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The Importance of a Good Cookbook

December 3, 2012

Starting to cook wasn’t easy for me.

Sure, there were those early cooking experiences in my teens and in college, but those don’t really count. For the most part that wasn’t cooking, but rather doctoring. Browning ground beef and adding jarred tomato sauce and seasonings was a good starting place. In high school I made this for a first date one weekend when my parents were out of town. It went over well at the time.

In college I progressed to recreating the flavors of cheddar fondue with only the available shelf stable ingredients at my disposal. It was a good exercise in creating deliciousness, but it was more assembly than cooking.

Cooking didn’t start in earnest until I began reading cookbooks. And even still, a few of those early experiences were disastrous. However, sometimes you need to permit yourself to fail so that you can learn from mistakes and grow as a cook. It also helps to have cookbooks that you trust, and that don’t just give you recipes, but also help you to better understand a cuisine.

Of all my cookbooks, there is one that I consider central to my ideas on food. And I couldn’t be happier to have a brand new copy of it to give away to one of you.

The book is Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Don’t just take my word for it, there was a gushing piece about it on HuffPo. My copy is well worn with the pages naturally opening to the recipes for pesto, polenta, risotto, Bolognese meat sauce, frittate, and panzanella. These are the staples.

The book has no glossy photographs. It’s not about food styling. It’s about teaching you the fundamentals to make incredibly delicious Italian food. Marcella’s techniques can be fastidious. Some of the recipes are quite involved. And honestly, they aren’t all winners (deboned chicken with beef stuffing is elaborate and tastes exactly like a roast chicken wrapped meatloaf).

But besides that one notable exception, I’ve never been let down.

Unfortunately, it has ruined most Italian restaurant food for me. Once you read her description of risotto and make one properly, almost anything at any restaurant that bears this dish’s name will be a disappointment. ADS said that it’s not even fair to hold a restaurant’s food up to this standard. And he’s probably right. But I just can’t help it.

My good fortune at placing second in the Bellini’s recipe contest resulted in an All Clad stainless roasting pan. Officially it’s a lasagna pan, but it’s effectively the same thing. Anyway, included with this amazing piece of cookware was a brand new copy of my beloved cookbook.

Naturally, I’m compelled to give it to one of you.

Now part of this is on the honor system, because I’d prefer that this book goes to an actual reader. So if you already own a copy of this cookbook, congratulations. You are respectfully asked to sit this one out. I know that it would make a great gift for your mother/cousin/brother, but this giveaway isn’t about regifting. It’s about me sharing something special with one of you.

I’m also going to inscribe a personal note to the winner inside the cover of the book. So if you give it to your Father, he’s going to ask, “Who is this Daniel B. guy and why is he so happy I’ve got this book?” And no, if you win, I won’t inscribe it to someone else. This is for you and you alone.

That said, just like always, the winner will be chosen from the qualifying comments below by Random.org. Just leave a comment by 11p on Saturday, December 8 that answers the following question, “Which cookbook has been most fundamental to your understanding about food and cooking?”

Remember, The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t a cookbook. It’s not. And anyone who says, How To Serve Man will get a spanking. I’m serious. I want to know. No judgements. Good luck.

Oh, and also to win you will have to comment using a valid email address so I can get in contact privately after the drawing. The book will be mailed, so the winner will need to give me some kind of mailing address. All information will be kept private, not sold, leased, lent, yadda yadda yadda. But I sincerely hope you all would have figured that out on your own.

43 Comments
  1. December 3, 2012 10:44 am

    OK – here goes: Betty Crocker! It was what my mom had and used, and it’s what I used and relied on for many years. I still use some of those recipes. When I started to get more serious, I relied on The Joy of Cooking. Since then, there have been many others, but they were the first. BTW, just to give you an idea of the era – I won’t tell you my age, but my mom will be 91 in January!

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:04 am

    The Barefoot Contessa’s original cookbook. She has wonderful basics like her “Perfect” Roast Chicken that are simple and delicious. It gave me the confidence to try harder and more involved dishes. Thanks for this post- I’m going to thumb through my cookbooks and look for something new to make!

  3. Randy K permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:26 am

    How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Great intro about equipment/tools, cooking techniques, knife skills… Then he breaks things down by ingredient at the simplest level. This was a great resource as I started experimenting in the kitchen – often without actual recipes.

    I’d love a copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking! Would also consider sharing it with a good friend who has decided it’s time to move past his bachelor pad days and learn a thing or two in the kitchen! :)

  4. Andrew permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:27 am

    I’m Just Here for the Food, by Alton Brown. It is my go-to source for simple things like roast chicken. It provides a good foundation upon which to build and grow as a cook.

  5. dogwalker permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:35 am

    I learned in stages, each accompanied by a printed guide. First, as a teenager when my mother became ill, I learned some basic things like roasting and other meat preparations from a cooking pamphlet from Metropolitan Life. After college, marriage, and career, I was guided into making recipes by the early Hazan, The Classic Italian Cook Book. This was stepping beyond the ways I had watched my Nonni prepare food and yet so in keeping with the basic elements that guided her and formed my tastes. Hazan was my Chef Nonni, my internalized guide at the stove today.

  6. Sandra permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:42 am

    The Joy of Cooking was my go-to cookbook when I was a newlywed and and a new cook. it taguht me many of the basics, that I still use today.

  7. December 3, 2012 11:59 am

    As with Sandra, The Joy of Cooking has been a staple in my kitchen since childhood. I give it to every bride-to-be. However, the book that made a difference in my food adventures is Rozanne Gold’s Recipes 1-2-3. Pure and simple bliss on a plate! If you are not familiar, I highly recommend that you dive in and enjoy.

  8. Matt permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:04 pm

    Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking was key for me too! My copy opens to Meatballs and tomatoes (and the middle 1/8th is falling out because I’ve broken the binding!)

  9. J Warren-Anderson permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:05 pm

    I already have Marcella’s cookbook and love it, so I’m just sharing. I have two– I love the original Moosewood and a more recent favorite is “Food to Live By”.

  10. llcwine permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:15 pm

    My McCall’s cookbook….a basic no frills cookbook….that I can then take the recipes and go wild…once I have the basics of the recipe….

  11. December 3, 2012 12:18 pm

    How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Bittman. I love cookbooks that give you a basic overview of skills and ingredients, and emphasize the importance of quality ingredients.

  12. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:20 pm

    No contest. The Joy of Cooking.

  13. Bob W. permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:20 pm

    Like Randy K, the book that really got me started was Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” I still use it today — his chicken curry in a hurry is a well-loved staple in my house. The man helped me make onions palatable to my wife and three sons, onion-haters all — he is certainly some kind of genius.

  14. Tonia permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:33 pm

    It’s a three way for me, between Betty Crocker (the original one – which I was lucky to find a copy of in an antique store), the Fanny Farmer Cookbook (the original one also, which I was lucky to find a copy of at a garage sale), and the Joy of Cooking. I used all three growing up. And, still regularly use the first two for certain recipes.

    On another note, I’m with you on Italian food. I am yet to find a [loca] Italian restaurant that can compare to anything I cook at home.

    • Randy K permalink
      December 3, 2012 1:51 pm

      are you in the Albany area? Have you tried Katrinella’s Bistro?

  15. Jess permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:35 pm

    “The Best Recipe” from Cook’s Illustrated.

  16. Susan L. permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:38 pm

    I have to admit I learned quite a bit from “The Frugal Gourmet On Our Immigrant Ancestors”. It includes historical background as well as information on process and equipment. Hey, it’s far from high brow, but you can find decent recipes for items as various as Kani Salad to Jewish Honey Bread.

  17. Tom Cook permalink
    December 3, 2012 12:42 pm

    Easy Basics for good cooking. Ok, not the greatest tome on cooking, however, It helped me get started and develop a love of cooking for family and friends. My cooking may have evolved, but the fun of seeing people enjoy a meal never goes away.

  18. December 3, 2012 1:17 pm

    I started with Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Child, Berthole and Beck Vol 1 and 2. Now I have probably 100+ cookbooks, many are specific to a type of cusine. One of my frequent go to books is Cooking Under Pressure, especially for getting the cooking times. Classic Italian Cook Book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking and the New York Times International Cook Book are also pretty worn.

  19. December 3, 2012 1:27 pm

    I’ve gotta go with “The New Best Recipe,” if I have to pick only one — Cooks Illustrated/ATK is always really good at explaining the whys of a recipe, not just the hows. I don’t always use it for everything I want to cook, but it’s often at least a good starting point.

  20. Jenna C. permalink
    December 3, 2012 1:39 pm

    In recent years – “How to Cook Everything” by Bittman. When I was a young teenager and just starting out – The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook – a 3 ring binder affair of my mother’s (given to her by my father’s mother when they were married). Just a few years ago, when Nina Bella passed away I was given her orginal copy from the fifties, complete with all her margin notes and random handwritten recipes tucked into it. I don’t really use it anymore but it is, of course, very precious to me

  21. Mary permalink
    December 3, 2012 1:54 pm

    I have relied on my “Better Homes & Gardens” spiral-bound cookbook since I received it as a housewarming present from my mother. She always relied exclusively on hers, and it provides thoroughly field-tested recipes on a wide variety of foods. It has a WONDERFUL index (truly a painstaking artform), its list of substitutions is super-helpful, and its tips on cakes and gravies are valuable. I have rarely been disappointed by a recipe there, and it’s a good basic place to start.

  22. Afsal permalink
    December 3, 2012 2:00 pm

    I think it’s a toss up between joy of cooking and bittman’s how to cook anything veg. Joy for a recipe for anything and bittman for starting to show me variation. But I still feel like its very tough to improvise.

  23. Diana permalink
    December 3, 2012 2:33 pm

    The Original King Arthur Flour cookbook. Not just a collection of recipes, but why things work the way they do in baking, and how to adjust recipes. My love of yeast baking began with this book.

  24. December 3, 2012 2:35 pm

    Hazan’s Essentials would certainly be on my list of favorites, so I’m sitting this contest out – but I’ll put in my two cents anyway. You did not ask for our “favorite” but the one most “fundamental to our understanding of food and cooking”. My favorite style of cooking is French farmhouse “bistro”. Bordain’s Les Halles Cookbook shows how to do this restaurant style / for large dinner parties – what can be cooked ahead, how to time all of the dishes. etc. That is probably my favorite. (or tied with Jacques Pepin’s “Techniques”) The one cookbook that covers the fundamentals best, and describes ALL of the basics from carving to pastas to banana bread, already has a few votes – Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I agree. Since its original printing HTCE has been our standard “wedding present” for new couples.

  25. -R. permalink
    December 3, 2012 2:36 pm

    I would have to say Meta Given’s “The Modern Family Cookbook” first published in 1942. It contains some recipes that you would never hear anymore: who makes their own marmalade for example? Meta Given does. Want to know how to make an amazing pot roast? Meta can help. Fundamentally sound, extremely clearly written, and you’ll make the best pie crust you’ve ever had – seriously.

  26. lakesider permalink
    December 3, 2012 3:15 pm

    Another vote for The Joy of Cooking. Requested it as a Christmas gift the year I started college….and basically left the nest. Still turn to it today when my middle-aged brain forgets a basic!

  27. Uncle Laurie permalink
    December 3, 2012 5:19 pm

    For laughs – Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Cookbook”. For meatless, Romanelli’s Meatless Cookbook, and for hometown, Danny Fusco’s WRUN recipe collection book.

  28. December 3, 2012 5:26 pm

    “Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily” By Jessica Theroux. Up until I read it, cooking for me had always been a daily task…sometimes creative, sometimes great fun, sometimes a chore, but really just one of those things you do everyday as part of routine. That book make me stop and look at it from a completely different point of view…that cooking is integral to community and culture and your own family connections, and it’s sort of a culinary version of passing on a society’s wisdom and a family’s history through age-old storytelling. It’s people-based as much as it is written recipe-based, and cooking and eating become so very much more enjoyable when experienced with honor towards all those who had a hand in bringing that dish to your table.

  29. December 3, 2012 6:43 pm

    While my first cookbook was Betty Crocker, it was the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook that really taught me about technique and building flavors. In addition, their Healthy Family Cookbook has been a staple in recent years as it contains healthier versions of recipes that don’t sacrifice using whole foods. It’s not about “fat free” or any of that crap – it’s about rethinking the way we cook and eat. It’s a fabulous companion to the original Family Cookbook.

  30. christine permalink
    December 3, 2012 7:18 pm

    It’s a toss up for me between The Joy of Cooking and Better Homes and Gardens because they are the cookbooks that I used to learn to cook. I wonder if that Pioneer Woman- Ree Drummond has a cookbook? If she does, it will be my least favorite because something about her really gets under my skin….

  31. Kate H permalink
    December 3, 2012 11:02 pm

    I’ve got 2, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I’ve had since I was 17 back in 1978 (and has no spine left, held together by a rubber band) and the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking which I got back in the 90’s. While other cookbooks give me inspiration I find myself returning to these for techniques and good dependable recipes over and over.

  32. December 3, 2012 11:45 pm

    My most food stained and tattered cookbook these days is Around My French Table (Dorie Greenspan) – it’s the cookbook that has taken my cooking to the next level from a skill standpoint. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, Vegetarian is a staple – but more as a solid resource and less about technique…

  33. amanda_ny permalink
    December 4, 2012 12:04 am

    When I first started cooking for myself, the pale sterility of the meat section of the supermarket wasn’t nearly as appealing as the produce section (I lived by a Whole Foods). Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone doesn’t have great pictures but it is a great resource for making use of every sort of vegetable and taught me flavor profiles and techniques from a cross section of world cuisines.

  34. namec's cook permalink
    December 4, 2012 12:05 am

    Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food.”

  35. DEN permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:16 pm

    Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” Yeah, I was hopeless

  36. Lisa Jaffe permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:25 pm

    The New Best Recipe became my new best friend when I began to get serious about cooking. It appeals to both my scientific and creative sides. I’m a doctor turned caterer. I have to understand why and how things work in order to change them up. The book lays cooking out like a science experiment that ends in wonderful chemistry. I never had grandmothers to show me how to navigate the kitchen. My mom was busy raising five kids with little time to get creative in the kitchen. My cookbooks became my teachers and this one has never let me down.

  37. enough already! permalink
    December 5, 2012 12:33 pm

    Joy of cooking because of all the “about” sections prefacing each section. That was late 60s, but today if I needed guidance it might be bittman. Been wanting the hazan, however. Thanks for the opportunity.

  38. PensiveEngineer permalink
    December 5, 2012 12:42 pm

    The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook was a staple for my mom and now for me. It illustrates techniques so you don’t have to guess what the author is aiming for if you’ve never used a cooking technique before. Her other staple, Ich helf dir Kochen, is in German, but one I will have to pick up someday.

  39. December 5, 2012 2:04 pm

    Definitely Joy of Cooking was my go to cooking bible. However, if cooking shows count, I’d say Alton Brown contributed more to my “understanding”.

  40. Edward permalink
    December 6, 2012 2:22 am

    Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was most essential to my understanding since it encompassed so damn much. The Silver Spoon helped me understand Italian food and the Italian take on food in general.

    Also, while not yet a cookbook, The Food Lab, over at Serious Eats, is incredible for applying the basic scientific method to cooking- it, more than anything else, has helped me better understand cooking and food.

  41. Carrie Tworek permalink
    December 6, 2012 1:30 pm

    I received the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book when I got married. Not much of a technique book but it started me off. I would start with one recipe idea from the pages and work on it, sometimes for years to improve and make better from the simplicity of what was on the page.

  42. kerosena permalink
    December 7, 2012 1:30 am

    Better Homes & Gardens. I cooked my first dinner party from that book when I was in 10th grade. I used to love to read all the recipes and I think it helped to foster my love of food and cooking.

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