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8 Essential Cookbooks for Home Cooks

Cooking more than ever? Turn over a new leaf.

cookbooks in stack with tulips and eggs

I think it’s fair to say that we are all doing a lot of cooking right now. More than ever, it feels important to keep our rotation of home-cooked meals inspired, seasonal, and fresh. We all turn to the internet to source recipes (ahem, this website). But something about turning the pages of a cookbook feels particularly comforting and personal, even transportive. But which cookbooks should you own? These eight essential cookbooks for home cooks are a great place to start.

Cookbooks are an investment, and become a part of our kitchen. I inherited my cookbook addiction collecting gene from my mom. I love them. I have a lot of them. But if I had to narrow it down to “8 Essential Cookbooks to Have on a Desert Island, Assuming This Island Has a Fully-Equipped Kitchen and Grocery Store,” I would invest in the following. These eight cookbooks — plus a couple of bonus suggestions — cover everything from trusted weeknight basics to elegant, seasonal desserts.

You’ll also like: Book Club: Happiness is Baking and 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Julia Child

cookbook with fruit on table

Plenty of outstanding cookbooks have not been listed here. Some go without saying: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Joy of Cooking, and anything Yotam Ottolenghi or Dorie Greenspan come to mind. Other random, modern standouts include Genius Recipes from Food52’s Kristen Miglore; 101 Easy Asian Recipes from Lucky Peach’s Peter Meehan (make your own favorite takeout!); and anything by Molly Stevens or David Tanis. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers, from the iconic San Francisco restaurant, is one of my all-time favorites as well. Her Caesar salad and roast chicken recipes are imperative.

I selected these because I believe that they are just right for right now, and will fill in some gaps. But let me know: What cookbooks would be on your list? Which of these do you already own?

Unpeeled’s List of 8 Essential Cookbooks for Home Cooks

1. The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters

The Art of Simple Food - 8 Cookbooks to own

This is hands-down the #1 cookbook I would own. I have given it as a gift to numerous people, both for its beautiful, uncomplicated recipes and well-written directions and dish backgrounds. Though not a huge cookbook, it seems to cover everything, from cooking fish in parchment to her famous 1-2-3-4- pound cake.

2. New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison

The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone - 8 Essential Cookbooks

Deborah Madison is like the Georgia O’Keeffe of vegetarian cooking: a talented New Mexico resident in touch with the very best of nature, in ways both sophisticated and simple.

Deborah Madison is widely considered one of the best vegetarian cooks in the country, and for good reason. She is the real deal, with an encyclopedic knowledge of seasonal cooking, both common and uncommon produce, and how and why to prepare it all. Her palate is exceptional, but her cooking never strays into impractical or “hippie food” territory. Meat shortages or no, everyone would do well to own this book. Try the spinach soufflé and migas to start.

3. The Barefoot Contessa, by Ina Garten

The first, the classic. The Barefoot Contessa cookbook was first published in 1999, but still feels as necessary today. Ina emphasizes sophisticated, quality recipes that are not pretentious or difficult to make. The original cookbook covers lots of bases, and many greatest hits from her time as a shop owner. Try the French potato salad with herbs, turkey meatloaf, and any of her spreads and dips. And the beef bourguignon is “fabulous!,” as Ina would say.

4. Milk Street: Tuesday Nights, by Christopher Kimball

The title says it all. It’s Tuesday (and really, every day is Tuesday these days). What to cook that is inspiring and tasty, but neither too elaborate nor simplistic? The answer: basically anything in this book. Smartly categorized into sections like “”Fast, Faster, Fastest,” “Supper Salads,” “Pizza Night,” and “Roast and Simmer,” Christopher Kimball and the Milk Street crew offer trustworthy recipes that emphasize layers of flavor.

5. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham

There is a reason why this cookbook has been in publication for over 110 years. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook stands as one of the fundamental basic American cookbooks of all time, one that has taught generations of home cooks how to cook. The cookbook makes a great resource not only for recipes (there are over 1,900), but for learning how to cook, all done with charming illustrations.

6. The Food Lab, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

So there you are on a desert island with a full kitchen and grocery store, but do not know how to cook. You also like science. This cookbook has your back. The multiple award-winning tome from the chief culinary consultant at Serious Eats get serious about, well, eats. Every single recipe has been tested, analyzed, perfected, explained, and carefully photographed, step by step. If this sounds plodding, it isn’t. His writing is quick and smart. The vegetable chili has become my go-to recipe.

7. Happiness Is Baking, by Maida Heatter

Maida Heatter’s cookbooks read like a big hug from a sassy and gossipy-in-a-fun-way aunt. The recipes are everything you want to bake. Maida, who died at 102 last year, wrote cookbooks filled with reliable, carefully-written dessert recipes. Any of her cookbooks are a good investment, though some are out of print. But this one takes the cake (sorry) for being a greatest hits collection of cakes, pies, cookies, bars, and more.

8. New Complete Technique, by Jacques Pépin

Jacques Pépin New Complete Techniques by [Jacques Pépin]

Hypothetical situation: You read a recipe. The recipes says something like, “dice one onion,” “line the cake pans,” or “skim the fat from the liquid.” Perhaps home butchery or mastering the five mother sauces is your thing. Ok, but how, exactly? This book shows you. 

Most professional chefs will cite Jacques Pépin’s La Technique as required reading. Anthony Bourdain called it “Indispensable.” Chef Tom Colicchio said, “In his books, he focuses on teaching techniques as opposed to recipes so that cooks not only understand the hows, but also — more important — the whys.”

Techniques is French and American culinary school in cookbook form. 

. . . And a couple more for good luck:

9. The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis

The Taste of Country Cooking: The 30th Anniversary Edition of a Great Southern Classic Cookbook by [Edna Lewis]

A cookbook that reads as both memoir and love letter, the phenomenal Edna Lewis’s book of Virginia country cooking transports readers every time. Lewis grew up in a small community founded by freed former slaves. In this book, she weaves memories and stories throughout her recipes, organized by season.

On summer: “They busy season of harvesting and canning brought many delights at mealtime: Deep-dish blackberry pie, rolypoly, summer apple dumplings, peach cobblers, and always pound cake to accompany the fruits or betters that would be left from canning.” Tell us more, please.

10. Once Upon a Chef, by Jenn Segal

Once Upon a Chef, the Cookbook: 100 Tested, Perfected, and Family-Approved Recipes by [Jennifer Segal, Alexandra Grablewski]

If your cool big sister was a professionally-trained chef turned food writer for home cooks, you could do no better than the warm and talented Jenn Segal. In addition to the great personality she brings to her cookbook (from her blog of the same name), she has curated a fine collection of tested, family-friendly yet sophisticated recipes that taste pretty much perfect.

What cookbooks do you recommend as “must haves”? Share in the comments below.


  • Judy Hqzel

    Thanks for listing your top ten cookbooks! I’m excited to put some of these titles on my Christmas list. I have only one – Once Upon a Chef by Jen Segal and use it often. I don’t own her new cookbook yet! I’m a serious foodie and retired home ec. teacher and camp cook. Thanks so much!

    • Unpeeled

      Enjoy! I love cookbooks and always look forward to the new fall releases, but best of all I love returning to my old and dependable favorites.

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