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This post is part of our new community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we’re finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you.


Last month, community members Amie, Sara, and Emmie shared their incredibly robust reviews of your top five bread books of all time. After a month of careful reading, stretching and folding, baking, and baking some more, they determined one—just one!— to be, definitively, responsible for their breaducation.

This month, we’re going back to basics. These are the five books you wish you’d had when first learning to cook. They’ve taught you how to cook anything (well, everything)—and continue to be a go-to reference. And below, meet our three brave community members who will be tackling these tomes this month. But first—the top five Back-to-Basics books are:

1. How to Cook Everything, 20th Anniversary edition

Photo by Amazon

Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything has been a home-cook favorite since the publishing of its first edition in 1998. The two resultant updates (the 10th-anniversary edition on 2008, and 20th in 2018) have delighted readers with substantial additions. Bittman’s Bible is broken up into 15 chapters—not by ingredients or courses, but by dish types: soups, salads, beans, rice and grains, poultry, meat, bread, and desserts, to name a few. His aim is not to provide weeknight showstoppers (though, there are quite a few), but to break recipes themselves down into elemental techniques. Community member Ruth put it best: “Bittman is so gifted at explaining, succinctly, how to handle the basics in a bewildering number of categories and how to create variations on his basic recipes. “

2. Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary edition

Photo by Amazon

Irma Rombaeur first self-published Joy of Cooking back in 1931, releasing 3,000 copies. There have since been 20 million copies printed, and for good reason: each iteration of JoC offers an impressively diverse array of recipes and techniques to the home cook. The most recent edition contains over 600 new recipes from Irma Rombauer’s grandson John Becker, and his wife, Megan Scott. Community member Andi writes, “ It is a great survey of cooking, and I have never had a recipe fail. Also, anyone can pick it up and start cooking with it. It is my desert island cookbook.”

3. Salt Fat Acid Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

Photo by Amazon

Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat surely needs little—perhaps no—introduction. Since its release in 2017, it’s become a NYT Bestseller, won a James Beard award, and has been turned into a Netflix show. The book follows Nosrat’s own culinary journey—from starstruck diner to full-fledged cook at Chez Panisse, then to becoming Michael Pollan’s personal cooking instructor—including lessons learned along the way. Nosrat’s thesis is that good food and cooking can be had with the understanding of these four elements: salt, fat, acid, and heat. A member from our community wrote in: “I realize that there is a fair bit of technical information in this book, but I have given it to relatively inexperienced cooks who have found it tremendously helpful. Understanding the ‘why’ makes the ‘what’ and ‘how’ so much more meaningful.”

4. . The Silver Palate Cookbook

Photo by Amazon

Late owner of Upper-West-Side Silver Palate food shop and author of four cookbooks Sheila Lukins is widely celebrated as one of the key proponents of New American (read: decidedly not French) cooking in the ‘80s. In the sweetly illustrated pages of The Silver Palate Cookbook Lukins and co-author Julee Rosso introduced ingredients and techniques like toasted sesame oil and pesto to a still largely Francocentric culinary landscape. Though published in 1982, the recipes—Chicken Marbella, Pasta Puttanesca, and Green Sauce, to name a few—feel fresh as ever. On the book, a community member wrote, “It’s charming, completely useful and every recipe has a very successful outcome.“

5. Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 100th Anniversary edition

Photo by Penguin Random House

Upon graduating from the Boston Cooking School in 1891, Fannie Farmer published her own cookbook—often credited as the one to have normalized the use of standardized measurements in recipes. Marion Cunningham updated Farmer’s book in 1976 and again in 1996—refreshing older recipes, given modern kitchens and tastes, and adding some of her own, newer, more internationally-minded ones. Community member Maureen writes, “It is my favorite because it taught me how to cook—simple basic recipes! This book also enabled me to recreate my great grandmother’s plum pudding and I’ve been making it every Christmas for over 50 years!”

A reminder of the review process: three community members will connect with each other to cook at least three recipes from each book. They then will collectively write one review per book, and a final review naming one of these books to be the absolute best book on basics.

Teresa, Melissa, and Alison will be using these questions to guide their review process:

  • How well did we learn basic cooking tips from the book?
  • How relative are the recipes from the book to the needs of today?
  • How easy does the author make it to vary or substitute ingredients used in the recipes?
  • Is the book well-organized with ease of finding recipes?
  • How tasty is the food we cooked?

Theresa Regan

The Silver Palate Cookbook will always be special to me. I was a new nurse living in Greenwich Village in 1980 and a friend gave me a copy of the book. I had a small apartment but the kitchen had all that I needed. I always loved cooking. I come from a large Italian family and grew up helping my mom in the kitchen so I was not exactly a novice when I received The Silver Palate Cookbook, but I must admit some of the ingredients were high end and unfamiliar to me. I entertained fellow nurses, boyfriends and family, making them dishes in my small apartment and I still cook these recipes today. My most memorable dishes from those days include tamponade, pasta puttanesca, and dilled blanquette de veau. Recently, my daughter became ill and a dear friend brought over a beautiful dinner of chicken Marbella. 40 years later and that dish is still a hit, easy to make and glamorous for any occasion.”

Alison Mutter

Salt Fat Acid Heat is the book I wish I had when I was learning how to cook— it contains so many of the lessons I’ve learned piecemeal by trial and error over the years about how to make anything you’re cooking taste great. I looooooved the buttermilk roast chicken in particular.”

Melissa Staricha

“I also find myself coming back to How To Cook Everything again and again. Just last week, I made Mark Bittman’s spicy, no-mayo coleslaw for the first time, and I remembered again why I love this book. The recipes use ingredients i have on hand (even now, during quarantine), and the frequent suggestions and substitutions inspire me to get creative and have fun.”

Stay tuned for Theresa, Melissa, and Alison’s reviews—and judgment as to which of these five is the absolute best book for learning the basics!

Which of these has your vote? Tell us about it in the comments.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

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