I need a new cookbook (here’s the backstory to that). What is the best cookbook of all time? I wanted to take readers of The Bookshop Blog on my journey to find that one title that every kitchen needs.
I know this is a question that has been asked many times on the internet, and yet, I am asking it again.
Unlike most cookbook compilations, I’m not going to pretend I have used any of these cookbooks: These books are specifically those that I have not yet read.
Instead, I’ve looked through lists of “best cookbooks” by chefs, cooks, bloggers, booksellers, and internet list-makers. Here are the five books that pop up repeatedly. I’ll be buying at least one of these.
I wonder if bookshops tend to carry these titles? I will soon find out.
Irma S Rombauer, The Bobbs-Merrill Company 1931
There are very few lists that don’t include this title. Praise for it includes “the definitive guide to American cooking” (by multiple commentators), “a work of American history,” “The perfect combination of classic recipes, new dishes and indispensable reference information,” and “an encyclopedic source for techniques, and U.S. culinary history.”
And finally, this comment is a deal-cincher for me: “It’s great for when you need a basic recipe to build off of because the proportions are so well tested.”
Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child. Knopf, 1961 and 1970
This is the book that brought French food to the American people. It’s got to be good because the internet has remembered it and refers to it so often. This could even be America’s most famous cookbook, perhaps because of Julia Child’s exuberance and attitude to home cooking, according to Southern Living:
The recipes are secondary to Julia’s exuberant messages of encouragement and empowerment to home cooks: celebrate the successes, laugh off the rest, and have fun with it all. She didn’t want for us to cook French so much as just cook, with confidence.Southern Living
I do believe that at least half the appeal of a good cookbook is the confidence it extends to the reader. I’m thinking especially of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, whose relaxed charm and ‘have a go’ attitude helped so many of my generation ease into home cooking.
And while I would not buy a cookbook intended for idiots, I’m still secretly attracted by this note:
“… even the most novice of cooks can learn everything from poaching an egg to boning a duck from its instruction. What makes it most practical are hints for sourcing or substituting French ingredients to recreate the exact tastes and textures of the nation known as the birthplace of Western gastronomy.”Gayot Editors
David and Chang and Peter Meehan, Clarkson Potter 2009
At first, I presumed that so many list-makers were including this book because of its attention-grabbing title. I hope I’m wrong. My family does love Asian food but I have never mastered it.
Here is a comment from Business Insider:
… a cookbook filled with both the stories and recipes that revolutionized the culinary world with Chef David Chang’s restaurants, techniques, and rise to fame.Business Insider
In contrast, here’s an honest comment from the New Yorker:
… the book is sometimes brilliantly cookable—see the dazzlingly effective method for cast-iron ribeye, or the near-instant ginger-scallion sauce, which tastes good on almost anything. Other times, by design, it is absolutely impossible, outlining finicky and complex recipes that are best suited for a brigade of swaggering line cooks.The New Yorker
I still don’t really want to buy it. And even less so when I read Southern Living saying:
It might not be a cookbook one will use often, but the author changed the dining landscape in NYC and knows how to make stellar Asian food that we can manage at home.Southern Living
Nope, not convinced.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ten Speed Press 2021
This appeals to me because it embraces multiple cultural approaches to cooking: Muslim, Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Armenian. Also, the Holy City is one of the few places in the world that I hope to see before I die.
But none of the writers of cookbook lists provided a compelling reason why anyone should buy this book for actual cooking. Perhaps it is a cultural experience. That alone can still sell cookbooks, obviously.
Samin Nosrat, Simon and Schuster 2017
Most reviewers mentioned this book. And the numbers on Amazon are astonishing: 20k 5-star reviews. Netflix made a four-part series on it.
But still, I’d like to know why I should buy it for my own kitchen. Here’s The New Yorker to tell me:
I always thought I knew how to use salt, for example; after applying Nosrat’s lessons —layering different varieties, seasoning at various stages of the cooking process, exploring the mineral’s different guises and effects, bold and subtle—I feel like I’ve levelled up from journeyman to master.The New Yorker
That’s fairly convincing.
Kitchen Adventures Are Never Over…
Have I missed something? What do you think is the best cookbook ever?