I must have 50 cook books in my kitchen—some are useless, some have some inspired recipes, and some are totally impossible to cook out of—but there are three books that I love. Three books where all the pages are stained, covered in notes, check marks, and smiley faces. Three books that taught me how to cook. These are the three best books in my kitchen, the three books I recommend to everyone.
As I’ve progressed as a cook, I’ve gone through three distinct phases, beginner to intermediate to advanced, each well supported by one of these books. Today, New Best Recipe, the book that taught me to cook.
The New Best Recipe taught me how to cook. When I started cooking at 24, I knew how to make toast and cereal, and the toast was a stretch; scrambled eggs were a total disaster. Circumstance pushed me to the kitchen and I started paging through books. The first thing I was looking for was a bulletproof book. I needed recipes that were Right, with a capital R, that I could always count on turning out. This book does that in spades. In ten years, I’ve cooked 300–400 of the 1000 recipes in the book, and they all turn out well. That’s an essential characteristic of a beginner book. These recipes work.
But perhaps more importantly for a beginner’s book, New Best Recipe will teach you to cook. The key is the structure, which is different from almost any other cook book I’ve seen. Each recipe has two parts, a discussion and a recipe. Follow the recipe and you’re good to go; you’ll learn the how. But read the discussion and you’ll learn why. For each dish, the authors gather multiple recipes and try all the techniques. They may cook a dish 60 times before landing on the recipe they give you. They’ll tell you what they tried, how it turned out, and why. It’s fascinating reading but its real value is that after making a successful dinner, you’ll know why it was successful as well as how you made it. That’s a great way to learn to cook.
That sounds wonderful in theory, but what does it mean? Well, here are some examples of lessons learned from the book:
Chocolate chip cookies
- How do you make a crispy cookie? It turns out the amount of granulated sugar in a recipe affects the crispness of the cookie as the sugar hardens with cooling. Using brown sugar, with its higher moisture content, leads to a softer cookie.
- Should you use solid or melted butter? Mixing solid butter and sugar creates minuscule air pockets in the butter. During baking, these expand leading to a fluffier cookie. Using melted butter eliminates these air pockets and creates a denser final product.
- How should I put the dough on the cookie sheet? To make chewier cookies, stack the dough high on the pan rather than flat and allow it to melt out in to a cookie shape while it cooks.
- What kind of meat should you use? Based on price and results between 12 different cuts of meat, the best is chuck.
- How do you thicken a stew? Between 4 different methods (flour the meat before browning, add flour with the onions, add a beurre manié (butter + flour), add cornstarch slurry), the best flavor and texture comes with adding flour to the onions.
- What should you use as a stewing liquid? Water is too greasy and simple in flavor, wine is too ‘strong’, beef stock is too overpowering with the beef already in the dish. Chicken stock wins, but with some added wine for acidity and flavor.
- How do you avoid soggy, stogy, bland deli style pasta salad? The issue turns out to be that vinegar from the vinaigrette degrades the pasta. Red, balsamic, and white wine vinegar all significantly affect the pasta. The balsamic also stains the pasta red. Lemon vinaigrette works perfectly though, providing a nice bright flavor, keeping the pasta fresh, and leaving the vegetables crispy.
If you cook out the New Best Recipe for a year or two, you’ll get a year or two of good meals. More importantly, along the way, you’ll learn how to cook. You’ll understand enough about cooking to adjust recipes on the fly, substitute ingredients, and whip up a sauce or stir fry from scratch without consulting a recipe book. More precise dishes, like baking, will still require a recipe but will be well within reach.
The one downfall of this book is the lack of food photography, which I find often drives me to make or ignore a dish in a different book, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise wonderful book. If I had one book in my kitchen, it would be this one, and if you’re learning to cook you should have it too.
editor’s note: This is part one in a three-part series. The author’s next post will cover Ratio, and his final post will cover The Flavor Bible.