The six cookbooks that taught us to cook

classic cookbooks
The Food section staff talk about the cookbooks that helped teach them to cook.
(Los Angeles Times)

Maybe you learned how to cook from your parents or grandparents, maybe from a close friend who was a serious cook, or maybe from relentlessly watching television — your Food Network, my Graham Kerr. For most cooks, there was one cookbook that, more than any other, taught us how to cook, provided some basic techniques, information or inspiration that fired the proverbial ovens. 

Here at the Food section, we thought we’d poll ourselves to find which books those were, and what began as newsroom cooler chat translated — this should not surprise you — into little essays. It’s worth pointing out that these classic books would also make great gifts, for your kids or friends or even, if you’re missing one, for yourself. 

Noelle Carter: Irma S. Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking

When it comes to really learning how to cook, I have to credit “The Joy of Cooking.” I’d just graduated from college and moved out on my own, and I couldn’t rely on anyone else to feed me. Eating out all the time was out of the question. Learning to cook became a matter of survival, and “Joy” became my kitchen manual. At first I read it just to follow the recipes; they worked, and I came to trust it. Before long, I started actually reading the book. I learned how to truss a chicken, and how steaming vegetables is different from boiling them. “Joy” was informative, clear and easy to understand, covering all the basics of cooking and baking. It gave a lot of great information, and it included illustrations when I needed them. “Joy” still one of the first go-to books for me when I have a basic kitchen question, and it’s never let me down.


Jonathan Gold: Paula Wolfert’s “The Cooking of Southwest France

While it may not have been the first cookbook I technically owned, Paula Wolfert’s “The Cooking of Southwest France" was the book that taught me how to cook. Wolfert’s recipes are famously detailed, so that you know to look for the glossiness of a sauce or the firmness of a forcemeat, and her extreme specificity means that your dish is probably going to come out OK, even if you’ve never before thought of stuffing a duck neck. Her ingredient obsessions transferred nicely when my interests shifted — if you have worked your way though the intricacies of sourcing verjus and cèpes, learned how to persuade a butcher to saw marrow bones, or put up your own confit for cassoulet, you will find that sourcing Aleppo pepper and dried Chinese liver sausage later on is that much easier. She used early on modernist techniques like successive reductions, or coating peeled asparagus with a buttery puree of its own skin, without being precious about them. And perhaps most important, her recipes were accurate enough that you could produce much better than reasonable versions of dishes you had never seen before. Gascon cooking was something I had known nothing about, but when I visited Auch for the first time, the cuisine seemed utterly familiar. Sometimes, the most important ingredient in a recipe is trust.

Jenn Harris: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything

As a kid, when I wasn’t watching the Food Network, I was curled up on the couch, nose deep in Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” The book became our family’s culinary bible — the one we kept on the kitchen counter, and the book my mother packed for myself and my sister when we left for college. I remember sitting in the kitchen, leafing through the nearly 1,000 pages, thinking, ‘How could anyone possible know how to cook everything?’ I would study the glossary, and I remember being disturbed at how salsify really has nothing to do with salsa! I started making recipes for pasta sauces before I worked up the courage to roast a chicken, and marveled at how impressed my family was when I presented them with a deviled egg appetizer during the holidays. Sometimes I still flip through the pages, now stained with various sauces and caked with flour, and get a little nostalgic. 


Russ Parsons: “Simple French Food” 

There have been so many cookbooks that I have learned from over the years, but the one that actually taught me to cook is Richard Olney’s “Simple French Food.” Most of my basic techniques came from Madeleine Kamman’s “The Making of a Cook” (the first version) and Jacques Pepin. My Italian from Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli. What few pastry chops I have came mostly from Lindsey Shere’s “Chez Panisse Desserts.” There are so many more. But it was Olney’s book that most formed the way I think about cooking. It’s the way he approaches simple ingredients with the same respect as luxuries; how he pays attention to the nuance of technique that turns a dish from merely good to really delicious; and perhaps most important, the way he can look at the same ingredient from multiple directions, each preparation showing a different aspect of flavor or texture. Plus, not to be forgotten, Olney could write like a dream.

Amy Scattergood: Maida Heatter’s “Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

When I was 16, my uncle came to Iowa to visit us for Christmas, and the present he brought me was a copy of Maida Heatter’s just-published “Book of Great Chocolate Desserts,” maybe because he was worried (rightly) about what he’d be getting to eat. Thus Heatter’s chocolate mousse was the first real dish I learned how to make — other than grilled cheese sandwiches, which don’t count — and her book was my introduction to whipping cream and folding batter, theobroma cacao and the varieties of chocolate. It’s not accidental that my first restaurant job was making chocolate desserts, nor that every time I visit my uncle, I make two batches of that same mousse recipe. Heatter was a visionary, a woman who understood chocolate and dessert-making and translated that daunting knowledge to the average home cook, making the rest of us feel like we could not only bake a chocolate cake and make chocoate chip cookies, but aspire to grand things like truffles and bavarians and pots de chocolat. She showed me that if you can make chocolate profiteroles, you can make dinner. 

S. Irene Virbila: Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book

A scientist by training, the late Marcella Hazan’s recipes are so precise and clear that even first-time cooks felt like geniuses when they followed her recipe for spaghetti Carbonara or Amatriciana. I often had her Bolognese meat sauce simmering at the back of the stove. Her simple tomato sauce with onion and butter (who knew then that you didn’t have to cook it for hours?) was every aspiring cook’s standby. I (oh so casually) tried my first fresh fettuccine for a dinner party while my guests sat hungry, waiting. Looking through the aging bookmarks in my copy, I come across dishes I’ve made countless times — but it’s her pasta section that bears the most signs of use, with her classic white clam sauce and her three versions of Roman garlic and oil sauce splashed on its pages. I learned to make pesto in a mortar and pestle from Marcella, and I would spend Saturdays making tortellini, tortellini or lasagne. Grazie, Marcella.

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