Whether you're shopping for someone who just got their first apartment and don't know where to start in the kitchen, a loved one who's trying to cut back on takeout, or just for yourself, there are a ton of beginner-friendly cookbooks out there. Ranging in all kinds of cuisines, you can find a book that'll make whipping up meals from scratch a not-so-intimidating process.
Eating at home is also a noble effort towards living a healthier lifestyle, seeing as restaurants tend to use more oil and salt in their cooking, not to mention frying far more than we often realize. The trouble for many of us lies within our own cooking skills—or lack thereof. If you didn't grow up cooking or have never received an education on the subject, you might be at a loss when it comes to how to navigate a kitchen, or stove for that matter. For this reason, every beginner could benefit from a solid, small collection of good cookbooks.
The 10 best cookbooks for beginners, at a glance:
- Best Overall: How To Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food by Mark Bittman, $21
- Best Photos: Healthyish: A Cookbook with Seriously Satisfying, Truly Simple, Good-For-You (but not too Good-For-You) Recipes for Real Life by Lindsay Maitland Hunt, $16
- Best Illustrations: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, $17
- Best For Quick Recipes: 30-Minute Cookbook For Beginners by Colleen Kennedy, $12
- Best On a Budget: Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown, $11
- Best Vegan: Five Ingredient Vegan: 100 Simple, Fast, Modern Recipes by Katy Beskow, $29
- Best Baking: Beginner's Baking Bible: 130+ Recipes and Techniques for New Bakers by Heather Perine, $13
- Best Textbook: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee, $23
- Best For College Students: Prep: The Essential College Cookbook by Katie Sullivan Morford, $12
- Best On a Mediterranean Diet: The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day, $19
“Sure, there are plenty of recipes online, but the recipes that make it into a book are often more rigorously tested—and simply more likely to work in your own kitchen,” explains Annie Fenn, M.D., physician and chef focused on Alzheimer’s prevention. Plus, having a physical book means you get to dog-ear the pages, write notes in the margins, and use it as a tool as you learn. Also, physical cookbooks just make a really lovely gift.
What to look for in a cookbook for beginners
On your quest to find the right cookbook to help educate and inspire you to cook your own meals at home, here are some features to look for.
This is one feature of a cookbook that often attracts most buyers—and for good reason. “You can study a lot about a dish by looking at it, such as the texture of sauce, the color and brightness of a finished product, etc.,” explains Josh Mouzakes, Executive Chef of ARLO at Town and Country Resort in San Diego. “I love being able to see what my final dish should look like and, let's face it, you eat with your eyes first!”
Clear and concise instructions
You shouldn't find yourself confused upon reading the instructions for a given recipe, so it’s important that recipes have streamlined ingredient lists and clear instructions. “For example, when describing whether or not a certain step of cooking is done, there should be useful descriptions (like: when the mushrooms are soft and starting to brown) as well as time indicators (five to eight minutes),” says Fenn.
Substitutions and suggestions
Chef Jeanne Oleksiak of Herd Provisions in Charleston, South Carolina, recommends looking for recipes that have substitution suggestions. “Depending on location, you might not be able to find specialty ingredients in your local market, but a good cookbook will give you options of more readily available ingredients,” she says.
A reassuring voice
If the author has a reassuring (i.e. kind and understanding—maybe funny even!) voice, it will help you build confidence in the kitchen, according to Fenn. “One of the reasons Ina Garten's books are so popular is the encouraging way she speaks to the reader—plus, her recipes are clear, concise, and they work!” she says. “She is fanatic about testing and retesting them.”
Ready to shop the best cookbooks for beginners? Here are the books top chefs recommend posting up on your kitchen shelf.
This book was written more than 20 years ago, but still remains incredibly popular because it’s well-written, constructed and organized and full of vibrant pictures. “The cookbook is jam-packed with simple instructions and an introduction of fundamental cooking methods,” says Corrie Duffy, chef and food blogger at Corrie Cooks. “The enhanced ingredient lists and helpful visual guidance in this 20th anniversary edition give you greater choice.”
If you’re a foodie who also wants to try and eat healthy, this book is for you. As you can see by the beautiful pictures, it shares a plethora of mouth-watering recipes that are easy to prepare and good for you to boot. “In the introduction, Maitland spells out the bones of what makes a recipe work: It’s efficient, there aren’t any extraneous ingredients, and/or it’s a smarter, faster, easier version of a recipe that already exists,” says Fenn. “Plus, a well-thought-out recipe uses fewer pots and pans so you won’t have a sink full of dirty dishes.” Fenn is especially a fan of the Soups chapter (i.e. Red Lentil Soup with Cilantro-Lime Yogurt and Miso Chicken Noodle Soup)!
You won’t find any real-life pictures in this cookbook, but you will find your fair share of illustrations—pretty impressive ones created by the likes of Wendy MacNaughton. It breaks down basic cooking into four fundamental ingredients of cooking—salt, fat, acid, and heat. “Through the use of illustrated walkthroughs and 100 important dishes, the cookbook bridges the gap between home kitchens and commercial kitchens,” says Duffy.
Best for quick recipes
If one of the reasons you have hesitated to cook all these years is the time in which it takes to do so, you’ll appreciate this cookbook that centers around 30-minute recipes. “It’s a dependable (and delicious) introduction [to] beginner’s cookbooks that will assist you in learning all the fundamental cooking methods, from panfrying to broiling,” says Duffy. “Additionally, it offers helpful advice on how to purchase wisely, maintain food safety, and save time by using shortcuts that enable you to prepare every recipe in 30 minutes or less.”
Best on a budget
OK—while eating well on $4 a day might be a challenge in 2022 (thanks to inflation, it might be more like $5-$7), this cookbook will still help you save some serious cash while eating delicious and nutritious meals. It includes more than 100 dishes, ranging from chorizo and white bean rag to vegetable jambalaya, spicy pulled pork to barley risotto with peas, and utilizes each ingredient while demonstrating cost-effective cooking techniques, explains Duffy. “There are recipes for huge batch meals, soups and salads, lunches, snacks, and even sweets like gooey, caramelized bananas that are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside,” he says.
If you live a vegan lifestyle, or are looking to become more plant-based in your culinary endeavors, this book is a great starting point to help educate you on the ins and outs of cooking without meat-based ingredients. From soups and salads to suppers and sweets, author Katy Bsekow takes readers through an easy tutorial of vegan cooking and incorporates recipes that are cost-effective creations (while also being palate-pleasing).
If baking is more of your thing than cooking, this is a great cookbook to help you get started. From sweet delights like red velvet layer cake and Key lime pie to more savory finds like jalapeño-cheddar biscuits, this baking book does an excellent job breaking down the how-tos, emphasizing the importance of measuring correctly and providing clear and concise directions along the way.
Although this book is less of a cookbook and more of the science behind cooking, professional chefs who run some of the most famous restaurants in the U.S. swear by it. “I am the chef I am because of this book,” says Oleksiak. “It explains things like why salt is important, and how to use it effectively; why baking powder makes something rise and what to substitute in a pinch; how to achieve the best steak you’ve ever eaten; and how to save a dish that got way too spicy.”
Best for college students
As the title of this book suggests, this is a great starter book for college students looking to harness the power of their own cooking; but it can truly be for anyone new to the kitchen who wants to whip up really good, easy meals. It’s written by a registered dietitian, so it includes smart advice about how to use healthy ingredients. “There are tips about shopping on a budget while choosing the most planet-friendly foods—and a foundational cooking skill is covered in each of the 10 chapters,” says Fenn.
Best for a Mediterranean diet
If you’re following the Mediterranean Diet, which focuses on foods high in healthy fats like omega-3s, as well as fish, fruits, veggies, grains and legumes, this is a great cookbook for you. It includes more than 500, innovative and easy-to-make recipes and is science-backed health info. “Bright flavors and easily accessible ingredients from the area make this dish at its finest, healthy, delicious, and surprisingly simple,” adds Duffy.
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