In the age of the Internet, physical directories can seem like outdated tools. Why clutter your shelves with culinary encyclopedias when you can just do a quick Google search? Well, a quick Google search might suggest slicing strawberries by shaking them in a storage container full of razor blades, here’s why. There are many reliable sources for cooking online (maybe you’re familiar with Epicurious.com?), but it’s up to you to distinguish the good from the bad. And even well-intentioned people tend to post anecdotal, outdated, or incorrect information online in places where readers might not think twice to question it.
Reference books, on the other hand, provide carefully researched, edited, and properly cited information without requiring readers to rely on their own digital fluency to know what’s what. A good reference book not only provides quality information, but is also well organized and easy to navigate. Plus, flipping through a physical reference book, you’re likely to not only find the information you’re looking for, but also find answers to questions you weren’t even looking for. know ask. That’s why so many nerds in our state (myself included) wholeheartedly believe in flipping through weighty tomes.
Here are some of our favorite kitchen guides.
For verbal nerds
Food terms are usually loanwords—words that one language borrows from another (think: chocolate, sushi, or croissant). Copy editors at a food publication are tasked with standardizing the flow of these words as they quickly become integrated into the language, which can be a daunting task. Our editors rely on these two books as the primary source for understanding the language of food.
Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts, 2nd Edition, Sarah R. Labenski, Stephen Labenski, and Gay G. Ingram
A comprehensive dictionary devoted to the language of the culinary arts, this Webster’s volume contains nearly 20,000 entries for products from around the world, names and biographies of famous chefs, definitions of cooking equipment, and even measurements and conversions. This book is currently out of print and lacks some of the latest updates, but as one of the most comprehensive dictionaries on food and cooking, it remains a reliable source.
The Food Lover’s New Companion, 5th Edition, Sharon Tyler Herbst
If you like to read reference materials on the go, The new foodie’s companion contains 7,200 records in mass market paperback format. It’s not as comprehensive as Webster’s, but NFLC is still the best resource for the latest terminology. This is the most modern culinary dictionary of the English language.
The science of cooking
Associate Editor Genevieve Yam has already compiled a great list of kitchen science books, but here are two comprehensive volumes to dive into.
About food and cooking Harold McGee
Why does cream curdle in hot liquids? What fruits continue to ripen after harvest? What is the difference between browning food and burning it? The answers to all these questions, and a huge list of others, can be found in the pages of Harold McGee’s classic guide to food science. This book may captivate you. Cracking it open to find the answer to one question will almost certainly lead you down a rabbit hole of culinary discovery.
Ratio: the simple codes behind the mastery of everyday cooking Michael Ruhlman
Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry is rooted in mathematics, so Michael Ruhlman’s ratio-based approach to culinary understanding makes so much sense. This book breaks down recipes into easy-to-remember proportions, with the ultimate goal of teaching you how to cook and bake successfully without relying on recipe directions.
For beginner cooks
While there’s a lot to learn in culinary school, some of the best minds in the food world are self-taught chefs who have relied on textbooks like these to hone more than just their knife skills.
Professional chef Culinary Institute of America
Once I was 10 years old, who dreamed of studying at a culinary school, I received this book for my birthday. Although I have given up on my plans for culinary school, I still refer to this comprehensive text that details the techniques and craftsmanship taught at the Culinary Institute of America. If you’ve been wanting to learn how the white hats do it, this book has detailed instructions on the basics of European cooking techniques. And by basics, we mean the basics for master chefs, like how to properly debone chickens, lighten consommé, or how to cut carrots into tiny, uniform diamond-shaped pieces.
A classic of all the classic culinary traditions of French cooking, this encyclopedia of terminology and techniques continues to serve as an essential reference for professional chefs. This is the book that Julia Child learned from and contains both encyclopedia articles and over 3,800 recipes. Although initially focused on French cooking, it later expanded to include techniques and terminology from food cultures around the world.
For lovers of different things
Food for the hungry mind, these books are perfect for the inquisitive cook who is interested in improving.
Thesaurus of tastes by Niki Segnit
When she’s not feeling inspired, food editor Kendra Vaculin turns to Niki Segnit’s treatise on taste. Featuring 99 flavors and 4,851 flavor combinations, the book is filled with vivid diagrams and charming anecdotes. It’s a guide that will teach you how to understand and pair flavors, but it’s also just a fascinating read. After reading it, you will no doubt be introduced to flavor combinations that you would never have thought of coming up with on your own. Peanuts and asparagus, anyone?
Encyclopedia of food cultures of the world Ken Albala
This massive four-volume collection examines nutrition through an anthropological lens, covering countries and communities around the world. The records include information about staple foods, typical meals, how people eat out, and meals for special occasions. Rather than attempting to define food cultures through rigid geographic or cultural boundaries, this encyclopedia strives to outline how the culinary customs of different communities merge, adapt, and change through colonization, immigration, and globalization.
Herbs and spices by Jill Norman
Photographs accompany each of the more than 200 spice and herb entries from around the world, with additional images of common varieties (13 types of basil!). The text includes tasting notes, storage recommendations, flavor pairings, recipe suggestions, and basic growing tips. It’s a great visual companion to the more text-heavy tomes on this list.