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Seven Frugal Cookbook Recommendations for Getting Started on Inexpensive Cooking at Home

On The Simple Dollar, I’ve often written about my love for cookbooks. My friends and family know about this and often give me cookbooks as gifts for the holidays, which means I’ve actually reached a point where my cookbooks fill up a small bookshelf and I have to be selective about what I keep and what I pass along to others.

I enjoy several kinds of cookbooks for various reasons. I like ones that have a lot of basic recipes I can trust and modify. I like ones that are reference works for ingredients and equipment, like lists of spices that go well together. I also really like ones that focus on technique. And I like ones that are focused on “framework recipes,” where you can kind of fill in the blanks with what you have on hand. The only ones I generally don’t like are ones that are just collections of complicated recipes without any sort of theme or pattern; I can do without them. A cookbook should either answer a question very quickly, show me how to do something or inspire me to try something new that builds upon what I already know — and ideally do more than one of those things.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to read many, many cookbooks and evaluate which ones really worked well for me as well as ones I’d suggest to others in specific situations. A few years ago, I shared a list of my current cookbooks, and more recently I touched on this a bit in a reader mailbag answer. I felt like it was time to come back to this topic and see what has changed.

Here are seven cookbooks that I recommend from the perspective that they genuinely helped me become more frugal and flexible in the kitchen. I still use most of these for reference, even after cooking at home for years and years and preparing a wide variety of things. Beyond these, I tend to collect cookbooks that are about techniques and preparations of very specific things, like books on making fermented foods or an entire cookbook about egg preparation. Online, my go-to website for cooking information is Serious Eats; the information I find there counterbalances what I find in my cookbooks.

Let’s get started.

My default cookbook recommendation for everyone is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.

If I were to recommend a single cookbook to someone who was just getting started with cooking at home, or a single simple reference cookbook for a home kitchen, I’d choose How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.

This cookbook deals with most of the common meals people might prepare for themselves or their families in a typical American home kitchen, starting from an assumption that you know almost nothing about cooking at all. The early pages walk through some of the most essential kitchen skills that everyone should have, folding those skills directly into very simple recipes like scrambled eggs that people can make if they’re completely new to the kitchen.

Most of the book focuses on very simple versions of recipes for common things like pizza dough, baked bread, rice and so on, focusing on technique and not assuming anything of the reader, but doing so in a very friendly and approachable way.

For my first couple of years of home cooking, this was my default reference book. I used it for everything. Our copy has earned a lot of stains on the cover!

Since then, the cookbook has been revised a few times and while I’ve stuck with our old copy (those stains are memories!), I’ve reviewed the newer editions and the changes are mostly related to clarity and organization. For someone starting out, any edition is well worth picking up.

For “default” recipes and techniques that aren’t in that book, I use Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer et. al.

Over time, I found myself wanting to move a bit beyond what I found in How to Cook Everything. The basic pizza dough recipes in there were great, but what if I wanted a thinner crust? There was a bit of info, but not a ton. How to Cook Everything offered suggestions on how to prep a lot of vegetables, but what if I have something more obscure because it was on sale, or what if I wanted to try something much different with an ordinary vegetable?

That’s exactly where Joy of Cooking comes in. It’s a big, thick tome, numbering more than a thousand pages in length in the version we have, and the pages are packed with info.

In my experience, Joy of Cooking is a much more robust reference for general purpose cooking at home than How to Cook Everything, but I think it expects more of the reader. Whereas in How to Cook Everything, Bittman will explain things in great detail, Joy of Cooking might explain a technique once in a spot two hundred pages away, or it might just assume you know how to do this simple thing. There is a ton of knowledge there, but it kind of assumes you know how to do basic things like sauté vegetables and grill a steak.

I find that Joy of Cooking is a pretty great all-purpose reference for where I’m at right now. If I don’t have a “niche” cookbook on a specific topic that I want to know something about, I’ll turn to Joy of Cooking.

I will say that, of all the cookbooks I own, this is the one that works best in digital format. Part of the reason is that, because this is such a multipurpose reference guide and it’s so long, it’s quite valuable to have an easy search function. The index is robust, but it doesn’t find everything. This is a great one to have in Kindle or another e-book format simply because of the searching capability. I actually think of my digital searching in Joy of Cooking as being my “food Google.”

When I need something “quick and cheap,” Budget Bytes by Beth Moncel is what I turn to.

If your primary aim for home-cooked meals is that they are both quick and inexpensive, Budget Bytes is a really good collection of strategies and recipes.

This cookbook really aims for being at least somewhat adventurous with the recipes while still keeping costs low. The dishes bounce through a lot of culinary traditions, giving recipes for all kinds of meals in a cost- and time-conscious fashion.

What really stands out for this cookbook, however, is the section at the beginning, which focuses on properly stocking one’s pantry. A lot of the recipes in this cookbook lean heavily on having a reasonably well-stocked pantry that you can just assume is already in place so that you can get the one or two additional items that the recipe calls for.

Recent readers of The Simple Dollar know that we cook in an “ingredients first” fashion, which means we rely on a heavily-stocked pantry and complement that with what’s on sale at the grocery store. While Budget Bytes doesn’t completely go down that path, it does lend itself to a strategy of seeing what’s on sale and making meal plans accordingly.

The book I wish I had when I was trying to keep myself fed on about $1 per meal is Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown.

When I was in college, living in a tiny apartment with friends and trying to make it on the least amount of spending possible, I often had to get really creative with my food. I ate a lot of ramen, sure, but I tried all kinds of different things to minimize my food costs — some of them good, some of them bad.

Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown is basically a distillation of the “good” amongst those things I tried, and I would have loved to have this book back then. It aims directly for the “cheap” side of cooking at home, aiming for recipes that revolve around low cost staples — beans, rice, chicken, peanut butter and things like that.

The book’s focus is on how to use those low cost staples in a variety of different ways so that you can keep the cost of an average meal very low. The book’s claim is that it aims to show people how to eat on $4 a day, which is roughly what the daily food stamp budget is for people.

While I don’t turn to this book often, it is one that will never leave my shelf because it tackles the issue of extremely low-cost cooking more effectively than anything else I’ve ever read. If I am ever in a financial pickle, this is the book I want to have for a cookbook. If I ever have a friend in a serious financial situation, this is the book I want to lend them.

It’s also worth noting that the author, Leanne Brown, has made Good and Cheap available as a free PDF e-book, so you can download it and read it for yourself!

The book that taught me “framework cooking” (and one I come back to often) is Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.

As I mentioned earlier, we try to cook our meals in an “ingredients first” fashion, meaning that we aim to have a well-stocked pantry of nonperishable goods so that we can easily focus on on-sale perishables at the grocery store and combine them to make good meals.

How do we do that, though? Ratio by Michael Ruhlman is where we learned the strategy in essence, and I still refer to it quite often.

The idea of Ratio is that most recipes boil down to certain ratios of ingredients — one part this, two parts that, four parts this, three parts that and cook until done. The book points out how some ratios pop up over and over and then distills those recipes down to a ratio into which you can fill in the blanks yourself.

For a simple example, Ruhlman talks about how most bread items are a ratio of five parts flour to three parts water. The variations in bread simply come from how long you let it rest, how long you knead it, and the exact flour you use. It turns out that this is mostly true — almost all bread recipes boil down to this ratio.

Basically, this is a nudge to get out there and experiment and try things. It reveals what’s going on behind a lot of recipes and gives you what you need to start making your own recipes that will actually work, and ideally on the fly. I often look through this book for the ratios when I’m just completely going off on my own when trying to make something, and it almost always results in something that’s at least decent and sometimes quite good indeed.

As our family eats mostly vegetarian, I find The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison to be invaluable for knowing good things to do with different vegetables.

When I don’t know how to cook a particular vegetable, particularly when I want to figure out how to use that vegetable to make something hearty for a family meal, this is almost always the book I turn to these days.

The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a wonderful compendium of recipes and ideas with a strict vegetarian focus. The reason I find some much value in this book is that I can just assume everything in here is vegetarian without having to dig through the details of a recipe from a non-vegetarian cookbook.

This book has singlehandedly raised my appreciation of a ton of different vegetables because it introduced me to how to properly prepare them in a way that accentuated them rather than just treating them as an afterthought to the side of the meat, which is what non-vegetarian cookbooks often end up doing with vegetables.

That being said, some of the recipes and techniques in this book are complicated and time-consuming. If you’re looking for a lighter introduction to vegetarian cooking, How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian by Mark Bittman is a wonderful option.

My favorite cookbook to just sit down, leaf through, read and learn something is The Food Lab by J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt.

When I’m simply sitting down to leaf through a cookbook with the purposes of getting a new idea or learning something new, this has been the one I have grabbed the most over the last year or two.

It’s almost strange to call The Food Lab by J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt a cookbook. Rather, it feels more like a collection of really well organized and thoughtful short articles on a wide variety of food topics. They often do include recipes with them, but much of the focus here is explaining why these recipes work or how you should do some particular part of the recipe different than the standard method.

Rather than being a reference itself like most of my other cookbooks are, I read this for entertainment and refinement of the things that I do from other cookbooks. The basics of how to bake bread might come from How to Cook Everything or Joy of Cooking, but then I’ll find some article in The Food Lab that discusses how to bake bread and offers some little tweak that just improves things or changes it in a worthwhile way, and I learn something because of it.

This is easily my most “readable” cookbook. I just enjoy sitting down and reading it, and I usually walk away with something useful. That’s really all I can ask from it.

Rather than just buying a cookbook right away, consider seeing what your library has to offer.

Before you buy anything, take this list of cookbooks to your local library and see if you can find copies of them. Check them out, take them home and use them. Make some of the recipes in them, or simply leaf through them at your leisure to see how much value you get from them.

I tend to prefer cookbooks to online resources because I’m not afraid to flop a cookbook on the counter while cooking and page through it with a sticky finger, but I would be loathe to do that with a tablet or my phone or with a library copy. So, when I take home a cookbook from the library, I do keep it away from the kitchen. Rather, I’ll read it and maybe awkwardly prepare one or two things from it and see how valuable I think it will be.

It’s worth noting that you can somewhat regularly find used copies of Joy of Cooking in used bookstores or secondhand shops, and occasionally you might see some of the others. Also, Good and Cheap is available as a free PDF from the author, as noted earlier.

Spending a bit of time finding the right cookbook is definitely a good choice. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will steer you in the right direction and help make you a master of your home kitchen.

Good luck!

The post Seven Frugal Cookbook Recommendations for Getting Started on Inexpensive Cooking at Home appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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Eleven Cookbooks I Keep on My Shelf – And Why

Jamie writes in:

What cookbooks do you recommend for someone who is just starting out on their own?

I’ve made no secret over the years that I love cookbooks, to the point that family and friends often just find interesting cookbooks (particularly ones focused on more obscure topics) to give to me as a gift. Earlier this year, in fact, I had a friend text me a picture of several cookbooks she bought for me for $0.50 apiece at a yard sale where the person had a ton of cookbooks; she went through and found some unusual ones that she thought I’d like. It took $3.50 to put a huge smile on my face.

Part of the reason that I love cookbooks so much is that I love making food items and beverage items at home. I love being able to customize them and make them the way I want, from the ingredients I want. It saves a ton of money and often results in much better food.

There are times when I’ll devote whole weekend days to making foodstuffs, but most of the time, I’m really practical with cooking. I have three kids that are in upper elementary and middle school, which means that our life schedules are entering a phase where simply having a family dinner together can be like threading a needle sometimes. I want to be able to make low-cost home-cooked meals, sometimes in very small timeframes, so that we can eat dinner together as often as possible.

What this means is that several times a week, if you peek in our house, you’ll see me or Sarah in the kitchen with a cookbook flopped open on the table as we attempt to prepare some meal. Maybe it’s me on the weekend trying to figure out how to make some strange fermented food, or on a weeknight trying to put together a casserole that can be on the table at precisely 5:45 so that we have time to eat and our two oldest ones can be on their way to practices by 6:15. Maybe you’ll see Sarah loading something in the slow cooker in the morning or trying to bake a cake on a Saturday afternoon.

I enjoy using cookbooks. I enjoy sitting down and just reading them, looking for new ideas and techniques. I enjoy having them around for reference, too.

The question that is really being asked here is this: what cookbooks do I consider to be the essential ones on my shelf, particularly ones that are useful for someone relatively new to preparing food at home?

I went through our cookbook collection and came up with a handful.

It’s worth noting that when I’m discussing these cookbooks, I strongly encourage you to check them out from the library rather than just buying them. Borrow these for a few weeks, read through some of the material in them, and try using them for a few recipes and techniques. Decide for yourself if this book works for you or not. Then, if it does click, look for it on discount. You’d be surprised how many of these can be found at used bookstores, for example, or at library book sales.

First, however, let me talk a bit about how I chose these.

What Makes a Good Cookbook?

There are really four things I look for in a cookbook.

First of all, it needs to have a technique focus. I shouldn’t be in a situation where I read a recipe and wonder, “How on earth do I do this?” If it’s a new technique that isn’t a super-common one, there should be a technique section in that cookbook or enough of an explanation right there that I’m not lost. Techniques are the key. I don’t mind it if I don’t quite understand the technique from reading it, but it should be named and identified clearly enough that I can turn to Youtube for more visual instruction, as it can be hard to describe some techniques with words and pictures. Tell me enough and show me enough that I can either figure it out with just that book or I can figure it out with a Youtube search.

Second, the recipes need to have at least something of a low cost focus with reasonably accessible ingredients. A cookbook that contains lots of ingredients that I can’t find within a twenty mile radius of my home is not very useful to me. I need to be able to find almost all ingredients in the cookbook at local grocery stores and food co-ops and ethnic groceries. There are several of these around here, but some cookbooks end up talking about things that you can seemingly only find if you know a monk in rural Indonesia, and that’s basically useless to me. The ingredients for the average recipe in the book shouldn’t cost me a lot.

Third: at least some of the recipes need to be reasonably quick or reasonably hands-free. I like having some cookbooks and some recipes that are very time and focus and effort intensive, but a good reference cookbook for general use should have a lot of quicker recipes that people can actually prepare on a weeknight evening.

Another thing: it needs to be able to physically lay flat on a table. If a cookbook can’t do this, I’m frustrated with it. This isn’t an absolute do-or-die rule, but I have passed on cookbooks that couldn’t lay flat on a table. This is important because I often have them in the kitchen, open on a table before me, and I don’t want to deal with cookbooks that won’t stay open. Spiral binding is good, as are most thick hardbacks. Paperbacks and some thin hardbacks are often terrible (but not always).

It’s worth noting that the list below is only a selection of our overall cookbook collection. We have a lot of cookbooks we’ve collected over the years and I’ve found value in all of them, but they’re not all ones I would directly recommend for someone aiming to have a few good general purpose cookbooks for a frugally-minded kitchen. They’re either incredibly focused (like Egg by Michael Ruhlman, which is more than 200 pages of incredible detail on various ways to prepare eggs) or loaded with complex recipes that I wouldn’t really recommend to someone who wasn’t at least somewhat adept in a home kitchen.

Here are a bunch of cookbooks that I recommend for any frugally minded home kitchen, even for people completely new to home food preparation.

How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

If I were to make a single cookbook recommendation for anyone who is starting to cook at home, it would be How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, hands down. It works as a tutorial on how to cook at home, starting with extremely basic recipes and techniques that I would trust my nine year old to do and building from there. It also works as a pretty robust reference for basic techniques and recipes for a lot of things you might cook at home. The recipes are simple to follow and just work, plus any techniques are explained extremely well. I turn to this by default when I’m figuring out the basics of making something at home; there’s a decent chance that anything I can think of that isn’t really esoteric is probably discussed in this book. The ingredients are never unusual or hard to find and the recipes are almost always a breeze to follow. There’s almost nothing else I could ask for in terms of a single cookbook for the beginning and intermediate home cook.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is basically the same cookbook with the sections on meats removed and replaced with additional material for preparing plant-based meals. Our family mostly eats vegetarian for health reasons, so this one has actually seen more use over the last few years than the original.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, Marian Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

Our copy of The Joy of Cooking looks like it has been beat to death. It has a handmade paper “dust cover” on it because the cover was actually partially burnt while in use. It has spills on it in several places. Some of the index pages are unreadable.

How did it get into that state? It was used – hard.

I would describe The Joy of Cooking as being a similar combination of techniques and recipes as How to Cook Everything, but with a step up in complexity and with a rather quirky tone in places. While there is definitely a lot of overlap in content between the two books, The Joy of Cooking definitely gets into more complex recipes and techniques and covers some things that How to Cook Everything doesn’t touch. It also tends to make some more assumptions of the reader, assuming you know a lot of basic techniques in the kitchen. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s a good “next step” after How to Cook Everything.

I tend to use How to Cook Everything for a quick reference for basic weeknight meals or weekend lunches. I turn to The Joy of Cooking for weekend meals when I’m trying to make something amazing, or when a weeknight meal isn’t turning out like I want. The Rombauer/Becker clan usually has the answers I need.

The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

Much as how The Joy of Cooking is a great “next step” all-around cookbook complement to How to Cook Everything, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a great “next step” all-around cookbook for vegetarian food to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. In fact, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is probably my most referred-to cookbook over the last few years as my family has transitioned slowly to an almost entirely vegetarian diet.

Again, what makes this book excel is the strong focus on technique, the clear explanations of everything, and the wide range of topics in a single volume. There are a ton of techniques and recipes and ideas and variations and “what to do with this ingredient” jammed into this book, and thus it functions as my default for figuring out what to do with a bunch of excess radishes (for example). While I find that How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is more accessible for quick weeknight meals, The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is invaluable for weekend cooking when I have more time.

If you’re a vegetarian (or nearly so) and at least somewhat experienced in the kitchen, this is the best single volume to have, in my opinion.

Ratio by Michael Ruhlman

Ratio is probably the most unexpected choice on this list as it is probably the least like a traditional cookbook, but I felt strongly compelled to include it here because it’s done so much to help mold how I actually cook frugally in my kitchen.

The idea behind Ratio is that almost everything you prepare in a kitchen is essentially just a proportional mix of a few things by weight. For example, pancake batter is a ratio of 2 parts liquid, 1 part egg, 1/2 part butter, and 2 parts flour. You can then vary these as you like – use whatever flour you want, use a variety of liquids for the liquid part (milk, yogurt, and so on), use butter alternatives for the butter, and so on.

Basically, the entire book is a framework to encourage you to experiment in the kitchen. It gives you a bunch of principles to stick with, then basically says “Go try this.” There are a few bits and pieces that hold your hand, but much of the rest of the book is just general frameworks and a few tips here and there.

This book gave me the courage to experiment in the kitchen, and to understand that even if something doesn’t turn out as you imagine, it’s usually good if the ingredients are good and you learn something, too. More than anything else I’ve ever read, it made me feel unafraid to try new ingredients and just start throwing together meals from the pantry in a pinch. Yeah, some of the things I’ve made have been weird and a few have been downright bad, but most have been quite good, a few have been amazing and well worth repeating, and it has eliminated most of my kitchen fears of “I can’t do this” or “This will be disastrous.” I still refer to it all the time for some starting points and ideas.

Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown

The entire purpose of this book is to present a variety of tasty and fairly healthy recipes trimmed down to the lowest cost possible, hence the subtitle “Eat Well on $4/Day.”

This is the best single cookbook I’ve seen if your focus is on keeping your food costs as low as possible. Most of the recipes are very simple and straightforward, which means that this book is really good for someone who is new to cooking at home.

I often turn to this one during times when we’re trying to really trim our food costs and “get back to the basics” for a while. I also use it as a nice parallel to Ratio, because this book does a great job of pointing to inexpensive ingredients that work well together that I can plug into some of the ratios from the other book. In other words, Good and Cheap serves wonderfully as a jumping off point if you’re wanting to keep costs low but want to start experimenting more and building confidence in the kitchen.

This one is available as a free PDF, but I have the nice compact print version on my shelf.

Love Your Leftovers by Nick Evans

This is the reference book when it comes to leftovers. How do you store leftovers? How do you cook to maximize the utility of leftovers? How do you deal with texture changes? What are good ways to remix a ton of different common leftovers? That’s what this book addresses, and it does it very well.

This book is usually the first place I turn to when I have some leftovers from a meal and don’t know what to do with them, or I have a ton of a particular ingredient that’s going to go bad and I want to have some ideas of what to do with all of this if I cook all of it.

This leads directly into a book on a similar topic…

The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen

This is the best single book I’ve found on meal prepping and preparing parts of meals in advance. I use it as a reference whenever I’m doing a big meal prep or I want to try to prepare something new for freezing.

To be clear, meal prepping means that you’re making a complete meal in advance and freezing it at a mostly-finished point so that it can easily be pulled from the freezer and popped in the oven to finish cooking. This means that, for example, you could make a few pans of lasagna on a lazy Sunday afternoon, then just finish cooking it in the oven on a busy Thursday evening, giving you a great home-cooked meal.

There are so many little useful tips in this book. It’s just full of little things that have refined what I’m doing whenever I’m making meals in advance. For example, the realization that I should put scrambled eggs in the fridge when making breakfast burritos and then pull them out to assemble the burritos cold is genius, because the eggs will “sweat” during this process and if you use a cloth or a paper towel to absorb that “sweat,” your actual breakfast burritos won’t be nearly as “wet” when you cook them later, turning them from soggy messes into deliciousness.

While we’re looking at America’s Test Kitchen offerings…

Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution by America’s Test Kitchen

Let’s start with the obvious question: where is “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 1”? The reason I don’t rely on that one is that most of the recipes in it require a lot of steps, and that’s the very thing I don’t want when making meals with the slow cooker. For me, almost all of the time, the slow cooker is a tool of convenience, so I don’t want complex recipes that require a lot of steps.

On the other hand, Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution really nail what I want from a slow cooker reference book. It explains strategies for cooking lots of different types of things in the slow cooker and offers a bunch of simple recipes for actually preparing things.

These two books are my default reference for things to do with the slow cooker, which we use frequently during busy parts of the year.

The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila

This is probably the most “off the beaten path” book on this list, but I’ve used my copy so much that I feel like I almost have to include it here. It became a portal for me into a world of fermented foods, homemade condiments, spice mixes, and all kinds of homemade foodstuffs, and it’s still the best one-volume coverage of those topics I’ve found.

If you’re interested in taking your home food preparation to the next level and making a lot of the basic ingredients for meals for yourself – sauces, condiments, spice mixes, and so forth – from very basic ingredients, this is a great starting point and reference. While this can definitely save you a little money and can definitely result in some tastier dishes, this is probably not a great time investment unless you’re really into this as a hobby.

Use the Library!

To close, I want to repeat what I said earlier in the article: use the library for these books! Don’t just go out and buy them! See if your local library has a copy, take it home, go through it, and try some of the recipes and techniques for yourself. See if it clicks for you. If it does, then, and only then, look for a copy of the cookbook, preferably a used one.

That being said, these books are really the core pieces of my cookbook library and the ones I continually turn to. I have quite a few other cookbooks that focus in on narrow topics, like the aforementioned Egg, several books on fermentation, a book about sous vide cooking, and so on, but these are the ones I rely on for a wide variety of low-cost home cooking strategies. I hope you’ll find some of them to be useful, too.

Good luck!

The post Eleven Cookbooks I Keep on My Shelf – And Why appeared first on The Simple Dollar.

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