Dear BA Foodist,
I want to become a better cook, but cookbooks overwhelm me. Any tips?
Signed, Lost in Notation
Cookbooks are my nonfiction, reference guides, and coffee-table books all rolled into one; they taught me most of what I know. My wife doesn't understand the fetish, but then again, she never complains when I cook Alsatian tarte flambee or Sichuan-style cumin lamb for dinner. I especially enjoy a section that's usually just before the index, often called something like "Basics," or "Techniques." It covers the building blocks of cooking, the everyday recipes that define a restaurant or cuisine. Master this section in a few cookbooks and you'll be well on your way to becoming a great home cook. I have memorized 20 or so of these workhorse recipes, which I use weekly. From Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook, I often turn to his garlic confit and house vinaigrette. In Frank Stitt's Southern Table, I learned sauce gribiche. In Happy in the Kitchen, Michel Richard showed me how to make miso broth and fried capers, which taste great on just about anything. Lately, I'm loving the simplicity of Ethan Stowell's preserved lemons and salsa verde recipes in his New Italian Kitchen cookbook. And so is my wife.
I don't know about you, but when I read the question the first answer that came to my mind was not a list of complex, thick cookbooks. If cookbooks overwhelm the questioner, why would you add to that feeling by throwing more complex books and dishes on top of them? So I wrote my own response to the poor Lost in Notation.
Dear Lost in Notation,
Don't worry, I thought Mr. Knowlton's answer was a little pretentious too. I have a degree in Library Science, so I understand the value of cookbooks as reference materials, but I don't know many people just learning to cook who want to start out with confited anything. Even slightly more experienced cooks prefer simple recipes after a hard day of work.
If you want a book built to teach techniques that you can apply to multiple dishes, which can be used day to day and don't require a culinary degree, I can suggest a few titles. The best option is "Better Homes and Gardens: Anyone Can Cook". Easy steps, pictures, and even an "Ask Mom" section at the bottom of each recipe for all the techniques used and why they are necessary. Another useful book is Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food". It covers mostly meat cooking techniques, however it is very in-depth and scientifically written.
If you are not the book type, then I suggest renting a season or two of "Good Eats". Alton Brown is the host of the show and each episode is dedicated to a certain ingredient or technique. He explains the history behind recipes, the science behind the best foods, and provides recipes for your own experimentation. All of this combined with a campy sense of humor make each episode feel like spending time with a good friend, instead of sitting in a classroom. Hope this helps a little more than suggesting you look at the Basics/Techniques section.
Amber -The Zombie Cook
Original post by Andrew Knowlton of bon appétit Magazine.