The best kitchen guides for foodies

In the age of the Internet, physical directories may seem like outdated tools. Why have your shelves groaning 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, here’s why. There are plenty of reliable cooking sources online (maybe you’re familiar with Epicurious.com?), but it’s up to you to sort the good from the bad. And even well-intentioned people tend to provide anecdotal, outdated, or false information online in places where readers might not think to challenge it.

Reference books, on the other hand, provide meticulously researched, edited, and properly cited information without requiring readers to rely on their own digital literacy skills to know what’s what. A good reference book not only provides quality information, but is well organized and easy to navigate. Also, flipping through a physical reference book, you’re likely to not only find the information you’re looking for, but also find answers to questions you haven’t even i know to ask. That’s why so many nerds on our staff (myself included) are true believers in flipping through heavy tomes.

Here are some of our favorite kitchen guides.

For word geeks

Food terms are usually loan words—words that one language adopts from another (think: chocolate, sushi, or croissant). Food editors are tasked with standardizing the flow of these words as they quickly become integrated into the language, which can be a challenge. Our editors rely on these two books as primary sources of information on the language of food.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts, 2nd Edition, by Sarah R. Labensky, Stephen Labensky, and Gay G. Ingram

A comprehensive dictionary devoted to the language of the culinary arts, this Webster volume contains some 20,000 food entries from around the world, names and biographies of famous chefs, definitions of cooking equipment, and even measurements and conversions. This book is currently out of print and lacks some recent updates, but as one of the most comprehensive dictionaries focused on food and cooking, it remains a reliable source.

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Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts (2nd ed.)

The New Foodie’s Companion, 5th Edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

If you like to do your reference reading on the go, The new foodie’s companion contains 7,200 records in mass paperback format. It’s not as extensive as Webster’s, but NFLC is still a superb resource for newer terminology. This is the most up-to-date culinary dictionary in the English language.

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The new foodie’s companion

The science of cooking

Associate editor Genevieve Yam has already compiled a wonderful list of kitchen science books, but here are two comprehensive volumes to dip your toes into.

About food and cooking by Harold McGee

Why does cream curdle in hot liquids? Which fruits continue to ripen after harvest? What is the difference between baking food and burning it? The answers to all these questions, along with a huge list of others, are found in the pages of Harold McGee’s classic guide to food science. This book might suck. Opening it to find the answer to a question will almost certainly lead you down a rabbit hole of culinary discovery.

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On Food and Cooking: The Science and Knowledge of the Kitchen

Ratio: The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking by Michael Ruhlman

Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry is rooted in mathematics, which is why Michael Ruhlman’s ratio-based approach to culinary understanding 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 recipe guidance.

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Ratio: The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking

For beginner cooks

While there’s a lot to learn in culinary school, some of the best minds in the food world are self-taught chefs who rely on technique books like these to sharpen more than just their knife skills.

The professional chef from the Culinary Institute of America

Once upon a time, my 10-year-old self, who dreamed of going to culinary school, received this book for her birthday. Even though I’ve shelved my culinary school plans, I still refer to this comprehensive text that describes the methods and craftsmanship taught at the Culinary Institute of America. If you’ve been wanting to learn how the White Hats do it, this book contains detailed instructions on the basics of European cooking techniques. And by basics, we mean basics for master chefs, like properly deboning chickens, clarifying consommĂ©, or how to cut a carrot into small, uniform diamond-shaped slices.

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Gastronomic Larousse

The classic of all cooking classics in the French culinary tradition, this encyclopedia of terminology and techniques continues to serve as an essential reference for professional chefs. This is the book Julia Child learned from and contains both encyclopedia entries and over 3,800 recipes. Although initially focused on French cuisine, it has since expanded to encompass techniques and terminology from food cultures around the world.

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Larousse Gastronomique: The world’s largest culinary encyclopedia, completely revised and updated

For lovers of various things

These books are food for the hungry mind – perfect for the inquisitive cook interested in improving.

The thesaurus of flavors by Niki Segnit

When she’s not feeling inspired, food editor Kendra Vaculin turns to Nikki Segnit’s treatise on taste. The book breaks down 99 flavors and 4,851 flavor combinations, and the book is full of lively rankings and charming anecdotes. It’s a reference book that teaches you how to understand and combine flavors, but it’s also just a fascinating read. Reading it will undoubtedly introduce you to flavor combinations that you would never have thought of coming up with on your own. Peanuts and asparagus, anyone?

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The Thesaurus of Flavors: A Compendium of Combinations, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook

World Encyclopedia of Food Crops by Ken Albala

This great four-volume collection focuses on food through an anthropological lens, covering countries and communities around the world. The records contain information on basic staples, typical meals, how people eat out, and food for special occasions. Rather than attempting to define food cultures through rigid geographic or cultural boundaries, this encyclopedia does its best to outline how the culinary customs of diverse communities have merged, adapted, and changed through colonization, immigration, and globalization.

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World Encyclopedia of Food Crops [4 volumes]

Herbs and spices by Jill Norman

Photos accompany each of the over 200 spice and herb entries from around the world, with additional images of common varieties (13 types of basil!). The text includes tasting notes, storage recommendations, flavor pairings, recipe suggestions, and basic growing tips. It’s a great visual companion to the more text-heavy volumes on this list.

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Herbs and Spices: Over 200 herbs and spices with recipes for marinades, seasonings, oils and more