Thursday, December 11, 2008

Essential Cookbooks

Ezra has a post at IFA outlining his 5 essential cookbooks... none of which I own, so I have no real comment on the particulars of his list... though I asked for Bittman's latest revision of How to Cook Everything for Christmas, since I generally enjoy his NYT blog, even though I don't consider myself much of a cooking minimalist.

As someone who only started cooking, for serious, a few years ago, I find most cookbook recipes to be garbage for my needs... as they're generally written for people who already know how to cook. I'm also an engineer who works in a research lab, so I tend to get frustrated by the "la-la-la, dash of this, dab of that"... imprecision... in the attitudes of most cooks and their cookbooks. So, from my perspective, an "essential" cookbook has to include fairly explicit directions... there's a fair bit of difference, to someone who's never made a pot roast before, between "cook until done" and "cook until a fork slides easily into the meat"... and also, I like to get a bit of why with my recipes. It's great to have foolproof recipes, but if I don't know why you put the pie crust into the fridge for 45 minutes, how am I ever going to learn to actually cook? All I'll ever do is follow recipes by rote; afraid to substitute or deviate.

To that end, my two essential cookbooks are (to nobody who's read this blog's surprise) The New Best Recipe by Cook's Illustrated and I'm Just Here For the Food by Alton Brown. As a big fan of Cook's Illustrated, I have quite a few of their cookbooks (even an America's Test Kitchen one) as well as a magazine subscription, but the only cookbook they make that I would call truly essential is The New Best Recipe. For one thing, they repeat recipes a lot, so you might have a Four Cheese Pasta that is in NBR that is also in The Best International Recipe that also reappears in Cook's Illustrated from time to time... so while there are recipes in my Soups and Stews cookbook that I love, I certainly wouldn't call it an essential book. The additional factor is that all Cook's Illustrated recipes aren't created equal. The ones in NBR are superior in writing and testing, and always seem to come out flawlessly, whereas I have found other Cook's recipes to be more hit and miss. So I think, really all you need of their massive assortment of published works is The New Best Recipe, to cover every classic and standard American dish, and maybe a subscription to Cook's Illustrated if you like to try out the new variations and more international options... though, if you're a big fan of French cooking, for example, I imagine you could find a better "bible" than Cook's Illustrated's take.

I should note that the one drawback to The New Best Recipe, and Cook's Illustrated in general, is that Rachael Ray they are not. If you are looking for 30 minute meals you need to look elsewhere, as their idea of compromise is often turning the classic three days of cooking recipe from 1470 into a modern version that "only" takes 7 hours. It's not quite that bad, but their idea of a weeknight meal probably takes two hours from start to table. That's the way I like to cook, so it's great for me, but if you don't have that kind of time you might find the book significantly less useful. Another issue, is that most recipes have fairly... New England-esque "restrained" (I saw a commenter on IFA refer to it as "baked Calvinism" lol)... seasoning. As someone who used to put hot sauce on everything they eat, I was surprised at how quickly I came around to appreciate well cooked dishes with subtle layers of flavoring... but if you're a huge fan of big flavors, be advised some of these recipes might need to be "kicked up a notch" at the least, and possibly, just not your thing.

Alton Brown's book is a fairly different beast, with recipes taking a backseat to the science of cooking. They both endeavor to explain why, but Alton lays his book out explicitly around the idea of teaching you how to cook instead of teaching you to execute recipes. I actually don't cook a lot from his book to be honest... though those slow roasted tomatoes kick booty... but I've found it to be more and more valuable as I've gotten more experience cooking. As I've gotten good results and, sadly, made disastrous mistakes, I've understood a lot more of the underlying principles... which someday, hopefully, will allow me to cook effectively without a recipe. Which reminds me that I actually need to get back to reading my McGee, but that's a bit more advanced and dense... Alton Brown is very effective at making similar material easily understood by a wide range of audiences.

So, for the moment, those are my two "essentials" for a newb cook, with a lean towards left brained types.