Essential French cooking book?

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This one being the one all French professional cooks have to study in order to take their vocational diploma exam is THE reference. https://amzn.to/2A9uHP3 — if you're going to cook French cuisine then I recommend you own one copy as you'll probably use it as reference throughout your entire life/career.
 
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If you're just a home cook looking to expand your skills, there's the classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Childs. And you can find it in lots of places for quite a bit less money than French Fries suggestion.

Have you seen the movie Julia and Julie? No recipes, but a fun watch.

mjb.
 
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I'll recommend anything by James Peterson. His books are easy to understand and loaded with detailed information and great pictures. . Pepin and Child are standards that cover most everything you would need to know. Of course they also have videos that are great to watch. Plenty of other great books too.
As for understanding French cuisine, I think you have to appreciate that France and its' cooking styles are very regional in many respects, affected by the geography of the country and it's proximity to other countries along different borders. From mountains to the ocean and fertile valleys, cultural influences as well as different growing seasons, the cuisine is quite multi-faceted. There are books by other French Chefs in English who are not such house hold names but who have great cook books highlighting their work and the foods of their region.
The only thing I can think of that is universally French is the adherence to seasonality and freshness.
Good luck at any rate. There is a lot to learn.
 
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I suppose someone should have mentioned Escoffier. Certainly a classic French cookbook and the chapters have plenty of useful information.
But I have found the dishes to be dated and rigid and while the individual techniques and general knowledge are worth knowing, to focus on creating a particular numbered recipe does not really equip anyone to deal with cooking in a more spontaneous, creative or generally useful way when the end goal is simply to "be able to cook"
Which to me means being able to prepare a great meal with whatever you find on hand. If I can't find cockscombs or don't have truffles on hand, should I starve? if I don't have fresh oysters, is the dish called Norman sole completely ruined, despite my cooking the fish perfectly?
Perhaps an uptated. version is needed, with modern terminology for measurements and an ingredient list more in line with modern tastes.
 
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I have owned the Escoffier Guide Culinaire and personally haven't found it useful other than for historical reference or curiosity. A few years ago I parted with it and haven't missed it ever since. Even for a global reference, I prefer the Larousse Gastronomique.
 
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The Great Book of French Cuisine by Henri Paul Pellaprat
The problem with this one is that the English translation (at least the one I had before I tossed it) is an abomination - it's ''adapted for American kitchen''. It's not that there are errors, no, it's not about that at all. It's that it's a completely different book, with different recipes, Americanised. Apparently some American editor thought he was better than Pellaprat and took liberties he should not have taken. A similar problem with La Cuisine by Raymond Oliver. It completely baffles me why they do this, but those editors have zero respect.

I don't know how the Escoffier turned out in English because I have since long avoided English translations of French cookbooks. You should really get the French version, even if it means paying a bit more. Le guide culinaire is surely an amazing book, so is L'Art culinaire moderne (I slightly prefer the former), but in French.

Anyway I still think Elizabeth David is unsurpassed as English-language introduction to French cuisine. I also think that it's better to start with regional/rustic cuisine before attempting grande cuisine. After all, it's what every great French chef has grown up eating before he started his apprenticeship in a Michelin-starred kitchen.

One more recommendation - not a cookbook, but Bill Buford's recently released Dirt is another amazing introduction, you should definitely read it.
 
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I rather like the big Bocuse and Robuchon cookbooks. When you need to know exactly how to do something, step by step, you lean on Pépin, but Bocuse and Robuchon give a lovely picture of how classic French home cuisine actually looks and operates on its home turf.
 
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I suppose someone should have mentioned Escoffier. Certainly a classic French cookbook and the chapters have plenty of useful information.
But I have found the dishes to be dated and rigid and while the individual techniques and general knowledge are worth knowing, to focus on creating a particular numbered recipe does not really equip anyone to deal with cooking in a more spontaneous, creative or generally useful way when the end goal is simply to "be able to cook"
Which to me means being able to prepare a great meal with whatever you find on hand. If I can't find cockscombs or don't have truffles on hand, should I starve? if I don't have fresh oysters, is the dish called Norman sole completely ruined, despite my cooking the fish perfectly?
Perhaps an uptated. version is needed, with modern terminology for measurements and an ingredient list more in line with modern tastes.
I have owned the Escoffier Guide Culinaire and personally haven't found it useful other than for historical reference or curiosity. A few years ago I parted with it and haven't missed it ever since. Even for a global reference, I prefer the Larousse Gastronomique.
I totally agree with everything. If someone came to my house and asked to borrow it, I wouldn't miss it one bit if they never brought it back.
 
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