In the pursuit of knowledge, I have accumulated numerous cook books over the years. They have progressed from simple magazine-types from the corner stores, to fad diets, to text books, to cuisine-specific and specific chefs. My collection currently takes up the top shelf of our bookcase, just above my Psychology and Art textbooks. They are some of my most prized possessions, and I often find myself consulting them on a regular basis to remind myself of a technique, ingredient, or just to see what the “pros” would do.
I want to share a few of these books with you, because some of them I think are essential for anyone with an interest in cooking, whether it be for themselves or for a career. I have pared them down over the years, graduating from certain styles or ingredients into others (I don’t mean to say I’ve gotten “better taste”, more than my tastes have changed, and as such, some books just haven’t held relevance like others).
1. What To Eat, by Marion Nestle
This book was published in 2006, which makes it out of date by age. However, its content is still very relevant, and most of the facts still ring true even after ten years. This book has taught me the subtle differences between the various Organic claims on food; what “free-range” and “cage-free” mean; it explains the fats to me (Saturated, Trans, Coconut?); marketing ploys by supermarkets; how far food travels; which fish you should and shouldn’t eat- Anything you have ever questioned about the food your eating, this book can explain to you. Best of all, her writing tone isn’t dry, which I often find to be a huge problem with highly fact-saturated books (Get it? Saturated? Fact? Fat? Bad joke, ok). I can’t recommend this book enough. The chapters are short and easy to get through in short sittings at a time, if you’re like me and rarely get hours to sit and read at once. The topics can span a few chapters, but the way she breaks them up makes it easier, again, to take it all in piece by piece. If there’s anything I can advise you with this book, it’s to take notes while you read, just to help it soak in.
2. The Professional Chef, from the Culinary Institute of America
This was my first serious Culinary purchase. Before my best knife, before my standing mixer, before culinary school, I got this textbook. Right now, I have an e-text for school, and it is the Canadian version of this book, basically. However, I love the feel of books, and this definitely serves that purpose. This book covers everything you need to know, from basic stock-making to more complex recipes. The first time I made Pâte á Choux, I used this book, and with great success. It’s over 1000 pages, so it’s a monster, but I love it, and will likely not get rid of it unless I decide to purchase my Canadian textbook in hard copy. If you want to know the law on proper culinary techniques (according to many culinary schools, anyway), this line of textbooks is wonderful, and definitely for the passionate home-chef.
3. Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons, by Pat Crocker
This has been one of my most consulted books for a few years now, and as is the case when you are canning, the pages have gotten a little gunked up from the recipes in action. One recipe in here has become a family favourite, the Rhubarb Chutney, and I would recommend this book solely for that recipe. However, inside you will find recipes for the entire year’s produce, from winter squash to summer herbs and berries. There are some basic recipes in here, such as the jams you would expect from fruits, but also some more elaborate recipes for chutneys and herb pestos. Because of the wide range of options, this book is a wonderful resource for someone beginning the dive into canning. The introduction helps explain the safety aspects of canning, as well as the technical side when it comes to elevation and tools. A browse through may land you on some long list of ingredients for a few recipes, but there are some very basic four-ingredient ones as well, so don’t be alarmed! Don’t be afraid to jump in with this essential.
4. The 4-Hour Chef, by Timothy Ferriss
Alright, this one was an impulse purchase, and while I haven’t consulted it as often as the others, it was a very easy and fun read. You CAN flip through this entire book in 4 hours, and not because it’s short (over 650 pages), but because it’s written in a fluid and fun manner. Timothy is also the author of another similarly titled book, “The 4-Hour Body”, which is a weight/fat-loss book. This cook book followed shortly after, and since I never recommend weight-loss books, I would recommend this one first! He starts with the basics of introducing tools, the importance of time management, and even outlines a lesson calendar for the recipes. With handy visuals, he teaches how to properly and safely cut vegetables to size, how to sauté, and then he does the unexpected- he starts teaching you how to make complex dishes off the bat, but in an easier fashion. The recipes don’t necessarily follow the “law” set out in textbooks like The Professional Chef, but if you’re looking for a crash course to cooking better at home, this book will definitely help you out, while also entertaining you with various side stories and wit. Frankly, I’m glad I impulse-bought this book, and in all the times I have pared down my collection, I just haven’t been able to toss this one.
5. The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz
A few years ago, I began a love affair with Sourdough. In the last two years, that love affair broadened out into the wider realm of fermentation to include Kombucha, Sauerkraut, Yoghurt-making, Cheese-making, Kefir, Tempeh, and Beer-brewing. I’ve dabbled a lot in fermentation, and this book was my longest desire to acquire. Katz covers various topics of fermentation, with an important note on safety and the history of it. He began his own love affair with fermentation when he was diagnosed with HIV and went on the hunt for healthier living. Don’t think that he advocates that fermented foods heal HIV- he’s no fool! But he does effectively explain the benefits of caring for your micro-biome, something scientists and nutritionists are beginning to appreciate more and more as time goes on. This book is a story of the hundreds of fermentations he’s tried himself, the lessons he’s learned from experts, and so on. Nothing is forgotten in his writings, and if you want to know the ins and outs of fermentation, this is a must-read.
6. Sourdough, by Sarah Owens
While we’re on the topic of Fermenting- I didn’t buy this book until last summer, and my sourdough journey began long before that. However, this book is filled with beautiful pictures and recipes, and she explains the stages of sourdough fermentation as well as technique with great ease. Like Katz, Owens went through her own health crisis, and began pursuing fermented foods as a means to helping her body strengthen itself with healthy bacteria from the inside-out. If you’re interested in sourdough bread, I highly recommend this book. But if you’re more of a classic-bread lover, then the next book is for you.
7. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart
This is the Bread Bible, in my opinion, and Reinhart – well, he wrote the book! Reinhart is passionate about bread (Just check out his Ted Talk), and he knows his stuff! Reading the introduction to this book, we see that his beginnings are as humble as the rest of us, entering random contests just to get his foot in the door, to travelling the world meeting famous bakers to learn the craft. This book encompasses all the bread you need, all the ingredients, and best of all, it explains Baker’s Math, the most necessary tool to design your very own bread recipe! Here you will learn how to knead dough, how to let it rise and know when it’s done, and why some breads taste the way they do when their ingredients are hardly different from the next. There are subtleties in these recipes that are beautifully explained, and you can read his love and enthusiasm in the pages. For the passionate baker that wants to REALLY learn the craft, you MUST have this book!
8. Home Fermentation, by Katherine Green
This was another impulse buy, a smaller one compared to the 4-Hour Chef. This is a wonderful little book of recipes to have on hand, and all are very basic. Unlike the other fermentation books mentioned so far, this one delves into the fermented drinks a little more. With this book, I learned that the Whey I was straining out from my home-made yoghurt (which this book covers, by the way) was FULL of bacteria that could be used in other fermentations. Because of this, I learned how to make my own Ginger-Beer using Whey as the starter. This small book, while it lacks the thoroughness of Katz’s book, is useful for its simplicity. It really is a Starter guide, and while I wouldn’t say it’s Essential to the kitchen, I don’t plan on getting rid of this book any time soon for some of its basic recipes (like Kimchi and Sauerkraut)
This list of books is not exhaustive. I also have Gordon Ramsey on my shelf, a book on Indian food, a couple of Raw food books, as well as a couple of books by Michael Pollan and Dan Barber. These last two I have not yet gotten to reading, as they await my time and focus. Reading isn’t always easy for me, as I often get the itch to get up and do something, but on rare occasions that I can focus my mind into the book, these are my favourites, and I hope that if you decide to follow up on any of them for yourself, you will find them to be just as useful and dear to you as they are to me.