I'm a decent cook but I know that there are huge gaps in my knowledge of the fundamentals of cooking. I assume that aspiring chefs learn a great deal of this in culinary school but I was hoping that there might be a book or resource for explaining not only the "hows" of making things like a good mayonnaise but also the "whys".

So is there a book or cookbook thats considered best in class for the basics of cooking?

  • Should be a community wiki since everyone might have a different opinion on which book is the 'best' book.
    – Kyra
    Sep 3, 2010 at 17:05
  • @Kyra: Please flag for Mod Attn instead of commenting. (new approach) Thanks. :)
    – hobodave
    Sep 3, 2010 at 17:15

2 Answers 2


I find that anything Cooks Illustrated puts out usually has a decent list of "whys" and have been garnering them up over the years. Unfortunately this can leave you something of a specialist with deep knowledge on whatever their articles cover, but if you want to learn the why of something, they are a great source.

For baking in particular Ratio is an excellent book.

  • Cooks illustrated is great. The Best Recipe is the book that really taught me how to cook with all their discussion of why and not just how.
    – yossarian
    Sep 3, 2010 at 18:22

Harold McGee - "On Food and Cooking"

  • While this is a wonderful book, I worry that it may confuse or intimidate the novice cook who isn't ready for the details that McGee gives.
    – Martha F.
    Sep 3, 2010 at 17:17
  • @Martha - I originally bought the book 10 years ago as a "novice". And Brett said that he is already a decent cook. So, I think it fits his question well.
    – wdypdx22
    Sep 3, 2010 at 17:24
  • @wdypdx22 Okay. I withdraw my reservation. (I wasn't sure, so I didn't down-vote -- just comment.)
    – Martha F.
    Sep 3, 2010 at 17:42
  • 1
    This book is fascinating, but I think it's a bit too sciencey and abstract to directly apply to the kitchen in most cases. I recently heard an interview with McGhee where he admitted this, which is why he's got a new book coming out. The new book looks like it would probably answer this question. amazon.com/Keys-Good-Cooking-Making-Recipes/dp/1594202680/…
    – yossarian
    Sep 3, 2010 at 18:21
  • Phenomenal book, and I think everyone who has an interest in a deep understanding of how cooking works should have it, but I also agree it isn't necessarily the technique book that @justkt might have in mind. Looking forward to his new book. Sep 3, 2010 at 20:49

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