When I started reorganizing my cookbooks a couple of months ago, I took it as an opportunity to take stock of what I’ve collected over the years. I sifted through my shelves and put together a list of 20 books that have had the greatest impact on me over the course of my career. They aren’t necessarily the best or most essential books around, but they are the ones that have had the most profound effect on me and my work through the years.
Folks frequently ask me what I’m reading these days and the honest answer is, with a brand new kid to experiment on at home, a restaurant about to open, and some books of my own to write (stay tuned for a sequel to The Food Lab, as well as a kid-focused project), I’m not reading all that much other than stuff on the internet that can be consumed in 10-minute intervals. It’s ironic that I complain about not having time to read because I have to make time to write, since the former actually makes the latter much easier. Like many writers, I get stuck. Content is not the problem, but voice often is. I can spend a good half day sitting in a gradually cooling bathtub pulling my hair out trying to answer questions like How can I explain this concept better? How can I make this section funnier? Why doesn’t this paragraph flow right?
Every once in a while I have to remind myself what good writing is.
It’s times like these that I have to remind myself that, at least for me, the key to good writing is good reading. I read Jeffrey Steingarten and find that I’m suddenly 15% funnier and 20% more rigorous. I thumb through copies of Fuschia Dunlop’s books or Rick Bayless’s and discover clever ways to introduce readers to cuisines they might not be familiar with. I read Jacque Pépin’s books and feel the crushing weight of knowing that I will only ever be worthy of walking in the shadow of the master, paralyzed with self-doubt as a single tear rolls down my cheek. Just kidding. Pépin is the master precisely because he’s so damn inspiring.
So if you’ve ever thought of becoming a cook, a recipe developer, or a food writer, these books might just help you out as much as they continue to help me to this day.
Is it embarrassing to admit that Kitchen Confidential—the 2000 memoir by Anthony Bourdain that injected sex, drugs, and rock and roll into the tame world of celebrity chefs—was the book that made me consider cooking as a career? Because it was. This was the book that made it cool to be a cook, and it directly led me to taking a job in a restaurant kitchen.
These days, it’s pretty clear that the world Bourdain described is (thankfully) becoming an anachronism, as overly macho kitchens become a thing of the past. Still, who doesn’t like to immerse themselves in the world of badasses (eye roll) every now and then, especially when that world is so vividly and humorously brought to life?
As far as my personal career and library goes, this is the most important book out there. Before Harold McGee wrote On Food and Cooking in the mid-1980s, food science was relegated to the world of trade journals and the packaged-and-prepared-food industry.
McGee took that science and revealed how it can be applied to home and restaurant cooking in a way that even a non-scientist can understand. It’s safe to say that without this book paving the way, Good Eats, Modernist Cuisine, Heston Blumenthal, and The Food Lab wouldn’t exist as we know them today. Essential reading for anyone interested in the hows and whys of cooking.
Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef is a deep look into what it’s like to actually train to become a cook. By enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America and going through their rigorous degree program, Ruhlman is able to translate first-hand experience into a wonderfully clear and engrossing narrative that will make you realize that either the restaurant world is for you, or it’s not. If you’ve ever thought about heading to culinary school, read this before you decide. The follow-up books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, are equally compelling reads that follow his post-culinary school career as he pals around with heavy hitters like Thomas Keller.
People have called my book the spiritual successor to a number of other works, but in my mind, Jeffrey Steingarten’s collection of essays in The Man Who Ate Everything is really where The Food Lab started. It’s the first book I read that combined insanely detailed research on food history and food science with the humor and prose to make it easily digestible—goals that I aspire to in every Food Lab essay or book that I write.
I’m of the mind that we do our best learning when we’re in the company of friends and colleagues, not professors or bosses, and Steingarten is the ultimate colleague. I can’t help but feel an affinity for anyone who roasts a chicken “whenever [he has] nothing better to do.” I’d probably be roasting a chicken right now, if I weren’t busy giggling to myself as I reread paragraphs from the book and its equally wonderful follow-up, It Must’ve Been Something I Ate.
Russ Parsons’s How to Read a French Fry is a well-curated package of only the most useful and interesting scientific tidbits, with a straightforward, “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Each of the six chapters is about a single basic concept of food science: how frying works, how vegetables ripen, how beans and pasta soften, how meat reacts to heat, how eggs are the most useful culinary tool on the planet, and how fat, flour, and water come together to form pastries and cookies. Each of those chapters starts with a lengthy essay covering the basic scientific principles involved, followed by a few pages of bulleted cooking tips and tricks, along with a handful of recipes (the book contains over 100 recipes in all).
Parson’s prose is also a joy. If you just sit down to read the book, you can easily breeze through it in a day, and, to be frank, once you start reading it, that’s probably what you’ll end up doing.
Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques isn’t a book of recipes; it isn’t a book of pretty pictures or flowery prose, either. When I picked it up, it was the first book I’d ever seen that really taught how to cook, not just how to fake your way to dinner tonight.
It was through Jacques’s photographs and clear descriptions that I learned how to properly hold my knife and hone it. He gave me the basics of cookware and how material choice might affect the way my food comes out. It was through him that I learned the most efficient way to slice or dice an onion. He showed me how to debone a chicken with minimal effort and minimal waste. He showed me how to make a vinaigrette (and why my salad greens should be absolutely dry before I dress them).
It’s no exaggeration to say that every step of my current career—from the genuine pleasure I get out of practicing even the simplest of knife skills to the desire I have to try to break down complex techniques into straightforward language—owes a big chunk of its existence to this book.
I’m too young to have any memories of eating at any of Joyce Chen’s restaurants in Boston, but because of this book, I know her food intimately. It was the Chinese cookbook my parents cooked out of when I was little, introducing me to things like hot and sour soup (made with black vinegar!) or Mandarin pancakes (I still remember the magic of peeling apart those paper thin pancakes). While its recipes and outlook might be a bit outdated in light of the greater familiarity Americans currently have with regional Chinese cuisine, as a first introduction to Chinese cookery, it’s a fascinating historical document written by one of the giants of Chinese-American food.
I first leafed through a copy of The New Best Recipe on the floor of a Barnes & Noble in the middle of a months-long application process to secure a job as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen. It was unlike any recipe book I’d ever seen. There were recipes, sure, but in between those recipes were absorbing stories filled with scientific experiments (moist air transfers heat more efficiently than dry air in a barbecued brisket!). There were failed attempts at recipes, with detailed notes on what went wrong and why (no, you can’t just toss the cheese and milk together with the pasta if you don’t want your macaroni and cheese to turn out greasy). There were blind product tastings that upended some deeply held beliefs I’d had (true vanilla extract is not always better than, or even discernible from, its cheaper artificial cousin!).
Meticulous testing is the name of the game at America’s Test Kitchen, and the results of those tests are all bound up in this amazing volume. It may not have the most exciting recipes in the world, but if you want a solid workhorse recipe that won’t let you down, The New Best Recipe is the place to turn.
First published in 1933, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was written as a novel, though in reality it’s autobiographical. Before the cynical parable of corrupted revolutions in Animal Farm; before the nightmarish, dystopian, but all-too-realistic future of 1984, George Orwell’s primary research was on class struggles and the realities of blue-collar work and poverty. When Orwell found himself penniless after the theft of his savings, rather than turning to his family for aid, he embraced the life of poverty (as well as such a life can be embraced), falling in with criminals, smugglers, drug dealers, and cooks, and chronicled it in this short volume.
This book is short, easy to read, and packed with firsthand insight. Required reading for anyone who wants to know what being truly destitute means.
The concept of this book, and the British TV show it was based on, is simple: British chef/writer with a funny name goes to live in a cottage where he grows food, raises animals, fishes, and forages as much as he can, learning about sustainable farming and our place in the food chain in the process. The applicability of the lessons Hugh shares are directly correlated to one’s proximity to small cottages in England.
So how is it useful to a reader not from the English countryside? Its usefulness is hidden in its prose. It’s Hugh’s geeky but down-to-earth fascination with raising and foraging your own food that will either fascinate or bore you. For me it was fascination, and reading this book is why I decided to spend time volunteering on farms, learned how to slaughter and butcher whole animals, and acquired what little knowledge I have about gardening and foraging. Each of the four chapters—Garden, Livestock, Fish, and Hedgerow—starts with a lengthy study of not just how to grow and harvest vegetables, livestock, seafood, and wild plants, but also what has the best flavor when, and the environmental impacts of the various choices you can make.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to be technically right about everything, you’ll enjoy this big, fat encyclopedia of French cooking terms that run all the way from Abaisse (a term used in French cookery for a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to Zuppa Inglese (a Neapolitan dessert consisting of sponge soaked with kirsch, filled with confectioner’s custard, and crystallized fruits, then covered with Italian meringue and browned in the oven). I’d consider it an essential volume for anyone who cooks at a professional level. It’s a good-sized chunk of the common language of Western kitchens, all packed into a single volume.
Elizabeth Andoh has been releasing books on Japanese cuisine since the ’80s, but her finest work is
Washoku, a 2005 tome on Japanese home cooking. I love the book. My Japanese grandmother lived in our apartment building on the floor below us while I was growing up, and was a good Japanese home cook. Flipping through the pages of Washoku always brings me back to her living room, where she’d eat while watching Japanese soap operas, the smell of soy sauce, smoky dashi, and vinegar in the air.
If all you know of Japanese cuisine is sushi, ramen, and teriyaki, there’s no better way to discover the kinds of things Japanese people really eat at home than this book.
No list of influential cookbooks is complete without something by Rick Bayless, the Oklahoma kid turned Mexican-cuisine scholar/restaurateur/TV personality, and I’d rather live a life bereft of guacamole than give up my copy of
Authentic Mexican. Bayless is thorough and understands his role as both a visitor to and an ambassador for Mexico and its cuisine; he’s respectful of culture, appreciative of other people’s work, and an advocate.
And what a trove of recipes it is! There’s simple weeknight home cooking, like gently poached chicken breast cloaked in green mole made with tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, and romaine lettuce leaves. There are massive sections on snacks and antojitos, the tacos, turnovers, and quesadillas made with masa that form the backbone of a good fiesta, and there’s more esoteric fare as well.
There are plenty of good books on food science for home cooks these days, But I get it. Thumbing through Harold McGee’s at the bookstore can make the subject seem a little daunting. There’s just so much to know, and how the heck is this going to help me cook better, anyway?
If you’re on the fence about the usefulness of food science, or about how fun and interesting it can be, Robert Wolke’s pair of books, What Einstein Told His Cook and What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel, is a good first stop to dip your toes into the precisely measured water. What I find really great about both books is their episodic, casual nature. Have a few spare minutes? Just flip to a page and find out what bones contribute to a good stock (collagen, baby!), or what freezer burn actually is (and find out that airtight plastic wrap isn’t actually so airtight after all).
It’d make a handy kitchen reference, but I see it as much more of an armchair book. If Alton Brown ever invites me to his place for dinner (definitely not a hint), I can imagine walking into his bathroom and seeing a copy of this book on top of the toilet.
All four of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbooks on regional Chinese cuisine are treasures. Land of Fish and Rice is an introduction to the delicate, fish- and wine-soaked cuisine of Shanghai and the lower Yangtze. Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook covers the hearty stews, braises, and stir-fries of Hunan Province. Every Grain of Rice is perhaps her most accessible book, packed with vegetable-heavy stir-fries and simple home-cooked meals.
But Land of Plenty, her first book, is my favorite. Dunlop was the very first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Chengdu. 10 years and countless trips later, she became the first person to write a comprehensive English-language book on Sichuan cookery. This is a big deal. With the easy translation and rapid exchange of information that the internet gives us these days, we take access to foreign-born recipes and techniques for granted. But back then, this book was the only resources in which an English speaker could find authentic versions of recipes for dishes like mapo tofu, dry-fried green beans, fish-fragrant pork, or boiled beef in fiery chili broth. Even to this day, it remains the authoritative English-language text on the subject. I remember discovering this book and thinking, So this is what was inside that briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It’s pure gold.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet is far more than a simple Southeast Asian recipe book. Rather than focus on the cuisine of a specific country, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid trace the connections between flavors and cultures along the Mekong river. The book starts in Southern China and follows their travels through Burma, into Laos and Thailand, and finally down into Vietnam. With gorgeous photography (seriously, this is one of the best-photographed books you’ll ever see) and compelling essays, Alford and Duguid capture a version of Southeast Asia that is at once peaceful, dynamic, and captivating. Never has a book caused me to want to book a plane ticket so quickly, though this urge was matched by an even stronger desire to jump into the kitchen.
The recipes contained within are not as rigorously tested for home cooks as some of the other books on this list, but I see them more as jumping off points of inspiration rather than instructions to be followed to a T.
Mark Kurlansky’s Cod is part history, part biography (fishy biography, that is), part ecological allegory, part cookbook, and all-around great storytelling. It opens with the tale of a waning fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, at what Kurlansky refers to as “the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.” Over the next 200 pages or so, he tells the fascinating story of how a single fish shaped the course of history.
In the end, Cod is a story about the pitfalls of human ingenuity and our over-proficiency as predators. Technology-fueled economic growth that results in conflict over who gets to scrape the bottom of what was once thought to be a bottomless barrel is a pretty on-the-nose allegory for any number of problems we’re currently facing in the world.
It’s a short, easy, fascinating read. If you like it, I’d also recommend Salt: A World History (similar to Cod, with salt as the protagonist) and The Big Oyster (the history of New York City through the lens of the economy of oysters).
Jacques Pepin is unquestionably the master, but before he was the master, he was The Apprentice, and his memoir tells the story of how he became one of the world’s great teachers. The book follows his career through rural France to the United States, from high -nd restaurants to Howard Johnsons, and from kitchens to television studios. Whether you grew up watching or reading Pépin or not, The Apprentice is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a world that anyone interested in food media or cooking can and should enjoy.
In Hungry Monkey, Matthew Amster-Burton, a food critic turned stay-at-home dad and a serious lover of dad jokes and dry humor (could a book possibly resonate more with me?), talks about his experiences raising his young daughter Iris, and how he dealt with her ever-changing tastes in food. The book is an easy, fun, and hilarious read, even for folks who don’t have children. I imagine growing up in the Amster-Burton household to be like living in a Douglas Adams novel—a new, lighthearted, and hilarious adventure every day. But the lessons Amster-Burton hides behind his substantial wit have been profoundly useful for me as a new parent trying to raise a kid with healthy eating habits (and I mean healthy in all senses of the word).
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