If you’re the type of cook with well-thumbed cookbooks filled with your most-used recipes — or know someone who is — you understand how essential they are.
And while the hottest, newest cookbooks make great holiday gifts, there’s something particularly meaningful in giving one that has stood the test of time and proven itself a thoroughly useful resource for weeknight meals, family dinners and all the other ways we connect through food.
So we at the Chicago Tribune have pulled together a list of our top tried-and-trues — the desert island cookbooks, if you will. Give them to a loved one who might be new to cooking or an old pro who could use some new ideas.
It’s maybe not the most appealing title, but “Cooking with Scraps” ($20, Workman Publishing Co.) is extremely useful. A family friend bought it for me as a joke after I wouldn’t shut up about scrappy cooking and composting — but it turned out to be great. Recipes feature parts of fruits and vegetables that often get thrown away, but are perfectly edible. My favorite feature is the option to search by food product, so those with miscellaneous beet peels lying around the fridge (just me?) can easily find something to do with them. Author Lindsay-Jean Hard includes sauces and seasoned salts, but also complete, substantial dishes — which helps me not end up with merely an endless supply of condiments. — Sarah Freishtat, business reporter
I’d recommend any of the Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, but one of my go-to’s is “Cook Like a Pro” ($35, Clarkson Potter). From its pages, I most recently made eggplant Parmesan (with the unconventional addition of goat cheese); fried chicken sandwiches that require you to marinate the chicken in a bowl full of buttermilk, garlic and jalapeños; and strawberry shortcakes. Plus I flip through it all the time for inspiration on what to make for dinner. Her recipes are generally foolproof if you know the basics of cooking, and even if you don’t, she walks you through it so gently both in her books and on her show. I’m obsessed with her in all ways. — Zareen Syed, education reporter
I don’t buy many cookbooks anymore, since I’ve collected and donated a few full libraries before and after moves to far-off places. But when I want recipes, and the often funny stories behind them, I’ve turned to my friend David Lebovitz. The chef, Paris-based blogger and cookbook author still shares so much for free, but you can now upgrade to a paid subscription to his newsletter on Substack for $5 per month or $50 per year. Unlock an all-access pass to his stunning photos, recipes, discussions and stories, all on the way to making your own. — Louisa Chu, food critic
Call it a shameless plug if you want, but the simple truth is, I use this Tribune-crafted cookbook year-round. From simple recipes that take 30 minutes or less, to the most classic versions of cookies that shoot me straight back to childhood, “Holiday Cookies” ($25, Agate Surrey) has it all. This selection of winning recipes from the first 25 years of the Chicago Tribune’s Holiday Cookie Contest features home-baked cookies that have been tenderly handed down through generations, as well as inventive takes I’d never think of on my own. There’s appropriately named Mrs. Levy’s Giant Chocolate Chip Cookies (each cookie weighs almost a quarter pound), a multitude of gingerbread and such a range of recipes that you’re guaranteed to satisfy every sweet tooth in town. — Ariel Cheung, food and travel editor
When I need a tasty, simply seasoned batter for fish, a creamy white sauce for pasta or a fewer-than-five-step soul food recipe, I turn to the rare, now-hard-to-find (a single copy runs anywhere from $152 to $500 on resale sites, Etsy and Amazon) “Inez Yeargan Kaiser’s Original Soul Food Cookery” (revised edition, August 1968). Pretty much anything you want to make from scratch — from beverages, casseroles, cookies and candies to soups, seafood, rolls and “TV snacks” — are pure jewels in this comprehensive cookbook. A true keeper for those who like to get down in the kitchen. — Rochell Sleets, director of news
For lovers of soul music and soul food alike, “LaBelle Cuisine” ($30, Gallery/13A) by the multihyphenate “Godmother of Soul” Patti LaBelle is the perfect gift. Aside from churning out hits for decades, in this part-cookbook, part-memoir, you’ll learn LaBelle has built a culinary reputation of providing good ol’ fashioned Southern home cooking for all your favorite celebs — and the tea she spills is almost better than the food she cooks. Read it for a Chicago cameo featuring a mishap with her famed potato salad at Oprah’s Harpo Studios alone. For proof that her recipes withstand the test of time: My family has cooked LaBelle’s Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese every holiday since I was little, and every year it’s the first dish cleared. — Lauryn Azu, deputy senior editor
The cookbook I’ve used more than any other is Rick Bayless’ “Mexican Everyday” ($30, W.W. Norton & Co.). Half the pages are falling out, and the other half are covered in stains. But every recipe works, and it’s a great introduction to the cuisine, with plenty of quick-and-easy meals for busy weeknights. — Nick Kindelsperger, food critic
We go gaga over the chocolate chip cookie recipe from the “Nerdy Nummies” cookbook ($30, Atria Books) by Rosanna Pansino, a YouTuber my teenage daughter was obsessed with for awhile when she was younger. They are hands-down the best chocolate chip cookies we’ve ever had! — Saleema Syed, deputy senior editor
I’d never quite managed to get my flavor profiles right when cooking Indian food until I got this cookbook (which, full disclosure, was basically the entire reason I wanted an Instant Pot to begin with). But leave it to Chicago’s own Chandra Ram, associate editorial director of food at Food & Wine, to use “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook” ($25, Robert Rose) to not only guide the reader through essential spices, tools and other tips, but to translate the deeply complex layers of flavor in dishes such as saag paneer, biryani and butter chicken into simple Instant Pot recipes that can take as little as 15 minutes to whip up. — A.C.
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