To preface: When I graduated from college, I was cooking one or two meals a night, mostly vegetarian, and extremely basic. My average fare was chopped zuccini and pasta sauce over spaghetti, kale-egg-rice-salsa burritos, and lots and lots of breakfast food. (Leslie would be proud.) Every two weeks or so I would attempt a larger meal (sweet potato burgers, ratatouille) with reasonably successful results, but I required a recipe for even the simplest dishes and I was hopeless at cooking meat. (Side note: the exception to this was my chocolate chip cookies, which were–and still are–amazing. If I do say so myself. )
Anyways, the last year has seen a real revolution for me, as I’ve had a growing interest in learning the principles behind what makes food taste good. While I’ve always loved good food, I wanted to try to work the magic of a good restaurant in my own kitchen. I wanted to be the kind of cook that could make simple ingredients — rice, veggies, meat, pasta– taste more than the sum of their parts.
And so, I started reading cookbooks.
Yep, reading, as in, front to cover like textbooks. I’ll bring home one or two each week from the library, read through them in a day or two, and try a few recipes during the week. (SIDE NOTE: libraries are the PERFECT place to find cookbooks so you can try out the recipes before purchasing them; most libraries have a substantial cookbook section too!)
Upshot: it’s been great. I’ve made a lot of pretty good meals, but every once and a while, I’m delighted with the results. These aren’t cookbooks for the gourmand (I’m generally scared away by any recipe with more than 10 ingredients), but for someone who wants to solidify some basics and adventure into new culinary horizons. They’ve deepened my (already vast) reservoir of love for food, and have made me want to cook in my time off.
So anyways. Here are 3 basic, thorough cookbooks that have completely changed my chops in the kitchen:
1. Sheet Pan Suppers by Molly Gilbert
This was the cookbook that began the culinary renaissance for me a year and a half ago. I saw it displayed in my library in Salt Lake and while I’d never gotten a cookbook from the library before, I thought I’d give it a try. 6 weeks later, after running out of chances to renew it, I ordered it from Amazon with two-days shipping so I wouldn’t have to be without this gem.
The basic magic of this book is that all 150 recipes in this book can be made in 1 pan, and they’re all really, really good. It helped me ease into culinary waters that I’d never before dared — cooking fish and hamburgers, for instance– and literally every single recipe I’ve tried has been a success. I can honestly say that I’ve made more than half of the recipes in her book–which is amazing in comparison to any of my other cookbooks. Even a year later, I still go to Ms. Gilbert first when I need dinner inspiration.
Best for: Easy, successful recipes for 4 people; people who don’t like cooking
Favorite recipes: Flank steak fajitas, Chicken + baby brocolli with spicy peanut sauce, raspberry + white chocolate scones
2. The Food Lab: Better Cooking through Science by J. Kenji Lopez- Alt
If you’re into cooking, you may know Mr. Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats; I hadn’t heard anything about him when I picked up this enormous tome, but the title called to me. I sat on my couch for three hours and read it like a novel.
The Food Lab is about 1/4 recipes and 3/4 exposition about how food works. Lopez-Alt’s background in biology makes his time in the kitchen an exercise of the scientific method: boiling 30 eggs at 30 seconds increments to see how yolks harden over time, frying 6 dozen drumsticks to discover the perfect crispy chicken recipe, and experimenting with the difference between hand-tossed and fork-tossed salad. He’s relentless and explains EVERYTHING.
This book was exactly what I needed to get me started on the road to simple, delicious meals: explicit instructions with reasons WHY food acts the way it does. I have no second sense about food, I have to be told everything. The Food Lab assumes nothing, and instead walked me through every step from purchasing the meat to how to serve it to retain optimum juiciness. SCIENCE.
Best for: informative reading, understanding the ‘why’ behind your meals, thoroughly exploring a food topic (searing meat, boiling eggs, frying fish, etc.).
Favorite recipes: the instructions about searing steak and frying chicken is life-changing, as is his egg-salad sandwich recipe.
3. The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
Alice Waters is the crowning gem of my cookbook heroes, because she combines a staggering amount of professional experience with an incredible, warm sensibility about what makes food worth eating in the first place.
Waters’ premise is that food shouldn’t be complicated. She (correctly) argues that if you start with fresh, healthy (and preferably local) ingredients, you won’t have to do much to make your food taste good. Instead, you can highlight the natural delicious flavors without much effort and with just a little instruction.
What I love most about Waters’ book is that she really, really loves food. She’s had decades of experience cooking the best of the best that the earth can give us, and her love of gathering with others and enjoying simple, fresh fare is on every page. Her instructions are clear, thorough, and exploratory. It feels like cooking with a
grandmother — she’s a wayyyyy better chef than you, but she’s really just happy watch and offer some help.
When I started focusing on making less-complicated meals made of better ingredients, the quality of our food drastically increased with little change in my spending. The time I spent in the kitchen was more rewarding, because I didn’t feel like I was trying to make an incredibly complicated meal with lots of cans and special ingredients. Instead, I can use just a few ingredients — fresh chicken, rosemary, salt, pepper, white wine, asparagus–and produce something incredibly delicious. It’s been, quite honestly, life changing.
Best for: basic, healthy food without gimmicks; learning to cook simply with great flavor
Favorite recipes: Lemon-asparagus risotto, whole roasted chicken, peach crisp