I’ve been reading a lot of food books by and about chefs lately, and in doing so, found a few titles that have been referenced repeatedly. This particular trio of tomes helps the cook understand flavors, why food behaves the way it does, the reason behind recipes and how to make dishes your own. The information in these books is useful for beginners and professional cooks alike. It’s about understanding the logic of recipes in general and why they work—or don’t. Fair warning with McGee: You may become an unending source of food trivia.
Harold McGee is the Mr. Wizard of food, as his numerous books on the subject attest. On Food and Cooking is the working bible of the Culinary Institute of America. If you want to know how altitude affects baking, the chemical makeup of sugar or salt, where olives grow, who made the first pancake, or how to really boil an egg, you will find the answer in “McGee.” This encyclopedic volume is the go-to reference for all of your cooking questions, and it’s fun reading to boot. (Scribner, hardcover, $40)
Michael Ruhlman enrolled in the rigorous program of the aforementioned CIA in order to immerse himself in the subject matter for his trilogy of books about this elite school and what it means to be a chef. While learning the basics, he came across a chart of ratios posted by CIA Chef Uwe Hestnar. The chart became the basis for this book, a superlative guide that rests on proportions rather than item-by-item recipes. A ratio for bread (bread = 5 parts flour : 3 parts water, plus yeast and salt) is supported by a clear narrative that guides the reader in its use. With similar ratios for doughs, stocks, sauces and more, this little book can help you cook without any recipe at all. I downloaded a Kindle version of Ratio for my iPod to take with me when I shop. (Scribner, hardcover, $27; paperback, $16, Kindle, $9.99)
Craving something different? Looking for new combinations of herbs and spices to go with a leg of lamb, or fresh takes on vinaigrette for a salad? Go straight to The Flavor Bible for your inspiration. Page and Dornenburg introduce the reader to the experience of aromas, tastes and feelings about food, then offer up “Flavor Matchmaking Charts” to help the reader find the right spices, herbs or compatible items for the best results. (Little, Brown and Company, hardcover, $35)