My kids aren't that young anymore. Two are in college and one is in her waning moments of high school. Now that my oldest two live off campus for the very first time and have their own full kitchens, it was time to start their cookbook library, so I bought them their first 10. Now, I realize that they don't consult books often. They text me or FaceTime me when they have questions and sometimes after they search something online, they call me to see what I think (I don't lack for opinions).
But having a kitchen meant they would have plenty of cooking opportunities, and me and my opinions shouldn't be the end-all-be-all. I know that the best way to learn is to be taught by many people, in many ways, with many approaches, and many angles. It was now, without a doubt, my charge as parent to focus on what I like to do best of all: to teach them, to show them, to offer them the best, most reliable information, and then to let them do it. I want them to have books that I know they will use so they can, hopefully, learn to treasure the value of cooking from a book.
You see, cooking from a book really is truly different than hands-on or phones-on learning. Cooking from a book requires the individual to think, interpret, and act alone. Making a recipe or looking up a fact from a book also teaches how cooking information fits together since the information is, by virtue of being in a comprehensive collection, part of a whole.
With my brain in gear now, my first tack was to head for my ever-growing collection. It spans through the kitchen, lines every wall of my office, jams every shelf in the family room, expands into the living room, and has now obscured my husband's office (sorry, Bruce). I rifled through those cookbooks, checked my local bookstores, and searched online like a madwoman. This was another opportunity to educate my kids! The stakes were high and I had to come up with a smart, educational list.
The Selection Criteria
I selected only professional-style how-to cookbooks and encyclopedic books. The food nerd in me rejoiced. Long before culinary school, professional kitchens, and chef jackets commanded my life, cooking from instructional books was the method that I used to learn to cook (yes, with a fat pinch of help from TV, it's true), so I focused on books brimming with technical wisdom — from authors I adore, who teach me to this day. But a cookbook collection has to include books that do more than inform or instruct, so I whittled it down to ones that were the most helpful since I was, after all, looking to give them 10 books, not 10,000. I kept books by Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Marcella Hazan without a moment's hesitation, which not only offered instruction, but practical wisdom that would transfer across styles and through cuisines to give them a solid base.
A great cookbook — no, even a mediocre cookbook — always charges me up, and I want my kids to get that feeling too.
Next, I thought about books that would offer inspirations and aspirations. Cookbooks can open up a new world, share new ideas, or showcase a place or time. They can intrigue and ignite. A great cookbook — no, even a mediocre cookbook — always charges me up, and I want my kids to get that feeling too. I found a plethora, like Bouchon Bakery and its glorious treats, and suddenly that list alone was three pages long.
I realized that I needed to apply some mom criteria to edit it all down. I thought about what my kids needed right then and considered where they might be in a few years. I also thought about how much they have cooked before — in terms of both volume and complexity — and how little time they have. That meant bypassing some fancy restaurant books, which I tend to love but cook from infrequently. It wasn't about me; it was about me parenting. That means that it was only about them.
So, I hunted for books with directions that were so clearly written it was distinctly beginner-friendly; books with recipes that described the texture, color, and timing while cooking; and books that were expertly edited for consistency and brevity. Even after I made sure to include a Mark Bittman book, my tough criteria were shrinking the list.
I added in a select few books that spoke to my kids' heritage. It's a way to keep them connected to their ethnicity and background. It's food they know, but haven't ever made.
Then, my youngest daughter, Lila, the high schooler, soon-to-be-professional baker and fastest analyst of a situation I've ever known, took a gander at my still very, very long list. She not-so-gently suggested that I include a vegetarian book with lots of information about seasonal vegetables so they could learn what to do after they went to a farmers market, leaving me without answering every teeny-weeny question for them forever.
Oh, from the mouths of babes!
Lila was right about letting them learn on their own with the help of books ... but not completely.
To me parenting is about offering kids a variety of ways to learn, and books, just like my advice, are all parts of their process — for cooking and in life.
Yes, working independently, experiencing a recipe and making mistakes, or figuring out how — or if — a fact is relevant is critical. That does not mean that I am planning on leaving them adrift when they anguish (read: curse up a storm) over a failed roasted chicken* recipe because the bird they bought was far bigger than what the recipe called for.
To me parenting is about offering kids a variety of ways to learn, and books, just like my advice, are all parts of their process — for cooking and in life. I loved embracing the responsibility of building a cooking library geared to them and I finally came up with these 10 books.
This is my number-one gift cookbook and hostess gift for absolutely everyone, and that includes my kids. The recipes in this book are by professional bakers. Written by Dorie Greenspan, it's no shock that the directions and ingredients, are detailed and clear. Ms. Child made a career out of making complex recipes attainable with the instructional underpinning. Although many of the recipes are quite aspirational (think: wedding cake), this is a book to grow into like September school shoes. I am confident that it will be as useful over their cooking lives as it has been for mine.
This a thick, image-packed book full of classic techniques and cooking basics. I only realized how good this book really was and how lucky I was to have cooked through it page by page, year by year, while I was in culinary school, and saw that Chef Pepin had taught me well.
Okay, there are three books here, but my kids' baking experience is varied, so please forgive me. King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All Purpose Baking Cookbook, is one I'd pick for my son, who has never baked. This book has recipes for a wide swath of baked treats, and includes weights, which is great for the mathematical part of his mind.
For my middle daughter, Classic Home Desserts: A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes from Around the World by Richard Sax, is just the right fit. She loves homey recipes and had her own baking blog through high school. Cooking instructor and writer Richard Sax spent a decade searching out the very best recipes from home cooks and for home cooks, and the result is a book with food history and charming recipes on every page.
My youngest, who is still home for a bit, is planning a career as a pastry chef and professional baker. Bouchon Bakery is for her. Thomas Keller, one of the smartest and most thoughtful chefs of my generation and his pastry chef, Sebastien Rouxel, teamed up to create clear, approachable recipes. Every page proves that when a recipe is honed with obsessive, technical mastery and also is uniquely authentic to the creator, magic happens.
This book by Kitchn's founder Sara Kate Gillingham and Executive Editor Faith Durand is a go-to book for a kitchen-creating beginner. It's chock-full of reliable, everyday recipes and how-tos. I also really like this book because of the information and tips about how to organize, outfit, and maintain a kitchen.
Deborah Madison's original book is one of the finest and yes, thickest in my collection. Not only does it offer a number of ways to prepare vegetables, but it also has plenty of information about vegetables. (There is now a terrific update.) No kitchen library is complete without a great vegetarian cookbook. My kids, in fact all millennials and post-millennials, need to know how to cook what they find at farmers markets, how to prepare inexpensive, real vegetables dishes so they can serve them to their vegetarian friends, and enjoy eating meat-free meals themselves.
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi rocked the cookbook world with this important book, filled with vivid, sophisticated, and often simple recipes with a Middle Eastern view. Heartfelt stories from a beautiful and troubled city, precious to many, and bound by history and faith in all of life's moments to the Jewish people — it's vitally important to me that all my kids know about the inner working of this city, and what makes it so complex and special. The food reflects that, honestly and deliciously.
Mark Bittman is the king of fast how-to cooking books. This is one I gave all my kids. I'll be happy when I see plenty of pages splattered and splashed and full of handwritten notes about how they changed the recipes.
8. The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs
This is a reference book in the truest sense. If they want to know what goes really well with what, and what they can do with what they have on hand to make something delicious, this is the first book they should grab.
9. Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen or Cookwise: The How's and Why's of Successful Cooking,The Secrets of Cooking Revealed
These are all great science-based cookbooks. They are truly foundational books and very handy if (and when) they want to know why something did or did not work.
In my world, Marcella Hazan was the great Italian cooking teacher. There are other wonderful Italian homestyle cookbooks from accomplished smart chefs like Mario Batali and Lydia Bastianich and I like their books very much, but I only bought them one book on Italian cookery, so I chose Ms. Hazan without a second thought. It's not just the recipes that make this book critical. Every word showcases her great respect for the ingredients and simple recipes. For me, a cook who endlessly edits herself from too much extravagance and never met a spice she didn't love, it remains an ongoing lesson on elegance and restraint and you can bet I want my kids to learn this from the get-go.
One Way to Save a Burnt Chicken
- Take the burnt chicken out of the oven, cover it with foil, and allow it to rest for 5 minutes while you get a new roasting pan ready with a slick of olive oil.
- Next, warm up some boxed chicken stock on the stovetop with a splash of white wine.
- If you have guests waiting, crack open another bottle of wine for everyone and put out some salami, cheese, and crackers.
- Cut the chicken off the bone and discard any really burnt parts (read: skin blackened into dust). Cut the chicken into 2- to 3-inch pieces and toss it into roasting pan with just enough of the now-hot chicken broth to cover and some leftover fresh herbs from the first attempt.
- Once covered well with foil, it bakes up tender and juicy in a medium oven for 10 minutes.
A Note on The Art
This custom print was illustrated by Jane Mount of Ideal Bookshelf. You can commission an illustration of your favorite set of books, order prints, and find other hand drawn goods at her online shop, Ideal Bookshelf.