In the age of the internet, physical reference guides may seem like outdated tools. Why make your shelves groan with cooking encyclopedias when you can just do a quick Google search? Well, a quick Google search might recommend slicing strawberries by shaking them in a storage container full of razor blades, that’s why. There are plenty of reliable sources for cooking online (perhaps you are familiar with Epicurious.com?), but it’s up to you to sort the good from the bad. And even well-meaning people are prone to contributing anecdotal, outdated, or incorrect information online in places where readers might not think to think twice to question it.
Reference books, on the other hand, provide thoroughly researched, edited, and properly cited information, without requiring readers to rely on their own digital fluency skills to know what’s what. A good reference book not only provides quality information, but is well organized and easy to navigate. Plus, in paging through a physical reference book, you’re likely not just to find the information you’re looking for, but to find answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask. Which is why so many of the nerds on our staff (myself included) are true believers in leafing through weighty volumes.
Here are some of our favorite reference books for the kitchen.
For word nerds
Food terms are commonly loan words—words that one language adopts from another (think: chocolate, sushi, or croissant). Copy editors at a food publication are tasked with standardizing the stream of those words as they quickly integrate into the language, which can be challenging. Our copy editors rely on these two books as their primary sources of insight for the language of food.
Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts, 2nd edition, by Sarah R. Labenskym, Steven Labensky, and Gaye G. Ingram
A comprehensive dictionary dedicated to the language of the culinary arts, this Webster’s volume contains around 20,000 entries for foods from around the world, the names and biographies of well-known chefs, definitions of cooking equipment, and even measurements and conversions. This book is currently out of print and is missing some recent updates, but as one of the most comprehensive dictionaries focused on food and cooking, it remains a trusted source.
The New Food Lover’s Companion, 5th edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst
If you like to do your reference reading on the go, The New Food Lover’s Companion stuffs 7,200 entries into a mass-market paperback format. It’s not as extensive as the Webster’s, but the NFLC is still a superior resource for more recent terminology. It is the most up-to-date culinary dictionary for the English language.
The science of cooking
Assistant editor Genevieve Yam has already compiled a marvelous list of scientific books for the kitchen, but here are two comprehensive volumes to dip your toes into.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
Why does cream curdle in hot liquids? Which fruits continue to ripen after harvest? What’s the difference between browning food and burning it? The answers to all these questions, alongside an enormous list of others, lie in the pages of Harold McGee’s classic guide to food science. This book can suck you in. Cracking it open to find the answer to one question will almost certainly lead you down a rabbit hole of culinary discovery.
Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman
Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry is rooted in math, which is why Michael Ruhlman’s ratio-based approach to culinary comprehension makes so much sense. This book breaks down recipes into easy-to-remember ratios, with the ultimate goal of teaching you how to cook and bake successfully without relying on guidance from recipes.
For aspiring chefs
While there’s a lot to learn in culinary school, some of the best minds in the food world are self-taught cooks who relied on technique books like these to sharpen more than just their knife skills.
The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America
Once upon a time, the 10-year-old me who had dreams of going to culinary school received this book for his birthday. While I scrapped my culinary school plans, I still reference this comprehensive text, which details methods and mastery taught at the Culinary Institute of America. If you’ve wanted to learn how the white hats do it, this book contains thorough instructions on the basics of European cooking techniques. And by basics, we mean basics for master chefs, like properly deboning chickens, clarifying a consommé, or how to cut a carrot into tiny identical diamond-shaped slivers.
The classic of all classics for cooking in the French culinary tradition, this encyclopedia of terminology and techniques continues to serve as an essential reference for professional chefs. It is the book that Julia Child learned from and contains both encyclopedia entries and over 3,800 recipes. Though it initially focused on French cooking, it has since expanded to cover techniques and terminology from food cultures around the world.
For lovers of miscellanea
These books are fodder for a hungry mind—perfect for the curious cook interested in improving.
The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit
When she’s feeling uninspired, food editor Kendra Vaculin goes to Niki Segnit’s treatise on flavor. The book breaks down 99 flavors and 4,851 flavor combinations, and the book is filled with vibrant charts and charming anecdotes. It’s a reference book that teaches you about how to understand and combine flavors, but it’s also just a captivating read. Reading it will undoubtedly present you with flavor pairings you would never have thought to concoct yourself. Peanuts and asparagus, anyone?
Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia by Ken Albala
This formidable four-volume collection focuses on food through an anthropological lens, covering countries and communities around the world. Entries contain information on fundamental staples, typical meals, how people eat out, and food for special occasions. Rather than attempt to define food cultures by hard geographic or cultural boundaries, this encyclopedia does its best to outline how culinary customs from different communities merge, adapt, and change through colonization, immigration, and globalization.
Herbs & Spices by Jill Norman
Photographs accompany each of the over 200 entries of spices and herbs from around the world, with additional images of common cultivars (13 types of basil!). The text includes tasting notes, storage recommendations, flavor pairings, recipe suggestions, and basic growing advice. It’s a great visual companion to the more text-heavy tomes on this list.