Buying A Basic Cookbook Might Be Your Best Investment

I’ve read books on economics, personal finance, investing, and saving money. But I have one book that has had a higher ROI than any other.

It’s not a money book. It’s a basic cookbook. 

And even in the age of Pinterest, food blogs, food TV, and cooking apps, you still need one basic cookbook that covers a multitude of ingredients, basic food preparation, and cooking methods. One cookbook to turn to whether you want to roast a whole chicken, open a coconut, or bake a cake.

My grandmother had the Joy of Cooking. My mom had the Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook. I like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I paid $8 for it used in 2004, and I’ve pulled it out at least once a month for the last 12 years. The dust jacket is torn and I’ve spilled stuff on some of the pages.

My book isn’t pretty, but sure is useful.

Whatever ingredients I have on hand, How to Cook Everything will probably tell me how to use them with common ingredients to make something delicious.

You Need to Cook

Okay, maybe if you live alone and make a decent amount of money, you don’t really need to cook. You can probably get by on takeout and convenience food.

But eating out is expensive. Not only does it cost more money for your food if you don’t cook, but it may have long term effects as well because you probably won’t eat as healthy.

That’s not necessarily true if you learned to cook mostly by using the ingredients on the package, like I did. For several years, I depended on a lot of processed foods for our meals. They were easy to prepare and convenient, but had plenty of extra sodium and sugar. Plus, while the processed food cost less than restaurant food, I still paid a premium.

Let’s face it, that’s not really cooking.

I don’t make everything from scratch now, but I do a lot more real cooking these days. And while the “follow the instructions on the package” method got me comfortable with kitchen basics, I had a lot to learn. 

I could have taken a cooking class or 3 at my local community college, but even the inexpensive ones are $100 for 8 weeks. Private lessons? LOL. $50 or more per session, even after Groupons.

Following a good cookbook seemed like a much more economical way of upping my cooking game.

Cookbook Confession

I worked for a used book company for 17 years, and I have a lot of cookbooks that I picked up dirt cheap. For years, I’d pick up books by Food Network celebrities. Or I’d buy books on bread making, or vegetarian cooking, or making cookies.  I had a big huge bookshelf of cookbooks in my kitchen, just like my grandmother had.

It’s not that I never used all those books. I flipped through many, and discovered some ingredient combinations to try. Or tried a recipe or two and then let the book sit on the shelf.

Mostly, though, I just collected cookbooks without using them. Since we moved 6 years ago, most of them have sat in boxes.

Having a ton of cookbooks made a lot more sense before the advent of the internet. Browsing recipes and reading the suggestions of a lot of different cooks helps make you a better cook. But when there are millions of recipes a Google search away, you don’t have to own a bunch of cookbooks. 

You may like to own a bunch of cookbooks, but you don’t need to.

I really only need the one basic cookbook these days. As long as I have my basic cookbook, i can fix anything. By supplementing it with online content, I can cook everything.

Online Recipe Issues

So between Pinterest and Yummly and All Recipes, why do I even need a cookbook at all? You’d think it would be easy to find a recipe for just about anything online, and you’d be right.

Finding a good BASIC recipe that uses the ingredients you probably have on hand, though, can be a lot harder.

  • So many recipes to choose from! Some are good, some less so. A good basic cookbook gives you a go-to source.
  • Some recipe writers assume you have a good skill set. Unless you do (or just like googling for instructions), you need something that walks you through the steps.
  • I find a lot of online content tries to stand out by being original with ingredients. Sometimes it’s easier to modify a simple recipe than to simplify a complicated one, though.

I don’t want you to think I don’t like online recipes. I do. They’ve replaced the need for a whole cabinet’s worth of cookbooks.

But they aren’t the place I’m going to start my search if I’m wondering “What the heck do I do with a whole fish?”


Finding your One Basic Cookbook

If you already have your one basic cookbook, great. But if you want to find the best one for you to use, you might want to try browsing a few different ones at the bookstore or library before buying.

I’d start with How to Cook Everything, Joy of CookingBetter Homes and Garden New Cookbook. the Science of Good Cooking, and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (my father in law’s cookbook of choice.)

Alternately, you can just ask your favorite cook to tell you their go-to cooking reference.

These are common books, and while I’ve included Amazon links, they are not difficult to pick up used. So, ask around, check around, and find a favorite to help you cook anything.

What books do you think have given you the best return on investment? Do you have a go-to cooking reference? 

This post includes affiliate links.

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich and Femme Frugality*

20 thoughts on “Buying A Basic Cookbook Might Be Your Best Investment

  1. I think this is awesome and uncomplicates so many things! I go online for recipes right now and people change or make so many suggestions to the original recipe that it’s hard to know what to do! Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve heard of the Joy of Cooking (and I hate cooking) – so maybe that’s a good start!

    • I hope it helps…I think having a good basic cookbook has allowed me to cook a lot more variety. Like, earlier this week, I made a savory custard for the first time. And even Julia Child learned to cook from the Joy of Cooking…it’s a classic.

  2. Totally agree, Emily! I used to have a whole shelf of cookbooks, but I’m down to 4 or 5 now, with Better Homes and Gardens being one of the most used. Like you, I do use online recipes, but like having a few basic cookbooks to pull out – many times it saves me the time of searching through endless recipes online.
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Save more money by stopping your impulse buyingMy Profile

    • I know. I don’t need 200 recipes to roast a turkey, I need one solid one, and one good cookbook is a big time saver.

  3. Hi Emily, We have Delia’s Complete Cookery course and it’s great for checking the basics, like you say how to roast a chicken or basic sauces and stocks. Most cookery books become coffee table books- interesting to flick through with a drink in hand, but infrequently reached for when planning meals.

    It’s only recently that I discovered how big the cooking book section is at our library, so next time I’m tempted to buy one, I’m going to borrow instead. I’ll probably only flick through it with a drink before taking it back, but at least it doesn’t cost money 🙂

    • It is fun to flip through the cookbooks, wine in hand, imagining yourself making (or eating) the recipes, but you’re right, you don’t necessarily need to buy them to do that. Thanks for the suggestion! Delia’s Complete Cookery is less ubiquitous here in the States, but it looks awesome. I may have to check our local library for it myself.

  4. My wife and I find a lot of recipes online these days. We do own a number of cookbooks. I would find value in a basic cookbook, because often I find recipes have too much going on or some ingredients I don’t like and I want to prepare something basic. It’s a good reference to help teach kids too.
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…Money MoviesMy Profile

    • Yes! We have an old Paula Deen Cooking with Kids book for Little Bit. It’s funny how often she used to pull it out for her bedtime story. But it’s pretty limited, and I really hope she’ll be a good cook someday, so we need to bump her up to something more complete in the future.

      And, I often find myself having to look through a lot of recipes when I look online to find instructions that don’t require an extra purchase. Simple is better, and allows you to build on your own variations.

  5. I just keep 3 or 4 now, I tore out the pages I really used in the others and added those pages to my recipe folder. I love having a great set of go to dishes. I even add some of my basic meals, because they have a way off falling out of the rotation and I need a reminder. =)
    Ms. Montana recently posted…3 Lessons after 6 months BloggingMy Profile

    • Practical as that sounds, tearing pages out of books disturbs me….too many years handling previously owned books, I guess.

      I have a couple of recipe notebooks where I copied my mom’s recipes down or picked up some others. And some typed out recipes from my mom on my computer too, plus her old recipe file box. I wish I had her old recipe book, though. I’m sure it would have some favorites that I’m missing, but her husband wanted it. I guess I need to start putting together a list of faves for Little Bit to have one day.

      It’s funny how recipes come in and out of our lives. I used to make curries all the time, but haven’t made them in a decade. Same with eggplant parmesan (i decided too much trouble, though delicious, and now make an eggplant and feta dish that’s a lot easier.)

  6. While my mother taught me a bit about cooking, the bulk of my lessons happened when I was living on my own and learning from cookbooks. Having the wealth of online recipe variations is nice, but it can be overwhelming, and as was mentioned, they often includes special ingredients. In our house we use the Better Homes and Garden New Cook Book, as well as calls to my mother-in-law, to help us with what we need to know to make healthy, home cooked meals.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…How to Live Free (Or Pretty Damn Close to It)My Profile

    • Always good to have that source for good cooking advice. I know I wish I’d learned more from my mom (she taught me some, but I didn’t prioritize learning her good cooking like I should have) and I’m learning a fair amount from my in-laws. It is one of those things you tend to learn on your own, though.

  7. I like to cook and it is something I have done since I was a kid. You are absolutely right – you need to have baseline knowledge to leverage any online recipe.

    If you have a cooking baseline, and you look at an online recipe, and kind of have a good intuition whether it is good recipe or not. You can even take it and tweak to suit your style right off the bat. If you don’t, it would be a hit or miss, which is not at all cool.

    I ‘m curious about “How to Cook Everything”, so I am going to see if it is available in the local library.
    Michael recently posted…Why You Should Be Thinking About Retirement as a MillennialMy Profile

    • I hadn’t thought about the baseline issue, Michael, but that’s probably what a good basic cookbook provides. i tend to do a lot of riffs from the recipes i find in mine…so my quiche from the other day included a touch of dijon mustard even though the recipe didn’t call for it because I know it tastes good with bacon, cheese and eggs. But I needed the basic recipe to know the proportion of eggs to milk for the custard.

  8. We have 10 cookbooks we keep in our kitchen that my hubby sometimes uses, but even more in the basement that I have not seen him pick up in 10 years! (he’s the foodie/chef in the family). I’m going to try & convince him to donate them to the Sally Ann so someone can actually use them! As for me I find and save recipes on pinterest. A great way to find supper ideas fast and to save favorites for the next time I make them.

    • I need to either donate, sell, or trade most of my cookbooks. They certainly do me no good sitting in boxes, and someone else might be able to use them. And I save a lot of recipes on Pinterest for later, but I guess I need two (or more) boards…one for easy/basic recipes and one for more complicated ones….and then there’s dessert vs side dish vs entree….which describes what happens to me on Pinterest, LOL.

      I do find the Yummly app to be pretty useful though.

  9. My wife is an amazing cook and learned how to cook Iranian food from her mom. There were never any recipes but she knows how to make all the amazing Iranian dishes. My mouth is actually watering thinking about it. On top of that with the internet today, it’s so easy to find great recipes with user feedback. So whenever my wife is in the mood to try something new, she quickly scans and finds a fun recipe that she thinks the family will enjoy. Much cheaper than going out to eat 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…You Are Your Greatest EnemyMy Profile

    • Definitely cheaper than going out to eat! It is really easy to find recipes online, and it sounds like your wife has a great reservoir of recipes and cooking knowledge in her head to draw from.

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