The Best Cookbooks for 3 Types of Beginner Cooks

updated Apr 30, 2019
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People ask us all the time to name the very best cookbooks for beginners. It’s a simple question, but the answer is actually pretty complicated! Because there are many types of beginners out there.

Maybe you are new to the kitchen and just want to figure out how to get dinner on the table for yourself? Or maybe you’re interested in learning the explanations behind it all? Or maybe you have a ton of time to devote to nailing your technique?


We all begin in different places and have different goals, but some of the essentials remain the same: We need our questions answered and our needs met. These are the cookbooks we love whether you’re entirely new to the kitchen and looking for a practical introduction to the basics or a curiosity for the science behind the best roast chicken is driving you to the kitchen. And if you’re feeling a little ambitious about new adventures in the kitchen, we’ve got a batch for you, too.

The Best Cookbooks for the Practical Beginner

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Since its first publishing in 1998, Mark Bittman’s tome on home cooking has evolved to account for what everything means to cooking today. The book is unfailingly practical, opting for illustrations over photographs and sharing what Bittman calls “simple, straightforward, unpretentious, and easy food.”

Don’t be alarmed by the size — the book is designed to be referenced. The first few recipes in each chapter are designated “Essential Recipes.” They’re the building-block recipes (a basic vinaigrette starts off the section on sauces and dressings) that get reworked into numerous variations throughout the book. If you want all your repeat Google searches for “how to cook eggs” or “easy tomato soup” in one book, Bittman has you covered.

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If legacy or even a bit of nostalgia play into why and what you want to cook, or you need an opinionated, reassuring voice in your ear while you’re making your first roast chicken, pick up Joy of Cooking. Practical, clever recipes have always been a part of this book’s 75-year history, but it’s evolved to include 30-minute recipes, make-ahead shortcuts, and a whole section on cooking and freezing food. And you know what? Some of us want a practical beginner’s cookbook that’s also going to teach us how to make beef Wellington.

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That’s right, we have our own cookbook! And it was written with the goal of empowering people to approach home cooking with practicality, ingenuity, and a roster of recipes that they never get tired of. This cookbook will teach you how to set up a kitchen (spoiler: everyone needs an immersion blender) and how to make everything, from a killer casserole to the perfect birthday cake. If you’re ready to make cooking a part of your everyday routine, we’re a big fan of this one. Obviously.

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Better Homes and Gardens has been producing some version of this cookbook since 1930. In in their latest edition, the editors ditch the old-school spiral binding for a sleek, encyclopedic cookbook. If you need a visual with every recipe, technique, or nugget of information, you’ll get that in this book. Plus recipes for cold brew coffee and fattoush alongside a really good recipe for pot roast.

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5. 12 Recipes, $28

If you’re the kind of person who grew up around good food and good cooks but never made it to learning how to throw down in the kitchen, this book will feel like it was written for you. Because it was, kinda. Cal Peternell, the former chef of Chez Panisse, wrote this cookbook with his oldest son in mind, offering casual wisdom alongside casual recipes for spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate cake. You’ll learn how to watch garlic for signs of burning and what to do when the fire alarm goes off when making your first roast chicken.

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The Best Cookbooks for the Ambitious Beginner

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Part lifestyle credo, part peek into the home kitchen of Nigella Lawson, this cookbook puts as much emphasis on the pleasures of home cooking as it does on the value of a well-stocked pantry and freezer. For the beginners looking for some prescription on living, alongside simple (although sometimes whimsical recipes), Nigella and her dressing gown are the finest ambassadors.

Note: This book is no longer in print, but you can find new and used copies on Amazon, or check used bookstores in your area.

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There’s a whole world of cookbooks by Yotam Ottolenghi to explore, but for the new cook Ottolenghi Simple is where you should begin. With a focus on ingredients and flavors from the Middle East, you’ll develop a pantry and probably even a passion for Ottolenghi’s vibrant, vegetable-centric cuisine. From there, look for Plenty, and then Plenty More.

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Ina’s ability to make food feel chic and simple is one of the reasons why she’s become a home-cooking icon. There’s no difference between the Ina you see on her show and the Ina who writes cookbooks, so if you’re often motivated to cook while watching her show (weeknight lemon chicken with good olive oil, anyone?) then you’ll get that vibe (with an extra helping of tips and techniques) in this instruction-heavy cookbook.

The Best Cookbooks for the Curious Beginner

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If you just want to make good food at home — and understand why it’s good — Samin Nosrat is the teacher for you. This book breaks “good food” down into the presence of salt, fat, acid, and heat, explaining the role they play in making each of the 100 recipes so darn delicious. With immersive illustrations and Samin’s expertise and exuberance as your guide, beginner cooks will learn how to cook, yes, but they will also learn how to think about cooking, too.

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An essential for home cooks who are constantly chasing a flavor or ingredient into the kitchen, The Flavor Bible by Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg should be thought of as a tool more than a cookbook. Here’s how you use it: Say you have some Swiss chard but need something to do with it besides the ol’ “sautéed with lemon and garlic” routine. Crack open The Flavor Bible, flip to chard, and inspiration on what to cook it with will present itself as a list of compatible ingredients like cumin, anchovies, or bacon. If you’re comfortable in the kitchen with recipes but are ready to craft your own flavors, this book is a must.

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Jacques Pepin’s decades-long career has made him as prodigious a teacher as he is a chef. Much of his wisdom is captured in the 700+ recipes he includes in this book — his favorites from the span of career. Although he teaches from a French, albeit modern canon, Pepin’s recipes are always simple and full of thoughtful shortcuts. And isn’t that what you want? A storied French chef to teach you the shortcut in a really good chocolate soufflé recipe.

4. A book from a cuisine that’s important to you

Perhaps there’s something specific and special about learning how to cook a food that is familiar or important to you. Maybe it’s the food of your family heritage or the potent memory of a place you’ve traveled that motivates you? That’s where the final item on this list comes in. Every home cook should have a book that helps them make the food that means something to them. You’ll learn still learn the basics along the way, but sometimes it’s less intimidating to cook something new when it’s already, in some way, a part of you.