Ten years ago, Mark Bittman gave clueless kitchen rookies "How to Cook Everything," a Swiss Army knife of cookbooks. It contained a huge range of recipes, from breakfast to canapes to dessert, all presented in Bittman's minimalist style.
The updated version doesn't have the original's "1,500 recipes and variations," paring the essentials down to 185 recipes. Despite its smaller recipe collection, it is superior in every other way that matters.
First, it serves its target audience -- noncooks and semicooks -- with more depth and compassion. There are 1,000 photographs, detailing the steps in each recipe. And what photographs -- large and well-lit enough to convey key information for those anxious about their kitchen performance.
What texture should the guacamole be? How browned should the broiled chicken parts get? When should the polenta come off the heat? Pictures deliver that information quickly, and calm the worried.
Then there are the educational features, filling four pages of their own with "List of Lessons." Those who still confuse broiling with boiling will get concise definitions, and lessons, here.
The vexing question of "Is it done yet?" gets special attention, with 20 sets of assessment tips and techniques. (Don't guess about that fish, Bittman says -- until you've handled a lot of it, nick-and-peek is essential to avoiding overcooking.)
Which kitchen tools earn their way in a compact kit? Bittman offers 16 tools you need, including five pots and skillets. (His three essential knives count as one here, but let's not get picky.)
There's a right way to measure dry ingredients, to slice meat across the grain and to coat food in flour before pan-frying, and you can look it up in a trice. For wide-eyed innocents who could use a basic primer on sauteing, to more seasoned cooks who want a refresher on working with yeast dough, this book delivers.
Then there are the recipes. In this well-curated collection of classics, Bittman brings all his experience and urges toward simplification to bear.
Despite the stripped-down preparations, there are gourmet touches everywhere. His clam chowder is made from fresh clams. He livens up quinoa pilaf with ginger and chiles, and offers that roasting spare ribs in the oven gives you plenty of time to make your own barbecue sauce, according to your taste.
Bittman's book is a comprehensive introduction to modern cooking for the gripless. In this Internet era, it's so useful that even the Google-holics will find themselves turning pages as they grow into functioning, happy cooks.
How to Cook Everything: The Basics
By Mark Bittman
486 pages, $35