Cookbooks vs. Cooking Books: What's the Difference?

Learning to cook for yourself is one of those things that can be really beneficial for a number of reasons, but many people just don’t do it. Not only can it save you money and be a nice shared experience, but it can also be a fun and interesting way to experience new things.

When you’re just starting out, it can seem tough to make food beyond a few basic recipes. So, how do you get better at cooking? You could take classes, but this may feel unnecessary and expensive if you’re only planning to cook at home for friends and family. One of the most straightforward ways you can learn to cook is by working with good food books — both cookbooks and cooking books. Yes, there is a bit of a difference between the two, which we’ll get into.

Cookbooks

The ones you’re most likely familiar with are cookbooks. For beginner home cooks, a cookbook is an invaluable guide because it’s a step-by-step recipe for making delicious dishes. Following the recipes can be great ways to get a feel for cooking and learning different techniques in a safe, guided environment. Most cookbooks focus on a specific cuisine, usually the specialty of the author. Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking is a snapshot of the food you’d get at his award-winning Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia. Some cookbooks aren’t focused on the type of cuisine, but instead the form it takes, like Serena Cosmo’s gigantic The Ultimate Pasta and Noodle Cookbook.

Following recipes can be a great way to get a feel for cooking and learning different techniques in a safe, guided environment.

Others’ cookbooks don’t fit into a specific theme or cuisine and instead are more generalized. This is especially true when they’re written by a famous chef or food-interested celebrity. The excellent Gordon Ramsay’s Home Cooking and the Cravings series (Cravings and Cravings: Hungry for More) by Chrissy Teigen fit this mold well.

Some cookbooks even include sections that explain and cover different ingredients, techniques, and cooking knowledge so you understand the how and why behind certain recipes. Some excellent examples of this are Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking (which has roughly 40 pages outlining cooking strategies, techniques, and styles used at the now closed Les Halles bistro in NYC) or Jacques Pepin’s Essential Pépin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites form My Life in Food, which comes with a free DVD of techniques to go along with the recipes.

Cooking Books

The other type of book may be for the home cook that’s ready to take the next step — from replicating recipes in a book to creating or elevating dishes. These books can be called cooking books, and they essentially flip the equation from the books we mentioned earlier.

Instead of focusing on direct recipes, cooking books are more devoted to techniques or even the science of cooking and flavor. These books aren’t ones we’d suggest for beginners because while both types teach you how to cook, the difference is like the difference between a beautiful adult coloring book and a book on art theory. One shows you how to make a specific picture (or recipe in this case) and the other teaches you how to make your own masterpiece painting (or dish). That isn’t to say that cookbooks are less useful, it’s just a different way of learning that may not be suitable for people who are new to cooking.

Instead of focusing on direct recipes, cooking books are more devoted to techniques or even the science of cooking and flavor.

Each cooking book isn’t a carbon copy of the other, though. They all teach a deeper understanding of cooking a little differently, so each is helpful in their own way. For example, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat (a book we’ve referenced a few times) delves into the science of different flavors and why things taste the way they do. This covers flavor combinations and cooking methods, which can improve your cooking intuition and knowledge of taste.

Alternatively, books like The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg and Ingredienti by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan break down individual ingredients so you can learn how best to use them. While Ingredienti is more centered on key ingredients of Italian cuisine, The Flavor Bible is mostly focused on handy charts that list the ingredients, the best ways to cook them, and the other ingredients they pair well with. Finally, you have books like Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, which is more focused on the techniques of cooking and illustrates them with recipes you can follow. Of course, there are other books that fit well into these categories, so don’t hesitate to check out a bunch.

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Cooking is a skill we feel everyone should have somewhat of a grasp on. Even if you’re not throwing out dishes that can wow your friends or making fresh pasta every night of the week, having a few reliable recipes that you know by heart can ensure you’re not relying on fast food or heavily processed ready-made meals from the grocery store. Books can be an excellent resource to have in your kitchen, no matter what your current cooking skill level is. Whether you’re just starting out or ready to start creating your own recipes from scratch, there’s a book out there that can help take your cooking abilities to the next level.