help picking the right book

Joined Aug 8, 2011
I recently moved out on my own, and have never really good before in my life.

I am looking for a book that will show my why i am using certain ingredients and help me understand why i am making something a certain way. Also something that will show the very basics of cooking. i don't just want to follow a recipe, i want to be able to know how to put my spin on something. Basically i am looking for the ultimate beginner cookbook that will help me understand what i am doing and how to do it.

Right now i am contemplating these 4 books...

1) Joy of cooking 75th anniversary edition.

2) Betty Crocker - cookbook

3) Mark Bittman - how to cook everything

4) Clueless in the Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens

Which of these do u believe is best for me if any. Thank you so much for your time.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
The Best Recipe line of books from Cook's Illustrated talks about how they developed each recipe, things they tried, what worked, what didn't and why.  Good starting point for understanding cooking.

Bittman will explain nothing. He's a disaster.

Joy of Cooking is a fantastic reference. They explain a little, but not as much as you're looking for. I think it's worth having though and will supply a baseline of many dishes and techniques for you to modify .
Joined Jan 20, 2011
For good basic recipes getting started I would suggest The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. This would probably be my one book choice, especially for getting started.

For understanding I would recommend The Cook's Bible by Kimball of Cook's Illustrated.  It develops a number of master recipes, explains how and why they work and gives suggestion on making your own variations.

Joy of Cooking is good but I find some of the recipes are too elaborate if you are only cooking for one.

On Food and Cooking by McGee is the food science reference.  No recipes but if you want to understand what is going on this is the book.

The Alton Brown books are fairly good.

Ratio by Ruhlman is another book that explains a base recipe (based on ratios) and makes suggestions on how to make variations.

The Elements of Cooking by Ruhlman is basically a culinary dictionary of foods and techniques.  Useful when you are reading other books and come to an unfamiliar term.
Joined Jul 22, 2011
On Food and Cooking by McGee
This book is super great. It's super complete and thorough, though somewhat technical. It may be prudent to read is Keys to Good Cooking first if you have trouble with the former, and it is more direct, with more instruction on how to actually do stuff.

Cook's Illustrated Best Recipe are great if you need recipes, because they tend to have more explanation and commentary than many cookbooks. This, I think, is the problem with the ones you listed. They probably won't have as much rationale and theory as you would like.

It might be preferable to go for something that focuses more on skills and technique than recipes. Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques is great for that. It has step by step pictures of all manner of techniques. It seems to me that a recipe for the best beef bourgignon in the world is no good if you can't dice an onion, but if you know all the techniques, making your own, even better beef bourgignon is just a matter of cooking it a few times until you get it right. Techniques are timeless. Recipes are not.

You may also want to look into the 101 level culinary textbooks. They will cover a wide variety of techniques, styles, and ingredients, and offer step-by-step instructions, illustrations, and rationale for the individual dishes.

My suggestion would be to eschew cookbooks that are collections of recipes altogether. I would go with either Complete Techniques or a textbook like The Professional Chef first, and then one or both of the Harold McGee books. Also, don't forget that there is a plethora of free information to be found online. Much of it is as good of quality as what is in the books, you just have to be a discerning consumer of information. Bonne chance.


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
For a beginner at home I wouldn't recommend pro books like the Professional Chef. It really needs in class discussion and demonstration. Pretty dense otherwise. Wayne Gisslen's The Chef's Art covers much of the same material in more depth and has a history of class use as well. As a self-educated home cook, I got more from it than the Profesisonal Chef.

The PBS video series for Complete Techniques would be good, but I'm not convinced the book alone is adequate for a self teaching situation. Many of these techniques benefit greatly from demonstration. Youtube has a number of Pepin clips as well.

In a similar vein, James Peterson's Essentials of Cooking is better for a beginning home cook I think. Very much technique focused. This book is worth revisiting every few months as your skills and knowledge grow. You'll start to get more from the book each time you go through it.
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