Review: How to Cook Everything
Every weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it is incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
If there is one book that I consider a modern day must have in the kitchen, I think it would be Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” While the title is a bit ambitious, it isn’t far off. Coming in at over 1,000 pages, this book really has a little bit of everything.
Cooking isn’t magic
That’s how he starts the first chapter on “Kitchen Basics” but that is also a continuing theme throughout the book. There is no magical touch that you need to cook really good meals. What you do need is a few essential tools, some solid recipes, and the confidence to get in the kitchen. Bittman does a great job at trying to provide all three of those things.
The first 20 pages of the book are basically a jam-packed instruction guide to the kitchen. He starts out by giving a quick introduction on ingredients – listing what he considers to be the things one should always have on hand in a kitchen. He spends a bit of time on food safety as well. The bulk of the chapter though is spent on techniques and equipment.
He does a fantastic job of weeding out all of the fluff and giving really good information about what pieces of equipment are important. The techniques are a good start, but if you really need to learn how to use a knife, you would be better served on YouTube probably as the diagrams are a bit lacking.
Obviously the bulk of the book is working through EVERYTHING. Honestly, I can’t say that he misses much. There are entire chapters are salads, sandwiches, beans, grains, poultry, dairy, and bread just to name a few. Keep in mind when I say chapter, I mean 50-100 pages on the subject. Each page is filled with recipes, alterations, and ideas. Each chapter could be a small book on its own.
If I could only keep one chapter in the entire book though, it would be the second chapter on sauces, condiments, herbs, and spices. Sauces are always something that intimidated me when I first started learning to cook. I envisioned a large French man sweating over four pans of bubbling dark goo. I imagined hours of work and dozens of ingredients. But this chapter is none of that.
I would say that I use something from this chapter at least once a week – at the bare minimum. Some of the sauces he presents like a “Simple drizzle sauce” can be made in minutes and only have 3 ingredients. He also introduces some simple salsas and even compound butters. It’s really amazing. In my opinion, this chapter alone is worth the cost of the book.
Additions, Variations, and Beyond
One of my favorite things about this book is the way that he opened my mind about combinations of ingredients. He does this by listing additions for many of the most common recipes in the book. For example, his vinaigrette recipe is very simple. It takes 5 minutes to make and has only 4 ingredients. After the recipe though, he lists 20 simple additions that you could add. Some of the suggestions are standard, but some are very unique (a slice of day old bread).
Oh but there is more. Right after he gives you these 20 additions, he lists 18 variations on vinaigrette. This use some of the additions, but are full recipes for different vinaigrettes. It’s hard to keep track, but I would estimate that there are around 100 different vinaigrette possibilities on these three pages. Put that in your processor and pulse it.
Sometimes I think that Bittman gets a bit liberal with his substitutions and additions and you have to be mindful of that when reading. For example, his croissant recipe is just his puff pastry recipe formed into croissants. I am no French baker, but I’m almost positive that a successful croissant has to involve yeast and his puff pastry recipe is yeast-less. Keep in mind that I’ve never made a successful croissant in my life so I could be wrong. My point is occasionally he flings around substitutions a bit too much. I think this would be my only criticism of the book if I were forced to named one.
Throughout the book you will stumble on these red tables that are scattered around. These are like little bonus tables and lists that are not recipes exactly, but still extremely useful. For example, in the poultry chapter there is a half page list: “30 poultry dishes that are good cold or at room temperature.” A great little table if you are going on a picnic or something! These little gems are all over the place in this book.
The Red Pages
The last 70 pages in the book are rimmed with red so they are easy to locate. This is good because these pages absolutely rock. To start the section, Bittman presents a number of “Menus.” Example? Sure. Weekday Mexican-style Spread including: Fish tacos – four ways, real refried beans, Mexican cheese salsa, crunchy corn guacamole, vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. Obviously, everything on the menu is a recipe from the book.
The next part of the red pages are a few lists. These are just great as a reference. They are “The 102 Essential Recipes in This Book”, “My Top 100 Fast Recipes”, “Top 100 Make-Ahead Recipes”, “Top 100 Vegetarian Recipes.” If I’m ever at a loss for a meal idea (like everyday) this is one my go-to sections out of all of my cookbooks.
The last part of the red pages is a very extensive and easy to use index. A number of things are cross-listed so it is really easy to find things.
If you are a regular Macheesmo reader, you will probably have a good idea how often I use this book. I’ve used it in this, this, and even this post. For the modern, average kitchen, I think it is one of the best books out there.