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Better Living Through Books

Yes, Chef: Essential Cookbooks for Beginners and Beyond

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Rebecca Joines Schinsky

Chief of Staff

Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the executive director of product and ecommerce at Riot New Media Group. She co-hosts All the Books! and the Book Riot Podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaschinsky.

As requested by the folks who voted in the poll in the last edition of Better Living Through Books, today we’re talking about cookbooks. Thanks to everyone who participated!

A note on philosophy before we jump in: kitchen space is precious and limited, so cookbooks really have to earn their spots on the shelf. The ones I’ve rounded up here all offer a firm grasp of the fundamentals and a wide range of flavor profiles. Think of them as the go-to references you’ll reach for, mark up, and learn by heart, and supplement them with specialty recipes from the wide, wonderful internet. 

Cookbooks for Beginners

How to Cook Everything: The Basics by Mark Bittman — A lot of cookbooks claim to be for absolute beginners; this one actually is. Covering everything from how to crack an egg to how to know when food is done, Bittman’s behemoth includes more than 1,000 photos, most of which illustrate essential techniques.

Start Here by Sohla El-Waylly — If Bittman (above) is Cooking 101, think of this as more like Cooking 201: Nerd Edition. Each of the chapters is about a foundational technique or skill, and they’re organized to build on each other. True beginners should follow El-Waylly’s instruction to start at the very beginning and cook through in order. More experienced cooks will enjoy the chance to refine their technique and round out their skill sets.

Cook This Book by Molly Baz — Molly Baz is stoked about food, and she wants you to be, too. Don’t know what a term or technique is? Simply scan a QR code on the recipe to watch a quick video demonstration. Baz also offers clear guidance about which elements of a recipe to complete when, because efficiency matters.

Dinner in One by Melissa Clark — A veteran New York Times cooking writer, Clark serves up 100 recipes that are as easy to make as they are to clean up after. One pan, baby! Several of her pastas are in heavy rotation in my kitchen, and they’re fun to remix as you get more comfortable in the kitchen.

Snacking Bakes by Yossy Arefi — Gone are the days of being a cook or a baker but not both. Arefi serves up delicious desserts that only require one bowl for prep, and that bowl is not attached to a fancy stand mixer! This is intro-level baking at its best, with options for cookies, brownies, cakes, and more tasty treats you’ll be thrilled to eat and proud to share.

Level Up

Once you’ve got the basics down, these books will help you branch out, build confidence, and expand your repertoire.

Small Victories by Julia Turshen — A mainstay in my kitchen, Julia Turshen (her Substack is great, y’all!) accompanies every recipe with easy variations to suit your taste, along with tips—the titular small victories—to make your time in the kitchen more enjoyable. She’s a great teacher, and you’ll never feel talked down to. And if you never know what to do with leftovers, don’t miss Now & Again, in which each main recipe comes along with a suggestion for creating “nextovers.” 

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat — Dive into the chemistry of cooking with Nosrat’s seriously charming overview of the four basic elements of kitchen science. This cookbook is often positioned as good for beginners, but I think the book’s heft and level of detail make it more suited to folks who are already pretty comfortable in the kitchen. Nosrat’s recipes are designed for riffing, experimenting, and putting your own spin on things, making it one you can return to time and again as your skills and preferences evolve.

Cooking at Home by David Chang and Priya Krishna — The subtitle here, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave),” tells you most of what you need to know. If you want to be the kind of cook who can look at a random assortment of ingredients in your pantry and alchemize them into culinary magic, this is the book for you. Chang and Krishna have serious bona fides, but they are utterly unpretentious and genuinely enthusiastic in their encouragement to use what you have, embrace convenience, and trust your gut.

Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin — American cooking is Black cooking, so if you’re looking for trustworthy recipes for timeless comfort food, look no further. Tipton-Martin plays the hits from more than 200 years of African American cuisine, and even the most familiar dishes—fried chicken, gumbo, wilted greens, etc.—feel fresh and exciting in her hands.

The King Arthur Baking School by King Arthur Baking Company — If Bittman hadn’t gotten to the title How to Bake Everything first, it would have been most fitting for this recent addition to the pantheon of cooking references. King Arthur is my go-to source of quality ingredients and reliably excellent recipes, and this book covers just about anything you could want to bake, from the simplest cookies to the fussiest pastries.

Coming Attractions

Here’s a look at 15 upcoming books about food and cooking (and some drinking) to preorder or put on your holds list.

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