Cook books. They’re everywhere, one of the more resilient forms of print media in our digital world. The ownership of a cook book sits in my head as one of our thousand hints of adulthood. An adult pays bills, works for pay, owns cookbooks, sets up their own dentist and doctor appointments, wistfully recalls how great being a teen was while forgetting how much they hated it while they were a teen, and so on. I’ve read that they make solid stand-by gifts: they’re just expensive enough to say “I’m not a cheap asshole”, but are easy enough to get for anyone: “You eat, right? Here’s a cookbook.”

But with the many thousands of different cook books you can get, it can be daunting to try picking one out for yourself. Do I prefer “The Secrets of Greek Cooking” or “Greek Cooking Made Simple”? (I haven’t googled, but I’m willing to bet both of those are actual titles or subtitles of real cookbooks) How many books are there about barbecue, and which are best? That’s the topic I want to address today: What makes a good cookbook, and which ones I like.

The Proof is in the Pudding

What makes a good cookbook?

I don’t know.

Off to a good start, Jonny Boy.

Screw you, Caption Jon. You don’t even have an image to hang onto. But seriously, I have no idea what makes a good cookbook. Because, to me, cookbooks are about learning, and being enticed to make food, and I can’t reliably say what appeals to you in either of those categories. It’s too subjective to be certain. I can only tell you what I look for, and what appeals to me.

Firstly, and foremostly: it has to make good food. That’s like, a no brainer. My brother hates the flavor of cilantro, so of course I wouldn’t get him Jo Frank’s “Cilantro Greats”. Well, no, I lie. I WOULD get him that, because I’d definitely find his immediate rage and disgust funny, and I assume after a few seconds, he’d start laughing too. I just definitely wouldn’t pay full price for the gag.

That sentence leads to dark places on Google.

Second, I like books with visual appeal. Color photos are great. Offset boxes with tips or discussion are also good. Preferably both. Does every page need something? No, but if the book is just a dry recitation of recipes, I’m not going to be too into it.

Thirdly, I like, and this is a difficult concept to explain: thoroughness/explanation. This comes in a couple ways. Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” immediately matches this criterion. (Of course I know the singular form of criteria, who do you think I am?) IT’s in the name. EVERYTHING. Cook’s Illustrated does this too: it tells me all the ways it TRIED the recipe, and why each effort failed or succeeded (“Tasters thought red potatoes were too waxy” “They liked the warm notes the cinnamon provided”).

Lastly, but not least…ly(?) I look for usefulness. This is a variable quality, so here’s an example: When I lived alone in my apartment, I never bought a cookbook solely about seafood. (Heh. “Sole”ly) because I don’t like fish. I ALSO never bought one solely about Greek cooking. Why? Because I know Greek cooking uses a lot of fish and lamb, and cool cheeses, two of which I’m fine with, but I couldn’t AFFORD. Greek cooking beyond some simple sides and what not was too rich for my blood.

Not literally, of course. O’Guin blood is functionally acid.

So, those are my criteria for good cookbooks.  As such, I wanted to take some time and recommend three cookbooks for you and your families, that I’ve relied on time and again.

The Best Beginner’s Guide

If you’re new to cooking, or inexperienced, or, hell, just want to strengthen your fundamentals, I recommend the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book.

Seen here on the carpet, because setting up photo shoots is for chumps.

It’s currently on something like its 16th edition. I’ve not checked out that one specifically, but I can tell you that the first Kitchen Catastrophe I ever did was from the 6th edition, which I have since lost and replaced with the 9th. It’s a glossy book, with simple recipes and directions. Most pages have pictures or boxes discussing a specific technique for the page, but my favorite part of it has nothing to do with actual recipes: the first 60 pages of my copy are the best basics guide I’ve ever read. It has an 18 page glossary of what terms mean, it has a 2 page chart of how long things stay good on the counter, in the fridge, and in the freezer, and it lists substitutions for herbs and spices you don’t have. It has a page on how to set formal dinners, and a discussion on table etiquette and RSVP decorum. This is a perfectly adequate cookbook, but it’s a phenomenal resource.

Getting Saucy

Now, I love Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue Bible and Planet Barbecue. Both are seminal discussions on the art of Barbecue (I mildly prefer Planet Barbecue. It’s got advice from grillmasters around the world, pictures, and a greater wow factor in the foods.) But over both of them I prefer his smaller work with an enormous name: Barbecue! Bible Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades, Bastes, Butters, and Glazes.

Brevity may be the soul of wit

But in book titles it ain’t worth shit.

The reason is simple: I started my cooking experiments with sauces. They’re an easy place to see how flavors play together, and they’re an easy way to change a meal. Changing the rub on a grilled chicken breast changes what the sides should be, what the meal FEELS like. Basting with a different barbecue sauce gives you a different meal. This is an area for a lot of low-risk experimentation, where you can try different cuisines on the sly.

The Textbook

My last selection is my most unusual: The Flavor Thesaurus. And it plays to what I’ve seen called the “grammatical” approach to cooking: an understanding of principles, rather than recipes. The flavor thesaurus doesn’t really do ‘recipes’ as such, instead, it breaks foods into 99 flavors, and then talks about how they work with each other.

It’s more avant-garde, more experimental, than the other two, but it’s also a lot more fun. This is a cookbook that’s great for reading on a rainy Saturday, or as you lie in bed. It’s an idea machine, with some absolutely great descriptions.