Really, most cookbooks are useless to me.
My eyes glaze over whenever I go into a bookstore and pass through the cookbook section. The aisles and aisles and aisles of lurid glossy rectangular blocks gleaming with the white teeth of TV icons and lifestyle gurus make my blood run cold. If I stop to peruse something, it'll always be to check out a book published by someone I know and respect and who I believe is actually adding something to the body of knowledge of culinary art and technique.
The rest are dross and full of endless variations of recipes that have been around for hundreds of years and use techniques that I learned to master years ago. I mean, why in the name of Vesta would anyone who knows how to slice a piece of bread and put something on it, need to pay for a book with a recipe for bruschettta?
But I'm probably preaching to the choir. I think most of the folks who read me came here through Michael Ruhlman's blog and are mostly pretty accomplished cooks who understand that when it comes to cookbooks, all you really need to have on hand is a few texts to remind you of the basic dishes and techniques and that's it. For novice cooks the story should be about the same: buy a few basic texts that describe a broad range of dishes from whatever repertoire you are trying to learn (be it Japanese, Chinese , French whatever) and few more that emphasize technique. Also buy something that explains what food is and how it cooks.
You can learn more about how to cook from a food science rich book like Harold McGee's, On Food and Cooking than you can from almost any cook book I can think of. That man should get the Nobel Prize for Economics for all the money he's saved cooks from spending on know-nothing cookbooks.
Here's a list of the books I use most often to remind me of what can be done and how to do it. Keep in mind that I'm a Franco-Italo-American process karyotyped cook. I've got foie-gras en terrine, pasta a la bolognese, yeasted bread and pecan pie making in my genome and these books reflect that.
An asterisk denotes a book that I use less but are great for novices.
- Le Guide Culinaire (1982 ed) by Auguste Escoffier
- The Joy of Cooking (1964 ed)
- The Silver Spoon
- Regional Italian Cooking by Ada Boni*
- The Bread Baker's Apprentice
- Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking (VI&II) by Julia Child*
- The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne
- CookWise by Shirley Corrihier*
- On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
- Foods A Scientific Approach by Helen Charley and Connie Weaver
By the way, I'm thinking of adding another book to my library but am not yet convince that I need it. La Bonne Cuisine looks like it might just be a talisman for me. We'll see.