Sometime after our son was born last fall, my husband said he'd extend his culinary repertoire beyond scrambled eggs and frozen tortellini and make dinner a few nights a week. This never came to fruition, and on his scheduled nights I settled for takeout burritos, or I patched together some vaguely healthy dinner.
Andrew's failure to thrive in the kitchen was partially my fault. Every time he attempted to cook, he'd lean on me as his personal culinary encyclopedia. And frankly, I can get a bit snippy when pressed with too many basic questions. I wondered if there was a better teacher out there—one with more patience and erudition. So I rounded up four thick general-interest cookbooks—and one medium-sized one—and instructed Andrew to cook a meal (an entrée, a vegetable, a starch, and a dessert) from each. He was left entirely on his own—all questions were directed to the text at hand. The pleasure of watching the husband sweat through five meals, well, that's some schadenfreude that only I can appreciate. But the experiment also revealed the underlying utility of each book—particularly for a bright, but novice, cook such as Andrew.
Andrew and I took several factors into consideration when evaluating each book.
First, the reference quality: How many recipes does it provide? What kind of glossaries, nutritional information, or conversion charts does it offer? Are the illustrations helpful or purely decorative?
Next, the mushier but crucial category of style: Does the book have panache? Is it written in a way that motivates the neophyte chef? Is it organized well? Does it reflect the way people cook and eat today? How enticing are the recipes?
Finally, what I call "the husband test": How clearly did the recipes direct Andrew? Did the books succinctly define the terms used in the recipes? How did the resulting food taste? And crucially, would Andrew cook from the book when he wasn't helping with this experiment?
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th Edition, by Marion Cunningham Recipe count: Just shy of 2,000
Fannie Farmer, the original celebrity cooking teacher, released The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896; California home-cooking maven Marion Cunningham has since updated it thrice, incorporating a contemporary kitchen sensibility, some Asian and Latin flavors, microwave advice, and vegetarian options.
As a reference book, FF is full of information—pressure-cooking charts, advice on freezing, nutritional breakdowns, a menu planner, and hundreds of recipes—but it is organized in a less-than-instinctive way. For example, when instructed to "cream" the butter in his cookies, Andrew found a definition more quickly on the Web than in FF. The illustrations are folksy and slightly diagrammatic—helpful when gutting a fish, less so when showing the difference between kale and collards.
FF has a plain and slightly old-fashioned aesthetic: It is particularly strong on breakfast and baking—40-odd recipes for pie!—and includes chapters on endangered arts such as candy-making. Cunningham is a crisp, not effusive writer, and occasionally a bristling tone adds a little edge to the otherwise cozy subject matter. ("If taste and texture don't mean anything to you and only speed counts, then ignore my comments," she says to microwave cooks.)
Andrew homed in on the book's New England origins, choosing a meal of baked fish filets with anchovy-green peppercorn butter; parslied potatoes; Harvard beets, served in a sweet, vinegary sauce; and oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. The meal was pretty good, but overwhelmingly buttery and a little bland, partially because of the book's aesthetic, and partially because Andrew gravitates to dishes that his mother might make him. In the end, Cunningham's spare prose failed to ignite Andrew's cooking curiosity.
Recipes of note: Raised Waffles, Chicken With Dumplings, Scrapple, Persimmon Pudding
Likelihood of husband reuse: 3 percent
Bottom line: Plain-spoken, full of facts, and a little hard to navigate.Best for the aspiring breakfast cook or baker with a fondness for culinary Americana.
All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker Recipe count: 1,500
Since its 1931 debut, the Joy of Cooking has been a staple of the American kitchen. The most recent version, published eight years ago, was updated to incorporate global flavors into the once white-bread cooking bible. The vegetable section, for example, includes dutiful references to tropical staples like boniato and breadfruit. It takes after the original in its strong baking section—JC is surely the best resource for deciding whether to whip up a grunt, a slump, a buckle, or a brown betty.
JC is a killer reference book, with glossaries for ingredients and techniques, nutritional information, and extensive substitution charts so that you can come up with a quick ingredient switch if you forget to buy heavy cream (a little butter and a little milk). With such breadth of information, though, comes some compromise in tone, and too often the book reads like a textbook. For the browsing cook, it can be hard to determine which of the 1,500 recipes to pursue.
While Andrew made a tasty meal from its pages, the recipes lacked polish—the sesame asparagus salad yielded too much sweet dressing, the lentil soup was a little drab, and the gratin of scallops and tomatoes was unevenly seasoned. The strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, however, was a home run. And he was pleased that he learned how to peel tomatoes with boiling water, an ice bath, and a paring knife. Nonetheless, the vast encyclopedic scope of JC left Andrew cold.
Recipes of note: Rib-Eye Steak With Orange Chipotle Glaze, Thai Beef Salad, Saag Paneer, Lady Baltimore Cake
Likelihood of husband reuse: 12 percent
Bottom line: The best kitchen reference, but shy on personality. Most suited for the blank-slate cook with an eye to global cuisine or an experienced cook checking up on technique.
The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated
Recipe Count: 1,000
Cook's Illustrated, headed by editor and founder Christopher Kimball, made its reputation by testing recipes with semiscientific fervor to determine the ideal method for making everything from barbecued ribs to brownies. To prove that they have, in fact, hit upon the "best recipe,"CI provides arduous blow-by-blow accounts of their testing, such as this explanation of frittatas.
True to its name, Cook's Illustrated publications like NBR offer plentiful and edifying line-drawings of clever kitchen methods. Also helpful are notes on recommended brands of canned beans, soy sauce, or spaghetti. Other appendices that are helpful to the beginner cook, however, like glossaries or menu planners, are missing.
Depending on your temperament, NBR's earnest, slightly churchy voice is either amusing in its supergeeky thoroughness (as it is for Andrew) or slightly annoying (as it is for me). Under the watchful eyes of the NBR editors, even crudités become complex: "Although it is tempting to use bagged, prewashed, baby carrots, their stubby stature makes it all too easy for dippers' fingers or knuckles to graze the surface of the dip when swiping." So much energy is expended in technique that there is little room to consider how recipes might work together. If you can get beyond that, however, such thorough methodology provides solid recipes—I have yet to make a Cook's Illustrated recipe that fails.
Andrew, a software developer, liked the hyper-tested NBR: "It appeals to my engineering mind," he said. He also liked the solid results of his own cooking. The gently spiced rice pilaf he cooked to go with meatloaf and roasted carrots came out more perfectly textured than any rice I've ever made. But when NBR standards diverge from your own, as with the coconut macaroons Andrew made for dessert, you can end up a little disappointed. (NBR values moist coconut intensity; I look for a chewy-crisp texture.)
Recipes of note: Hamburgers, High Roast Turkey, Ranch Dressing, Thick and Chewy Double-Chocolate Cookies
Likelihood of husband reuse: 30 percent
Bottom line: Thorough recipes, great kitchen tips, stultifying prose. For über-geeks and the people who love them.
How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman Recipe count: 1,500
HTCE, written by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, is broad-reaching but not slavishly encyclopedic. Strong on pastas, stir-fries, and grilling, it reflects the tastes of a busy, urbane working parent. Time and simplicity are always a subtext in Bittman recipes, as is the rangy improvisatory method that reflects cooking today.
Other than its illustrations, which are too small and softly rendered to be instructive, HTCE is tremendously comprehensive. It indexes the book's quickest recipes, provides a glossary, and offers fun menu plans for everything from an offbeat bag lunch to a 10th birthday party.
Bittman is also more opinionated than the writers of JC—as he is here on spaghetti squash: "The flavor is incredibly bland, especially compared to the best winter squashes, but it is a pleasant novelty." He likes themes and variations and offers up nearly as many lists as a Nick Hornby novel, such as, "Thirteen ways to quickly vary basic tomato sauce."
Andrew liked Bittman's list-making and strong guidance within his recipes. He came up with a lovely meal from HTCE, even if the penne arrabbiata, chicken with parsley and onions, and sautéed zucchini dirtied more dishes than any other meal. However—alert the NBR folks—Bittman's brownies were not sufficiently chocolaty.
Recipes of note: Stir-Fried Lobster With Black Bean Sauce, Pasta Sauce With Beef Ribs and Cinnamon, Fennel Baked With Stock and Parmesan, Grilled Fruit Skewers With Ginger Syrup
Likelihood of husband reuse: 72 percent
Bottom line: Great definitions, with a strong voice that puts cooking in context. For the busy cook who wants to maximize variations on staples.
Marcella Says …, by Marcella Hazan Recipe Count: 120
With 120 recipes and a single cuisine of focus—Italian—MS does not fit the same mold as the other books, but I included it as a wild card. Might a bit less information, but more direction, get my man cooking? Indeed it did. Hazan, whose 1970s books on Italian cuisine led Americans out of the red-sauce wilderness, offers chefs extensive notes on fundamental kitchen techniques, which, along with her slightly bossy, precise prose, make MS a basic cookbook in its own way. She may wax about flavor development or insaporire for three-and-a-half pages, but she uses it well. "Have patience to cook the onion long enough, it may need more minutes than you think; and have the watchfulness to keep the garlic from turning too dark. That may happen sooner than you can imagine."
As a reference, MS is hit or miss. She provides a scant 10 recipes for desserts, and forget about charts, pictures, or glossaries. There is, however, a four-page essay titled "When is it done?" that covers one of the most basic and baffling questions of the cooking world.
MS is an intimate cook's notebook. The recipes have a fine-tuned quality that is hard to find in more comprehensive books, and Andrew responded to them immediately. His veal braised in milk and capers, rapini sautéed with chickpeas, and boiled rice with olives and chili were not stressful to cook, and the meal was, hands down, the best he made, with more complex flavors than any of his other offerings. "I'd eat this in a restaurant," he said without a hint of braggadocio.
Perhaps the limited, opinionated cosmos of this cookbook (and its precise directions) are just what Andrew needs to boldly set foot in the kitchen. And if all else fails, it's my kind of cookbook, too.
Recipes of note: Pasta Sauce With Dried Porcini, Fresh Shiitake and Clams, Old-Style Pot Roast From the Brianza Hills, Chocolate and Nougat Semifreddo.
Likelihood of husband reuse: 93 percent
Bottom line: Anti-encyclopedic, but fundamental. For the cook who likes a little grandmotherly domination and for whom dessert is not a priority.
In the end, all the books we tested offered impressive kitchen advice, but when it came to a question of how to motivate my personal kitchen apprentice, it became clear that a stronger voice like Bittman's or Hazan's—even at the expense of pure reference value—made all the difference. Call it the auteur theory of cooking instruction.