7 Best Kitchen Reference Books for the Home Cook

7 Best Kitchen Reference Books for the Home Cook

I am a booklover who loves to cook. While I am hesitant to invest (money or shelf space) in a lot of cookbooks, one of my great pleasures is a solid kitchen reference book.

It’s easy enough to turn to the internet for answers to cooking questions these days, but it’s the real books that have my heart.  I can set a trusted book on the counter while I cook, or curl up with one on the couch with a cup of coffee–and I do both these things often.  I love my kitchen reference books.  Here are my 7 of my favorites:

1. Joy of Cooking is a kitchen classic and an excellent all-purpose recipe book: it contains over 4500 reliable recipes, so this is the first cookbook I turn to when I’m trying to find out how to prepare a certain food–like how to make chicken pot pie, or different methods for preparing green beans.  Joy is justly famous for its illustrations, how-to guides, and introductions to each recipe.
2. The New Best Recipe contains “1,000 exhaustively tested recipes” from the editors at Cooks’ Illustrated, home of “America’s Test Kitchen.”  I tend to be a first-born perfectionist, so Cooks has my heart.  Its cover reads, “Would you make 38 versions of créme caramel to find the absolute best version?  We did.”  These are trustworthy recipes, and a short essay describes the testing process for each one, so you get great cooking lessons, one dish at a time.

3. How to Cook Without a Book. I’ve written before about how Pam Anderson taught me to cook without a cookbook. The simple tutorials for basic kitchen techniques make this book invaluable for the beginning cook. I pull out How to Cook when I want to brush up on a certain technique, or if I’m looking for new variations on old favorites.  This book is geared towards weeknight cooking:  this is the book I turn to if I want to get dinner on the table fast, but want something just a bit different.

4. Alton Brown called On Food and Cooking “the Rosetta Stone of the culinary world.”  McGee’s science-y descriptions will help you understand why some recipes work–and why some are doomed to failure.  This book will make you a smarter cook: the appendix is even called “A Chemistry Primer.” If you understand the science behind a recipe, you’ll be able to tell at a glance which recipes are likely to succeed, and which are simply unworkable–and McGee will happily teach you the science.

5. Secrets from a Caterer’s Kitchen provides a behind-the-scenes look into the catering business, answering all those questions about catering you didn’t know you had, like why a catered meal is likely to be more expensive than a restaurant one.  This book covers all aspects of party planning, great tips and how-tos, timetables, worksheets and list templates, and an exhaustive list of other resources.  I especially enjoy Nicole Aloni’s stories of her own catering nightmares–and triumphs.

6. A professional foodie gave me The New Food Lover’s Companion as a wedding gift years ago and it quickly became a family favorite.  This squat paperback is like a dictionary for cooks.   My husband and I have grabbed this little book off the shelf mid-conversation so many times that our 6-year-old now fetches it if she feels a foodie question coming on.  We also have the deluxe edition, and it’s lovely coffee table material.  But it’s so pretty, with its hardback cover and gold etching, that I don’t refer to it as often as my dog-eared, grease-splattered paperback.  This is a great gift for a food-loving friend.

7. Ratio is How to Cook Without a Book for bakers.  If you understand the basic proportions behind good recipes, you don’t have to be a slave to a cookbook.  Each chapter sets out a basic ratio–for bread dough, pasta dough, pie dough, biscuits, cakes, cookies, custards and more–and then gives details on how you can vary the basic recipe to suit your purpose.  My cooking style changed dramatically after reading this book: I bought a kitchen scale, because proper proportions are best determined by weight, not volume.  (I’d encourage anyone who bakes to make the change–it’s so much easier, and much more fun!)  Ratio has made me a smarter cook, and has freed me to be more inventive in the kitchen.

Post your favorite kitchen reference book to comments!

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  1. Hannah says:

    Now that I’ve practiced for about ten years, I love cooking without recipes. These books sound great for teaching how to do that. It’s the ultimate way to use up leftovers or keep the same cuts of protein interesting, too.

  2. Brenda says:

    These all look good! You’ve spoken so highly of “How to Cook Without a Book” that I may just have to see if I can get that through our public library. A few that I enjoy very much are Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (1987 version, I think), the Fanny Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham, & Company’s Coming Millenium edition by Jean Pare. I have others, of course, but I find that I go back to these the most…especially the first two, as they are “take-you-by-the-hand” cookbooks, assuming you know nothing.

  3. Jamie says:

    I too have the Food Lover’s Companion and love it!! I was a hospitality major in college, then worked in food service for 10 years, to I had the privilege of working with some amazing chefs. The FLC was a great resource in translating my chef’s awesome menu ideas into something the customers could understand, and has come in handy at home as I explore new cooking techniques myself! :0)

  4. I reserved How to Cook Without a Book from my local library after I read this post. Just came in and I love it! I would even call it fun. Her formula for soup is similar to the one my mother taught me when I was a new wife. It’s handy to have so many great formulas in one sweet little book. Think I’ll purchase this one. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Katie says:

    Thanks for posting a link to this post just in time for my birthday next month, Anne…Amazon wish list, here I come. ^_~

    In particular I think that McGee book is just what I’ve been looking for. But does this mean I’ll have to part with some other cookbooks to make room on my shelf? Bibliophiles have it rough.

    • Anne says:

      Ha! Yeah they do 🙂

      Of course you won’t have to get rid of any cookbooks! I don’t think there’s a single recipe in McGee. Maybe you could get rid of the thesaurus instead? 😉

  6. Lindsey in AL says:

    So far my plan for my kids’ hope chests was
    -The Joy of Cooking
    -Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook
    -Vintage copy of BHG New Cookbook

    Now I am definitely going to pick up (at the very least) the caterer’s book you mentioned as well as How to Cook Without a Book. The latter definitely sounds like it could make the hope chest list. I’m intrigued by the catering book simply because I want to feed my large family really delicious food with relative ease (by cooking ahead and freezing, etc). I think a caterer would have insight into streamlining cooking for a crowd. I might just add them all to my list because who can ever have too many kitchen books? 🙂

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