Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Had I realized how often over the last fifteen years I would be referencing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I would have splurged for the hardcover edition.

As it stands, our trusty copy of this loaf of paper filled with basic recipes rarely makes it back onto the bookshelf, and is so tattered and splattered, I’ll likely be lamenting it’s numbered days before it stops being useful.

I’ve started a small series of cookbook posts here on castironguy.ca because despite adding to my collection almost monthly, I find that most cookbooks are only useful or interesting in a limited way. Sure, you can learn a great recipe from almost any book out there, and half the fun is picking something that looks like a challenge or a tasty goal, and seeing how well your skills match with the intended product. That said, there are perhaps only a dozen cookbooks on our shelf that would make a cull if I was forced to simplify my library… and these are them.

The best analogy I have for this book is that it’s like my paperback edition of Google.

You know those times you are standing there in your kitchen, hands covered in flour, thinking about how you are actually supposed to be cooking something, say a roast or a whole spaghetti squash or maybe a pie crust.

How long at what temperature?

How much water was I supposed to add?

Should I be covering this?

Today I might Google it, or ask my digital assistant. Hey, Alexa, how do I… ?

But even still, and especially back when I bought this, it was and still is that one reference book that gives solid, simple advice on the nuances of basic food prep.

Sure, there are a few fancy recipes hiding in it’s pages, and lots of ideas about stuff like how to make your waffles more interesting, or how to spice a whole chicken, or variations on making your own salad dressings. But the core function of this book is basically aimed at people like me who mostly know enough to get started, have the ingredients in their hands, but are stumped on locking down the process. The how-to. The what was that one crucial step or ingredient that is going to change the outcome if I get it wrong. A reference guide.

This might not be the exact title for you, but there are a few big reference cookbooks out there with a similar purpose and you should generally keep one on your shelf. I do.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Flour Water Salt Yeast

So . . . I ordered yet another cookbook yesterday.

I’ve recently been watching a cooking channel on YouTube (perhaps one you have heard of, unlikely one you figured I’d watch) and the host released a cookbook last year, so I splurged. Until a make a few recipes from the book itself, I don’t feel that I’m in a solid or fair position to offer a review or opinion. Hopefully in about a month or so (after I spin up a few of the recipes and get a sense of the style) you’ll see such a post here. Until then…

My lacking of an opinion is not the case with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.

I remember when my newly kindled interest in sourdough bread-making started to really heat up. I’d begun culturing a starter and then I went scouring the internet for advice. A lot of people recommended this particular tome. I added it to my collection and spent a few solid days reading the details, pondering the techniques and anticipating my next loaf… mostly because that first starter was still pretty new and not ready to use.

I could write a lot about this cookbook.

I could tell you that the tone has always struck me in the same way as I felt when I worked my way through university and had this one lab-rat job for a boss who had a PhD in molecular biology and couldn’t believe he had to explain this stuff to me and fine, but pay attention and do you mind if I crank up the radio and we’re all going out for beers after work, you in? Pleasantly mentoring? Friendly condescending? Lovable know-it-all-ish?

Or, I could tell you that within the words contained on these pages there is as much elaborate history and detail about bread theory as there is actual recipes, and if this was online everyone would complain that they need to scroll for five minutes to get to the ingredients list but since this is a book it’s as much a beautiful read about bread (and pizza crusts) as it is anything else. Be prepared to read as much as you cook.

I could even tell you that if you read this book, no if you seriously read it and understand it, you’ll change the way you cook and you’ll go out tomorrow and buy a digital kitchen scale and understand that the math and French you learned in high school could serve more than an abstract purpose in your life as you start to refer to bread as having desired hydration levels and calculate flour percentages in your dreams. Shush! My sixty-percent levain is resting!

Basically I could just tell you that if you want to make good bread, I haven’t found a better volume. This is a great cookbook and one that will endure in my personal collection for a long time.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

Book: Campfire Cuisine

For Thursdays I was thinking about starting a regular feature called Tuck & Tech that would let me muse about gear, books, recipes, and other kit. I’m neither sponsored nor provided any of these things. I just find them interesting or useful.

A curious recipe book showed up in my stocking this past Christmas: Campfire Cuisine by Robin Donovan seems to be a hearty collection of tasty dishes that meet a couple basic criteria around food transportation and storage as well as ease of preparation over a hot campfire.

A lot could be said about the fact that the wife and I have already conversed about trying some of the collection of marinades, breakfasts, sandwiches, and main courses at home first. There is nothing necessitating a campout cook style for many of the dishes … which, I guess, means that the collection is a solid book of hearty dishes that also happens to be amenable to cooking and eating in the great outdoors.

It’s the middle of deep winter as I write this, and I did have a short campfire in the chilly backyard for New Year’s Eve, but we used it to symbolically torch the 2020 calendar and I wasn’t comfortable cooking on those flames afterwards. Our simple go-to would likely have been pulling out the marshmallows to make s’mores, after a round of grilled hot dogs.

Yet this book definitely seems to be more than one-dish meals or meats-on-sticks.

I re-read the introduction this morning again and it lit a feeling of kinship between myself and the author. There was a symmetry of philosophy in those words, even as I set off (it’s still my first week) to write a daily blog checking boxes that Donovan checked long before me, and in print to boot.

Living to eat well.

Travelling to taste and experience.

Savouring experiences.

I’ve yet to try any of the recipes, and definitely not over a firepit, but for that synergy alone I’ll be pouring over the hundred-ish recipes in the book now (and as warmer tent camping weather approaches) to construct the menu for our next outbound excursion.