10 Beginner Cookbooks

Helpful titles for the novice cook

By Aida Mollenkamp

Starting with Ingredients Cook with Jamie The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion
Learning to cook is easy—no, really. The key is to prepare yourself ahead of time. First, realize you’re going to mess up a few times before you get the hang of it. Second, make sure you’ve got the right equipment. Last, find a good teacher: While you could hire someone, a high-quality cookbook will do just as well. Consider these 10 books your starting point for everything from braising to baking to bartending, and before you know it you’ll have transitioned from champion eater to victorious chef.

1. The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook by Amelia Saltsman. If you’re eager to learn how to cook but want to do so with a conscience, turn to this book. It breaks down the etiquette of shopping at a farmers’ market, provides basic cooking tips, and makes eating seasonally a realistic endeavor with tasty recipes that are straightforward enough for the neophyte chef.

2. Starting with Ingredients by Aliza Green. While the strength of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook is its narrow scope, this book works for the opposite reason. It provides broad yet in-depth information on nearly every produce item you’re likely to come across, then covers all the hows: how to choose, store, and cook with said items.

3. Cooking by James Peterson. Peterson’s years of teaching cooking classes have surely qualified him to write a beginner cookbook, but you’d better be in good shape to lift this hefty digest. Organized in a pragmatic if academic manner, Cooking is a bit dry at times, but it has you covered on essential methods, plus there are about 600 recipes with flavors and ingredients from all over the world.

4. Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. There’s a reason this book has been around for more than seven decades and is usually one of the most dog-eared and tattered tomes in any home cook’s collection. This latest, 75th-anniversary edition restores previously redacted sections that make Joy so indispensable. Must-reads for trainee chefs are the “Cooking Methods” and “Know Your Ingredients” chapters.

5. Cook with Jamie by Jamie Oliver. Oliver has been enticing home chefs with his approachable and cosmopolitan cooking for more than 10 years, and he has always delivered straightforward, classy food. Within his surprisingly deep library, our favorite for newbies is this edition, which covers everything from the simple (how to dress a salad) to the challenging (how to make your own pasta). While some recipes—such as Lovely Lamb Shank Pie—are decidedly English, most are universally delicious.

6. How to Boil Water by Food Network Kitchens. There are some people for whom the kitchen is such foreign territory they don’t know where to start. If that’s you, pick up this book, which features fundamental tips demonstrated through everyday recipes, presented in straightforward language that anyone can appreciate.

7. The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. Because we work in a test kitchen, we can appreciate the diligence and dedication that go into making recipes as perfect as possible. For this reason, we know that the basic recipes in The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook have been extensively road-tested. They’re also backed up with explanations of the whys, hows, and whats—such as why bread knives with a curved edge are better than those with a straight edge, how to judge the heat level of a grill, and what makes pastry flaky.

8. How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman’s experience as a recipe tester and writer of the Minimalist column for the New York Times has made him the perfect candidate to pen a book with this title. Featuring more than 1,500 recipes, loads of definitions, and practical cooking advice covered in nearly 950 pages, it’s certainly deserving of its name, and its many awards.

9. The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. For most, conquering the kitchen starts with attempts at savory fare and then moves on to more advanced efforts like baking. But though baking is surely more precise work, it can be just as fun and experimental as cooking any main dish. If you don’t believe us, try nearly any recipe from this book; after a few bake-a-thons, you’ll have enough confidence to try your hand at homemade bread.

10. The Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan. The photo of the author, with his Santa Claus–like beard, is reason enough to purchase this book. Seriously, though, when it comes to drinks, this is the title to have on hand. Covering everything from the history of the cocktail to Regan’s philosophy on mixology to recipes for nearly every well-known libation out there, Mixology is a requirement for any aspiring home bartender.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.

Aida Mollenkamp is a food editor at CHOW.

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