— Jenny Neill

My Top 3 Kitchen Books

Flavors intrigue me. That’s what got me into restaurant work in the first place. I’ve spent much of the past decade learning about and tasting wine in order to pair it with food. It took a little longer for that interest to spur me to experiment with cooking in my own kitchen.

The idea of making something as simple as a salad used to paralyze me with uncertainty. Some of my early forays into making up my own recipes were disasters: mushy pasta, broken sauces and dressings, or entrees with serious seasoning problems. Being around chefs taught me some valuable lessons.

Cooking is not so different from my day job as a freelance writer. Technique matters, of course. Reliance on training and experience helps too. Culinary pros use both to work out how to balance flavors, textures, and the visual appeal of food.

But that’s not all. Like writers need editors, chefs turn to peers and other restaurant staff for feedback when perfecting a new dish. I followed recipes to the letter for a while, only stepping off-script the third or fourth time I made one. Inviting friends over for dinner parties became my way of testing my newly acquired skills.

My top 3 kitchen books

Observing the creative process in commercial kitchens reinforced a principle I first learned long ago: Inspiration comes from many sources.

Most pros have a protein or some produce to use as a starting point, but then what? Chefs do something any home cook can do. They turn to cookbooks and online recipes to get the proverbial juices flowing.

These are the books I use when I want to improvise in the kitchen:

  • Joy of Cooking – The broken spine of my 1997 edition means I may need to retire it soon. I’ll likely replace it with the 75th anniversary version, preferably spiral-bound. Collectors still prize the 1975 printing because it was the last one edited by Marion Rombauer Becker, daughter of Irma Rombauer who originally self-published this book in 1931.
  • The Silver Spoon – First published in 1950 as Il Cucchiaio d’Argento, this tome gathered and passed on the inherited cooking wisdom of the still-young nation of Italy. The English edition became available in 2005 with more than 2,000 regional and contemporary recipes.
  • The Flavor Bible – Not a cookbook per se, I use this reference when getting ready to cook in a similar way to how I use aids like a thesaurus or a word finder when writing.

What are your “most used” cookbooks? What other references, be they a book or a web site, do you turn to for inspiration when cooking?