A Guide To Cookbooks
What is a cookbook?
As is often the case, Webster 1913 gives something of an obtuse definition of a sublime concept: A book of directions and receipts for cooking; a cookery book. It's a factual if oddly stated definition, but it misses some of the key components of what a cookbook is.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language does somewhat better: A book containing recipes and other information about the preparation of food. Yet, it also seems to neglect the essence of what a cookbook is.
So, what is a cookbook? It is indeed "a book containing recipes and other information about the preparation of food," but more importantly, it provides a visual and textual foundation of the culinary arts. Much like the Kama Sutra is to sex, a good cookbook provides a passport, a guide, a tutorial into the passionate art of food.
Elements of the cookbook
A cookbook should include some combination of the following elements:
Recipes: A cookbook should provide a series of recipes for the preparation of specific dishes.
Instruction on technique: A cookbook should provide help on specific kitchen tasks, such as proper ways of cutting up vegetables and meats and how to prepare certain sauces.
Instruction on creativity: A cookbook should guide you down the path of being able to modify and invent dishes on your own without requiring a recipe.
A truly great cookbook will provide elements of all of the above.
There are a handful of essential cookbooks that stand head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of general cuisine and American dining. What follows is a guide to these cookbooks, presented in an order from novice books to advanced texts, which should grow with you from the first baby steps of cooking to professional-level culinary arts.
Betty Crocker's Cooking Basics (Betty Crocker, 304 p.): This book is based on the absolute fundamentals; it assumes going in that you have no grounding at all in cooking. "Cooking Basics" is useful in guiding users visually through recipes using step-by-step pictures, enabling the learning of basic techniques in a visual fashion while preparing simple dishes.
How to Cook Everything (Mark Bittman, 960 p.): This is probably the best tome available for someone who wants a massive compendium of recipes of all kinds. In terms of a "basic recipe" collection to provide foundations for more complex dishes, it's hard to go wrong with Bittman's book. Most of the recipes are relatively simple and don't rely on technique, but as with sex, technique can turn something average or slightly exciting into something tremendous.
Joy of Cooking (Irma Rombauer, 1136 p. in 6th edition): Joy of Cooking has been a kitchen staple for many American households for years, especially for those who are taking steps beyond merely following the directions of basic recipes. It is this infusion of recipe with inspiration and technique, along with an earthy and simplistic style, that makes Joy of Cooking very useful for those taking their first steps down the road of creative cooking. Some dislike more recent editions, where the older style of Irma Rombauer (very conversational and casual in tone) is being replaced by the input of multiple authors; I find both to be a joy in different ways and love both the new edition and older editions of this book.
The Way to Cook (Julia Child, 511 p.): The Way to Cook has a great deal of similarity to Joy of Cooking in terms of infusion of recipe with technique and inspiration, but the subject matter is often more compressed than Joy and some of the techniques are more difficult.
How to Cook Without a Book (Pam Anderson - not that Pam, 290 p.): This book is one of the best I've read focusing purely on the creativity and ingenuity of cooking. Although it covers some technique, the primary goal of the book is to outline and push one towards striving beyond the recipe.
The Professional Chef (Culinary Institute of America, 1056 p. in 7th edition): This book is the fundamental textbook of the Culinary Institute of America, and is the essential guide to cooking technique. Many techniques are taught within the framework of recipes, but the goal here is to stretch your abilities, both mechanically and mentally.
Larousse Gastronomique (Prosper Montagne, ed., 1350 p. in 2001 edition): The encyclopedia of the culinary arts, Larousse Gastronomique is often most useful merely as a brainstorming tool or as a reference. It includes definitions and descriptions of thousands of culinary techniques and materials, and simply skimming through the tome can provide countless ideas for the inquisitive cook's mind. Don't expect this book to teach, however; it merely explains specific topics as a reference; yet, it is probably the most thorough and enjoyable cookbook I've ever had a chance to peruse.
Beyond this, there are countless useful cookbooks to investigate specific culinary topics: specific cuisines, dietary trends, specific types of dishes, and so forth.
Criticism of Cookbooks
There are many aspects of cookbooks that are often criticized; some of the more common criticisms follow, along with how some cookbooks avoid these pitfalls.
The recipes do not match my culinary taste. Many general cookbooks (in America) focus either on American cuisine or French cuisine. Thus, general cookbooks often miss the culinary interests of many. There is a wide availability of cookbooks for specific cuisines, but in many cases with these, fundamental technique is already assumed. The best counter to this is to use a very general text for learning basic technique (i.e., Joy of Cooking) and at the same time attempt recipes from the specific cuisine of your preference.
The recipes are too complicated for a beginning cook. Some cookbooks drop the aspiring chef off of a cliff, discussing techniques that are often extremely complicated. One should gain grounding first with a general cookbook with simple recipes (Betty Crocker's Cooking Basics, for example) and/or lots of basic technique (Joy of Cooking)
The recipes are too simple for a more advanced cook. Once one has cooked for years, many basic recipes seem very simple and don't afford room for creativity. At this point, books such as How to Cook Without a Book, The Professional Chef, and especially Larousse Gastronomique, along with cuisine-specific cookbooks, should become a part of your cooking library.
The recipes/technique are too French-centric. This often occurs in cookbooks produced by or supported by culinary institutes (i.e., The Professional Chef), and is also validated by the fact that the primary culinary encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique, is French in source. The usual counter to this is that the variety and intricacy of French cuisine is not only useful in itself, but is applicable to other cuisines as well. It should be noted that recent versions of both The Professional Chef and Larousse Gastronomique, among other cookbooks, are less French-centric than in earlier versions.
A cookbook is a guide to the culinary world. Whether you want training wheels on your bicycle as you first learn to ride, or are ready to strap yourself to a rocket of French cuisine, there is a cookbook to guide you there.