The Joy of Cookbooks

Gift ideas for the foodie on your list, from notable chefs, food writers, and more.

Everyone knows that classic cookbooks like The Joy of Cookingand How To Cook Everything make great gifts for aspiring chefs. But what if you want to give a cookbook to an adventurous baker with a passion for popovers? Or to your cookbook-fanatic cousin who already seems to own every title known to man? Slate asked notable food writers, chefs, cookbook bookstore owners, and food editors to share their current favorites—offbeat cookbooks they’ve loved for ages, or gems they’ve discovered among the hundreds published more recently. Dan Barber, Barbara Fairchild, Ming Tsai, Mimi Sheraton, Ethan Becker, and many more offer their thoughts on inspiring cookbooks and reference books that can be relied upon for great recipes and clearly explained techniques. Their responses are printed below.

Ethan Becker, co-author, 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise is one of the great cookbooks of all time. Not only is Shirley one of the most knowledgeable and respected food scientists around, she provides great recipes! Cookwise is loaded with information on the hows and whys of cooking, presented in a friendly, straightforward, precise, and accessible style. The book is that rare animal—a treasure trove for both amateur enthusiast and professional chef. The treatment of flour, eggs, butter, and milk are worth the price of admission, as, by the way, is her famous Touch of Grace Biscuit recipe—you do not have to be Southern to want to chomp your way through a dozen. Cookwise cheerily tells you how to change recipes to fit your tastes. You want a particular chocolate chip cookie to be chewier or crisper? How about lighter dinner rolls? Shirley shows the way and provides a troubleshooting checklist for most problems.

Before I teach a cooking class, I always peruse the appropriate sections of Cookwise to ensure I cover all the bases. There is a reason why whenever I spot Shirley at professional gatherings there is a constantly changing but reverential knot of cognoscenti asking, “Why?” Shirley knows!

Dan Barber, chef, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns I often recommend The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall by saying grandiose things like, “This is a cookbook for our time,” or “This is less a cookbook than a carnivore’s manifesto.”

What’s not grandiose is to suggest that this book describes a new role for the chef, which is not just to prepare great food, but, to the extent possible, to affect and participate in the process of its creation, conveying the entire history behind a meal. And that’s what The River Cottage Meat Book aims to do: provide a faithful, at times unsettling portrait of the animals on your plate, from feed, to slaughter, to storage.

This in itself is a kind of recipe, at once philosophical, gastronomical, and environmental—but ultimately a recipe for flavor. What Hugh understands, like no other chef, is that you can’t talk about one without examining the others. An impossibly juicy and delicious leg of lamb? It turns out that it was not so much the workings of a great chef but of a great farmer taking advantage of great pasture.

Its take-home message is utterly simple: to enjoy great meat, know more about what the animal was eating and where it was coming from.

Melissa Clark, food writer and author of The Skinny: How To Fit Into Your Little Black Dress Forever I have to admit that being from Brooklyn, it annoys me that the author of my favorite Jewish cookbook isn’t from New York. Not even the tri-state area. Mitchell Davis, author of The Mensch Chef, grew up in Toronto. But given that Davis’ latkes and yeast-risen rugelach trump my Bubbe’s, I’m managing to get over it.

And slowly, his recipes are taking over my repertoire when the Ashkenazi Jewish classics are called for. Need a recipe for beef brisket? Davis provides three—one basic minimalist affair, one spicy, chili-laced version, and an oddball but delectable pear rendition that I could just see my wacky Aunt Sandy from Midwood whipping up in an effort to impress. Naturally, you’ll find matzo ball soup, but not many cookbooks give the recipe for the matzo, too. And for the seriously hard core DIY-ers, Davis offers homemade red beet horseradish to adorn your seder table, and schmaltz (rendered onion-flavored chicken fat) and its gibenes (crispy chicken skin bits left over from rendering). It’s about the best Hanukkah gift you could get for a serious cook who wants to delve into traditional Jewish food without sacrificing their foodie cred.

Sara Dickerman, Slate contributor I’d recommend Fuschia Dunlop’s two cookbooks, Land of Plenty, about Sichuanese cuisine, and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, about Hunanese cuisine. Beyond the standard where-do-you-go-for-dim-sum debates, Chinese food has been vastly underexplored in this country. Maybe the subject feels tired, since Chinese restaurants are a longstanding part of the American landscape. No matter, Dunlop will snap you out of your torpor. For one, she’s writing about two regional styles that have great big flavors: chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and all that good stuff. And more importantly, she’s really smart and well-connected to her subject. She lived in Chengdu for two years and trained at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

Land of Plenty is a technical masterpiece—it explains cooking and cutting techniques as well as I’ve seen in any cookbook, period. She also uses Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook as a vehicle to weigh in on food as a political instrument—Hunan is, after all, Mao’s home state. Under his rule, fine-dining chefs suffered as symbols of the bourgeoisie, while Mao glorified peasant stews as the comradely way to eat. Dunlop gives us a taste of both cultures: A fantastically fussy recipe for egg whites put back in their shells and steamed to quivering firmness that epitomized 1930s haute cuisine, and Mao’s favorite: red-braised pork and steamed smoked fish with black beans and chilies.

Barbara Fairchild, editor in chief, Bon Appétit One book I love to dip into again and again is the original River Cafe Cookbook by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. It’s a marvel of ease of use—usually one recipe on each page—and everything I have tried has tasted authentically Italian and is so easy to make. The chapter on pasta and risotto is littered with food stains, which is about the highest compliment any cook can pay. And this book makes it simple to put together a terrific dinner party menu.

If I were looking for a great food book (as opposed to a cookbook) to give as a gift—for people who don’t necessarily like to cook as much as I do—two spring to mind: Stand Facing the Stove, the fascinating story of Irma Rombauer’s creation of the original Joy of Cooking, as well as her struggles to get it on the market; and How I Learned To Cook, which profiles some of today’s most successful chefs and details the origins of their passion for food. If you have a friend who is hooked on food but never cooks, this is the book for them.

Nick Fauchald, Food & Wine
Cooking as Courtship by Susan Wiegand is not a manual for flambéing one’s way into a prospective lover’s heart, but it can be used as such, which is why I buy every copy of this manifesto I encounter, passing it on to friends and lovers (or prospective lovers) with the hope that someday they’ll apply its advice when cooking for me.

Wiegand, a Kansas City-based clothing and underwear designer, channels equal parts Julia Child, Emily Post, and Alex Comfort while offering mores and decorum for cooking, eating, and entertaining that are at once provocative and soothing. Wiegand on essential equipment: “[Microwave ovens] make me question my own ethics, which is probably good except I am not wild about the answers.” On choosing a table: “It should be large enough for the number of people who plan to crowd around it, sturdy enough to allow for passions, wide enough to encourage generosity of spirit, and it should be flat.” And, lest we forget the title, on cooking to woo: “Feed your lovers with disingenuous abundance and with food which provokes their senses and you will probably be happy. Feed them with studied and measured delicacy or in a fashion which reeks of penury, and you might find their affections match your table.”

Simon Hopkinson, author of Roast Chicken and Other Stories
In the past few years, there’s been an unhealthy plethora of cookery books directing one to prepare dishes as swiftly as possible. The various titles usually include such urgent adjectives as fast, dash, quick, cheat, and even, more recently, express. This supposedly has something to do with no one having the time to cook carefully and thoughtfully anymore. Well, I don’t go along with this premise.

There is one particular book, however, that has always been truly admirable when discussing the notion of enjoying a nourishing meal without, how shall we say, slaving over a hot stove. And that is Edouard de Pomiane’s Cooking in 10 Minutes, first published in 1948. It is an absolute joy and very amusing to read even if you are not about to cook. A perfect illustration is this, my favorite recipe:

Oysters and Sausages
Fry some chipolata sausages. Serve them very hot on a dish and on a second dish a dozen oysters.Alternate the sensations. Burn your mouth with a crackling sausage. Soothe your burns with a cool oyster. Continue until all the sausages and oysters have disappeared. White wine, of course.

The man had great taste, n’est-ce pas?

Mollie Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest
Once in a great while, I’ll have a transcendent food-book-reading experience. This happened when I first picked up a copy of Salt & Pepper: 135 Perfectly Seasoned Recipes by Michele Jordan. I was familiar with Michele’s work—she is a friend of mine, and I admire her work. But inspired though I have been by everything she has done, this book has given me something beyond inspiration. It has given me permission.

A widespread, irrational morality hovers around the use of salt especially—both in the kitchen and at the table. The result is that this important ingredient has come to be taken entirely for granted, at best, and indicted as “bad” or an emblem of weakness at worst. And pepper, while perhaps not judged as harshly as salt, is also largely misunderstood.

In Salt & Pepper, Jordan delivers eloquent justice to these fascinating and complex subjects. There are more grinds, colors, flavors, and sources of salt and pepper than you’d ever have dreamed! And her bold narrative weaves together fables, history, lore, and scientific research, as well as technical information and techniques, both artful and practical.

I now see salt and pepper with fresh eyes, and taste them with a fresh tongue. I appreciate them more deeply and openly. Oh—I forgot to mention recipes: They are as simple to prepare as they are provocative to taste.

Christopher Kimball, America’s Test Kitchen
Damn chef cookbooks! Damn foodie cookbooks! Damn regional Mexican cooking cookbooks! And, double-damn free Internet recipes!

There was once a man, Richard Sax, who knew how to cook. He wrote a book, Cooking Great Meals Every Day. He started with the simple—how to cook pasta with butter and cheese—and then moved on to the elegant—risotto with wild mushrooms. He showed us how to cook chicken five different ways and then stepped his readers up to the secrets of Seafood Mousseline. He also taught how to sauté, braise, stew, poach, and roast.

Great musicians know that the secret of a great performance lies somewhere between inspiration and technique. The best cooks have the same understanding. The road to great food starts with technique used as building blocks to create a dish that is elegant in simplicity. 

Sax died at age 46 in September 1995. I saw him for the last time in 1993, and he was, as always, generous, kind, thoughtful, and masterful. As M.F.K. Fisher wrote in the introduction to Cooking Great Meals, “Brillat-Savarin often said that with a good recipe, miracles might happen.”

With a copy of Cooking Great Meals, I assure you that miracles will happen in your kitchen as well.

Paul Levy, co-chair, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery; editor, The Penguin Book of Food and Drink In our house only one cookbook really matters: the late Richard Olney’s Good Cook series for Time-Life. Mind you, its 28 slim volumes are soup-stained, egg-coated, and spattered with batter; otherwise, I see from consulting secondhand book sites, they would be worth a fortune. The volumes are divided by subject—e.g., poultry, pork, offal, fish and shellfish—and the initial pages offer shopping, preparation, and technique instruction on topics like how to fillet a chicken. Step-by-step, close-up photographs of Olney’s competent hands doing whatever task is called for complement the text. At the back are the recipes. A reduced, 320-page, single-volume but still terrific Good Cook paperback version was published in 2005. Recently out of print, it’s still available from online booksellers. Trust me, it’s the only cookbook you’ll ever need.

Jan Longone, curator, American Culinary History, Clements Library, University of Michigan Clementine Paddleford, longtime food editor of This Week Magazine, traveled 800,000 miles across America, interviewing America’s best cooks. The result was How America Eats (1960). In it, she introduces us to recipes as well as people of every age, and from every region and ethnic group in the country. Her personal anecdotes about each dish complement the recipes beautifully. For example, she prefaces her recipes for Aunt Sabella’s Black Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Icebox Cake by telling the story of how she heard tell about a pair of chocolate cakes so famous that people were willing to drive 100 miles just to eat a slice fresh cut. Paddleford put her detective skills to use and tracked down the recipes and their stories in Pennsylvania’s mushroom country, and the results are truly delicious. This is a book for reading and for cooking.

Molly O’Neill, author of Mostly True, A Memoir of Family, Food & Baseballand the editor of American Food Writing I own about 10,000 food books. When I’m feeling good in my own skin, I pick up books by masters of worlds that are far from my own, like After the Hunt by John Folse or Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan. (I neither hunt nor bake. In fact, I abstain from both with equal passion.)

Folse’s richly illustrated, 854-page behomoth makes me feel way too urban and very hungry. The book is an erudite meld of scholarship, art, and folk life that tells the history of the world through hunting—and the meals that follow. One of six sons in a Louisiana swamp-dwelling family of hunters, Folse could not shoot trout in a barrel. So, he learned to cook and became a legendary chef. The stories and recipes pull me deep into a forgotten America and into a richer, more complex connection with food and culture than your usual organic-garden-grass-fed-beef-patch ever could. In sway of the book, I’ve begun inviting every hunter I know to dinner. BYOK (kill), I say, “I’ll cook it! Heck, I’ll even make dessert!”

The other book I can’t put down is Greenspan’s cozy opus. I am a mediocre baker, at best, and I have protected myself by feigning disinterest. The pose worked until I picked up Baking. Greenspan, who earned her stripes collaborating with Julia Child, is a pro. In this book, she stays close to home, and her good-natured authority and generous spirit make me want to pull up a chair in her kitchen and bake, bake, bake.

James Oseland, editor in chief, Saveur Whenever I pull Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook off my bookshelf—and that tends to happen at least once a week—I feel all warm and cozy, like I’ve just bumped into an old friend. I turn to it for its incisive lesson on how to roast a chicken, its stunning recipe for lentils braised in red wine, and its exegesis on salts—the most lucid writing I’ve ever seen on that topic. But most of all I turn to it because it gives me the kind of advice about cooking that I can find nowhere else. Rodgers’ book is more than a recipe compilation—it is a confident, intensely personal manifesto that never fails to inspire me to open the refrigerator and cook something good.

Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously I have nothing against meatless meals, per se. But as a proselytizing meat eater, I find vegetarians hostile to my values, and their food hostile to my sense of taste. How can a recipe make me forget to miss bacon if the writer never understood what there is about bacon to miss? But since, at a recent visit, my doctor uttered the words “cholesterol” and “roof” in extremely close proximity, I’ve mothballed my meaty lifestyle for the time being. What’s a hungry carnivore to do? I finally found Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. Jaffrey, of course, is famous for bringing accessible Indian cuisine to the masses. Here she ventures farther abroad, to Africa, China, and the New World. Jaffrey is not herself a vegetarian, which, I’ve discovered, is the key to writing a successful vegetarian cookbook: World Vegetarian is crammed with simple dishes that are both substantial enough for someone who panics at a vegetarian plate and brightly flavored enough for taste buds that crave meat. I still miss bacon, but until those cholesterol numbers go down, I’m making do very well under Ms. Jaffrey’s meatless tutelage.

Michel Richard, chef, Citronelle Some of my favorite books:

The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller: Thomas’ book was the inspiration to me to write my own book, Happy in the Kitchen. It’s a beautiful piece of work.

Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich: These are great, delicious desserts, and simply easy to make.

Pierre Gagnaire: Reinventing French Cuisine by Peter Lippmann: I love Pierre’s food, and I love him. It’s nice to be able to cook his recipes.

Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongerichten: It’s Chinese cuisine with a French accent. Being French, I love it.

Matt Sartwell, manager, Kitchen Arts & Letters
The River Cottage Meat Book
by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a meat cookbook which may lead you to eat meat less often but enjoy it much more. There are a number of good reference works on meat, but this book stands out because the author, an English farmer, is passionate—and utterly convincing—about choosing and using good quality meat. One major implication of that conviction is that he is horrified by factory-farming methods and highly enthusiastic about sustainable husbandry. He’s also interested in making the most of the animal that has been killed for human sustenance and pleasure, so there’s no quarter given to cooks who bring home only boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

But off the soap box, Fearnley-Whittingstall—who cooked at London’s River Cafe and is now the host of a very influential television series on good local food in the United Kingdom—is an assured, comfortable cook who takes joy in simple preparation and has been exposed to a wide range of traditions. Cooks can select roast beef and wiener schnitzel, but they’ll also find Tunisian lamb with eggplant and black pudding wontons. And that belly of pork with applesauce is worth throwing a party for.

Steven Shaw, author of Turning the Tables: The Insider’s Guide to Eating Out and director of the eGullet Society Plenty of cookbooks would be useful if you needed to feed yourself on a desert island. But The Professional Chef, from the Culinary Institute of America, is the one book that you’d need on that island if you wanted to cook for yourself and your family, open a restaurant, operate a culinary academy and, in your spare time, cater a banquet for 1,000 guests.

Called “Pro Chef 8” (referring to the eighth edition) by those in the trade, the book’s 1,232 densely packed pages include not only recipes for every dish imaginable (and more; curried goat with green papaya salsa, anyone?) but also practical tutorials on subjects ranging from knives to stocks to world cuisines. Need to know how to open oysters or carve a roast duck? No problem: Pro Chef 8 has detailed instructions and step-by-step full-color photos.

Recipes are typically written to serve 10 or more, so unless you have 10 kids, you need to keep a calculator handy to scale them down for home use. And there are no shortcuts: Pro Chef doesn’t tell you how to cook like a Food TV chef; it tells you how to cook like a real chef.

Mimi Sheraton, former New York Times food critic and author of Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life Oh, for the shock of the familiar! My mother, an excellent cook and baker, owned only one cookbook: Anyone Can Bake, published in 1928 by the Royal Baking Powder Co. and filled with how-to photographs on baking basics and tempting color illustrations of the finished products. I, between watching and helping to sift flour, cut cookie shapes, and butter pans, studied each recipe. One particularly intrigued but eluded me, much as I pleaded with my mother to bake it: Called the Easter Bunny Cake, it was a little girl’s dream cake—ring-shaped with pale green and white frosting and crowned with seven white marshmallow bunnies, their ears tipped with pink frosting. Never mind Mrs. Gray’s Date Dainties, and Mrs. Scott’s Baked Apple Buns: I wanted the bunny cake. My mother always said she would attempt it for my next birthday, but somehow she never did.

I long wondered what happened to my mother’s copy. Then, about 10 years ago while browsing in a secondhand book store, Anyone Can Bake popped up to stun me. Never have I better spent $2. I pored over it as though it were a batch of old love letters. I still have not tried to make the Easter Bunny Cake, but perhaps I will next year, for my granddaughter’s sixth birthday.

Only one question haunts me: Could the copy I found possibly have been my mother’s?  That chocolate fingerprint on the brownie page looks spookily familiar …

Chris Schlesinger, owner and chef of East Coast Grill Two books are required reading for all of our staff at the East Coast Grill. Together they form the framework and perspective that guides the creation of our food.

One is Raymond Sokolov’s: Why We Eat What We Eat, which explores how Columbus’ travels affected cuisine and culture. Imagine Columbus’ delight as he encountered a whole new pantry of ingredients, and then the ensuing meals that naturally occurred.

The next is Elizabeth Rozin’s: The Flavor-Principle Cookbook, which attempts to define different cultures’ flavor footprints in terms of a trio of ingredients, such as tomato, garlic, and olive oil for Italy, or lime, ginger, and chilies for Thai food. I love how it explains the how and why of basic flavor combinations and their origins.

Bonnie Slotnick, owner, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
The Country Kitchen
by Della Thompson Lutes, published in 1936, is an indispensable book at this time of year (and all other times, too). In this memoir of family life on a Michigan farm in the 1880s, you’ll find a handful of “rules”—for corn-meal mush, chicken pie, sour-cream cookies. I cherish the book, though, not for its recipes but for its respite. Lutes’ words take me away from city life and 12-hour workdays to a cozy, cheerful, food-centered world where each season brought its harvests and feasts, where household harmony hinged on Mother’s “friedcakes,” where the merits of various pie fillings—pieplant (rhubarb), Crawford peaches, Spitzenberg apples, the novel “pie punkin’ “—were topics of intense interest to all.

Della Lutes worked as a women’s magazine editor and went on to write sophisticated books on etiquette, entertaining, and bridge-party food, but these tales from the farmhouse kitchen— bound in red-and-white gingham covers—tell us who she really was.

Start right now with the last chapter, “A Simple Christmas,” and ease your way into 2008 with Chapter 1, “The New Year.” Read a chapter a month (if you’re that disciplined) and start all over again in ‘09. It will be a sweet year.

Ming Tsai, host/executive producer of Simply Ming and chef/owner of Blue Ginger Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients is fantastic. His willingness to catalog practically every Asian ingredient known to man helps us all. In it, you’ll find ingredients organized by category—herbs, roots, etc.—which allows you to easily track down the name of that obscure Asian legume you want to use. Alternate names are also noted for each ingredient, in addition to a short informative paragraph detailing what part of Asia it’s used in and how to cook with it. You’ll also find basic recipes to get you started. The best way to use it, I think, is to take this book with you when you go to the grocery store. There’s a clear photo of every exotic ingredient, which takes the guesswork out of shopping. It was originally published in 1988 and then republished in 2000—not only do I have both copies, but I have one set at my restaurant, Blue Ginger, and another set at home. This book is indispensable for anyone wanting to learn about Asian cuisine.

Nach Waxman, owner, Kitchen Arts & Letters As cooking in America grows year by year, it is becoming less a mechanism for preparing the foods with which we sustain ourselves and more a form of recreation and cultural expression. Many cooks, seeking more knowledge of their food, have begun to explore the nature of the ingredients they use and what happens to them during the cooking process.

Harold McGee’s superb book,  On Food and Cooking, which pioneered this significant move toward knowledge and control, was published in 1984 and revised extensively in 2004. It remains valuable as a rich, readable examination of the way cooking works, explaining how foodstuffs are altered as ingredients are handled and processed in the kitchen; what happens to their flavors, textures, colors, nutrient qualities, and other characteristics; what makes some foods go together and others not. On Food and Cooking is a giant, 884-page, wide-ranging introduction to taking charge of our cooking through scientific knowledge. Accessible and highly authoritative, it examines foods, from eggs and meat to dairy products and vegetables, from sauces and emulsions to bakery products and confectionery. The single all-time best seller at Kitchen Arts & Letters, McGee’s book is an absolute necessity for the cook who wants to know.