How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food,10th Anniversary Edition

Image of How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food,10th Anniversary Edition
Release Date: 
October 19, 2008
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
1 056
Reviewed by: 

Unless you are a regular reader of the New York Times weekly column “The Minimalist,” you've probably never heard of Mark Bittman. He is the toned-down, New York male print version of the perky, female TV celebrity chef, Rachel Ray who, like Ray, is on a mission to get people cooking simple, delicious, and varied meals for those they love.

For novice cooks, it would be easy to watch an episode of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals and believe that you too could put dinner on the table in, if not 30 minutes, at least under 60. Given a copy of Bittman's 1,044 page How to Cook Everything, the same novice cook would most likely throw up his or her hands and run for the nearest McDonalds. A cookbook in excess of 1,000 pages is a lot to ask of someone whom you are trying to convince that cooking is easy and fun. Still, for the motivated beginner, Bittman offers clear, no-nonsense instructions on basic cooking techniques as well as advice on what equipment to buy and ingredients to keep on hand in his chapter, “Kitchen Basics.” There are no photographs, but his how-to illustrations are useful and a familiar nod to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Like Julia, Bittman believes that becoming a good home cook is all about the confidence you gain from experience and that there is really no mystery to turning out a good meal.

The real value in How to Cook Everything, however, is as a resource tool for the more experienced home cook who is looking to expand his or her repertoire. This is the go-to book you will reach for again and again when you want to vary your ho-hum weeknight fare. In his revised tenth anniversary edition of How to Cook Everything, Bittman explains that he has set out to make it even more simple to use and includes only home-kitchen friendly recipes, leaving restaurant quality to the restaurants. There is a convenient table of contents at the beginning of each chapter to guide you to what you are looking for, followed by a quick primer on the basics of cooking whatever the chapter heading is (for those motivated beginners who haven't yet given up and put this hefty book to use as a door stop). There are also many quick reference tables within each chapter to give you several variations of a main recipe if you don't want to spend the time reading through individual recipes. It's like having a cheat sheet for cooking ideas to jump start dinner when you don't have a clue what to prepare. For example, following the basic recipe for grilling or broiling a boneless chicken breast, Bittman inserts a table entitled 11 more ways to vary grilled or broiled boneless chicken. No one will ever complain “chicken breasts again?”

Bittman has endless simple variations on many basic recipes which would keep an adventurous cook happy almost indefinitely. There is one organizational flaw, however, that can be irksome in this otherwise remarkable reference book. Near the beginning of each chapter Bittman provides a number of what he has determined are “essential recipes.” Unfortunately, this causes the user to flip back and forth within a chapter to find what he or she is looking for. For example, the table of 11 variations of grilled or broiled boneless chicken is found in the Essential Recipes section of the chapter on poultry rather than under boneless chicken recipes beginning on page 666 within the same chapter. Essential recipes should have been eliminated as a sub-section altogether in order to avoid this back and forth when searching for recipe ideas. Maybe he can work on improving user friendliness for the 20th anniversary edition. In the meantime, with familiarity that comes from repeated use, How to Cook Everything will become a favorite resource in the kitchen and will likely improve your confidence and creativity along the way.