Making yourself comfortable in the kitchen is the first step to great food and cooking, and getting comfy starts with filling the kitchen with helpful tools and resources! This page will walk you through some of the cookbooks and kitchen wares that are essential to my kitchen comfort; I encourage you to seek out things that might make your kitchen a more friendly place! I’ll start with My Recipe Shelf, which will describe the cookbooks and periodicals (for e-reading, check out the links page) that have come to be trusted resources around here, as well as those that I’m just getting to know. Next I’ll detail the kitchen tools and equipment I’ve come to rely on (or lust after) for a smooth-running, not-too-crowded kitchen in the My Kitchen Shelf section. Follow any of the links to visit my oft-visited pages at Amazon. These are definitely not sponsored product reviews or anything, but simply an honest reflection of my cookbook shelf, kitchen shelves, and wish list!
My Recipe Shelf
I get recipes online, in print, and even on my ipod. I make heavy use of my local library to give cookbooks “try-outs” before deciding to purchase one, I subscribe to a few food magazines, and I troll the food-blogosphere for inspiration and recipes. Mostly what I gain from this is an overwhelming number of ideas and not enough time to pursue them all, but I think an overabundance of inspiration is always a good thing! Here, you will find a sort of compilation of resources, some that I’ve come to trust over a long and healthy cooking relationship, and others that I’ve recently discovered or am currently getting to know!
My test-before-you-buy policy has, I think, helped me to create a well-curated cookbook shelf, which I find to be a real asset in the kitchen. I tend to have anywhere from 5 to 15 cookbooks on loan from the library at any given moment, and reading so many cookbooks has helped me to develop a sense of what separates a great cookbook that I’ll really use from the kind of cookbook that will remain in a dust-covered corner and not be missed. I love cookbooks with big, full-color images, a friendly voice, and an approachable style, but I also like to be pushed and inspired to try new ingredients and techniques, and to learn new skills. Here you’ll find some of the books I turn to time after time, as well as a list of books I’m just getting acquainted with. And if you have any questions about cookbooks that aren’t listed here, feel free to inquire, as I’ve checked out many books that are not listed here!
1. Mexican Everyday, and its companion Fiesta at Rick’s: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends, by Rick Bayless. Bayless’ enthusiasm for Mexican cuisine is contagious, and while all of his cookbooks are full of amazing recipes, these two are my favorites. Mexican Everyday is a fabulous resource for day to day cooking. When you read through it you’ll initially be seduced by about 75% of the recipes (which for me is a very successful percentage on its own), and each time you look again you’ll discover that his handy suggestions for “riffs” on his recipes will up that percentage to 100%. There is literally something for everyone. Fiesta at Rick’s takes his cooking to the next level, and is full of fabulous tips for easy, impressive entertaining.
2. Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I wasn’t initially wowed by this book, but the more I read about Deborah Madison, the more apparent it became that I should revisit Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. When I renewed it from the library for three months and still didn’t want to part with it, I knew I’d found a new reference book worthy of the space it takes on my shelf. Everyone, meat-eater or not, should have a resource for vegetarian cooking, and this does all that and more.
3. The River Cottage Bread Handbook, by Daniel Stevens with Foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I’m still in the beginner’s stage when it comes to bread making, but of all the bread tomes I’ve tried out from the library, I find this new addition to my cookbook collection to be the most helpful guide to bread I’ve used. It’s really compact, but chock full of gorgeous photos and inspiring recipes, and the cute British voice and River Cottage enthusiasm get me pumped about making bread without any shortcuts. If you read it and follow the directions, you can make wonderful bread on the first try!
4. Barefoot Contessa at Home, by Ina Garten. I didn’t want to like the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks when I first started checking them out from the library, but I was quickly won over by the recipes and photographs, and eventually came to be amused rather than annoyed by the slightly pretentious New England dinner party style. She will win you over too, and you’ll find that her cookbooks are balanced and simple while retaining just enough oomph to be dinner party-worthy.
5. Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichl. When I decided I wanted this cookbook, I intended it to fill the role of a general cooking reference with a bit of modern pizazz. In practice, it turns out that it doesn’t quite fulfill the role of a reference cookbook to me, but rather reads like a “best of” for new American recipes, and I love it for that. It’s full of new ideas, rather than basics, and I’m happy to keep it around for that purpose alone.
6. Betty Crocker’s Vintage Cooky Book. This is the cookie reference that I grew up with, and when I started living on my own I found myself wishing I had a copy of it for the classic, reliable recipes for the cookies I’ve come to know and love. It’s vintage charm makes you feel like a 50′s housewife, in a good way! It’s a deceptively big collection of recipes, so you can make fabulous peanut butter cookies and snickerdoodles, but also find recipes for more adventurous cookies from around the world (I once aced a high school book report on Holland by whipping out some delicious Dutch cookies from this book!). Also a great cookie reference: Martha Stewart’s Cookies. I’d like to own both!
7. The Craft of Baking: Cakes, Cookies, and Other Sweets with Ideas for Inventing Your Own, by Karen Demasco and Mindy Fox. This is a new acquisition for me, but I quickly came to appreciate it as a complement to cookie books, with a few cookie recipes but also scones, doughnuts, muffins, candies, tarts, pies, cobblers, cakes, puddings, ice creams…I could go on. It’s full of modern takes on classic sweets, has gorgeous photographs, and I love the emphasis on learning how to make these recipes your own. Everything in the book will make you drool.
8. Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters and/or America’s Test Kitchen’s Perfect Vegetables. I might have found the idea of a vegetable cookbook too narrow at earlier points in my life, but I’ve realized that I really love vegetables and shockingly enough, you can and should do more than just steam them on a regular basis! Both of these cookbooks list all the vegetables alphabetically and give lots of suggestions on what to do with each, which I love because you can just go to the market, pick out what looks good, and know that you’ll have several options of what to do with them when you get home. Chez Panisse vegetables uses a non-traditional recipe format, describing things you can do without giving a real list of ingredients/quantities, and Perfect Vegetables gives you a more standard recipe format, so consider which would suit your style. I like Chez Panisse for the looser inspiration, and Perfect Vegetables for when I want a more test-kitchen style, reliable recipe.
9. Cooking for Two: 2010, from America’s Test Kitchen. The second I got this book home from the library and peeked inside, I knew that I didn’t want to give it back. I didn’t even want to wait until my library loan was up before I bought a copy. The cookbooks from America’s Test Kitchen tend to have fewer photos than I usually like, but the reliability of test kitchen recipes and the great tutorials totally make up for it. Everything we’ve made from this cookbook has been fabulous, and I really would like to make about 95% of the things in the book, which is a pretty good indication of cookbook success. I’d recommend checking out this cookbook even if you don’t cook for two.
Currently test-driving (books I’ve really enjoyed from the library, but haven’t yet committed to owning):
1. Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller
2. Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table, by Suzanne Goin
3. Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite
4. The Pleasures of Cooking for One, by Judith Jones
5. The Flexitarian Table: Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone inBetween, by Peter Berley
6. The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg
7. Savory Baking, by Mary Cech
Whenever I get tempted to impulse-buy a magazine at the grocery store check-out, I try to remember the insane amount of money you can save by simply subscribing. For less than the cost of a meal out, you can subscribe for a year and fill your head with cooking ideas. In the age of blogs-aplenty, it’s easy to have the attitude that it’s not worth the cost of paying for printed publications when you can read so much about cooking for free online, but I find that regardless of how much I read online each day, I still look forward to my monthly Bon Appetit with way more enthusiasm than any blog post. I currently only have two active subscriptions, but the following are the publications I’ve come to trust and enjoy, and in a perfect world I’d subscribe to all of them: Bon Appetit, Saveur, Cook’s Illustrated, Food & Wine (for the wine-interested), and for us westerners, Sunset Magazine has a healthy-sized section of good recipes each month, although it is also full of design, gardening, and travel tips for living in the West.
For a list of blogs and web resources, see the Links page.
Must-haves. The following kitchen supplies are those that I really rely on. Of course, some of the things that are really useful for me might not be essential for you, so you’ll have to think about what kind of cooking you really do and how much space you have. If you’re living in a tiny kitchen, or do a limited amount of cooking, you may find my list decidedly not minimalist enough. But if you like to experiment with a wide variety of foods and recipe types, you’ll end up wishing you had more supplies!
- cookware: after living with a set of nonstick Calphalon for less than a year before it completely lost its coating, I heartily recommend buying a set of stainless steel cookware (ovensafe!), as good as you can afford. All-Clad seems to be the end-all be-all for most people, but we bought a 10 Piece Stainless Steel Cuisinart Set for just over $100 and I love it. We are totally happy with the kinds of pans in our set, including large and small saucepans with lids, a large stock pot, a large saute pan, and a couple skillets, and the pots and lids are ovensafe. Easy to clean, easy to care for. I also love to have one good quality, eco-friendly, teflon- and chemical poisoning-free affordable nonstick greenware skillet (only about $30!), and one trusty cast-iron (we have this enameled one because it was clearance and i loved the caribbean ombre blue, and it’s been great, but some people don’t like enameling). I would love to tell you a dutch oven is a must-have, as they are very useful and stylish, but I’ve been living without one for years and I’m fine– as long as your cookware is ovensafe, you can get by without one. But if you can get one, do! It’s on my to-buy list and I can’t wait. Most people go gaga over the le creuset or staub lines, but I’ve heard good things about Martha Stewart cast-iron ovens and Lodge ovens too, if you’re looking for something more reasonably priced.
- bakeware: at least one 9×13 dish (metal or pretty ceramic or pyrex), one 8×8 or 9×9 square baking pan (metal, ceramic or pyrex), one loaf pan, one pie plate, one or two muffin pans, one or two round springform cake pans
- baking sheets/roasting pans: 2 rimmed baking sheets that can act as roasting pans (and come with a free cooling rack!), and one non-rimmed baking sheet (which can act as a pizza peel!); make sure you get ones that fit in your oven.
- baking miscellany: a cooling rack (get a free one with your rimmed baking sheets above, or try a set of these), a silpat or similar product (make sure it fits your pans!), a cheap but sexy rolling pin, a pastry blender for the flakiest pie crusts
- mixing and serving bowls: set of 4 lidded pyrex mixing bowls and/or a set of lidded stainless steel bowls, and at least one pretty serving bowl (simple white ceramic, or pretty ceramic, or wood).
- ramekins and prep: set of four 6 oz Pyrex custard cups for prep (and they’re oven safe so they can be extra ramekins, large muffin cups, or individual gratins if you like), and some regular 6 oz ramekins (I like these from World Market for a cheap version of the fancy le creuset or emile henry look)
- utensils: in general, i’ve learned not to mess with nylon (except maybe for a turning spatula?) or other plastics– stick with stainless steel, silicone, and/or wood. You’ll need a set of large and small silicone spatulas + a spoonula, at least one wooden spoon, some kind(s) of spatula(s) (like this metal one or this nylon turner or this offset one) for pancakes, cookies, fish, frosting, etc., some whisks that feel good in your hand (for instance, I prefer short-handled ones for my freakishly small hands), a a ladle, and a slotted spoon.
- measuring tools: metal measuring cups (the labels always wear off plastic cups), metal measuring spoons, Pyrex 1-cup measuring cup, Pyrex 1-quart measuring cup
- strainers/sifters/colanders: fine-mesh strainer set that you can also use for sifting, and at least one large-holed colander (for pasta at the very least– I hate trying to clean starchy pasta residue out of mesh strainers)
- cutting boards: i like to have several on hand, large and small, different materials and flexibilities, so I can keep meat and veg separate– we have one polyethylene one, one set of flexible cutting mats, and one bamboo, and then of course there are these cool epicurean ones if you want to go a little fancier
- knives: the pros seem to agree that all you really need in the knife department is a good chef’s knife, a small versatile paring knife, and a good serrated bread knife. If you want to go big, try a mini-set of globals (chef’s + paring for about $100) + or a wusthof set (chef’s + paring for about $140), and a get a high quality bread knife; or go for the best-rated cheaper option: a very affordable $30 victorinox chef’s knife, a victorinox paring knife for just under $10, and an highly recommended offset serrated bread knife for just under $25
- miscellany: an instant-read meat thermometer, and an oven thermometer to make sure your oven is as hot as you think it is
Nice-to-haves (some of these I find pretty essential, some are definitely not) that, sadly, I do not yet have (or I own a terribly crappy version of):
- a dreamy kitchenaid standing mixer (still far off for me, but some day)
- peugeot pepper mill (we have a broken cheaper one for now, and we’re getting along just fine without a salt grinder)
- digital kitchen scale (the ultimate for baking precision, I’m hoping to get one soon)
- at least one microplane (the standard zester/grater one is most versatile, although there are lots of different ones– we use a box grater for now)
- a cuisinart food processor (we’ve had an extremely cheap black & decker food processor for the last two years, and it is still functional, albeit totally unsexy, but it does have a few design flaws)
- electric hand mixer (one of these is pretty darn essential, unless you like creaming and whipping by hand– I actually do like whipping stuff by hand sometimes, but not all the time!)
Non-essentials that earn their keep for me:
- a salad spinner (I adore having one– I thought they were ridiculous for a long time, but I hate drying lettuce with paper towels so much that I hardly ever made salads before we got one)
- an inexpensive mandoline slicer or an easy julienne peeler (using your knife skills for thin slicing is great practice and I actually like doing it, but I hate julienning by hand, so if you don’t have a mandoline, spend $9 and get a julienne peeler– it’s small to store)
- a garlic press (most professionals seem to hate these– I use one from time to time and it certainly is easy, but I do hate cleaning it)
- a baking/pizza stone (excellent for bread baking as well as pizza, ensures the best crust)
- a removable bottom fluted quiche and tart pan (a little uni-purpose for my tastes, but at least they’re small to store! i got a nonstick one for cheap at fred meyer and it’s been agreeable, but next time I’ll go the linked one)
- a nice serving platter or similar contraption that suits your tastes (gotta show off your work!)
- something you don’t have to buy: a small mason jar (half pint or pint would be good) to serve as a dressing shaker! they’re cheap and handy, make mixing the dressing a breeze, and then you can store the leftover dressing in it.
- a pair of wusthof kitchen shears; they are only $16 (cheap, especially for wusthof!), they come apart for easy cleaning, they can daintily snip some chives into a potato salad, but they are also powerful enough to break down a chicken! You can also buy them in a set with a paring knife for only $40
- a cheap little mortar and pestle (for spice grinding and probably some mexican preparations– a small one is best unless you plan to use it as art as well)
- a silicone pastry brush for brushing things with butter or oil!