7 Cookbooks for When You're Tired of Following Recipes
AKA books you should probably read cover-to-cover.
Howdy cookbook fans!
And welcome to your Friday newsletter! Today I am looking at cookbooks that give you not just directions to make a dish, but the theory behind it—books that give you enough “how” and “why” that you feel you can veer off-script. Because sometimes, after I spend too long developing recipes or reviewing cookbooks, I just want to wing it for a bit. Live a little and get creative. Throw caution to the wind and throw broccoli in the pot when the recipe called for kale. Sticklers season is over; long live recipe improvisation!
Today's issue of Stained Page News is brought to you by Hardie Grant Publishing. Thalis are a celebration of fresh ingredients that encompass the whole range of flavors of Indian cuisine and display to perfection its sheer regional variety. Hot, sour, spicy, crispy, tangy and sweet: these are the flavors our palates yearn for and the thali offers the marriage of all these flavors on one plate. Maunika Gowardhan’s Thali provides plenty of fresh recipe inspiration that not only shows you how to create delicious tasting Indian food in your own kitchens, but how to balance the variety of flavors and textures within each one when creating your own thali at home.
7 Cookbooks That Give You the Tools to Go Off-Recipe
Look, I love recipes. Recipes are great: they tell you what to cook and how much of it to use and how to cut it up and how to heat it, and then ideally at the end you end up with something that tastes good and sort of looks like the photo in the book. That’s fantastic.
But cookbooks are not solely comprised of recipes, and great cookbooks can and often do offer so much more than recipes. The best kind of cookbooks are books that explain the technique behind the recipes, allowing readers to not just cook the dishes within their pages but understand what goes into them. These books are the ones that truly teach people how to cook—often performing rhetorical backflips in order to do so. Here are some books that I love as much for their recipes as I do for the roadmaps they provide for inventing your own dishes. Sometimes you just want to go off-recipe, you know?
What exactly is flavor? And how does it work? If the thought of a book on the science of flavors makes your eyes roll back in your head, I urge you to consider molecular biologist, recipe developer, and food blogger Nik Sharma’s second book, The Flavor Equation. Beyond Sharma’s firmly-rooted scientific approach to his topic, his eye for visual aids engage the reader with the topic and offer explanations a block of text never could. Sharma himself shot the book’s photos, and information designer Matteo Riva provides intricate diagrams that illustrate concepts like the chemical structure of aromas, how tastebuds work, and the pH scale. Consider Sharma’s complexly flavored recipes like Roasted Tomato and Tamarind Soup, Saffron Swirl Buns with Dried Fruit, and Crab Tikka Masala Dip tasty introductions to the hefty scientific concepts at play.
What’s a DIY cook? As cookbook author Tim Hayward describes it, it’s someone who cooks for pleasure and doesn’t mind a challenge; to borrow a cliche, the journey is the goal. The DIY Cook is centered around cooking projects—world famous, time-intensive dishes built on from-scratch elements. Think bouillabaisse, banh mi, Steak Diane: each of these gets its own chapter, which includes Hayward’s DIY version of the dish next to international variations, history, ways to use leftovers, and other ephemera. The chapter on Lobster Thermidor is a chance to explore the classic sauces of French tradition; Banh Mi looks at sandwiches from around the world, from po’ boys to katsu sandos. A somewhat chaotic—and thus, in my opinion, gripping—exploration of the essence of famous dishes via sidebars, tangents, and other delightful detours.
Nik Segnit’s first book, The Flavor Thesaurus, looked at how to mix and match flavors; her second Lateral Cooking, looks at how those flavors are deployed. The theory behind the book is to start with a basic recipe—say, pureed vegetable soup—and start working your way through variations. Asparagus soup, canellini bean and sage, leek and oatmeal, pea soup, pumpkin with Thai spices, tomato and carrot, turnip with brown butter. And once you’ve worked your way through enough variations, you’re fairly well versed in the technique and flavors of a dish and ready to go entirely off script. Call it a similar approach to The DIY Cook, if a bit more organized and thorough.
There is obviously no way I was going to write this list and not include Samin Nosrat’s 2017 guide to what makes good food tick. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is famously only half comprised of recipes; the first half of its 450-some pages is entirely instruction, technique, and theory. In less-deft hands than Nosrat’s, the thought of that much text unpunctuated by recipes (or even photos! the book has zero) might make me a little sleepy, but her engaging voice and the lovely illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton combine for a read that’s as informative as it is entertaining. And, yes, the second chunk of the book has a bunch of tasty recipes in which you can deploy all your newfound culinary knowledge.
Grains! I cook a lot of grains in my house, and I like this approach from Abra Berens in her second book, Grist. (AKA the only cookbook I have ever read with a section on “Farts” in the introduction.) Berens covers beans, pulses, seeds, and legumes in addition to grains in this sequel to 2017’s Ruffage (which takes a similar approach to vegetables), offering recipes, yes, but also seemingly endless variations and strategies for approaching her subject ingredients. For example: sections on “A Week’s Worth of Lentils Without Any Boredom,” “A Week’s Worth of Barley Without Any Boredom” etc., show readers how to make a big pot of something on the weekend and repurpose it all week long. As much a system for thinking about your kitchen as it is a book built for recipe improvisors.
Confession! I am not a huge pastry person. Or rather, I am willing and able to dabble in baking and whatnot, but the intricacies of the craft have a tendency to spike my blood pressure a bit—discussion of dough hydrations and candy temperatures and whatnot stress me out. Which is why I absolutely adore this 1994 book from Richard Sax, which guides readers with a calm and steady voice through mostly simple but occasionally complex recipes. Sax explains the whys of baking without lecturing or getting too super technical, in such a way that even skittish bakers like myself might feel comfortable improvising. (Yes you can bake that pound cake in a square pan instead of a loaf!) One of my favorite dinner party tricks is to pick three different recipes from Classic Home Desserts—say, a cookie, a pudding, and a compote—and put them out together on a tray in the middle of the table for guests to serve themselves. Just a gem of a book, and endlessly useful.
Have you ever looked at a bar menu and ordered a signature cocktail because it resembled an Old Fashioned? Or featured similar ingredients to a Daiquiri? Then you more or less get the concept behind Cocktail Codex, a cocktail book from the folks behind Death & Co. Dividing the book into six essential cocktails—the Old Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar, the Whisky Highball, and the Flip—the book explains the elements of these cocktails, why the work together, and how readers can use the theories behind these cocktails to come up with their own signature cocktails.
Okay I could keep going forever but this is a pretty good start. What cookbooks do you appreciate for how far they go beyond recipes? Let us know in the comments, and have a great weekend!