By Sidney Williams
After a year of hyper-inflation, trying to save money on your food budget is becoming imperative. There is nothing more effective for achieving that goal than taking up home cooking. Speaking from experience, when I started my PhD in San Diego I had no knowledge of how to meal prep, and all I’d ever done was cook for entertaining purposes eg. fancy meals which took a long time, but weren’t that effective for taking to work or for whipping up at the end of a long day. Over time I picked up some basic meal prep skills, but I am by no means an expert and I am always trying to learn to get better.
As I will explain, there were thought out reasons for the selections I made, but for the tldr answer The Best Books to Become a Better Home Cook are Salt Fat Acid Heat, Science and Cooking, Tin Can Magic, Weekday Vegetarian, The Easy 5-Ingredient Indian, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Pasta Grannies, and Cookies: the New Classics: a Baking Book.
My general philosophy with this list is that you want a couple of books which will help you learn the food and flavor science of what composes a good meal so that at the end of the week when your pantry is beginning to run dry, you can still feed yourself. From there, I’ve included some “easy cooking” books that have approachable and (usually) affordable recipes that can be made with few ingredients and relatively quickly. In this category I have chosen a dedicated dessert book, as making your own sweets is often much nicer than store bought and saves a lot of money. And finally, I’ve included a couple of more “advanced” cookbooks with the idea that there are weekends and sometimes you just want to cook to impress. Of course, these books can be used to prepare everyday meals, but their general goal is more to improve your chef chops. Now, without further ado, here are the books that can help you become a better home cook.
An absolute classic, designed less of a cookbook, and more of a guide to how to construct pleasing flavors and why they are pleasing. It does have a few recipes, but that is not the focus. Ideally, what you do is you read through the whole book cover to cover, then pick it back up to review the sections that would be most helpful during your current cooking adventure. Doing so would teach you the tricks and methods used in a professional kitchen and really elevate your home cooking.
This book is closer to what I am familiar with as it is written closer to a physics textbook and explains the physics behind the food. Turn to Science and Cooking if you want a scientific approach to what you put on your table. As a side note, I mostly picked up this book because I have the secret goal of understanding everything that I use on a day-to-day basis and this certainly helps with that goal.
One of the most difficult parts of being a home cook is making sure that your pantry is up to the task of putting food on the table. Tin Can Magic solves this problem by focusing on tweaking canned food items and other pantry staples. It also provides plenty of ideas for adding freshness to preserved goods.
I have been periodically practicing weekday vegetarianism. At first it was because I was interested in reducing my carbon footprint, but then I realized a reasonable grasp of vegetarian cooking saves A LOT of money. Plant-based protein like beans and lentils are delicious and so so so much cheaper than a steak, or even a chicken breast. Weekday Vegetarian gives a clear, concise guide to starting to cook exciting and tasty vegetarian meals, with recipes sorted into different themes such as staples and small plates. My favorite part of the whole book though is that it has a meal planning section at the end that has served me very well in learning to construct vegetarian meals.
My go-to packed lunch is a Tupperware of some curry and rice, it heats up wonderfully, tastes delicious and packs a whole bunch of protein and nutrients into a single bowl; very versatile and easy to prepare a large amount at a time. Unfortunately, there are usually a ton of spices involved in each recipe, so this book is the perfect way to circumvent that inconvenience.
Everyone needs a dedicated book for desserts, and cookies are the most versatile. This book has a hundred recipes of flavors meant to build upon and mature familiar flavors. They are made to be not too complicated so that you do not have to be a master baker to whip up a quick batch of something sweet. But by far my favorite part of this book is that the recipes are divided up into different flavor profiles: Chocolaty, Boozy, Fruity, Smoky, and Savory. Having this organization can really help demystify dessert.
Cook to Impress
Pasta is amazing for bringing in to warm up at work or school, and it is also quite cheap to prepare. Pasta Grannies is affiliated with the YouTube show under the same name which interacts with Italian grannies who still make traditional pasta. This brings in the unique aspect of this publication: every recipe includes a QR code which will take you to the associated YouTube video, so if you need help or inspiration along the way finding it will be quick and painless. This book is aimed around showing you some of the family oriented recipes which are classic in Italian cuisine. A lot of these recipes are more time intensive due to the “everything by hand” nature of the book, but most things can be substituted with dried items unless you’re really up for a challenge.
Yet another classic book. Julia Child’s masterpiece is absolutely packed with easy to follow recipes both complicated and straightforward. I’ve quite frequently used it for its crème anglaise and its leek and potato soup, but once I have little more time (perhaps a doubtful occurrence given my PhD student status) I fully intend on pouring over this volume to gain some real chops in (Americanized) French cooking.
In my opinion, a small library of cookbooks is essential for any kitchen, and the ones I recommended here will certainly start you off with a well-rounded variety. Of course cooking is both a journey, and an addiction, so don’t be surprised when you inevitably expand from this list! I hope that you find learning to cook at home as rewarding as I have, and that you can reap the full cost and health benefits from it, bon appétit!