Like the dang 1/4 teaspoon, a good cookbook can be hard to find.
If you are a dedicated home cook you will understand this. If you know someone who is a dedicated home cook, they will understand this, which, subsequently, makes it almost impossible to buy them a cookbook that they will not only like but use.
As the Food & Nutrition Editor of Men’s Health, I’d estimate that I’ve paged through more than 1,000 cookbooks in my life. Publishers send me copies. I peruse new releases at bookstores. People give me cookbooks as gifts. I’ve even written two myself. And of those 1,000-plus cookbooks, there are only seven (other than my own, of course) that I return to regularly.
That’s because cookbooks tend to fall into three camps.
1. The most popular and most useless camp: Fussy chef cookbooks
These cookbooks, written by high-end chefs, are often totally out-of-touch with the average home cook. They are prestige projects for the chefs who write them, an opportunity for readers to peer behind the curtain and wonder in the mystique that is their ego.
They’re demanding of their readers’ time, energy, and willpower to track down esoteric ingredients and labor over complex procedures.
They’re gorgeous, but belong on a coffee table, not in a kitchen.
2. The not-as-popular and slightly-yet-useless camp: Hyper-specialized cookbooks
The lasagna cookbook! The grilled cheese cookbook! The strawberry banana Greek yogurt cookbook!
Look, useless you’re one of those people who only eat certain types of food groups, these cookbooks are often too narrow to be practical.
And, because of their specialized nature, many of the recipes within are often a stretch in terms of concept and deliver—as if overcompensating to prove their worth.
A grilled cheese recipe where you make your own American cheese and the jam that goes with it sounds intriguing in theory, but in the second hour of DIY American cheese creation, you’ll begin to wonder about the practicality.
You’ll likely find a recipe or three you like within these types of cookbooks, but the frustration the rest of the cookbook brings often outweighs its novelty.
3. The rare and incredibly useful camp: Powerfully practical cookbooks
These are the cookbooks that you can repeatedly turn to feed yourself without sacrificing too much of your time and sanity. These are the cookbooks that understand you as a reader and don’t ask too much of you, yet encourage you to do more than just the norm. These are the cookbooks that you will dog-ear, stain, and replace once or twice because they will fall into beloved dilapidation.
Of the thousand of cookbooks I’ve seen, here are seven of these cookbooks.
The Indian Family Kitchen: Classic Dishes for a New Generation: A Cookbook
Clarkson Potter Publishers
$15.95 (42% off)
Anjali Pathak is a dedicated home cook, informed by the lessons she learned within a family of dedicated home cooks. Yet her approach to Indian flavors feels modern and, at times, totally wild.
Her recipe for Blazing Burgers comes with a beet, horseradish, and yogurt slaw that tempers the burn of red chiles mixed into the beef patties. Her Drunken Chicken roasts atop a mixture of beer, ginger, and coriander seeds. Her Slow-Cooked Tamarind-Glazed Pork with pomegranate seeds and chipotle paste is a feat of contrasting yet somehow complementary flavors.
The book includes dhals and kebabs and tikis, too, each with their own twists. Every recipe is an adventure into technique and flavor not for the sake of the chef, but for the enjoyment of the executor.
Dinner: Changing the Game: A Cookbook
$20.00 (43% off)
As a longtime food editor for The New York Times, Melissa Clark gets it. You don’t have a lot of time to pull together the last meal of the day, but if you have to eat another frozen pizza you’re going to lose it.
Most of the recipes in this book require less time to make than it takes to go and pick up a large pepperoni. That’s because Clark uses intensely flavorful ingredients that don’t require extensive amounts of time to cook.
The Fried Halloumi with Brussels Sprouts are surprisingly flavorful for a mere eight ingredients. The Chile & Ginger-Fried Tofu will reshape everything you think you know about tofu. And the Pizza Chicken. Oh, holy wow, the Pizza Chicken.
Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes: The First Cookbook from the Cult Food Magazine
$19.62 (44% off)
I’ve cooked every recipe in this cookbook. Every. Single. One.
The Dollar Dumplings (easy and addictive). The Pesto Ramen (world-colliding). The Corn Cheese (drunk-munchie delight). And if you’ve never experienced the sheer simplicity and joy that is a St. Paul Sandwich (eggy, spicy, pickle-y, mayo-y amazing), then it’s about damn time.
Each dish is a delight not only in flavor, but presentation. It pretends to be nothing it isn’t. And it’s funny.
Cooking is fun. More cookbooks should be funny.
Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals Delicious, Nutritious, Super-Fast Food
My wife hates this cookbook. I’ll defend it till I cook my last meal.
Sure, Jamie is a little lax with how he defines “15 Minutes,” but all the prep and dishes serve a higher purpose. Although my wife may begrudge the work involved in the Blackened Chicken San Fran Quinoa Salad, we’ll both relish the results (and leftovers). Maybe the Chorizo Carbonara Catalan Market Salad doesn’t need the homemade sherry vinegar dressing, but it’s always gone come dinnertime. And, okay, many of the recipes involve either a blender or a food processor, but how else are we going to enjoy those Black Bean Beef Burgers with Noodles & Pickle Salad, huh?
Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking [A Cookbook]
$25.25 (37% off)
It looks like a fussy chef cookbook. One flip through and it scans like a fussy chef cookbook. But cook just one recipe from Taste & Technique and you’ll understand that Naomi Pomeroy is doing more than offering you what to cook—she’s teaching you how.
Recipes carry tough-love notes about not burning the onions. If an ingredient is a little out-there (gelatin, say) she explains why it’s a necessity (so the tarragon mousse doesn’t drop into the soup). And even though some of the multi-stage recipes offer easy-outs by dubbing certain components “optional,” there’s an implied encouragement that putting in the extra effort will pay delicious dividends.
Pomeroy’s Baked Camembert with Armagnac Prunes, Mushrooms, and Thyme is one of the richest, most decadent, most “worth it” dishes you will ever taste.
The Professional Chef
$57.99 (32% off)
It’s the source code. Any graduate of the Culinary Institute of America owns, or has owned a copy. Yes, it’s massive. Yes, the recipes are scaled for restaurant preparation. Yes, it’s technical at times.
But there’s no better all-in-one culinary reference guide to turn to for chicken broth, clam chowder, leg of lamb, beef wellington, or any number of other iconic dishes that are now canonized in the modern American culinary world.
Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes
$7.69 (23% off)
Written, in part, by the wife of Roald Dahl, this cookbook is as imaginative as Roald’s art for crafting incredible children’s stories.
You can make Fresh Mudburgers inspired by James and the Giant Peach. There’s the Wormy Spaghetti from The Twits. If you feel so inclined, there’s even the Lickable Wallpaper from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Okay, maybe it’s not practical in the sense that you’ll be making Bruce Bogtrotter’s Cake every weekend. But there’s also practicality in the sense that when you start to grow bored of cooking, it’s helpful to have a reminder that you don’t have to cook boring food.
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