If you decide to stock just one all-purpose cookbook on your shelf, make sure it’s Joy of Cooking. Not only does the cookbook contain a wide range of recipes, it clearly explains all cooking instructions, has illustrations that explain technique, and has an indispensable chapter titled, “Know Your Ingredients” that’s useful for both novices and more advanced cooks.
OK, technically, this is not a cookbook, but it’s still a book that any serious home cook needs to own. With an illustrated chart of different cuts of meat, a list of more than 100 types of pasta, and nearly 7,000 entries on food, drinks, and cooking terms, this encyclopedia is the perfect book for anyone who wants to know more about the food they cook and eat.
If you can’t make it to Italy to learn about Italian cooking from a kindly Italian grandma, then your next best option is to purchase a copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is a single volume of updated and revised recipes from The Classic Italian Cookbook (1976) and More Italian Cooking (1978). Like Julia Child did for French food, Marcella Hazan manages to explain and demystify the food and techniques that make up Italian cuisine in a clear and authoritative manner. Use Hazan as a guide and in no time you’ll be making food that any Italian grandmother would be proud to call her own.
There are a lot of things that I think are overrated, like Gone with the Wind and sliced bread, but I can never heap enough praise on Julia Child’s masterpiece. While there are a lot of great French cookbooks out there, such as Elizabeth David's classic French Provincial Cooking or Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, none come close to the breadth and depth of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If you want to understand French cooking (and get a better understanding of how to cook in general), you must own this cookbook.
It is often said that cooking is an art and baking is a science. Rose Levy Beranbaum takes this belief to heart with a baking book that teaches novice bakers how to bake by explaining how food interacts with one another. Once you learn about food chemistry, which is presented in an easy and accessible manner, it’s all but guaranteed that your crusts will always be flaky and tender and your meringues will never weep.
Famed bread baker and teacher Peter Reinhart understands that a lot of people think that making good bread is as complicated as quantum physics, so he’s written an introduction on the chemistry behind good bread that’s so thorough and clear that at the end of the introduction you‘ll be convinced that making bread isn‘t that hard after all. In addition to the great introduction, his recipes are easy to follow and delicious. An introductory book on making bread doesn’t get better than this.
There are plenty of excellent vegetarian cookbooks on the market like Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, the classic Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen, or Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, but New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s cookbook is great because it has guidelines for how to cook meatless meals that are perfect for the novice vegetarian and scrumptious dishes that will satisfy even the most seasoned vegetarian.
It's hard (and depressing) to imagine a time when Indian food wasn't as ubiquitous as it now, but when Madhur Jaffrey published An Invitation to Indian Cooking in 1973, Indian food was still seen as an "exotic cuisine." Thanks in part to Jaffrey's cookbook, which adapted Indian dishes to American kitchens; interest in Indian cuisine grew exponentially. Nearly 40 years later, the cookbook is still the best foray into Indian cooking because her easy, conversational style makes it easy to learn the skills and techniques essential to making good Indian food.
If you want to move beyond beef and broccoli and sweet and sour chicken, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking is the perfect cookbook to start with. Not only are there more than 150 delicious recipes to choose from, the cookbook comes with step-by-step instructions on Chinese techniques that will make you feel comfortable tackling such ambitious dishes as char siu (barbeque pork).
If you want to know about the history of Mexican cuisine and want to make recipes that are always crowd-pleasers, then you need to own Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. Aside from the fact that the cookbook provides a complete guide to the immensely varied cuisines of our southern neighbor, it also has clear and thoughtful instructions that make it easy to tackle even the most seemingly complicated dishes.