Our favourite books to help your chef skills
Top chef: 5 books to make you a better cook
Words— Clay Sandhu
If you ask most cooks what books they cook from you might be surprised to learn that, although we may own a small library of books, we usually only cook out of a select few. While most cookbooks are good books, not all are necessarily practical to cook from, or at least not for the vast majority of home cooks.
Noma’s first cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, is an example of a cookbook that more like a coffee table book than the kind of instructional tool for learning how to make a particular dish. It's a volume full of consideration of place and ingredients offering a glimpse into the inner workings of one of the world’s most influential restaurants, but to most home cooks it's a useless book. Of course, you will find instructional recipes in the book, but let’s be honest, if you’re like me, you haven't got the time, tools, ingredients, or know-how to put the recipes together and furthermore, you probably haven't tasted anything quite like it so how will you know if you've succeeded? A more appropriate book for a home cook would be a reference cookbook, you know, the kind of book that really breaks cooking down for you. The only problem is these books tend to be incredibly text driven and the breadth of their reach is often too wide for most home cooks, so choosing one can be hard. For the purposes of this list, I have stuck to books with a few specific characteristics that I think make for good books.
1) The cook-ability of the recipes. Is the book all about the chef? Is it all glossy photos of artfully plated food? Is it the cookbook of from a specific restaurant? If these qualities describe the book, you'll probably like it, but you probably won't cook from it. You want a book with clear straightforward recipes that are written with a home kitchen in mind.
2) Does it help you cook better? Good recipes are one thing, but the key to good cooking is understanding the transformation of ingredient to dish. The best cookbooks not only provide good recipes but also help to explain what makes the recipes work. This is fundamental to the growth and confidence of the home cook, as your understanding of food deepens, your skill and ambition are likely to grow in turn.
3) Who wrote the book? Ever heard of them? There’s nothing wrong with owning a “101 ways to cook chicken” book, but should you base your cooking fundamentals around it? Maybe, but maybe not, depends on the trustworthiness of the author behind the recipes. It's best to do a bit of research on the authors to see where the advice and recipes are really coming from. In my experience, the best books are usually written by obsessive food-nerds and restaurant cooks writing specifically for cooking at home. With that criteria in mind here is a selection of books I think are full of good food and will help make anyone a better cook.
France: The Cookbook
by Ginette Mathiot
This is actually a reprint and rebranding of one of France's most classic and most important cookbooks ever written. Originally titled Je Sais Cuisiner (“I know how to cook”) Ginette Mathiot published the anthology on French home cooking in 1932. This book has 2000 recipes, it is one of 30 books published by Mathiot, and there is very little in the book other than recipes and instruction. I know what I just said about text driven books and although I stand by that, this is a book uniquely dedicated to French cooking. You won't read all the recipes, nor will you cook them all, but you will learn how to make a mayonnaise, roast a rack of lamb, make a roux, and make a nice tarte tatin. This is culinary school, this is the basics of all good cooking, and it's why the book is still relevant today.
This too is a reference book but this time with images and directions and Nosrat’s way of describing food makes this book a pleasure to read. If you haven't watched the Netflix show, watch it, and then imagine you have Samin at home with you joyfully cheering you on as you prepare your first ceviche. The beauty of this book is that like most reference books it teaches really fundamental and important techniques, but it also breaks food down into 4 essential qualities and then explains how these qualities manifest in good cooking. This is a book you will cook from and you will learn from, and this applies to novice cooks as much as it does to seasoned pros. Samin Nosrat is a former cook at legendary Chez Panisse in Berkley California, and now a highly regarded food communicator.
Near and Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel
by Heidi Swanson
Swanson is in large part is responsible for the laid-back, ultra-cool, aesthetic of the contemporary California kitchen. This book is equal parts travel memoir and cookbook, organizing recipes by inspiration of origin regardless of whether or not the dishes themselves are authentic to the place. It's worth mentioning that this is a vegetarian cookbook, but it isn't preachy, it simply showcases the many beautiful and delicious possibilities of cooking with vegetables. Imagine dishes like Red lentil hummus with whey and black sesame, or roasted winter squash with orange, coriander, ginger and yogurt. The recipes are rustic, simple, but tantalizing and they will serve you throughout the seasons. Near and Far offers home cooks a better appreciation for cooking well with vegetables and furthermore will give even meat-minded cooks an appetite for veggies.
The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating
by Fergus Henderson
This is an essential book for anyone interested in cooking meat. The late Anthony Bourdain once compared to book to a near “religious epiphany” and it's been a fixture in meat-centric restaurants and butcher shops the world over since its release in 2004. The book will teach home cooks how to butcher, salt, brine, roast, poach, pickle, and fry all parts of a pig, as well as how to put together wholesome and hearty English fare with a good piece of meat at its centre. Henderson writes with a lyrical and slightly humorous style that makes the book a pleasure to read. The esoteric chef of London's St. John is a true bon-vivant, a lover of food and drink, and a master of his craft, making this book an indispensable book for any cook. In his own words “If you're going to kill the animal it seems only polite that you use the whole thing”.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Lauded as the “King of Internet Cooking” Kenji Lopez-Alt is the culinary director behind the immensely popular Serious Eats website. The Food Lab is more like a lab report than a conventional cookbook, the recipes within are centred around American classics like lasagna, and meatloaf, which may seem like well-worn subject material, but the approach is decidedly unique. Lopez-Alt uses the scientific method to test out various methods and techniques from preparing everything from mashed potatoes to a hard-boiled egg. For each recipe, Lopez-Alt compares the results of each version of the recipe side by side to show you which way yields the best results, while simultaneously explaining the transformations occurring and what exactly is happening in your food to make it taste better. This is the kind of book that will elevate anyone’s cooking skills as we so often forget that cooking and chemistry are closely related; the better we understand what we're doing to our food, the better we get at cooking it.