9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

There are two shelves in my kitchen that house approximately 50 cookbooks, and I am constantly adding new ones and giving away old ones to make sure the shelf — and my cooking — stays relevant. But if my house caught on fire, the nine books below are the ones I’d rescue first. Some are old, splattered, and battered, some have only recently hit the scene, but all of them are indispensable…

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan

Why I Love It: Because Hazan, credited with introducing America to real Italian cooking, is old-school authoritative in the best possible way. You’ll never catch her saying something like “feel free to omit the anchovies” or “swap out the zucchini for some eggplant.” No way. For Hazan, a scientist by training,  there’s a precise way to make the sauce, the pasta, the vegetable, the anything, and you do not stray. This book is one of the two that were combined to make her more popular volume, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. (Shown on the right is my original — now coverless — paperback; I bought it the day I got back from my first trip to Italy in 1993.)
When I Use It: Sunday dinner with the family or when I’m having people over and I want an uncomplicated, delicious main.
Favorite Recipes: Tagliatelle Bolognese, Pork Loin Braised in Milk, and her mega-famous Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig

Why I Love It: Because it’s exactly what the title says it is. You’ll never catch me saying anything bad about Bubbe’s kugel, but Koenig gives fresh ways to round out tradition by infusing the classics with seasonality and simplicity. (Think Butternut Squash Kugel with Crispy Shallots.)
When I Use It: On Passover, Rosh Hashana and Hanukkah — but really I’m not sure why I don’t pull it out every other day of the year. Koenig’s recipes fall mostly under the Mediterranean umbrella (harissa, yogurt, tahini, za’atar, almonds show up often), which to me is some of the most appealing food on Earth.
Favorite Recipes: Fattoush; Roast Chicken with Fennel & Orange; Spinach-Matzoh Lasagna; Savory French Toast with Za’atar Butter; Fried Cauliflower with Creamy Cilantro Sauce

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Dinner, by Melissa Clark

Why I Love It: Because the idea behind this book is “stop thinking of dinner as a protein, starch and veg” and I have been trying to break free from that tyranny for my whole adult life. In other words, roast eggplant with a scoop of ricotta can be a meal. Crostini can be a meal. A savory Dutch Baby can be a meal. Three sides, instead of one main and two sides? Totally a meal.
When I Use It: When don’t I use it? I’ve been a superfan of Clark for decades for one main reason: Her recipes work and work well every single time. Seriously! They’re also somehow simultaneously simple enough to make for your kids and interesting enough to make for guests.
Favorite Recipes: Tofu with Ginger and Spicy Greens, Parmesan Dutch Baby, Pizza with Broccoli Rabe, Halloumi and Brussels Sprouts, Tortilla Soup

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Simple Cake, by Odette Williams

Why I Love It: Because it’s impossible to flip through this gorgeous book and not think What excuse do I have to make a cake right exactly now? Williams’s special little gem is the newest addition to my shelf — it just came out this spring — and is remarkable mostly in its curation: There are only ten cake recipes and fifteen glaze/frosting recipes, and we are encouraged to mix and match as we please. (I’m not a numbers girl, but put it this way: the possibilities for cake nirvana are plentiful.)
When I Use It: So far, twice: Once to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, and once because I didn’t want to show up to a casual dinner party empty-handed. Which tells you something, because there are very few books that can get me to spontaneously make a cake from scratch, instead of just, you know, swinging by the bakery on the way over.
Favorite Recipes: Almond Gato, “Bribery Cake,” Chocolatey Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Swiss Buttercream (I opted for the Silky Marshmallow Icing), Cinnamon Spiced Donut Cake (I haven’t made that yet, but it is so on deck)
BREAKING NEWS: Joanna will be interviewing Odette this Friday, April 12th, at Books are Magic in Brooklyn. See the details here!

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Balaboosta, by Einat Admony

Why I Love It: I fell in love with Admony’s food after eating at New York’s Balaboosta restaurant for the first time. (The name means “perfect housewife” in Yiddish, an old-school moniker the busy chef is ironically embracing.) Then, I fell in love with it all over again when her official Balaboosta book was published back in 2013. Here was some of my favorite kind of food — a blend of flavors from Admony’s Israeli, Persian, and Yemenite background — written as though it was downloaded straight from my mom standing next to me at the stovetop.
When I Use It: When I want to cook something easy and fresh, but also a little surprising.
Favorite Recipes: A side dish called “Cauliflower Everyone Loves,” which is true to its name — fried florets tossed with a tangy vinaigrette, currants, and pine nuts; Hubby’s Hummus (just the right balance between lemon and tahini); Harissa and Honey Hot Wings

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

A Bird in Hand, by Diana Henry

Why I Love It: Because it gives the star treatment to everybody’s favorite protein! In addition to offering a robust number of classic fast-n-easy weeknight recipes, Henry — a longtime food columnist for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph — travels the world for poultry inspiration (think Portugese Chicken Piri Piri, Japanese Chicken Yakitori) delivering a roster of go-tos destined for the Forever Repertoire.
When I Use It: Sunday through Monday, January through December, including holidays.
Favorite Recipes: Chicken, Soft Scallions and Baby Potatoes; Chicken Asparagus, Fava Bean and Radish Salad with Dill and Mint Dressing; Baked Chicken with Dijon Mustard and Herbs; Chicken Rye Schnitzel with Mustard Sauce

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters

Why I Love It: Because Waters is the master, and because every single page reminds me of the most fundamental principle of good cooking, i.e. buy quality, keep it simple.
When I Use It: Mostly from April through October, the time of year when I pick up whatever is precious at the farmer’s market and I’m determined not to mess it up with too much intervention.
Favorite Recipes: White Corn Soup; Chilled Napa Cabbage with Cilantro and Shallots; Straw Potato; Leek Tart; Fennel Gratin; Grilled Leeks and Garlic on Toast

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

I Hate to Cook Book, by Peg Bracken

Why I Love It: Because it was written 50 years ago and it still holds up! And because of the first paragraph: “This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”
When I Use It: When I want to laugh. Think about the concept! A cookbook by someone who hates to cook! Only an amazing writer can get away with that. I pull it off the shelf when I want her voice in my head — usually at my laptop, not my stovetop.
Favorite Recipes: Literally zero, but my mother-in-law used to swear by the turkey tetrazzini and I could read the recipe titles all day long: Beef A La King, Painless Spinach, “Fast Balls” which call for ground beef, water and onion soup mix

9 Cookbooks That Earn Their Keep

Dinner: A Love Story, by me, Jenny Rosenstrach!

Why I Love It: Because it’s, um, mine, and yes, I refer to it all the time to remind myself how to make certain recipes. (P.S. The Pulitzer sticker is not real; a publishing friend had a ream of them in her office and gave me one as a joke.)
When I Use It: For quick family dinners; for casual entertaining; for those nights when I’m running late and I want my teenagers to start cooking dinner, and I just text them “turn to page 62 and get started on that salmon salad.” Ok, that’s a complete lie. But I do look forward to the day they move into their own places, ask me for a recipe, and all I have to do is hand them this book of family favorites.
Favorite Recipes: Salmon Salad, Playdate Cookies, Great Grandma Turano’s Meatballs, Turkey Chili, Pork Ragu, Tony’s Steak, Cold Sesame Noodles

What are the most dog-eared, post-it-note-stuffed cookbooks on your shelf?

P.S. An easy way to make new friends, and “why I never feel alone when I cook.”

(Top photo by Nicole Franzen for Cup of Jo. Cookbook photos by Jenny Rosenstrach.)

  1. Lucy says...

    I really enjoyed this article! I used a meal subscription service where you get the ingredients and recipes each week delivered, so creativity in the kitchen rarely happens but your love of these books motivates me to try something different in the weekend.

  2. There are a bunch of books I am dreaming about now. Though, I know I don’t need more cookbooks. I love how you like to get new cookbooks to stay relevant, but I love getting really old cookbooks and see how things change. What were people doing that now is forgotten? Is it still going to taste good?

    I am vegan, so sometimes I get asked by friends what I would suggest for beginners or in your scenario what cookbook would I save from a fire, and I always suggest How It All Vegan and Isa Does It. How It All Vegan is just super simple stuff, which helps you think what to make when all your know is meat, cheese, and eggs. And Isa Does It has the best flavorful food that is easy to make on a weeknight.

  3. Lidia says...

    Does anyone have any recommendations for someone who is quite inexperienced in the kitchen? Looking for simple recipes that are very tasty!

    • Emma says...

      Anything by Jamie Oliver – so easy, taste amazing and always works!

  4. Joanna says...

    OMG where are those blue and white bowls on the left from? They are beautiful!!

  5. caitlin says...

    Ottolenghi’s books, even if they’re twice as much effort as I expect.

  6. Betsey says...

    Do you know Alexandra Stafford of She would be a great guest food writer! Love her recipes.

  7. Robin says...

    I love DALS, Melissa Clark’s Dinner, my dog-eared copy of Real Food Fast (The Martha Stewart Everyday Food cookbook), The original Silver Palate Cookbook, Smitten Kitchen, and my mom’s old copy of Fannie Farmer from the 80’s. Of all the chocolate chip cookie recipes I’ve tried, that one’s my fave with the addition of 2 cups rolled oats.

  8. Sally K says...

    Love DALS, especially Grandma Jody’s Chicken — also good made with cod filets.. My current two favorite cookbooks are Comfort and Joy Cooking for Two and Dinner Just for Two both by Christina Lane.

  9. Jessica says...

    OMG I loooove the I Hate to Cook Book! I have been looking for a vintage copy (with a pink cover, the kind my mom has) for ages. I remember picking it up as a kid and feeling very grownup for understanding her sarcasm and satire…still makes me chuckle today.

  10. Lisa says...

    My most used ones are –
    Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish food. It’s a history and recipe book in one, and it’s phenomenal. Every recipe I’ve tried has worked spectacularly.
    Hummingbird bakery cookbook, mostly for the brownie recipe but yeah, it’s pretty good. And I love looking at the pictures
    A cookery book that I made for my cousin for her 40th – I asked family members for recipes (including some of my grandmother’s) and made a cookbook for her for her birthday (with pictures as well!). I want to do an updated one for her 50th in a couple of years time. It’s so much fun looking through and seeing recipes in my grandmother’s hand writing or seeing how much cooking has changed – less call for evaporated milk nowadays. I think it’s also telling that the booked is around 70% recipes for desserts and cakes

  11. Tracey Vincent says...

    Ooh, these all look fantastic. As an Aussie, I must recommend a book by a beloved Australian cook (and farmer), Maggie Beer. It’s called Maggie’s Harvest, and it’s organised by seasons. It’s a luscious thick hard cover book with a sumptous embroidered cover. My bible!

  12. Martini says...

    I retired a few years ago and vowed not to buy another cook book. I now gather new recipes from the internet.
    A while back I started collecting ONLY favorite recipes that I’ve tested and love, putting each one in clear plastic sleeves and keeping them in a 3-ring binder. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in the kitchen.
    It has kept me organized and taken the drudgery out of meal planning and cooking.

  13. Kelsey says...

    Ah! I know it’s trendy right now but I can’t believe Salt Fat Acid Heat isn’t on this list!

  14. Cherie says...

    DALS Pork Ragu is a big favorite in our house. Every time I make it for guests, they ask for the recipe. It also is yummy as a hot or cold sandwich or soft-taco style in a tortilla. Versatile for leftovers!

  15. Jessica says...

    Rebar is a vegetarian cookbook that introduced me to so many new food. I have cooked 75% of the recipes and 74% of them are winners! Statistics!

    • DFearn says...

      I agree whole-heartedly. The Rebar recipes have so much FLAVOUR! We make the Baja Baked Black Beans all the time but there are many others that are so very fantastic.

  16. This post is a treat and Balaboosta looks to be my next cookbook! I also enjoy Melissa Clark recipes and use the Dinner A Love Story and Smitten Kitchen website. But my absolute favorite for the comfort food of my youth is Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking. I love the history and authenticity in the descriptions and always use her recipe for the chicken I make for tacos, enchiladas, taquitos…..I’ve used that recipe so often, I know it by heart and it has fed my family for years. I love this element of cooking….the way I can make a favorite family dish and in the eating of it, we are together and my family tastes how much I love them.

  17. Angela says...

    These are such great recommendations – and your book is truly a family favorite – we have several recipes on rotation! Thanks for sharing.
    A few others in high rotation for me: Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, Feeding a Family, and the first Smitten Kitchen cookbook!

  18. Louise says...

    Most used for me are two small cookbooks by a food writer for the Guardian, Felicity Cloake. She has a column called How To Make The Perfect… and goes through the process of experimenting with many different versions of each dish (from her own large cookbook collection) and refining to land on the ultimate ‘perfect’ recipe. I use her recipes for so many staple dishes, meatballs, bolognese, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, pancakes, mayonnaise, and so much more. Being Irish, I also couldn’t be without my Darina Allen and Ballymaloe cookbooks

  19. Kelsey says...

    Add Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden to your list, you won’t regret it!