Before the Internet, before YouTube, before TV cooking shows - before modern life - the way people tried to learn was through cookbooks. They’re still a great way to learn, there’s still something great about cooking your way through a book until it’s stained and torn and burned and bearing all the marks of your transformation from a novice to something resembling a cook.
But the now the problem is that there’s too many cookbooks. Thousands and thousands of great ones, and more being published every day. How many cookbooks do you really need when you’re learning how to cook?
Three. Just Three.
You just need three books, but you need the right kind. I can’t tell you exactly which three books are right for you, but I can tell you that you should pick one in each of these categories:
Most cookbooks are recipe books, which makes a deceptive amount of sense. You want to cook something, you should find a recipe and follow it, right? You want to cook something, you should learn how to cook - and following recipes is like painting with color-by-numbers. You might end up with a pretty picture, but you really don’t know how to paint anything. NO. You don't want a recipe book, you want skills. A skills book will teach you about cooking: equipment, techniques, ingredients. You have to find a skills book that’s right for you.
Ruhlman’s Twenty worked for me. I love this book because it goes over twenty essential elements of cooking, but not all of them are the same type. There are techniques, like frying and braising. There are ingredients, like butter and onion. The first element is simply titled “Think.” Brilliant.
Another great skills book is Twelve Recipes. Who can’t learn 12 recipes? These aren't just recipies, they are life lessons, in the voice of a father teaching his son how to cook as the boy goes out to live on his own.
Still, with a short and broad overview, you might not feel like you’re making progress. That’s where you need a book focused on single cooking technique. Braising or barbecuing are great because the technique is forgiving and the result - delicious, delicious meat - is satisfying like none other. They feed a crowd, feed friends, feed family, satisfying the carnivorous caveman in all of us. (If you're a vegetarian, I can't help you. Well, not with books.)
Braising is a great wintertime meal, well great year round but especially in the winter. All About Braising is the best book on this marvelous technique, bar none.
But if it's sunny out, you need to barbecue. Everybody loves barbecue, and there are many great BBQ books. My favorite is Serious Barbecue, it's what happens when a professional chef studies real barbecue.
Finally, it’s rewarding to pick a book on a single regional cuisine. Appreciating a culture along with its food keeps you engaged in learning more. This is where you could go anywhere. Pick a place that you've loved visiting or would love to visit, a place where you want to know more about the people, because what they eat is who they are.
So that’s it: a skills book, a single technique book, a single cuisine book. Just start with three books, and don’t buy anymore until you’ve figured a bit about the soul of the ones you have.