All this, plus the fact that it includes many variations on each recipe, makes How to Cook Everything a fantastic book to have on hand, especially for beginners.