Perhaps my question is too weird, but whenever I read a book on cooking, it's just a list full of recipes. There are a lot of examples but there are no explicit laws or general principles of cooking - here I must admit that I don't browse this kind of books often, so perhaps this is pretty common and I still didn't have the luck to find them.

In the cooking books I've looked, as I said earlier, there are a lot of examples. So one must practice a lot to learn how to improvise or change or invent. I'd like to know about principles from scratch - examples are welcome, but the principles are more important than the examples (in my search).

  • 2
    There's a lot of good, very similar information here: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/9657/… Some of the more practically-focused resources there may help answer your question.
    – logophobe
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 14:47
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    It doesn't fit into the other question's 'Science' theme, but if you're looking for general techniques for cooking, then Mastering the Art of French Cooking is really excellent (and probably the related books for other cuisines from that question as well). If I have some time tonight, I'll turn this into an answer and quote some of the more general techniques described.
    – Dacio
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 18:08
  • probably your best bet is some book about organic chemistry & cooking, usually you step up after you can grasp the basic ideas behind the chemical reactions that happen behind the scenes, but this also requires time, a lot of time. Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 22:13
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    This is the type of question that tends to look like a close-candidate, but I think it's a good one for this topic: I have the exact same frustration all the time when a recipe says something like "now clean and quarter the crocodile using the traditional French technique."
    – Jaydles
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 18:30
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    @Jaydles: That's the kind of question that should be asked here, rather than referring people to a book. I think 10+ answers is plenty, several are being duplicated and everybody is interpreting the question differently. It's a perfectly reasonable recommendation request, but it is a recommendation request and not a good Q&A fit.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 3:44

11 Answers 11


The best resource for this kind of questions is On Food and Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen, by Harold McGee. It's best described as 'a cookbook without recipes', even though there are a couple of them in there.

It has several sections and describes in detail what various foodstuffs contain and how they are affected by different cooking methods. For example, there's a chapter on Bread, which goes through the whole process from kneading the dough to the crumb going stale.

It's very thorough, but also very readable. (I have read both the 1984 and 2004 editions cover-to-cover, and I don't think I'm the only one...)

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    +1, and also check out McGee's more recent book Keys to Good Cooking, which I appreciate as a more contemporary and "science-y" companion to OFaC; I didn't see this book ref'd in answers here or the other linked questions.
    – hoc_age
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:12
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    Good point, @hoc_age. I can't put my finger on why, but for some reason I found 'Keys' to be less readable than OFaC. (Maybe I have to read it again.)
    – Popup
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:16
  • OFaC and KtGC are indeed different animals, and I see why OFaC is more popular and approachable, yet unfortunately can't articulate why I prefer KtGC... Both are on my shelf but I cannot argue that both are necessary. It is (one of) my life's ambition(s) to read both cover-to-cover. :) I think I shall dust one off tonight...
    – hoc_age
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:29
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    After asking myself this same question a few years ago and looking around online, I bought the 2004 OFaC. It is an interesting book and while I don't regret it, as a caveat, it is essentially encyclopaedic in form, and the bulk is really about food more so than cooking. You get a lot of history, some science, and bits of practical knowledge. There's still a substantial amount of practical cooking stuff, but again, it is embedded in an encyclopaedia about food. Worthwhile, but it would be nice to learn if there are similarly serious but less weighty, more focussed works around. (+1)
    – goldilocks
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 15:11
  • For example: If you wanted to know more about different kinds of cheese, what makes them different, what they are usually used for, etc., this is a great resource. However, if you wanted to actually make cheese, you won't learn that from this book. In that sense it's a great companion (you can always find plenty of "how to make cheese" stuff online...).
    – goldilocks
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 15:15

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman.

This book is a guide to creating recipes that work. It's not a cookbook in the sense that it is full of recipes, it's a tool you can use to create your own.

When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.

Ratios are the starting point from which a thousand variations begin.

Ratios are the simple proportions of one ingredient to another. Biscuit dough is 3:1:2—or 3 parts flour, 1 part fat, and 2 parts liquid. This ratio is the beginning of many variations, and because the biscuit takes sweet and savory flavors with equal grace, you can top it with whipped cream and strawberries or sausage gravy. Vinaigrette is 3:1, or 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, and is one of the most useful sauces imaginable, giving everything from grilled meats and fish to steamed vegetables or lettuces intense flavor.

Cooking with ratios will unchain you from recipes and set you free. With thirty-three ratios and suggestions for enticing variations, Ratio is the truth of cooking: basic preparations that teach us how the fundamental ingredients of the kitchen—water, flour, butter and oils, milk and cream, and eggs—work. Change the ratio and bread dough becomes pasta dough, cakes become muffins become popovers become crepes.

It's the only "cookbook" I consult regularly.

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    Ruhlman is great. I had some questions about some things in one of his books (bread) so I emailed him. He responded in 5 min. Email conversation thereafter over the next 24 hrs. Ratio is one of my recommended reads too.
    – Michael E.
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 2:19
  • @MichaelE. That is great to hear. It's very nice when an author communicates so readily with readers.
    – Jolenealaska
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 2:22

Perhaps my question is too weird

This is a perfectly sensible question.

but whenever I read a book on cooking, it's just a list full of recipes. There are a lot of examples but there are no explicit laws or general principles of cooking

The Joy of Cooking begins each section of recipes with a short essay describing in general the characteristics of the food and preparation technique. The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook has a section called "why this recipe works" that describes the underlying principles. You might also enjoy watching the TV show produced by the same people who do Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen; they also go into detail about how to vary a recipe to produce a particular effect.


CookWise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking

Pretty great book that gets into the science and underlying explanations of what you're actually doing when you put all those ingredients together and apply heat in various ways.

The book helps you get an intuitive understanding of the cooking process, rather than blindly following the directions of a recipe.


One book that you may want to consider is 'How to Cook Without a Book'. It covers many cooking techniques, and suggestions on how you can mix things up by varying the ingredients.

Chapters include (not exhaustive):

  • One Easy Formula, Many Supper Soups
  • The Big Fat Omelette
  • The Big and Bigger Fritatta
  • Pasta with Vegetables
  • Weeknight Stir-Fries
  • If You've Made One Sauté, You've Made Them All
  • If You Can Sauté, You Can Sear.

She had follow-up book, Cook without a Book: Meatless Meals.


Another good 'not exactly a cookbook' would be Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks. It does have a few hundred recipes in it, but it also has lots of info about selecting ingredients, how to deal with cooking mistakes, etc.


In addition to the McGee classic mentioned in @Popup's answer (which I also highly recommend) the recent Cook's Illustrated The Science of Good Food is another excellent book full of scientific and historical explanations of the HOW and also the WHY of cooking. It's also an enjoyable read.

In the more classic just-recipes style, my old copies of The Joy of Cooking and (especially) The Fannie Farmer Cookbook both contain solid explanatory sections at the beginning of each chapter of the book. They're less "this is what's happening on a chemical level and why" and a bit more folk wisdom-y, but include solid advice and good explanations of why one method or mix of ingredients is preferable. "This combination yields this result, this other combination or technique yields this other result" sort of info. Very useful.


Julia Childs "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is a great way to learn, but it really should be called "How to cook anything using every pot in your kitchen"

I really liked Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook. He berates you like any professional chef would, but I learned SO MUCH. Wholly written chapters on the basics and best practices of cooking, followed by recipes to practice each skill.

The most I learned about cooking was from "Good Eats", it's science meets food.


The old standard for this is "The Joy of Cooking"; it is full of recipes, but also has large amounts of explanatory text that talk about each type of cooking. Personally, I think it is the first cookbook every westerner should buy when they leave home.


Rouxbe.com is not a book but rather an online course with detailed videos. The site is very much focused on techniques and principles rather than specific recipes. They explain the scientific or practical reasons for choosing their techniques, and explain how you can choose different techniques to get different results. Since it's in video form it's easy for them to illustrate what they mean. (Things are explained at the beginner/layman level; this is not in the genre of molecular gastronomy.)

I had the same experience as the OP and found Rouxbe to be the most helpful resource. However, membership is several hundred dollars so it is kind of expensive.


le repertoire de la cuisine,(I still have my 1964 original) also Larousse Gastronomique both in english. are a good start, martin

  • HUGE LACK OF PICTURES THROUGHOUT. Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 7:51
  • When I was in culinary school in the 1980's the Larousse book was a required to have textbook
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 13:03

Molecular Gastronomy is a good book that goes into the why's and why-not's of cooking, attempting to dispel the superstition that is too frequent among cooks (both professional and amateur). It's not nearly as comprehensive as Harold McGee's book, but it's worth a read.

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