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Everywhere one turns, one can find cookbooks. So many cookbooks. My kitchen has them piled high. And then, there are millions of recipes (billions?) that have been tested and tried and published online in forums like this.
Your very first cookbook should be a general guide that covers even the simplest techniques (e.g., how to boil an egg), but which shows the building blocks of how to use those skills to do lots of things. Pictures are good! For this, I’d suggest either the The Better Homes and Gardens Plaid Cookbook, or Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. If there is a book that fills the same role that you got used to referencing when you were 5 or 6 years old in mom or dad’s kitchen, that’s the book you want.
Then, there are recipe books on recipe books that will intrigue and tantalize, which step you through a particular cuisine. I have two favorites. One is Ayla Algar’s Classical Turkish Cooking, and the other is Julia Child’s amazing volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I have yet to find a work that comes even close to either of these in the areas of Chinese cooking, Mexican cooking, Japanese cooking, or Indian cooking. Should you find cookbooks in those areas that come close, please let me know. There is a Japanese cooking blog called Cooking with Dog that illustrates some Japanese cooking techniques very well, and an Indian cooking blog called Manjula’s Kitchen that is without compare. Should either Manjula or the unnamed owner of “Francis” (the dog) publish a cookbook, it will get a spot on my shelf.
But even more than recipes, what I find most useful are books that offer general rules and techniques. In particular, I suggest Michael Ruhlman’s wonderful work on the chemistry of cooking (those areas where the proportions have to be just right to make things happen), Ratio. Another book, which serves an entirely different purpose, is a flavoring guide that is a good source for inspiration, and is sort of a color wheel for cooks rather than painters -- Page and Dornenburg’s Flavor Bible.
One more word of advice -- on cookbook bindings. When possible, get spiral bound so that the book can lay flat when you work. For similar reasons, e-books with a good e-book reader do just as well -- and sometimes better (so you can use a search function); besides there are so many good cookbooks available for free as e-books, that you need never want. . . .