First, let’s get one thing straight: There is no one best cookbook for beginners, just like there is no one best cookbook for baking a cake or for large-format entertaining. What makes a cookbook ideal for beginners is almost as subjective as the beginner in question; while some newbie cooks want to know everything about why cooking works the way it does, others just want a five-ingredient recipe that will, in 30 minutes or less, result in a meal.
So with that in mind, here is a list of 10 great cookbooks for beginning cooks, presented with the recognition that regardless of their goals, every cook — new or experienced — wants a cookbook that offers the opportunity for a happy ending. Some are recent, some are not; what all of them have in common is that they offer, through an alchemy of recipes, voice, and explanation of methodology, paths into the kitchen that are as welcoming as they are diverse.
1. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
by Samin Nosrat
“Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious,” begins Nosrat’s blockbuster 2018 cookbook. That reassuring sentiment is reinforced throughout the book, which rests less on recipes (although there are 100 of them) than on explaining the four titular elements that determine the deliciousness of the meals we make. Nosrat’s message — that you can learn to build food by trusting your instincts — is delivered with contagious enthusiasm, and further sweetened by Wendy MacNaughton’s winsome watercolor illustrations. This is an ideal book for anyone as interested in the “why” of cooking as the “how.”
2. The Joy of Cooking
by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker, Megan Scott
There’s a reason this glorious doorstop of a book is still going strong 88 years after Irma Rombauer self-published its first incarnation. Revised this year by Rombauer’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife Megan Scott, the book remains a master class for anyone who wants to learn the basics — all of the basics. It contains more than 4,500 recipes for everything from popcorn to emu fillets, along with charts, diagrams, and a three-page spread on how to mix and match salad greens — enough, in other words, to more or less qualify as a culinary school with page numbers.
3. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
by J. Kenji López-Alt
Do not be scared off by this book’s 958 pages, or the use of the word “science” in its title. Its recipes are accessible, thanks in large part to the care (and humor) López-Alt employs in explaining the, yes, science behind them. Even the ostensibly simple act of boiling an egg is given its due, with six pages — including a graph that charts boiling point versus altitude — dedicated to it. This is basically a nerd fantasia, one that’s as likely to appeal to the seriously inquisitive newbie as one who simply wants a foolproof recipe for macaroni and cheese.
4. Small Victories
by Julia Turshen
This is a terrific book for anyone who wants to approach the seemingly monumental task of cooking by breaking the process down into bite-size pieces; as its title implies, Turshen is a master of recipes that are achievable without being mundane. Her book’s recipes are organized into lessons designed for self-empowerment, with tips for spinning them off to make them your own. In Turshen’s hands, even the task of making homemade gravlax seems eminently doable, a small victory in and of itself.
5. The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
by Deborah Madison
First published in 1997, this remains the grandmother of vegetarian cookbooks. Its fully revised 2014 edition boasts some 1,600 recipes and begins — crucially — with a primer on building flavor. Even if you just want to figure out how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, Madison has you covered, with an interlude that puts forth one-paragraph recipes for no less than 10 variations on the theme. The book is perfect not just for vegetarians, but anyone who wants to explore a plant-based diet but doesn’t know where to begin.
6. How to Cook Everything
by Mark Bittman
For a lesson in the basics — whether it’s the basics of knife skills, kitchen tools, or pots and pans — this one is hard to beat. As its title implies, this is a great cookbook for a beginner who wants an endlessly accessible, broad-spectrum introduction to cooking (the sauce and condiments chapter alone could be its own book). The completely revised twentieth-anniversary edition, published this October, contains hundreds of recipes that emphasize simplicity and convenience — many of them are designed to be cooked in 30 minutes or less.
7. Baking Illustrated
by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
If cooking is daunting for beginners, then baking tends to resemble a locked black box full of fear and abject failure. But this very comprehensive — and homey — tome makes a winning case for thinking of baking as the simple byproduct of trial and error, as, uh, illustrated by the lengthy prologues that explain exactly how the editors perfected each recipe. Step-by-step illustrations of everything from chopping nuts to cutting out rounds of parchment for lining cake pans provide extra reassurance, while the recipes themselves — blueberry muffins, glazed lemon cookies, focaccia — prize simplicity over showiness.
8. Simple Cake
by Odette Williams
Sometimes the best way to ease into the kitchen is to learn to make one thing you really like eating outside of it. If that thing is cake, then Simple Cake, with its roster of 10 quick, unfussy cake recipes and 15 toppings (and numerous suggestions for combining them) is an ideal gateway to both baking and cooking. Packed with practical advice, it presents cake as an attainable everyday pleasure, and provides the easygoing assurance that, as Williams writes, no matter your baking experience, “you’re more than qualified, and, over time, your confidence will grow.”
9. Vietnamese Food Any Day
by Andrea Nguyen
In Nguyen’s expert hands, Vietnamese cooking is a pleasurably laidback endeavor suitable for any weeknight. Aside from relatively concise lists of ingredients, part of what makes the recipes here so approachable for first-time cooks is that, where possible, Nguyen provides substitutions and workarounds to ingredients that may not be accessible to everybody. Potentially complicated instructions, such as Viet caramel sauce, are accompanied by step-by-step photographs, where Nguyen’s steadfast advice speaks to her years of experience as a cooking teacher.
10. Barefoot Contessa Family Style: Easy Ideas and Recipes That Make Everyone Feel Like Family
by Ina Garten
Ina Garten’s appeal has always lived at the intersection of classy and comforting, a combination that makes many of her books ideal for any cook looking for something simple, but with a little zhuzh. This book is a sound choice for the beginner confronted with the specter of entertaining: large-format recipes like rib roast, saffron risotto, and five-cheese penne offer satisfying, unfussy solutions to the problem of how to feed people, and feed them well.
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