Reference Cookbooks



Cooking Good Food

Good food cooked to perfection feeds the body and soul. How one gets good food is a matter worthy of discussion. The things contributing most to success are :

  1. Good Ingredients & Tools
  2. Good Recipes
  3. Command of the Essential Techniques
  4. Clear Vision of the End Result
  5. Focus on the Task

This site will help cooks find ingredients and tools. It will also help cooks find good recipes. At some point we hope to talk about many of the essential techinques, but these are all covered in the many cookbooks offered at this site.

We'll pause to take a moment to discuss focus.Just as an Olympic Medal-winning gymnastic routine is a demonstration of skill and focus, so too is the cooking of a meal. The recipe is much like the list of specific moves in the gymnastic event.

You cannot make a gold medal gymnast of any old person who has read the list of moves: Thousands of hours must be spent mastering the techniques. A serious pupil will spend hours looking at examples of good form and will get one-on-one coaching from another person skilled in the art.

Cooking is completely analagous. The first requirement in the development of cooking skill is to taste good food. I only understood this requirement after spending a week in Paris. Parisians will not eat middling food. This may be the greatest reason to study cooking in Paris; to learn how good food tastes. Knowing good food is half the battle in learning to make good food. And it is not taught by recipes.

So just as Michelangelo visualized his masterpieces in every detail before he started sculpting, the very best cooks imagine every nuance of flavor in the dishes they anticipate preparing. Then, when the vision of the dish has permeated their conscious and subconscious, they focus like a laser on producing that result.

We think that cookbooks offer only item #2, good recipes. But the best cookbooks offer to teach us techniques and help us visualize the result.

A Good Cookbook

What makes a cookbook a good reference:

A book has to offer more than 250 recipes that cover the gamut of salad, soups & stews, meat, poultry, fish, and dessert to clear the hurdle. Occasionally one will find a book on meat or baking or seafood or sauces that is so compelling that it warrants reference status.

A book that simply recites recipes is useful, but it does not help one grow as a cook. What one really needs is an understanding of how to master cooking processes to create the foods one imagines. Recipes then become sketches of what to do. A good cook can frequently make great food of middling recipes by applying principles and techniques learned in a good cooking reference.

A book whose recipes wear out in a year or a decade may be a book for a cook, but it does not satisfy the timelessness criterion for cookbooks. We may, today, look at Julia Child's forty year old book on mastering French cooking and feel it is a little dated. But many of the techniques and principles in that book are as timely as ever.

Kitchen worth means that you turn to the book over and over again for some purpose. That purpose may be inspiration. It may be the clarity of its recipes. It may be because the recipes create meals that you and your family find extraordinarily tasty or interesting.We try, at this site, to have all of our recommended books have kitchen worth.

Until very recently I assumed that cooking books could help only by serving up recipes. Cookbooks do provide recipes. Good cookbooks provide lots of recipes for lots of different kinds of food cooked in lots of simple ways using techniques that are dead easy to master.

Yet it is sadly true that it is a rare cookbook that manages to convey with accuracy the flavor of the result and all the essential nuances of the techniques. The sad truth is that it is not practical to teach technique from the inside of each recipe - it would take too long. So recipes are just shorthand outlines that assume a person knows the techniques.

Among the more accessible books on technique are Pam Anderson's The Perfect Recipe and Cook's Illustrated The Best Recipe. In each case the editors started with well documented recipes, tested them, changed them, and recooked them over and over, polishing the ingredient list and the cooking techniques until the recipes were as good as the panel of tasters could imagine them being.

It is formidable, but The Making of a Cook is one of the most comprehensive books on the techniques involved in making classical French dishes written by a classical cooking instructor whose parents cooked for the French upper crust in Paris. It is clear from the book that Kamman understands great food and cares a great deal to pass on what she knows.

There are several books on theory and practice by eminent cookbook writers and chefs. One, called Complete Techniques a is by Jacques Pepin. Pepin is a French chef who has lived in the US for several decades and written many exceptional cookbooks. Another is James Beard's Theory and Practice. Beard has been a towering personality in cooking for half a century, at least. Few people on earth have been trusted so much for so long on all issues culinary. James Peterson weighs in with Essentials of Cooking. Peterson has produced a number of extraordinary cookbooks including the seminal work Sauces. Trained first as a chemist then as a classic French chef, he understands implicitly how to approach cooking with all the left-brained skills of a scientist and all the right-brained skills of an artist. It's good stuff.

For those who are new to cooking and want just one book, we feature a few classic choices. The new Joy of Cooking is as encyclopedic as the original but has been updated to reflect the cooking of our times a little better. The joy part does not shine through; it is not a book to inspire. But its scope and thoroughness make it an invaluable kitchen reference.

Higher on the inspiration scale are Doubleday, Good Houskeeping, and Better Homes and Gardens. To confuse things greatly, there is also the All New Good Housekeeping Cookbook which is in my kitchen. It is a very good book - excellent as a first cookbook. It has good explanations, good, easy to follow recipes, good photos, and a good format. In short, if one had to live from a single cookbook for a decade or two, this would be a good choice.

One of my first Cookbooks was the New New York Times Cookbook. It contains the turkey recipe I use with much success every year. And many more of its recipes strike me as being good ones. Both it and the New York Times Cookbook are by reknown chef Craig Clayborn; one would reasonably expect the latter to be at least as good as the former since it both preceded and succeeded that title.

David Rosengarten was a force majeur in the early days of Food TV. But with the rise of Emeril Lagasse, he has disappeared from that venue. Emeril one might imagine, cooks for adulation. But Rosengarden is a foodie through and through. His passion for superlative food shines in the Dean and DeLuca cookbook. This is not a first cookbook in the sense that it is not so encyclopedic as most of the offerings above. Nor is it a treatise on technique. But it certainly is broad in scope; it certainly has great depth, and it is very kitchen friendly if you are an accomplished cook.

There is much here to digest. Remember, cooking is an act of love for yourself and those with whom you share your table. Whatever your skills, if you approach it carefully you will succeed in bringing health and happiness to the ones you love.

Eat well and prosper.


Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.