Our Top 12 Cookbook Workhorses


"Our Cookbooks" Series

Part of an occasional series about what cookbooks we use (and why we use them), plus volumes we're drooling after.

Of the 28 cookbooks in our house, we regularly use 12. These are our "workhorse" cookbooks, the go-to references and inspiration that we turn to daily in our kitchen. But what makes them so important to us and to how we cook?

Our Top 12 Cookbook Workhorses

These aren't in any particular order, other than how they were arranged on the shelf when I made the list.

  • Baan Thai Cookbook
  • Eating Close to Home, by Elin Kristina England ( here's my review of this cookbook)
  • Would You? by Betty Wagner (my great-aunt)
  • Hershey's Homemade
  • Recipe Binder from Laurie Danenberg, Jodie's Mom
  • Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois
  • Keo's Thai Cuisine, Revised, by Keo Sananikone
  • How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
  • The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider
  • Cooking Light, Annual Recipes, 2004
  • Cooking Light, Annual Recipes, 2006
  • The Big Purple Binder

3 Reasons Why These Are Our Most Essential Cookbooks

Everyone's cooking style varies. Like any other cook, our kitchen setup of tools, references, storage, etc., reflects we work. The same goes for how we decided that these 12 volumes are always nearby. But what makes these cookbooks so essential to how we work in the kitchen?

  • Family & Tradition: Family recipes that are just as good for the soul as they are the stomach
  • General Cooking & Specific Cuisines: Our workhorse cookbooks explain general techniques and tips on ingredients, while also giving us fine detail on specific cuisines or areas of cooking, such as bread-baking or Thai food
  • Favorite Cuisines: We've tried to find cookbooks that are specific to our favorite foods

Here's how these each break down for our 12 workhorse cookbooks.

Baan Thai Cookbook, from Baan Thai Cooking School, Chiang Mai, Thailand
In 2003, I reveled in the tastes and sights of Thailand. To this day, Chiang Mai is one of my favorite cities, in part due to the 2-day cooking class I took at Baan Thai Cooking School. From grinding curry paste from scratch to deep-frying red bananas (the only way I'll eat bananas, actually), I learned a great deal about the fundamentals of Thai food. Now one of my favorite cuisines to cook, my wee, string-bound Baan Thai cookbook is my go-to for whipping up Thai dishes. Want one? Go to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and take a Baan Thai cooking course!

Eating Close to Home: A Guide to Local Seasonal Sustenance in the Pacific Northwest (see my previous review of this cookbook)
Organized by season — and with a handy in-season guide to buying produce at different times of year in the Willamette Valley — Eating Close to Home inspires me every time I flip through it. Just the other night, I started flipping through the summer and fall sections, and the next night whipped up some fab tabbouli with bulgur wheat, lentils and fresh basil.

Would You? by Betty Wagner (my great-aunt)
Back in Virginia, my Great-Aunt Betty was a heckuva cook. In this Southern, country-style cookbook that she put together in 1993, Betty talks about how friends and family often would ask her for this or that recipe, or for advice on a specific dish. I never knew about her cookbook until a few years ago, when I was visiting my mom and she took a copy out of a drawer. She decided to give it to me, knowing I'd probably use it more than she did. This cookbook is part sentiment, and most of the recipes I wouldn't exactly make as-is, given the amounts of fat many call for. But for some food — such as Aunt Betty's sausage gravy — if you aren't going to go Southern-style, you might as well just eat cereal.

Hershey's Homemade
Jodie's had this for years, and it's one of our favorite cookbooks for sweets. We've never gone wrong with a cookie or brownie or other sweet deliciousness made from this book's recipes.

Recipe Binder from Laurie Danenberg, Jodie's Mom
There are foods you cook not only for their nutrition or their depth of flavor — some you cook because a recipe from your mom always contains and is enhanced by her love and your memory of her. My mother-in-law, Laurie, is at least as good a cook as she is a mom and mother-in-law. As Jodie grew up and began going her own way in life, Laurie made sure Jodie had some good recipes to take with her. This binder is also in part blank slate — Laurie put in lots of empty pages too, so Jodie could add her own recipes. From "Fusilli with Artichoke Hearts and Parmesan Cream" and "Meatball Soup," to "Gold Bars" and quite possibly the only chicken salad I will eat, we often turn to this little binder for some appetite-pleasing, soul-satisfying grub.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking (see my previous review of this cookbook)
Our go-to bread book. Frankly, I don't know that I'll ever bother baking any other bread recipes again. Until finding this book in 2009, I considered bread either (1) cheap crap empty of flavor and full of stuff I didn't want to eat, (2) expensive stuff to buy that went stale before we could finish a loaf, or (3) a time-consuming, over-laborious pain in the tuckus that I had neither the time or the inclination to be bothered with on a regular basis. Artisan Bread in 5 changed all that. We bake bread multiple times a week, thanks to these yummy, versatile, easy, multi-loaf, long-lasting recipes.

Keo's Thai Cuisine
As much as I love the Baan Thai Cookbook, in part for its sentimental and souvenir value, I've come to love Keo's Thai Cuisine even more. A Christmas gift from Jodie's grandma, Keo's builds on what I've learned from Baan Thai, presents a vast array of dishes, yet still keeps it simple on ingredients and process. This is one of the things I love most about Thai cuisine, and Keo's embodies it — the range of flavors and textures you can get, from a not-large range of ingredients never ceases to fascinate me. Recipes in our Keo's have become some of our favorite Thai dishes, including Jodie's favorite, "Evil Jungle Prince with Chicken".

How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food
My dear friend (and cake goddess) Carla Brindle turned me on to this cookbook during a visit to Virginia a few years back. I was interested in a comprehensive volume, and Bittman's Everything remains possibly my most favorite cookbook. From Bittman I unlocked not just how to cook beans, but how to make them amazing. I learned to bake Irish soda bread, and to sizzle up amazing "Steak au Poivre (Pan-Seared Steak with Red Wine Sauce)". Whenever we are trying to get ideas for a dish or specific ingredient, How to Cook Everything is what I take down first and what I put up last.

 The Improvisational Cook
If How to Cook Everything is the our first-grab cookbook, The Improvisational Cook comes down right after. I love recipes, but I also love understanding proportion, combination, and free-form cooking. Improv has recipes, but its focus is first and foremost to get you thinking. Have this ingredient but not that one? Here's how you can adapt. Something go awry and a dish not come out quite to spec? OK — think of what you can do to salvage it… and still turn out an amazing bit o' nosh. I'm also quite fond of Schneider's vinaigrette notes — and the oven-baked fries are as versatile as they are delectable. Even better? The Resources section includes "A Guide to Classic Flavor Affinities", listing typical seasoning combinations of the world's major cuisines.

Cooking Light, Annual Recipes, 2004 and Cooking Light, Annual Recipes, 2006
Cooking seasonally is something we really enjoy, not only for the better taste and affordability that comes with eating what's in season, but also because it jives with what we're hungry for. In addition to the seasonal organization of Eating Close to Home, we turn to our two Cooking Light books because not only are they organized by month, but Cooking Light's features and recipes often (not always, but often) coincide with what's fresh now. Our Cooking Light books also help keep our cooking versatile, giving us ideas when we're in a rut. During fall and winter, we'll even sit down with the Cooking Light books, a pad of paper and two pens, and just make a list of what we might cook during the coming month.

The Big Purple Binder
Or, the miscellany. Cookbooks are wonderful, but they are not all there is to cooking. There will always be the unbound recipes — the printout from a website, the newspaper clipping, page after page snipped from Sunset magazine, the random card slipped to you by a friend with an amazing recipe for this or that. Some of these are things you want to try, someday. Sometimes it's a special recipe, made only on a certain occasion. Whatever the reason, it helps to have a home for these miscellaneous recipes too. That's why we set up our Big Purple Binder, an accordion file that Jodie found cheap at an office supply store one day. It's tabbed for the following:

  • Jan-Feb-Mar / Winter-Spring
  • Apr-May-June / Spring
  • July-Aug-Sept / Summer
  • Oct-Nov-Dec / Fall-Winter
  • Asian & Latino
  • Soups, Stews & Chilis
  • Meat, Poultry & Seafood
  • Veggies
  • Desserts & Baking
  • Appetizers, Condiments & Misc
  • Instructions & Manuals

Let There Be Cooking

There you have it. Our dozen workhorse cookbooks reflect who we are as people, and how we like to cook. They comprise our favorite foods, things we want to try, where we go for cooking inspiration, and where we turn whenever we're wondering about this or that. They are part of the joy of our kitchen, the joy of our table, and going through any of them, any time, is as much an adventure as it is research or meal planning.

What's Next?

Our Cookbooks is an occasional series on Antsaint. Upcoming posts include other cookbooks we use, cookbooks we're drooling after, and reviews of individual volumes. What are your favorite cookbooks?

2 thoughts on “Our Top 12 Cookbook Workhorses”

  1. Smoke & Spice by Cheryl and bill Jamison…If you want to really BARBECUE than this is the book to start with! Rubs, sauces, side dishes, and of course MEAT, Yummmmmmmmm.
    Fannie Farmer Cookbook…a good basic book that I return to time and again for my little cooking lessons.
    Bruce Aidell’s Complete Sausage Book…I was looking to make my own, and have fun with my KitchenAide Mixer & attachments. Yummy, and I know what is going INTO my sausage!

  2. I am happy to see The Improvisational Cook in your top twelve. I recently pulled my copy off the shelf and improvised some fantastic creamy tomato soup and a caramelized onion and gruyere tart. One of the books I am drooling over right now is Bouchon by Thomas Keller. Kippis!!!


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