Inspired by Megan McArdle’s recommendations, I decided to put up a post about some of my favorite cookbooks. (I know I haven’t done much food-blogging in the past few weeks, but our digital camera took an untimely fall a couple of months ago. And a recipe without a photo is like creme brulée without the hard sugar crust. Speaking of which, I finally bought a propane torch! If I can get serviceable photos off my new cell phone, I’ll do a brulée post soon.)

On to the cookbooks.

1) Joy of Cooking

This has been a staple in my family’s kitchens for a long time. I love it. It’s packed with basic techniques, and canonical recipes for just about any dish you can imagine. It’s a great reference and a great place to find inspiration. I like Betty Crocker, but I prefer The Joy. Every kitchen needs a “go-to” cookbook for the basics, and this is mine.

2) The Professional Chef

I know this one is a stretch for the home cook, but I love it. It’s the core textbook used at the Culinary Institute of America. It’s not just a collection of recipes, it’s a textbook on how to cook. There’s no great prose, but there is a wealth of information. (Most of the recipes are designed for a professional kitchen, so I use them as guides only. I don’t often make soup to serve 20.)

3) The Larousse Gastronomique

The definitive reference cookbook. It’s literally an encyclopedia. Entries are arranged alphabetically, going from (in my older 1988 edition) abaisse to zuppa Inglese. (a sheet of rolled-out pastry and sponge cake soaked in Kirsch.) The new edition has expanded coverage of world cuisine but the focus is still on French and continental cooking.

4) The Sauce Bible

It’s, well, it’s the sauce Bible. It’s also another book intended for a professional audience. Like The Professional Chef, the recipes are designed for professional kitchens and the quantities can be… large. But I wanted it for technique, history, and culinary education and it delivers on each of those.

5) The Splendid Table

This is my favorite non-reference cookbook. It’s a culinary tour through Northern Italy. This is one to get for the recipes. From a grand Tortellini pie, to a simple pasta with balsamic vinegar, to a Brodetto that continues to amaze me, this is a fabulous cookbook. Kaspar has a wonderful style, and this is a great one to read too. Just a great book.

6) My Mexico

This is a new cookbook, given to me by my wonderful friends, Adam and Elina, as a wedding present. I still haven’t gotten though all of it, this is a cookbook to read. It’s just great food-writing. Some of the recipes (like the one for banana vinegar) can be a little daunting, but I think they’ll be well worth the effort. I haven’t tried to make the banana vinegar yet because I’m sure Jamie won’t be pleased with me leaving 4 pounds of bananas to rot in a bowl for 3 weeks….

7) ?????

I have a bunch of other good cookbooks, but none others that I’m sure are truly great cookbooks. And in some cases, I really like my cookbooks, but I’d love to see more. That’s particularly true when it comes to styles of food. For exampe, I have Creole Feast, and it’s great. The recipes are fantastic. But there are no photos, and there’s very little on technique or history. Truly great cookbooks give you recipes, teach you the history of the dish, and bring you into someone else’s kitchen to see it made. I love Creole Feast, but I don’t think it’s the definitive New Orleans cookbook. I’m still looking for that.

There are other great cookbooks I’m searching for. For example, I haven’t yet found the ultimate Thai cookbook, or the great New Mexican cookbook. I haven’t found the perfect English cookbook either. Ok… so some searches may take longer than others. But I’m still searching, and that’s where the fun is.

Cookbooks are great because they’re read and re-read. They’re books you thumb through again and again. They’re books that are used, and if they’re good, used often. My favorite fiction is dog-eared. But my favorite cookbooks are worn, beaten, and broken.

A great cookbook has torn pages, pages that stick together, pages that are stained with the recipe they describe. The jackets are loose and the spine is broken Often intentionally; a cookbook should lay flat on the counter! In some of my cookbooks I know where my favorite recipes are because the book falls open naturally to those pages.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Have a recommendation?