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I have a friend who is 24 and can barely make mac and cheese from a box. She lives with her grandparents due to some tough financial situations, so she survives, but she is always very impressed with the things I (and others) make. Just yesterday she was floored by the fact that brownies can be made from scratch.

Anyway, long story short I was going to give her some "cooking lessons" and a beginner cookbook for Christmas. Do y'all have any recommendations as to what would be a good cookbook for someone who truly knows nothing about cooking/baking?

  • The book should start at the beginning and not make assumptions about cooking knowledge
  • The instructions should be comprehensive
  • An overview of ingredients would be helpful
  • Obviously I need something without a lot of fancy techniques and ingredients
  • Some fancier simple dishes that she could "show off" with would be great too

    I was thinking Betty Crocker, but don't know if that gets into the true basics.

Please let me know why your suggestion would be a good choice.

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closed as not constructive by rumtscho Mar 18 '12 at 15:54

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I have edited your question for clarity. If you don't like my changes, you can roll them back. –  justkt Dec 9 '10 at 18:43
I removed the [beginner] tag - please avoid meta tags. Other than that, I think it's a good question. It's similar to What recipes should every high school graduate know how to cook? but since this is asking for an actual cookbook, not just recipes, it's different enough to stand on its own. What's important is that people provide constructive answers and don't answer with one-line poll-style answers. –  Aaronut Dec 9 '10 at 19:17
I'm not sure how specific we should make this (as it lowers the chance at this being useful to others), but if she has a few favorite meals to eat, it'd be good to make sure the book covers those meals or at least similar cuisines / etc. –  Joe Dec 10 '10 at 14:06
Unfortunately, my favorite cookbook for this purpose wouldn't work because (1) it's written for children, and (2) it's in Hungarian. :/ –  Marti Dec 10 '10 at 21:48

18 Answers 18

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook or it's lighter (calorie-wise) cousin The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook are ideal for cooks of all skill levels. The recipes are documented in detail. There are product reviews, equipment guides, and insets on why a given technique produces a good result. All of the detail provided adds up to confidence in the kitchen.

Best of all with the America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated family of publications, almost all of the recipes "just work" as written. Too many times I have scrounged up a recipe from somewhere, including my 1950s Betty Crocker, and messed up some step somehow or just picked a bad recipe, producing a poor result. I've done that all of 2 times in the 3 years I've been cooking from ATK.

All of the recipes have an ATK-style "Americanization" to them that tends to lean towards fairly standard ingredients in United States super markets, so they might not be as common outside of the States but are excellent here.

Either of these books are not only an ideal place to start but provide solid recipes for years to come.

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thanks all for your great suggestions - i went with this one to avoid scaring her away with huge blocks of text. i might end up supplementing it with an alton brown book as well. hope she likes it! –  dani Dec 10 '10 at 16:52

"How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman is a good basic cookbook. There are not a lot of pictures but he gives clear instructions and covers the basics as well as some fancier dishes. Also I think the tone of this cookbook is very comforting.

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That's a pretty big book, which could be overwhelming, but it is a great one from a noted source. –  justkt Dec 9 '10 at 20:16
Then how about How to Cook Everything: The Basics? howtocookeverything.tv/product.php%3Fproduct_cd=076456756X.html –  Harlan Dec 12 '10 at 18:43

I largely taught myself to cook out of Joy of Cooking, lo, these many years ago. The various "About..." chapters have a lot of good infromation, and the recipe instructions are clear.

Nowadays, I'd seriously consider Alton Brown's I'm Only Here for the Food. That doesn't rise to an actual recommendation, as I've only browsed through it rather than diving in deeply. For that matter, you could do worse than a box set of "Good Eats" DVDs....

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absolutely loved Joy.. not sure about the ease level, but it's a positively great resource. The more modern copies have that cool hardback/binder theme thing going on, very utilitarian. –  zanlok Dec 9 '10 at 19:56
The older versions of the Joy of Cooking are actually much better written in my opinion and give more tips, variations, and explanations. The newer ones have that written-by-committee feel and comparing the same recipe between the new edition and my 1960s one, I notice a lot of useful tips are left out and portion sizes have been increased (e.g. the same recipe for brownies makes 16 instead of 30). –  Allison Mar 13 '11 at 18:14
I got JofC when I moved to the US, hit a couple of bumps. It uses cups - how do you get 1/2cup of butter? what's a 'broiler' etc. I don't think it's a beginner cookbook –  Martin Beckett Mar 14 '11 at 0:09
@mgb: Some of that is cultural--those who grow up in the US will know "cups" and "broilers" in general, even if they don't know the best-ractice sort of thing like getting 1/2 cup of butter (which may_ be discussed in one of the "About ingredients" sections. –  RolandTumble Mar 14 '11 at 17:37
yes broiler I can lookup (although my oven dial says grill?) but I still have idea how you measure 1/2 cup of butter - and in a beginner cook book it suggests recipes were just copied without any thought. –  Martin Beckett Mar 15 '11 at 5:50

If you need an absolute beginners cookery course, then I would recommend:

Delia's How To Cook (Books 1 - 3)

Delia's How To Cook - Book 1

It is capable of teaching a person from scratch how to perform all basic cooking skills. Delia Smith is somewhat of a star here, probably the most well read in terms of cookery books.

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For someone who can't cook, doesn't know their way around a kitchen, and could use help with basic food cooking techniques as well, the Starving Students' Cookbook fits the bill well. It is a very approachable book that breaks itself out into types of meals, and then ingredients. (I forgot to mention, one of the ideal parts about this book for those learning to cook is the 'starving' part. This book doesn't use expensive ingredients frequently that make you cry when your alfredo clots irrevocably.)

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+1 : There's quite a few books of that general ilk (cooking cheap, no complex equipment needed, etc.) ... I have a rather large collection of 'em, but I'm away from home for the next week or so, or I'd list some more titles. One thing to remember about these sorts of books is that they tend to focus on cooking for one or two, which may not be good for some beginning cooks. (eg, the mom who's been cooking from a box for years) –  Joe Dec 10 '10 at 1:37
oh ... and I remember one of the titles was ' Your Shirt is Not an Oven Mitt ', but I can't recall how it compared to the others I have (including the one you mentioned) –  Joe Dec 10 '10 at 1:39
I like that title for having a section on cuts particularly –  mfg Dec 10 '10 at 13:28

I bought the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook that is amazing and I keep going back to it. My mom used it to learn how to bake, make candy, can, etc. I see that there is a kids version that might be good. You should check that out.

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Yeah, this is a great cookbook! Every recipe I've tried turned out delicious, and they're easy to follow and create. –  Mark Snidovich Dec 12 '10 at 22:57

I learned quite a lot from Julia Child's The Way to Cook. It's a large-format book, and gives very good explanations about the how and the why, often with very clear photos of procedures. It works from the master recipe concept--if you are in a section about white sauces, you'll first learn how to make a basic bechamel, and then be presented with variations on it that all start with bechamel.

It is very French focused, but sticks mostly to simple, basic dishes (covering all traditional courses: appetizers, soups, salads, mains, desserts) that you can use as a great base to expand from, without being this 3-inch-thick tome. It won't show you how to do international cuisine like The Joy increasingly does, but the "how to" aspect is terrific.

I suppose the French focus might be off-putting for someone who knows absolutely nothing about cooking, on the idea that she might find the idea of French food as too fancy, too fattening or just intimidating. But it is really just a basic grounding in the most common way of handling the foods we all know.

I hope you have luck with your friend, whatever book you choose. In my experience, people who reach "a certain age" without having learned anything about cooking rarely have all that much interest and are frustrating students at best. But I'm sure there are plenty who just need help over a roadblock (like never having HAD to cook) and then take to it like fish to water.

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Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is your best option. (As someone else pointed out, it's large, but it's also comprehensive.) Many recipes in it are extremely simple, some requiring as few as 4 ingredients. And they are basic--"omelets," "hamburgers" "chocolate chip cookies," etc. However, the book does contain some more complex recipes, so as your friend increases her skills, she can make impressive dishes. Though Betty Crocker is good, as is Joy of Cooking and several of Julia Child's books, I do think that they expect at least some knowledge of cooking terminology. It is possible to start from zero and become a fantastic cook. With your guidance, your friend is well on her way.

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When I first started cooking for myself in college I got the The Healthy College Cookbook. It was really great for a beginning for several reasons. First, it has a whole section on what foods and equipment you need to stock your own pantry so that you can cook for yourself regularly. You mentioned that this friend is living with her grandparents but at some point she'll have to figure this out and the book does a great explanation of what you absolutely need and what you might want in the future. It also breaks down each recipe into how quick it is and how cheap it is and there are a lot of recipes that are both cheap and quick to prepare. It gives a few variations for most of the dishes and the things it suggests are things that are easy to make for yourself but that you could also bring to a potluck or serve to friends at a dinner party. It was invaluable when I was learning to cook and then I gifted it to a friend who was learning to cook for himself.

While I love Bittman's How to Cook Everything, it's pretty big and can be intimidating for someone who barely knows how to boil water. The Healthy College Cookbook was great because it was fairly small for a cookbook so it felt much more manageable to me when I had no idea how to do anything in a kitchen without a box.

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Cooking for Dummies.. 'nuf said?

Further, I found that I like the process of this book, because it builds you up to some more complicated set of dishes to prepare instead of just a collection of easy recipes. Your post makes me think you're interested in starting out in cooking, but want to get better. Good luck :)

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I think that part of the issue with cookbooks for beginners is that that too many cookbooks read like alchemy formulas. Others seem to be more fluff -- a picture of food, some stories about some travels to (insert foreign country here) and the marvelous hole-in-the-wall-café where they had the most magnificant meal ever, recipe follows.

There are some cookbooks for the more technically minded (eg, Cooking for Geeks, Alton Brown, etc), but if you've got someone who's scared of cooking (and there's quite a few who are), I like the ones that have a little humor to them ...

Some that come to mind are:

... for single females, if you can find a copy maybe The Little Black Apron: A single girl's guide to cooking with style and grace (not sure how beginner it is ... I don't have a copy)

Other ones, not quite as funny, but still good:

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+1 just for the first line - every beginner cookbook I've bought, gives a recipe but not the thought process behind it. Considering the thousands of variables, they can't describe every step necessary for my precise setup - but they don't explain how to figure out how to make a recipe work. Example - cooking a chicken breast in a pan on an electric stove. It would seem like a simple operation, but even the "Dummies" book only says, "saute over medium-high heat", and that's it. My electric stove has numbers 1-6 - which one is medium? How do I tell if it's done, etc... –  Cyclops Dec 17 '10 at 14:32

I agree that the idea of a general purpose reference book is useful -- I also like How to Cook Everything and the (old version of) Joy of Cooking, but I'm not sure if that's the best way to start learning to cook. These large books can seem intimidating and overwhelming to the total beginner.

My favourite book for the beginner is actually an excellent children's cookbook, Elliot's Extraordinary Cookbook. It's originally Swedish and has lovely illustrations and lots of food information (as well as a bit of a story) along with the recipes. It's not at all condescending and includes a wide range of recipes that would result in some great basic skills and general confidence in the kitchen. There are simple recipes with things like potatoes and eggs, but also recipes for stuff like yeast bread and baked fish in tin foil parcels. I think it's a lot more approachable as a first book, than a general purpose reference.

If you want something a little more "grown up", then I would suggest something like Jamie's Dinners or Jamie's Ministry of Food (published as Jamie's Food Revolution in the US). Both these have a selection of useful basic recipes, written in a simple, clear way. The latter book was specifically written with non-cooks as the intended audience (and released in relation to the tv shows of the same the name).

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That's a good point ... my first cookbooks were sesame street and super friends cookbooks ... I wish I still had 'em. –  Joe Mar 14 '11 at 2:48

I would suggest making your own cookbook. Not only is it more personal, but you can tailor it to her needs. I would suggest lots of recipes that you prepare and put in the oven, since these types of recipes usually involve setting a temperature and timer. This is how I learned to cook most of my meals, and to this day, I still use the oven most often.

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I would recommend Alton Brown's Good Eats: The Early Years. You'll learn recipes and you'll also learn the science behind cooking. It's also an entertaining cookbook. It has recipes and techniques from his show Good Eats.

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In general, I can recommend every single book written by Jamie Oliver: they all free you from the fear of doing anything wrong, instead he encourages you to try different things to get your own style of cooking.

One book especially written for beginners is Jamie's Food Revolution (Amazon).

I intended to show the cover here but haven't got enough rep

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My suggestion would be to take a good all-purpose cookbook, like Joy or How to Cook Everything, or something like that, then to pick 30 simple recipes that span a range of techniques and ingredients. (Grilled steak, roast chicken, dinner rolls, broccoli with lemon and garlic, black bean chili, chocolate cake, apple pie, white bread, mashed potatoes, waffles, etc.) Then, cook those 30 recipes several times each, until you really understand how variations in time, temperature, ingredients, etc., affect the food. Then find a few variations in other cookbooks. Do Steak Diane, broccoli rabe, pan-roasted potatoes, etc. Same ingredients, different flavors and techniques. After six months or a year, you're probably tired of the same dishes, but pretty good at them, too. At that point, you can probably pick up a random cookbook and use it without too much intimidation.

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I am looking for a cookbook for beginners (including myself) too. What to Cook and How to Cook It is the closest to what I imagine; a lot of step-by-step pictures from top-down perspective. I have not bought the book but its table of content shows basic recipes that everyone should like and want to try.

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If she is even slightly in the technical side of things, I can't recommend Cooking for Geeks highle enough. A beautiful introduction both how and why to hack food.

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