The best kitchen reference books for cooking nerds

In the age of the Internet, physical reference books may seem like outdated tools. Why make your shelves groan 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, that’s why. There are plenty of reliable sources for cooking online (perhaps you know Epicurious.com?), but it’s up to you to separate the good from the bad. And even well-meaning people tend to contribute anecdotal, outdated, or incorrect information online in places where readers won’t think twice about questioning it.

Reference works, on the other hand, provide thoroughly researched, edited, and properly cited information without readers having to rely on their own digital savvy to know what’s what. A good reference book not only provides quality information, but is also well organized and easy to navigate. Also, when you leaf through a physical reference book, you’re likely to not only find the information you’re looking for, but you’ll also find answers to questions you didn’t even find knows Questions. This is why so many of the nerds on our team (myself included) believe in leafing through weighty tomes.

Here are some of our favorite kitchen reference books.

For word freaks

Food terms are generally loanwords—words that one language adopts from another (think: chocolate, sushi, or croissant). Editors at a food magazine are tasked with standardizing the stream of these words as they integrate quickly into language, which can be challenging. Our editors rely on these two books as their primary sources of insight into the language of food.

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

A comprehensive dictionary devoted to the language of culinary art, this volume by Webster contains some 20,000 entries for foods from around the world, the names and biographies of well-known chefs, definitions of cooking utensils, and even measurements and conversions. This book is currently out of print and lacking some recent updates, but as one of the most comprehensive dictionaries focused on food and cooking, it remains a trusted source.

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

The new companion for gourmets, 5th edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

If you like doing your reference work on the go, The companion of the new gourmet packs 7,200 entries into a paperback format for the mass market. It’s not as extensive as Webster’s, but the NFLC is still a superior source of recent terminology. It is the most up-to-date culinary dictionary for the English language.

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The companion of the new gourmet

The Science of Cooking

Associate Editor Genevieve Yam has already compiled a wonderful list of science books for the kitchen, 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 ripen after harvest? What is the difference between browning food and burning it? The answers to all of these questions, along with a vast list of others, can be found in the pages of Harold McGee’s classic guide to food science. This book can captivate you. 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 Lore of the Kitchen

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

Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry has its roots in mathematics, which is why Michael Ruhlman’s relational approach to culinary understanding makes so much sense. This book breaks recipes down into easy-to-remember ratios, with the ultimate goal of teaching you how to cook and bake successfully without having to rely on recipe guidance.

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Ratio: The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking

For aspiring chefs

While there’s a lot to learn in culinary school, some of the brightest minds in the food world are self-taught who have relied on tech books like this to hone more than just their knife skills.

The professional chef from the Culinary Institute of America

Once upon a time my 10 year old who dreamed of going to culinary school got this book for his birthday. Although I scrapped my plans for culinary school, I still refer to this comprehensive text describing methods and masteries taught at the Culinary Institute of America. If you’ve always wanted to know how the white hats do it, this book provides a thorough guide to the basics of European cooking techniques. And by basics, we mean master chef basics, like how to properly bone a chicken, clarify a broth, or cut a carrot into tiny identical diamond-shaped pieces.

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Gastronomic Larousse

A classic of all the culinary classics of the French culinary tradition, this encyclopedia of terminology and techniques continues to serve as an essential reference work for professional chefs. It is the book that Julia Child learned from and contains both encyclopedia entries and over 3,800 recipes. Although originally focused on French cuisine, it has since expanded to cover 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 miscellaneous

These books are fodder for a hungry mind – perfect for the curious cook interested in improving.

The Taste Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

When she’s feeling uninspired, food editor Kendra Vaculin turns to Niki Segnit’s treatise on taste. The book breaks down 99 flavors and 4,851 flavor combinations, and the book is filled with vivid charts and charming anecdotes. It’s a reference book that teaches you how to understand and combine flavors, but it’s also just plain captivating reading. As you read it, you will no doubt be presented with flavor combinations you never thought you could create yourself. Peanuts and Asparagus, anyone?

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The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes, and Ideas for the Creative Cook

World Encyclopedia Food Cultures by Ken Albala

This stunning four-volume collection focuses on food through an anthropological lens, covering countries and communities around the world. The entries contain information on basic foods, typical dishes, eating habits and food for special occasions. Rather than attempting to define food cultures through strict geographic or cultural boundaries, this encyclopedia does its best to outline how culinary customs of diverse communities are merging, adapting, and changing through colonization, immigration, and globalization.

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World Encyclopedia Food Cultures [4 volumes]

Herbs and spices by Jill Norman

Photographs accompany each of the 200+ entries of spices and herbs from around the world, with additional images of common cultivars (13 species of basil!). The text includes tasting notes, storage recommendations, flavor combinations, recipe suggestions, and basic growing tips. It’s a great visual companion to the more text-heavy tomes on this list.

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Herbs & Spices: Over 200 herbs and spices with recipes for marinades, spice blends, oils and more

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