Like me, there are probably a lot people on here that have a lot of cookbooks, but I find I keep coming back to the same 1 or 2 books to give me the basis of most of the stuff I cook.
Favorite? Probably not, but if I had to limit it to one cookbook, I'd use The Best Recipe. It's a 1000 page tome with most everything you want to know how to cook. The reason I love the book though, is their approach. For each recipe, they gather a bunch of different recipes and then make them all, figure out what they like and don't, change the recipes, make them again, etc. until they find the "best" recipe. The fascinating thing about the book is that they document all this along with the recipe, so you can figure out not just how to make a dish, but why you're doing it a certain way. That knowledge, gleaned mostly from this book, is what allowed me to step beyond following a recipe and actually start to cook and be creative in the kitchen.
Also, I would NOT get The French Laundry book. That is not a Tuesday night, throw something together kind of a book. If you want a Keller book, get Ad Hoc at Home. It is by far his most accessible book. But even that wouldn't qualify as a bible for your kitchen. Note: I'm not saying The French Laundry book isn't good, just that it doesn't meet the standard of the question.
My preference is On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Understanding the basics behind how things cook helps with making substitutions or alterations in recipes.
I can't believe no one has mentioned either of these: (my kids and I are suckers for pictures)
- Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book - great hardback / binder style
- Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook - mix of the old-fashioned and modern
I inherited a Betty Crocker preference from a really old book given to me by my grandma, bless her soul. And, Better is a great little variety book, perhaps targeted more for beginners; the kids love looking through this one in the afternoon now and again, to help decide that great age-old question: "What's for dinner?"
The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, aka. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, but about the only time I check a cookbook is for baking, so this one comes out each year for christmas cookies, and when I feel like making bread.
Years ago I read How to Cook Without a Book, and I tend to be like @Fredrik, and check Google pretty often, although I also have a collection well over 100 cookbooks that I've gotten over the years. (I volunteer at my library processing donated books for sale, so I get the opportunity to snag anything interesting for $1; plus my grandmother's collection from when she moved into a nursing home, and I browse used book stores when I travel)
Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery is the one cookbook I would take with me to a desert island. Ok, maybe a desert island with a good organic greengrocer and butchers...
Perfect to find out exactly how to cook whatever classically; I seldom follow it to the letter, but always check it to find out the important basics.
Out of all the cook books, the one I keep coming back to is the book my mum bought me when I got married 20 years ago.
The book is Leith's Cookery Bible, and I like it because it covers a good sampling of different cuisines, recipes and cooking styles. There are a ton of basic recipes that you will make time and time again.
Seriously one of the best cookbooks I've ever used. I almost always turn to it when I'm hosting a dinner party. The recipes are amazing and cover a very broad base - from cooking the "Perfect fried eggs" to "Beef bourguignon".
We bought it a two-pack with:
The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book: Essential Recipes for Today's Home Baker
Which is also the best baking book I've ever used - hands down.
The best vegetarian cookbook my wife and I have ever seen. We've made over 40 recipes from this book and are impressed every single time.
From Three-Sisters Burritos (filled with butternut squish, pinto beans & cilantro) to Audrey's deluxe Mac & Cheese (with pine nut crust) this book is a winner!
Essentials of Cooking By J. Peterson
I have the french version, named 'L'ABC de l'art Culinaire'
It explains all the basic stuff, as how to cut vegetables, clean fish, poultry and the different cooking techniques, goes quite advanced sometimes as how to smoke your salmon etc...
It's not a recipe book, there are some, but it learns you so much more!
If you are just looking for a good source for recipies then Leith's Cookery Bible is probably one of the best sources. It covers almost every cuisine type, has over 1400 recipies and is simply written as a cook book. Well recommended.
anything by the CIA
Best Recipes: From the backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Jars. It's just what it sounds like -- recipes from packaging.
The Guardian just put out a list of the "top 50 best cookbooks of all time". They'll soon add the final 10, but the first 40 are there now.
Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I use this book so often, the pages are coming loose from the binding. (What ever happened to lay-flat bindings, anyway?)
I agree with a number of the suggestions here, but I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Starting With Ingredients yet - it's a wonderful book for folks like me who find something particularly interesting at market, take it home, and then try and decide what to do with it. And while it's not a cookbook, I'm a big fan of The Flavor Bible as both sanity check and inspiration for various bits of improvisation ('hmmm, I'm going to be doing something with this. What are the core flavors to go with? Oooh, that'll work...')
The cookbook I use more than any other is The Cook's Companion, which is a distinctly Australian book (covers ingredients found and grown here, etc) but there's no reason why it wouldn't be useful elsewhere in the world.
As far as baking biscuits and cakes goes, there's no way I can go past the Country Women's Association (CWA) cookbook. Again an Australian creation, and it can't be found on Amazon, but it's the tome of English-style baking in Australia.
Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater.
It has a great section on building a pantry of items that will let you make a variety of quick, delicious meals. Then, of course, it goes on to give you recipes for some such things. I've given this one as a present multiple times.
My favorite cookbook of all time and the one I've been returning to for a decade is Extending The Table.
At one point I owned about fifteen or eighteen feet of bookshelves filled with cookbooks, plus a couple of crates of Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. When I found SOAR (searchable online archive of recipes), I got rid of all of it except for seven books:
Bruce Cost's Book of Chinese Ingredients Chinese Gastronomy by Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsui Feng Lin Taste of the East, by Deh-Ta Hsiang, Rafi Fernandez, and Steven Wheeler Diana Kennedy's Cuisine of Mexico Joy of Cooking and two spiral bound "fundraiser cookbooks, one on Sonoran cooking and one by a Colorado church on pioneer recipes.