The Joy of Cookbooks

Fall brings a bumper crop. Which ones are worth adding to your kitchen shelf?

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Kathryn Parker Almanas for TIME

The truth about cookbooks is that you only need a few of them. You need a basic one that tells you what goes into potpie; you need a couple for specialty fields like Moroccan food or barbecue; and you maybe need one for complicated dishes with a million ingredients—if you cook like that at home, which nobody does. Nobody needs an entire library, especially in the age of Epicurious.com

Yet we keep buying cookbooks. Many are decorative objects, destined to sit on coffee tables unopened. Some connect stars with their crushed-out fans. Some are aspirational--the food we'd cook if we could devote days to the kitchen. Most of all, cookbooks keep us connected to the times. (Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a classic by anybody's measure, is chock-full of dishes no one eats anymore.) This fall brings us a new crop; here's my take on which ones to add to your short shelf.

Wait, which one's the skillet again? Inexperienced cooks need more than just a few lines of laconic text to help them along. Rachael Ray has coached a generation of rookies on her Food Network shows, talking and plopping and emoting her way through dish after dish. Her latest book, Rachael Ray's Look and Cook (Clarkson Potter, $24.99), shows what each stage should look like in big photos. Betty Crocker, or more specifically, the 1976 edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook, used to be my bulletproof go-to recipe source. But now Ray fills that role. Disclosure: I'm friends with her, and I blog on her site. But her recipes, like the wild mushroom broken-spaghetti "risotto" or the double-bacon beer-braised cheeseburger, speak for themselves, both because they're good and because they always work.

The specialist's manual. If you need a meatloaf recipe, any cookbook will do. But what if you want a regional American standard, like pot likker, say, or braised raccoon? The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook (University of Georgia Press, $25) is a spiral-bound tribute to all those self-published, long-forgotten local cookbooks. It's as much Americana as cookbook, an effort to preserve a vanishing part of our culture. Either way, it's an instant classic—although why there's only one fried-chicken recipe is beyond me.

Don't try this at home! In recent years, global superchefs have been publishing massive tomes that are the closest you will ever come to eating in their astronomically expensive and impossible-to-get-into restaurants. The man now thought by many cooks to be the best chef in the world, René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, has just put out a predictably lush collection, but since you don't live in Denmark and are likely not addicted to wild berries and reindeer, you probably won't want to cook from Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon, $49.95). A more inspiring high-end piece of local/seasonal food porn that also happens to double as a great cookbook is Eric Ripert's A Return to Cooking (Artisan, $25.95), a 2002 release I keep coming back to. Which, really, is the true test of a cookbook: it should be something you use again and again. A cookbook that just sits on the shelf is, after all, as useless as food that goes uneaten.