Starting out in a new kitchen can be a challenge in so many ways. Shared counter space, a finicky stove, and stocking your pantry is only the beginning. If you’re just starting out, you may, like me, have people you turn to regularly for kitchen advice. My first lifeline is my self-taught chef/ guru/Aunt Julie, whom I call when I need a quick dinner party dish, or I want to talk about Thanksgiving in July, or when I have set off my smoke alarm three times in a row and just need to vent (no pun intended).
When I can’t get Julie on the phone, or I’m just trolling for inspiration, I turn to my cache of food blogs. Every girl has her favorites, but even those occasionally fall flat–and I don’t always have the time or energy to read through all of the comments to see whether a recipe is a success, or needs tweaking.
In times when I need a surefire hit, I turn to my (growing) shelf of cookbooks. These books are expensive, and with so many on the market it’s hard to know which ones to trust. So here are a few of my suggestions for a reliable cookbook starter kit (NB: I have not cooked from all of these, but I have done research–and called on trusty Aunt Julie–for backup).
Of course: If you’re only going to buy one cookbook this month, or this year, or ever, you should sincerely consider In the Small Kitchen, by Cara and Phoebe. Not only does it solve the problem of “I trust this food blog, but I don’t know how to weed out the great recipes from the good ones,” but it is also a cookbook which stands on its own merits. Its attachment to the blog is not a gimmick, but a line to its authors, who write with informal grace and humor about what it’s like to start out as an inexperienced but wildly enthusiastic young cook. In essence, it is a cookbook geared specifically towards you. It’s personal, and approachable, and wildly delicious.
Makes great: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches; Udon Noodles with Peanut Sauce
That one should have been obvious, but in case you’re looking for more…
Best all-around go-to for everything: New Best Recipe by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated.
My college roommate sent this to me for my birthday this year, and it has become an essential in my kitchen. I turn to this when I have an idea of something I want to make (lasagna, pesto, chocolate chip cookies, etc.) and I don’t want to wade through Every Food Blogger’s Best Version of it. NBR has tons of classic recipes–and they explain to you how they achieved their best results. What is the ideal ratio of chocolate chips to cookie dough, and why? What is the most effective way to mash bananas for baked goods? If you like a little bit of science to back you up, and you’re lookin’ for a classic, you’ll turn to this, every time.
Makes great: Thick, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Best Fish: Le Bernardin Cookbook by Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze
Forever jockeying with Daniel for the esteemed position of #1 Restaurant in New York, Le Bernardin is a four-star seafood restaurant, known for the precision and elegance only a Frenchman could bring to this type of food. For a home chef, making fish can be a bit intimidating, since it requires some amount of speed–however, it is also a food which wants simple preparation, simple flavors, and simple presentation. Turn to this book when you want to impress friends at a summer dinner party with a simple Pan-Roasted Grouper or Grilled Salmon; and don’t forget dessert!
Makes great:Warm Lobster Salad
Best Seasonal: Alfred Portale’s 12 Seasons Cookbook by Alfred Portale and Andrew Friedman
I fell in love with this cookbook on sight. The table of contents is divided by months (with chapters like “September: Recipes for Busy Times,” and “October: Sweater Weather”), making it a breeze and a pleasure to cook from. The recipes may be intimidating and a bit involved, but Portale provides tips on thinking ahead, and really more than anything it is as good a guide as any on how to fully take advantage of what’s fresh and available, month-to-month.
Makes great: Cauliflower Vichyssoise
Best dessert: Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
Dorie Greenspan’s helpful and enthusiastic voice shines through in every recipe here (not to mention her adorableness). Her recipes are homey and familiar, none of them terribly daunting, all of them fit for sharing. I’ll be honest. There have been a couple of things in this book that haven’t been spectacular. However, I truly believe that it is only in comparison to the absolutely stellar treats (of which there are many) that others fail. That is to say, the “failure” is an unfortunate consequence of my unbelievably high expectations of everything she has written down. Use this book when you want to make the best pie or cheesecake of your life to serve to friends, or just want to whip up a simple batch of cookies for yourself.
Makes great: Lemon Poppyseed Muffins; Cheesecake; Tart Crust; Shall I go on?
Best cook book: Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio
This is not a book to turn to if you’re looking for the greatest or most precise recipe for…well…anything. In fact, if you did, you would miss the entire point of the book. Here, Colicchio’s aim is to impart a thought process–not a list of instructions. He intends to “teach you to think a little like [he does],” as he writes in his introduction. The book is full of useful techniques, like roasting, braising, sauce making, etc. He simplifies things with the aim of freeing you from the page. This is a book best read on the couch, not in the kitchen in a rush to get dinner on the table.
Makes great: Reference for techniques
Best “restaurant to home”: Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
I would cross-reference this one as a great seasonal cookbook, and wins my aunt’s nomination for “cookbook you will use most often.” Suzanne Goin divides her wonderfully inviting book into seasons, and again into menus. You can certainly mix and match, but it’s also nice to have someone suggest a seasonally appropriate menu for you to have on the table for the evening without having to give it a second thought. She also gives a useful overview of ingredients, which serves as a quick and easy reference. You’ll get a primer on year-round produce like shallots and arugala, pantry staples like chiles and olives, techniques, and of course, seasonal ingredients. Because of its layout, the book lends itself equally well to cooking one of Goin’s dishes (which are delicious) as it does to reading up on the bounty of the season and using it to improvise.
Makes great: Boeuf a la Nicoise; Pickled Raisins; Meyer Lemon Tart with A Layer of Chocolate
Lily graduated in 2009 from Harvard University with a degree in English Literature. While in college, she bartended and cooked at the campus pub, and as a result has a difficult time eating chicken wings. She is currently the Assistant Managing Editor for Small Kitchen College.