A proper cookbook can make the difference between someone who doesn’t know how to cook and someone who “tries a thing or two every now and then.” If you can carefully follow instructions and your cookbook is clearly and tastefully written, you can produce a well composed, home-cooked dinner for friends from time to time, which is mostly all people want out of cooking these days anyway.
Then again, a truly magnificent cookbook can set you on your way to real kitchen prowess. A great cookbook doesn’t just list good recipes. A great cookbook is a polemic, either cultural or personal, written by a chef or a consortium of chefs, to convince you to believe in and uphold certain principles. A great cookbook, it is often lamented, may be vague about quantities or cooking times. Great cookbooks are not meant to teach culinary chemistry (though there is such a thing as a culinary chemistry textbook, and they are sound investments, too).
A third cookbook category has come into its own right over the last fifty years. It is the vaguest but most spirited of the three—the cooking “memoir,” or chef’s personal narrative. These are often thoroughly entertaining reads that may or may not inspire you to actual efforts in the kitchen, but are certain to broaden and deepen your conception of what a kitchen can be. They may only contain five or six usable recipes, typically have a narrative format, and often shed light on the history of and variations on a dish. The “plot” surrounding the actual kitchen knowledge also may clue you in somewhat to the tradition from which it comes, making it easier to improvise or substitute when cooking that sort of thing again.
I wouldn’t recommend relying solely on any one of these three genres. You really ought to own at least one of each. For instance, from the “proper cookbook” category, I would be quite lost without my copy of The Joy of Cooking, but I would almost never lift a recipe directly from it. Their recipes are far too much like science experiments: “1/4 teaspoon” of this, “1/8 teaspoon” of that, “chop in food processor for 3 1/2 minutes,” etc. etc. But without my Joy, how would I know the American name for the particular cut of beef that I need? If I were, say, to come across some marvelous fresh lychees for sale, but didn’t know what to do with them, where else could I look under L, for lychee?
Other good candidates in this category are The New York Times Cookbook, which is almost ludicrous in the specificity of detail in its recipes; How to Cook Everything, which is downright encyclopedic (though rather vague); or, if you want to go about your business properly, The Professional Chef, which is in fact the cooking textbook of the Culinary Institute of America (American cooking’s Harvard and Yale all rolled up into one), or Larousse Gastronomique, which is The Professional Chef without all the farting around and grade inflation. The main thing is to get a hold of a several-thousand-page, $40-or-so tome that will live on top of your refrigerator and comfort you with its reassuring impartiality and breadth. When in doubt, just do what the good book tells you.
As for the more polemical cookbooks, I would be remiss as a foodie if my first recommendation were not The Escoffier Cookbook (A Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery). Though it isn’t my personal favorite, it is unquestionably the quintessential “this is how to cook and I can say that because I’m the most soignée S.O.B. to ever hone a knife” type cookbook. However, they’re really just at far too high a level for home cooking. This is the sort of cookbook that will casually advise you to “tip in two kilos of white truffles,” or to “bake three kilos of veal bones for several hours to loosen the marrow.”
My personal favorite would have to be The Silver Spoon, which my roommate often calls “the best $40 I ever spent.” Referred to as “the bible of Italian cooking,” its title symbolizes Italy’s food tradition as a grand inheritance to which every Italian child is entitled. The background pieces are highly evocative, the photography is beautiful, and the scope is quite broad. Apparently, it’s one of the most common wedding gifts in Italy, where it has been a best seller since its first edition came out in 1950.
The more personal category of cookbook really came into being around the end of World War II because of two women, Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. Their books are brilliant and quite often provocative, meant to revive the passionate cooking they feared would die during the Depression and the war years. David’s French Provincial Cooking is a personal favorite of mine. Julia Child carried on this tradition with her well known books, particularly The Way to Cook, and her television series, The French Chef with Julia Child. Recently, the most personal of cookbooks have practically mutated into novels; good picks in this new category might be Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or Bill Buford’s Heat. You’ll burn through either of these in about two days, but they will broaden your kitchen-sense significantly, and perhaps pique your curiosity enough to explore further.