Looking to cook more by feel and depend less on recipes? This is the list for you. It isn't flashy; my most essential books, the ones that deserve a space on the shelf right next to the kitchen, are less food porn and more trustworthy reference tomes. What they lack in glossy photos they more than make up for with solid, inspiring advice on what to actually do with the ingredients I bring home from the market.
1 The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg: This unique book is an alphabetical index of flavors, ingredients and regional cuisines. Under each entry is a listing of all the ingredients and flavors that combine well with that particular item, with the best pairings highlighted in bold. Look up sardines, for instance, and you'll see that bread crumbs, flat-leaf parsley, raisins and tomatoes are among the ingredients that taste best with the fish.
2 On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee: This is a food science classic, giving you all the information you need to understand why things work the way they do in the kitchen. It doesn't inspire many recipes, but it is invaluable for the times when I am wondering if, say, agar needs to be treated differently if I'm substituting it for gelatin in a recipe.
3 The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: With its photos of happy pigs in grassy fields and frank discussion of the ethics of eating animals, this book actually inspired me to eat less meat — but better quality, sustainably-raised (and more expensive) meat. Buying from the farmers market rather than butchers, I find the reference information useful and the recipes dependable.
4 How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman: As I cook mainly vegetarian food at home, this is hands down the book I turn to most when I have a vague dinner idea that needs a little shaping or know I want to use a particular vegetable or grain and am looking for inspiration. Mark Bittman's recipes are reliably straightforward, generally quick and always include a lot of variations to accommodate whatever I have on hand. This book is packed with good ideas.
5 Cook This Now by Melissa Clark: The non-reference book place of honor on my shelf goes to Melissa Clark's most recent cookbook, which is full of weeknight-friendly recipes with compelling flavor combinations. From Butternut Squash Risotto with Pistachios and Lemon to Roasted Chicken Legs with Smoked Paprika, Blood Orange and Ginger, every recipe I've tried has immediately been bookmarked to make again.
Do you have any recommended cookbooks for those who want to cook without recipes?
Related: Loving the Classics: Joy of Cooking
(Image: Anjali Prasertong)