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Our Family’s Favorite Cookbooks

May04

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesHi Amy,

I really like your family’s approach to food: container gardening, composting, eating organic, no GMOs, wide range of ingredients, etc. I also love that you enjoy a variety of cuisines (Thai, Indian) and, while you try to keep things healthy, you also appreciate that there’s a time and place for indulgent comfort foods — with all their inherent Cheesey Goodness — as well!

I’m on board with all that and would like to know, just out of curiosity, what are some of your favorite cookbooks?

-Cookbook Junkie

Oh goodness, cookbooks! I love cookbooks. My husband loves cookbooks. I am pretty sure that not a single holiday — Christmas, birthdays, Father’s and/or Mother’s Day — goes by without SOMEONE getting a cookbook around here. Jason gets me the latest Top Chef volume, I get him books about homebrewing and grilling, we are such, SUCH nerds.

That said, our number-one recipe source on a day-to-day basis is probably Epicurious.com, which pulls recipes from Bon Appetit, Gourmet and hundreds of Random House cookbooks. Search for an ingredient, sort by user rating — and going with something highly rated by the site’s users has rarely let us down. (It also helps to scan the user reviews for suggestions on substitutions and tweaks.) I prefer Epicurious over some of the other big recipe sites because the recipes tend to be 1) CORRECT, the vast majority of the time (we’ve only encountered one or two true lemons among the dozens we’ve tried) and 2) avoid using “suggested” supermarket brands and processed shortcuts. When I decide to make something, I cook and bake from scratch — it’s not nearly as hard as the Big Food manufacturers would like you to believe, so I have no interest in cookie recipes that start with partially-hydrogenated pre-made dough or sauces that mostly involve opening a can of super-salty preservative-laden creamed soup.

/gets off high horse. Ahem.

(Oh, and Smitten Kitchen is my favorite cooking blog. You will never, ever find a better slow-cooker brisket or ratatouille recipe, and you will want to make both of them on a weekly basis. Just mentioning that for the sake of Internet Completeness before I move on and ACTUALLY ANSWER YOUR QUESTION.)

Our cookbook collection is really not that unusual or specialized, now that I’m thinking about it — when you’re confident that your fridge and pantry are stocked with good, quality, non-mucked-around-with or homegrown ingredients, I don’t find it’s necessary to find recipes and cookbooks that subscribe to any particular food “philosophy.” Just cook what sounds freaking delicious, you know? Life is too short, so add some butter and enjoy. If you asked me what books I thought belonged in EVERY kitchen, I’d have to go with How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. These books provide you with that essential foundation of How To Follow A Recipe & Cook Something That Will Turn Out The Way You Want It At The End.

When I bought How to Cook Everything early in my 20s, I seriously did NOT know how to cook. At all. I used that thing to teach myself to scramble eggs. And yet I STILL use that cookbook at least once a week — only now I’m looking up techniques and recipes for an unusual produce find at the farmer’s market, how to shuck an oyster, a refresher course on the perfect roux, etc. It’s part food encyclopedia/reference guide, part “I impulse-bought some artichokes and don’t know what to do with them now,” and part “I feel like making biscuits that don’t come from a mix” general-do-everything workhorse of a book.

And Julia…well, that’s just self-explanatory. Her recipes are longer and more involved and the first time you make one of her entrees you will have dirtied every pan and bowl you own and be terrified that it doesn’t “look” the way it’s supposed to because there are NO PICTURES…but your creation will be amazing, you will have definitely learned at least one or two vital fundamentals, and did I mention the “amazing” bit? That, and Julia’s recipe for braised carrots is the only way my children will eat them.

We own The French Laundry Cookbook (by Thomas Keller) for similar reasons — it’s even more aspirational and challenging, but if you’re looking for impressive party food or simply want to make the Greatest Meal Ever for someone special when you forgot to make a reservation for Valentine’s or your anniversary, it’s perfect. For more day-to-day cooking, we go with Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home cookbook — everyone should probably own this one simply for the chapter on homemade stocks. Changed our lives.

Let’s see…for specific ethnic cuisines, we go with the free offerings on Epicurious more than anything. Lidia Bastianich is our favorite for Italian. We’ve had some very good results with Tagines & Couscous by Ghillie Basan for Moroccan food. As for Indian (our favorite-favorite)…well, we use a hodgepodge of recipes from The Indian Slow Cookerby Anupy Singla, recipes and video demos from ShowMeTheCurry.com, and asking our Indian friends for their recipes. (That’s usually the best way to avoid creating something bland and Americanized, rather than trying to guess and doubling spices randomly. We’ve learned that one the hard way.)

And lastly: Kid’s cookbooks. Meh. Thanks to the fact that I exist on the Internet, I have, over the years, received a TON of baby-and-kid-focused cookbooks. I bought one for myself, back when I was pregnant with Ezra (Cooking for Baby by Lisa Barnes), and I did in fact use that book a LOT. Money well spent. I was unsure of myself when it came to homemade purees and first foods, so having a guide gave me invaluable confidence that I wasn’t going to give my baby scurvy or food allergies or poison. (Baby Love is another nice one that I’d recommend as a shower gift.)

But I also quickly figured out that it ain’t rocket science, this whole adapting real food for new eaters, or hiding veggies or fruits or beans/lentils/etc. inside your typical kid-friendly fare. So even though the cookbooks kept arriving in my mailbox, I’ve rarely done much with them beyond a quick scanning through the contents before filing them away, because yeah: YOU CAN PUT PUREED SPINACH OR KALE IN THEIR TOMATO SAUCE. GARBANZO BEANS OR CAULIFLOWER IN WHITE MAC-N-CHEESE, SQUASH OR CARROTS IN THE YELLOW. Steamer basket + blender = baby purees. Frittatas! Veggie burgers! Banana pancakes!

(And my favorite life lesson from kids’ cookbooks: My picky eater is a hell of a lot pickier than the “picky eaters” targeted by a bunch of these books, because seriously, if I could get Noah to eat “pulled pork barbecue sandwiches” in the FIRST PLACE, I’m not sure I’d really give a crap whether or not I could hide some extra tomatoes in the sauce.)

Now that Ezra is super into “helping” in the kitchen, I generally just let him help with stuff I’m making anyway. He loves pouring and stirring and counting out measurements (provided it doesn’t need to go over five or six). No specifically-targeted-for-little-chefs book required. At least not yet. Someday, I hope we’ll be including HIM in the holiday cookbook-swap. Heh. NERDS.

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If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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36 Responses to “Our Family’s Favorite Cookbooks”

  1. Jen May 04 at 11:09 am Reply Reply

    Amalah,
    Your comment about cookbooks for kids struck a nerve, only because of a recent experience I had that really has NOTHING to do with the original post. I got suckered in to buying the Williams Sonoma cookbook for kids (I forget the exact title) at the last book sale at my son’s school. I AM SO ANGRY AT THIS BOOK. Are the foods kid-friendly? Pretty much. Are they fairly easy for kids to make? Yep. But, almost every single recipe (especially the ones that appeal to MY kids) are horrifically, disgustingly unhealthy. I agreed to let my son make cupcakes from the cookbook this week, despite the fact that the cake batter called for a stick and a half of butter, and the frosting called for another stick (this is for 12 cupcakes, mind you!) The banana bread, which we made a few weeks ago, also called for an entire stick of butter. Sorry for my rant, I am just really aggravated here and have not had a soapbox to climb up on to share my dismay.

    As for cookbooks I personally love, I can’t say enough about the Cooking Light cookbooks – easy to follow, not too many crazy ingredients, lots of ethnic foods mixed-in with classic and comfort foods, and (BONUS!) you don’t physically feel your heart stopping (or your butt expanding) when you eat something from there.

  2. PinkieBling May 04 at 11:12 am Reply Reply

    This is awesome! I’m in my early thirties and STILL don’t know how to cook, so several of these are going on my list. Also, Ezra-the-chef-to-be is too, too, cute!

  3. Daisy May 04 at 11:59 am Reply Reply

    I LOVE cookbooks- constantly picking them up. Cannot say enough good things about Ad Hoc at home- HI PARSLEY WATER, YOU DELICIOUS BLANCHING TOOL YOU. (Seriously. So. Yum.) Smitten Kitchen’s slow cooker brisket? STAPLE around these parts. I have a copy of James Beard’s Fireside cookbook and love the sauce section- totally life changing. I also reach for my OLD copy of Joy of Cooking way too often – don’t bother with the new one, find an old stained copy from the 70′s. You can skip the squirrel reicpes…… And finally, in this epic comment, I can’t say enough good things about the Cooking Light main dish cookbook. Not too many “fake” ingredients, just good portion control and healthy options. I use it at least once a week and some of our favorites come from there- shrimp and grits casserole HELLO.

  4. Sara May 04 at 12:07 pm Reply Reply

    I will second the Joy of Cooking – although I have a new copy that my mom gave me as a housewarming present. It helped me make a delicious prime rib just this past weekend (as cooking roasts for me = a mystery). It doesn’t even go in the cupboard, just sits on my counter all the time. Checking out the suggested titles here – I’m not a great cook, and I wish I was better at trying new recipes – hopefully these will get me started.

  5. Elizabeth May 04 at 12:12 pm Reply Reply

    Yay! We’re also big fans of Baby Love for homemade baby food which is SO not as difficult as it sounds. Also moms-to-be: don’t be fooled by the all in one steamer/blender baby food processor. Totally unnecessary.

    Very inspiring write up, Amy. Now I want to blow off work to hit up a farmers market and throw some saute pans on the stove.

  6. Ally May 04 at 12:19 pm Reply Reply

    I think I would have been fired from being a wife if it wasn’t for Epicurious. I also really love the books Cookwise and Bakewise. I have used so many recipes off of website and started becoming overwhelmed with how to find them so I made them into a cook book. Createmycookbook.com is fantastic. It’s a really easy way to put all your recipes together and make a nice book out of them. I’ve made quite a few as bridal gifts as well.

  7. bekala May 04 at 12:25 pm Reply Reply

    YES to “How to Cook Everything,” and the Julia Child volumes, to which I would add “The Joy of Cooking” (revised version, so sadly lacking squirrel recipes). I also didn’t really cook until I was in my 20s and I still reach for each of these on a weekly basis, and they’ve got the stains and splatters to prove it. I’ve had success, too, with the odd copy of “Cooks Illustrated” that I’ve picked up while waiting in the supermarket line.

  8. Eliza May 04 at 12:25 pm Reply Reply

    For authentic Indian curry recipes, I love 660 Curries. It’s huge and comprehensive.

  9. Amieable May 04 at 12:43 pm Reply Reply

    Alice Waters’ _The Art of Simple Food_ is a great book. Not only does she have some inspiring advice about food (organic, local, how to stock a pantry, etc.), but her recipes are simple, yet tasty. It’s a great book for weeknights. Often I pull out recipies from other cookbooks and get frustrated by all the things I would need to go out and purchase. “Simple Foods” however, is great because usually I already have everything in my kitchen, AND/OR she offers “variations” at the end of each recipe.
    Also, since no one has mentioned a vegetarian cookbook yet: Deborah Madison’s _Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone_ is a classic and rightly so.

  10. Stephanie May 04 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    Yes to pretty much everything – we have How to Cook Everything and Mastering the Art, but I also wanted to add my love for the Barefoot Contessa Cookbooks. She’s never steered me wrong, and most recipes are very easy to make. Love them.
    And yes, I go to my trusty Epicurious App on my iPhone at least twice a week. It’s fabulous!

  11. Ras May 04 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

    If you ever join a CSA or any similar service where there’s a good bit of serendipity to what you get on any given day, How to Cook Everything is a godsend. Like Amy, I got it as a newlywed to help me learn some basics, but now it’s a great reference for cooking new veggies. The section is alphabetical, easy to read, and tells you not only how to store and prep each veggie, but also a few good recipes. There are a few veggies I thought I hated(like radishes) until i cooked them Bittman’s way.

    Another staple in our house is Eat This, it Will Make You Feel Better, by Dom Delouise (really). It’s full of simple, healthy, largely Italian fare, plus it’s full of funny stories and name dropping of early-80s celebrities. I think every woman In my extended family owns a copy.

  12. Jay May 04 at 1:41 pm Reply Reply

    Joy of Cooking! I love how the recipes are written. I’m also a sucker for all the baking cookbooks. I doubt I’ll ever make Martha Stewart’s eight-tier marzipan whatever, but I enjoy reading about it and imagining it. I also find epicurious to be a much more reliable site than, say, allrecipes.
    The Cooking Light books are great too, especially when they explain easy fixes to make foods healthier without losing flavor.

  13. Jane May 04 at 1:41 pm Reply Reply

    The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook is fabulous (there is also a newer healthy family cookbook from ATK too). I literally use this book almost every single day. That and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything are my cooking bibles. Of course, Joy of Cooking is a classic too, and I have it in my kitchen, but I don’t reach for it as much as the first two. I started my 20′s not really knowing how to cook, and I’ve turned into quite an accomplished cook mostly using those two sources. The CooksIllustrated.com website is also a wealth of information, from recipes to cooking tips and equipment reviews and advice- it is subscription, but I find it is well worth the money.

  14. Hillary May 04 at 1:48 pm Reply Reply

    Since joining a CSA, I’ve become totally dependent on my Cook’s Illustrated vegetables book. It gives you a ton of recipes for every veggie out there and lots of tips and tricks to boot. Their soup book is great too, but neither feature color photos. Sad. I like looking at pretty food. :)

  15. Kate May 04 at 2:09 pm Reply Reply

    I would add any and all of the “America’s Test Kitchen” and Cooks Illustrated cook books. They not only have amazing recipes, but also explain in great detail how and why their methods work. The step by step instructions, including pictures about how exactly to tie a roast or carve a chicken, etc, are priceless and the food is delish. They just came out with a Healthy Family Cookbook last year – just like the old Betty Crocker cookbooks of old, but with better food and nutrition info! I think I have 5 of the cookbooks now, including the grilling guide, weeknight suppers, soups and stews, and one pot wonders. My homemade bbq sauce kills anything in a jar AND is made without HFCS or preservatives. Christopher Kimball is the man.

  16. Kailee May 04 at 2:15 pm Reply Reply

    I love collecting cookbooks too! Every time my husband and I go on a trip, I HAVE to get a cookbook. One of my favorite finds, and I am not sure if you can find them in the US, are books by Kim Terakes. We have one called the Aussie Barbecue cookbook and it is SO perfect for the summer. Super easy, delicious recipes meant for light, oven-free cooking.

    Smitten Kitchen is most definitely my fave cooking blog. Deb has never steered me wrong. Her hamburger bun recipe has spoiled me forever and I make her Indian vegetable fritters on an almost weekly basis. I think the thing I like best is she approaches food from a decidedly non-elitist point of view. She doesn’t harp on how you MUST have the BEST balsamic vinegar or your salad will be terrible. She just focuses on fresh foods and non-fussy preparations.

    I also like using the website Tastespotting. It’s great to enter in an ingredient, like something beautiful you picked up at the farmer’s market, and getting lost down the rabbit hole of beautiful food photography and entertaining blogs. I’ve found great recipes this way too!

  17. April U May 04 at 2:24 pm Reply Reply

    One of my favorites is The 5 in 10 Cookbook- Five ingredients in 10 minutes. Also Make it Fast, Cook it Slow- a crockpot cookbook.

  18. Amy May 04 at 3:05 pm Reply Reply

    Loooove epicurious.com. Like Amy said, I’ve almost never had something fail. Do read the comments.

    The cookbooks that most often come out of our collection:
    “The Joy of Cooking” (1960s and 2000 versions)
    “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
    “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book”, so very very basic, but sometimes that’s what you need– classic red plaid cover
    “The Victory Garden Cookbook” out of print, but if you can find it, get it at a library book sale buy it. It’s been great for our CSA deliveries
    Alton Brown’s “Good Eats the Early Years” and “Good Eats the Middle Years” I love how he explains the science behind the cooking
    “Gourmet’s” huge cookbooks they published right before they ceased publication of the magazine (sniff sniff)
    And one of my most used cooking websites: http://www.foodsubs.com Want to know what pepper you can use in place of a habanero? It’s there.

  19. Amy May 04 at 3:09 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, and there are iPhone and iPad apps for epicurious and Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”

  20. JCF May 04 at 3:19 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks for this! I love so many of your favorites as well (My old copy of How to Cook Everything is quite literally falling apart), but a few new-to-me suggestions that I’m going to check out. My new favorite is “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi. It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and everything I’ve made from it has been incredible.

  21. cagey May 04 at 4:29 pm Reply Reply

    Cookbook Porn…hubba hubba

    I have cookbooks that I actually USE and cookbooks that I love to read.  Both require spots of honor in my house. (For kicks in cookbook reading, I highly recommend Fanny Farmer’s original – FUN stuff. Heh.)

    Lately, I’ve been digging Rick Bayless’ Everyday Mexican.  Many of the recipes are for the slow cooker, although I do all of them in the oven instead (I don’t have a slow cooker.)

    I also 2nd the Better Homes and Garden book – when I do White People Food, that is my go-to reference (or my grandma’s Searchlight book – another fun one just to read).

    I’ve bought a lot of Indian cookbooks over the years, but my favorites remain anything by Maya Kaimal – not only for the recipes themselves, but also for the presentation in the way she lays out her recipes logically.

  22. Will May 04 at 5:17 pm Reply Reply

    I usually do not write about cooking but just today posted and article about recipes and asked some questions about what kind of cook people are. I think there are only two types and that we don’t have a choice which category we fall into. It really has nothing to do with love of cookbooks, but rather how we use them. I think after reading this post I know which category you fall into. The same one as me!

    I know this is not a Wordless Wednesday post, but that is the blog topic I was browsing when I found the link to this site… so Happy WW!

  23. Emily May 04 at 5:49 pm Reply Reply

    I love Cookus Interruptus! It’s a blog/online cooking show that focuses on using local and organic whole foods. The demos are little episodes and often comedic, and the food is just plain good!

    http://www.cookusinterruptus.com/

  24. Tiffany May 04 at 9:57 pm Reply Reply

    Another vote for tastespotting.com! That website is what started my husband and I on our cooking journey. 

  25. Jenny, Crash Test Mommy May 05 at 12:03 am Reply Reply

    Okay, somebody sue me, but I absolutely hate to cook. Nevertheless, I have a favorite cookbook. It is Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook. It became my favorite the other day when my nine-year-old made me a batch of sugar cookies and a strawberry-banana smoothie, ALL BY HERSELF. And it was delicious. If she keeps up the good work, I may buy her Joy of
    Cooking for Christmas this year.

  26. Caitlyn May 05 at 8:09 am Reply Reply

    i’s on the basic side, but How To Cook Without a Book has been a total godsend.  It uses “skeleton recipes” and after you’ve made each one a couple of times you can almost always have a from-scratch dinner on the table in about half an hour using whatever’s on hand.  Brilliant.

  27. Mariah May 05 at 11:06 am Reply Reply

    Awesome post, and thanks for some great ideas about ways to add to my library. I’m going to have to differ with you on one point– Bittman’s _How to Cook Everything_. Like you, I’m a from-scratch, as natural-as-possible cook, and a pretty good cook at that. But this book has failed us every single time. In fact, we call it _How to Cook Everything Badly_. _Joy of Cooking_, on the other hand, is our cooking Bible. It is very comprehensive and has great, readable explanations. I also get more than my money’s worth out of my $3.95/month online subscription to Cooks Illustrated. Just my 2 cents . . .

  28. Heather May 05 at 4:08 pm Reply Reply

    It was mentioned above, but I have to bring it up again because I love it so much: Deborah Madison’s _Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone_ . It has tons of recipes, info on techniques, how to shop for and cook all different kinds of vegetables, and just about everything I’ve made from it has been delicious.

  29. Sarah May 05 at 5:03 pm Reply Reply

    Apparently I need to get me some new cookbooks! I tend to use More-with-Less cookbook, I grew up on it and with about double the amount of any spices called for, it’s pretty good. I also bought The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook recently and have liked it a lot so far too. I’ve been test-driving a lot of canning cookbooks and I really like The Food-lover’s Guide to Canning and haven’t really found anything I like as well for ideas. I did buy my hubby a book called Cooking for Geeks that explains a lot of the science behind cooking and the scientific process within the context of cooking, which has been fun and somewhat helpful. I think I’ll have to check out some of everyone else’s ideas though – I really must have been living under a rock :)

  30. Lauren May 06 at 12:39 am Reply Reply

    Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking is great. It’s all about natural, whole foods, but in a very accesible way  She just came out with a new cookbook too and I can’t wait to get it too.

  31. Hannah May 06 at 3:16 pm Reply Reply

    I love to cook; I make a meal from scratch just about every night. I’ve got to say, my favourite cookbooks are anything by Gordon Ramsey. The recipes are easier than you’d think; the pictures are gorgeous & inspiring; and the results are always tasty not only for my husband & I but for our two boys (6 and 3) as well.

  32. Kaela May 07 at 12:55 am Reply Reply

    I’m not a cookbook sort of gal. I love epicurious.com because I’m more of a “make something out of whatever’s in the fridge” sort of cook than a recipe following type. However, my mom got me the Moosewood vegetarian cookbook for Christmas and I LOVE it. I didn’t even realize it was an all vegetarian cookbook until after I’d made several things from it – it was all so delicious, we never missed the meat! It’s a great source for tasty, lighter, healthier stuff.

  33. Deanna May 08 at 4:06 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with everyone above about Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and Joy of Cooking. They are the 2 most used books in my house. I have the French Laundry cookbook, but it gets treated as a coffee table book. I love the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, she really encourages you to use your own judgement and make the recipes your own. The Spicy Broccoli Pasta made regularly at my house. The instructions are long, but nothing is complicated.

  34. Hilary May 09 at 8:33 am Reply Reply

    I use “How To Cook Everything ” consistantly. I’ve actually given it as a present for brides, for close friends on their anniversaries, and as a Xmas gift.

    It is an extremely comprehensive handbook for any food you could ever need. Instructions are straightforward. It takes all of the stress out of cooking food.

  35. Martha May 09 at 9:52 am Reply Reply

    I think having a good vegetarian cookbook is essential – i love the Moosewood cookbook and I plan to get Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian soon. I also love How to Cook Everything except for the pasta recipes, which SUCK. I also love Simply in Season, which is put out by the Mennonites (my people) and offers recipes for spring, summer, fall, and winter using seasonal ingredients. Online I use smitten kitchen, pioneer woman, and epicurious for recipes.

  36. Karen May 17 at 1:23 pm Reply Reply

    Try http://www.cookbooker.com/. It lets you read/write reviews for the recipes in your cookbooks, similar to how you can get reviews on Epicurious. You can even get reviews on the smittenkitchen website!

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