I love to cook, but I don’t always enjoy coming up with recipes. Like many of us, I have binders full of recipes that I’ve found online, but I still adore a beautiful, resource-full cookbook. When it’s truly great, you tend not to stray, and you keep coming back because it works.

So I’ve put together a list of my favorites—the ones that I regularly spill food on. (And as you can see, it was very hard to narrow the list.)

Beginner

When I learned to cook, I watched a lot of Food Network (when it was still all cooking shows), read a lot of Martha Stewart, and relied on some tried and true cookbooks. Use these books to learn how to chop an onion or cook pasta properly, then advance to making a simple béchamel or properly browning meat. It’s a process—but it’s well worth it.

Cooking for Dummies—A Reference for the Rest of Us, by Bryan Miller and Marie Rama

This book, which I got as a newlywed in the (cough, cough) 90s, really stirred my passion for cooking. It’s not anything particularly special; the recipes are basic, but they grow your curiosity about more sophisticated flavors and techniques, which has to happen for you to improve. My most tattered and stained pages are Southwestern Chili, Cream of Leek Soup, and Grilled Summer Vegetables With Basil Marinade.

"I Don't Know How to Cook" Book: 300 Great Recipes You Can't Mess Up!, by Mary-Lane Kamberg

Just as the title says, food you can’t screw up. Truthfully, you can mess up pretty much anything, but it’s nice to have a book that gives you the confidence to try. With varying levels of difficulty and easy twists on well-tried grub, this is a good one for the beginner’s kitchen.

Indispensable

These are the cookbooks for those of you who like to cook and regularly find yourselves in the kitchen. With recipes that range from easy to complex, you’ll reference these books and these chefs over and over again.

How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Food Matters, by Mark Bittman

Just buy them all. The sheer amount of recipes in the How to Cook Everything books (the best aspect being all the variations on a theme—beans and rice, for example), will keep you cooking for the rest of your life, and Food Matters is an easy recipe reference for healthful everyday meals.

Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker

It’s been around for 75 years for a reason. I find the layout a bit aggravating, and there aren’t any pretty pictures, but it has nearly every recipe you could ever want.

The Naked Chef, by Jamie Oliver

The beginning of the beginning of Jamie Oliver, superstar. Before he and Jools were married, back when he still said pukka, and when he hadn’t yet confessed to never having read a single book (the horror!). His food was local, fresh, fun, and the start of a movement away from fussiness in the kitchen to pared down, fundamentally delicious, “naked” food. Yum. An inspiration.

Specialty 

Once you’ve got the perfect book that covers everything, you’ll find the need to improve your collection with more specialized fare. Some of these will quickly become indispensable as well.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan and Hazan Family Favorites: Beloved Italian Recipes, by Giuliano Hazan

My favorite Italian recipes. Try the more traditional cookbook of Signora Hazan herself, or the gorgeous tome by her son. Hazan’s famous tomato sauce really is the easiest, most flavorful thing. You will come back to it time and again.

The World’s Finest Foods, by Ann Creber

Food is a cultural experience—it can carry your taste buds to places the rest of you has never been. The World’s Finest Foods takes you all over the world with astonishing photography and recipes that capture the experience of Indonesia, Thailand, Morocco, and more, without taxing every kitchen skill you’ve got.

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table, by Jenny Rosenstrach and The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, by Laurie David

These are lovely gifts for a new parent who wants to cook, who’s a bit overwhelmed, and who’s read a lot about how important it is to sit down as a family. It can seem quite daunting, but you really do learn so much about your family when you break bread together. Rosenstrach in particular shares tried and true recipes from her years as a mother and a blogger.

New Releases

Some of my favorite food bloggers, cooks, and chefs have new books out, just in time for the holidays!

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman

I wish Deb was my BFF. She has been writing her blog, Smitten Kitchen, with a regularity and success envied by writers and home cooks far and wide. I love her food, and she is also something many food bloggers are not—a very good writer. I can’t wait to get my hands on her new cookbook.

Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust, by Ina Garten

I would put any of Ina’s cookbooks under indispensable, because her recipes are that flawless. I make her food weekly. Lucky for us, she’s just released another book. As Ina would say, “How great is that!”

The Science of Good Cooking (Cook's Illustrated Cookbooks), by the Editors of America's Test Kitchen and Guy Crosby, PhD

Anything from America’s Test Kitchen is going to be valuable. Anything. They take food seriously, but they don’t make it fussy. This new release is sure to become another kitchen favorite.

The Food52 Cookbook, Volume 2: Seasonal Recipes from Our Kitchens to Yours, by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

The original Food52 Cookbook, which assembled 140 recipes from home cooks, was a phenomenon, furthering Amanda Hesser’s awesomeness and launching Food52.com, which is perfection (the Best Fish Tacos Ever actually are the best fish tacos ever). Shouts of holiday cheer will ring out on December 4, with the release of Volume 2.

Honorable Mentions

  • Seasons: The Best of Donna Hay Magazine, by Donna Hay
  • Cooking for Geeks, by Jeff Potter
  • The River Cafe Cook Book, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers
  • The Great Country Inns of America Cookbook, by James Stroman
  • Baking and Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan
  • The New Basics Cookbook, by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
  • The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters
  • Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero
  • Photo of couple following a recipe courtesy of andresr/Getty Images.