Five Books To Start Learning To Cook

My favorite books for exploring home cooking while waiting out COVID-19

It’s a new world, and in addition to Zooming and Webexing and watching way too much Netflix, a lot of people I know are experimenting with cooking at home for the first time during the Coronavirus-induced stay at home situation. Some are taking online classes, while others are playing on their own and looking for guidance.

I have a reputation as a decent home cook, and several friends have reached out for advice on how to get going themselves. After ad hoc’ing a few responses, I figured I might just get it all down, my story of how I taught myself to cook and what I would do now to accelerate the learning. I figured I’d start with a few book recs to get and see if there’s interest for more.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it a list of what I think are the best cookbooks. Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Cafe Cookbook would be on that list but it’s not a book for beginners (In my opinion it’s one of the best if not the very best book for intermediates).

This is also not intended to be a get every one of these books list. I actually doubt all five will appeal to any one person (other than goofs like me)… it’s much more likely that one or two will resonate while the others might fall flat.

Each of these books will give three things to a beginner:

  • Techniques, and recipes which apply those techniques.
  • Confidence that it’s possible to produce dishes that most think can only be made in a professional kitchen.
  • Inspiration to do it… each in its own way.

Here they are then… five books I recommend to get you started learning how to cook:

  1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 by Julia Child , Louisette Bertholle, et al.

Cliche as hell… for a reason. Concepts are explained in detail, though they sometimes lack for a why. That can be a good thing… sometimes when learning to do something, it’s best to do it and figure out the why on your own later.

This book is heavy on the Francophile appeal. If French culture, thinking about being in Paris or hearing La Vie En Rose makes you all tingly inside (like it does me), this might be the book for you.

A downside to this book is that there is an implied rigidity to the recipes. Mastering can come off as if there is one way to make beef bourguignon and one totally different way to make coq au vin, and it might take years of cooking to understand that what Julia, Simone et all are doing is showing us two interchangeable ways of making a meet stew in red wine.

Get it if: You love France, or want to love France, or wish you loved France, and want to recreate a mid-century American idea of France in your home

Know that: Many of the techniques are hidden in recipes, and are most valuable if you can suss them out

2. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt

Exactitude, reproducibility and the idea of learning the science of cooking call to your soul more than Toulousain cassoulet and lazy cafe days? This might be a better choice for you.

This is mastering the science of cooking. Start here if you value precision and consistency over spontaneity and flourish. This is the book on this list that I got many years into learning to cook, and while it seems appropriate for a new cook, I’m also somewhat concerns that the inimitable Kenji does so much of the thinking here that it might inhibit learning rather than encourage it. You tell me.

On the downside here, the author’s writing exudes an underlying belief that there is a One Best Way to do a thing. Cooking is art and art is interpretive… to come at this from another direction, the worst home cook bores I know are the ones who drone on about one way of doing a thing and how much better theirs is. Cooking is about soul, and with this book you’ll need to bring your own.

Get it if: You want to understand how cooking works from a time, temperature and chemistry perspective

Know that: You’ll have to bring (or develop) your own art

. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking by Anthony Bourdain

If Master The Art and The Food Lab offer two enablement-heavy alternatives, Bourdain’s book offers an alternative for those who have no trouble googling recipes, but might me short on the chutzpah to get started actually executing them.

Bourdain was a pro at the time he wrote this — the only book on my list from a work chef- and his text treats you like a newbie in his kitchen. If you like the tone he took on his early No Reservations seasons, you’ll love this. If No Res or even Parts Unknown offended you or turned you off? One, I’m sorry (for you), and two, skip this book.

On the downside, while the techniques such as handling knives and making stock are rock solid, the recipes themselves are fairly simple, and two of them (the wine soup and one of the desserts, I can’t remember which) seem to be completely wrong ratio-wise. Also, Tony’s bravado outweighed his humility at this point in his career, and the gruff prose will grate at some.

Get it if: You like being told — from someone who’s been there & done that professionally- how to do the thing, that you can do it, and finally to get in there and don’t be afraid to fail.

Know that: Most of the recipes can be beaten with a little googling, and several of them fall flat on their face.

4. Marcella Says…: Italian Cooking Wisdom from the Legendary Teacher’s Master Classes by Marcella Hazan

Another book that hits empowerment as much as it does enablement, Marcella Says differentiates itself from Tony’s book in that the recipes themselves are really, really good. The carrot gnocchi in particular is fantastic.

I hesitate to recommend this book only because it doesn’t haves one of her best known recipes (Lasagna, tomato sauce, etc) and because the relatively narrow scope compared to the other books on this list.

Get it if: You want to be led by the hand down the rabbit whole of a single cuisine — in this case, (mostly Northern) Italian home cooking.

Know that: This is one interpretation of one slice of Italian cooking… a universe unto its own

5. An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

A gentler but equally as stern introduction to pragmatic cooking techniques. If Bourdain is trying to prepare you for war, and Kenji is trying to prepare you to make the BEST. Thing. Ever, Adler is trying to prepare you for Tuesday night when you just want something tasty to eat. This actually might be my top Coronavirus Quarantine recommendation… in tone it maps quite well to our current conditions.

The best part about An Everlasting Meal is how it turns the pedestrian into the grand. There’s a chapter on boiling water, for goodness sake.

The weak part of this book’s game is the looseness. If you need exact techniques and recipes, this is going to fall short for you.

Get it if: You have the sense that cooking is hard, and you wish it was simpler

Know that: You’ll be supplementing many of the inspirations with Googling for actual recipes

That covers it for books… I would pick one from the list above, the one that maps best to your mindset and interests, rather than trying to get all of them. You could cook your way straight through one of them — Julie & Julia style — but I think more beneficial would be to find a few recipes you’re attracted to and repeat them.

If people like this post, next up will be a list of beginner-friendly techniques and a list of things I wish I knew when I started learning to cook.

Software engineer and team leader by experience, startup and business nerd by nature. PDX. https://jonoropeza.com

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