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13 best cookbooks for beginners to build confidence in the kitchen

Whether you're a novice wanting to learn the basics or keen to master something new, these are the guides you need

Stacey Smith
Thursday 10 September 2020 14:29
Look to TV names like Mary Berry, as well as much-loved classics with step-by-step pictures for the most reliable sources
Look to TV names like Mary Berry, as well as much-loved classics with step-by-step pictures for the most reliable sources

If the enforced lockdown has exposed your kitchen skills for what they really are (ie below par), now might feel like a good time to address that. With all of us spending more time at home, there has definitely been less opportunity to hide behind ready meals, takeaways and restaurants. But with a few simple tips and tricks, you’ll be able to get a tasty plate of food on the table, fast. Yes, even you.

We’ve rounded up a selection of brand new releases as well as some older titles that have stood the test of time, all of which will have you cooking up a storm (even if you’re a complete beginner). Whether you’re cooking for yourself or need to feed a whole family, we’ve got the books to help you on your culinary journey.

We’ve turned to the queen of the kitchen, Delia Smith, to teach us the absolute kitchen basics – such as how to make the perfect omelette, while Jamie Oliver shows us the ropes when it comes to making the everyday favourites we should all have in our arsenal. Whether you’re looking to eat less meat, sticking to a budget or simply want to make the delicious dishes you enjoy elsewhere, all by yourself, these books will show you how, leaving you with a newfound confidence you can’t beat.

The benefits of learning to cook are endless, including mental clarity, having a creative outlet, not to mention the joy it brings seeing loved ones tuck into a dish you’ve created.

Of course, not everyone will enjoy the act of cooking (and for those, I’d focus on some of the speedy, one-tray books below), but learning this life skill is one of the greatest gifts you can yourself.

The ultimate act of self-love, not only does food sustain us each and every day but with a little know-how, you’ll no longer look into that pantry with trepidation but with excitement. We’ll set the table, while you choose the best books for you.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘Jamie's Ministry of Food: Anyone Can Learn to Cook in 24 Hours’ by Jamie Oliver. Published by Penguin Books

We originally learned how to cook with Jamie's Ministry of Food and although our copy looks a bit battered, it still delivers when it comes to the basics. Each recipe is accompanied by multiple action shots so you can be confident you’re getting it right at each stage, with a very fresh-faced Jamie providing bitesize instructions that are easy to follow. Chapters cover everyday favourites including quick pasta dishes, tasty stir-frys and easy curries. There are fail-proof mince recipes for lasagne, bolognese and chilli con carne and a section on side dishes to spruce up our veg. It may take longer than 24 hours to master all of the recipes in this book but as the subtitle suggests it certainly won’t take long to bring you up to speed. A confidence-boosting classic.

‘The Roasting Tin Around the World: Global One Dish Dinners’ by Rukmini Iyer. Published by Square Peg

This is the fourth book from food stylist Rukmini Iyer and follows the same one-pan ethos as her previous titles but this time takes culinary influences from around the world. Although it’s aimed at busy people, we actually think these tray bake-style recipes are perfect for beginners as all the chopping and prepping is done upfront, leaving the oven to do the rest. With the ethos, “minimum effort, maximum flavour”, she’ll have you effortlessly making a quick dressing whilst your Korean-style aubergines with sesame rice is cooking. Some ingredients, such as gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) or the north African spicy marinade chermoula may be unfamiliar if you’re just starting out but Iyer explains what everything is and how to get your hands on them.

‘Cooking on a Bootstrap: Over 100 Simple, Budget Recipes’ by Jack Monroe. Published by Bluebird

Beginners will love the light-hearted, down to earth way Jack writes – telling readers to chuck this in and call a friend while we wait for something else to cook. Lots of the recipes are naturally vegetarian or can be made so, such as the “sausagne” – a thrown together, budget version of the Italian classic. The microwave is often used to keep things simple and speed up recipes and because everything is designed with the cheapest version in mind, you’re not going to make any costly mistakes. Not all recipes have a photograph but most of the more complicated ones do.

‘Time to Eat: Delicious, time-saving meals using simple store-cupboard ingredients’ by Nadiya Hussain. Published by Penguin Books

Although better known for her showstopping bakes, in this title Nadiya shows us how to make inexpensive recipes, that will appeal to the whole family, in no time at all. We were astonished by how she turns humble ingredients – such as a can of baked beans – into the altogether more impressive harissa bean pizza. The book accompanies the BBC2 TV series of the same name, so if you found yourself watching that and thinking you’d quite like to give dishes a go, this is a must for your bookshelf. However, newbies should note that not all recipes come with a photo.

‘Miguel Barclay's Super Easy One Pound Meal’ by Miguel Barclay. Published by Headline Publishing Group

Cooking doesn’t really get more stripped back than this. Focusing on just one pan, Miguel provides tips and tricks to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. Inside you’ll find more than 90 recipes, all of which will only ever cost £1 a head (or thereabouts) which is particularly appealing if you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest in costly ingredients. Recipes are all for one person which makes scaling up super easy, with hassle-free, flavour-packed meals including couscous paella and fisherman's macaroni pie.

‘6-Minute Showstoppers: Delicious bakes, cakes, treats and sweets – in a flash!’ by Sarah Rainey. Published by Michael Joseph

If your idea of a six-minute meal is beans on toast (and let’s face it, even that sounds pretty speedy), you’ll find Sarah Rainey’s latest collection of recipes nothing short of remarkable. Following on from her debut book, Three Ingredient Baking, this time you’ll learn how to make the likes of butterscotch banoffee pie and Pimm’s cupcakes in just six minutes from start to finish. It’s not all sweet treats though – swift savoury showstoppers include halloumi fritters and flatbread pizzetta. Once you’ve got the basics down you’ll feel more confident in adding your own twist to recipes based on what you have to hand. It's published 4 May, and you can pre-order now.

‘A Modern Way to Cook: Over 150 Quick, Smart and Flavour-Packed Recipes for Every Day’ by Anna Jones. Published by Harper Collins

This is the cookbook we return to more than any other, despite it being completely vegetarian and us not. It won’t necessarily teach you the basics if you’ve never picked up a knife before but it will introduce you to a whole new way of looking at your veggies. With stunning photography throughout, easy to follow recipes and manageable ingredients lists, chapters are helpfully divided into the time it takes to tackle. So to begin with, we’d focus on nailing the magic one-pot spaghetti before moving onto 40 minute-feasts as your confidence grows.

‘Joe's 30 Minute Meals: 100 Quick and Healthy Recipes’ by Joe Wicks. Published by Bluebird

Fast becoming the nation’s favourite PE teacher, Wicks’s books are geared towards us eating more healthily, and they also happen to be ideal for the beginner too. Originally focusing on meals that could be rustled up in just 15 minutes, this title gives himself a little longer for each dish which we feel results in a more accomplished plate of food, albeit with recipes that are still very easy to follow. Heavy on the meat, chapters are divided by protein, with the likes of bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed chicken breasts just one of the recipes that will leave you feeling proud to serve.

‘From the Oven to the Table: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves’ by Diana Henry

If you describe yourself as a gourmand but draw blanks when it comes to creating your own culinary feasts, this cookbook could be a good option for you. The award-winning Diana Henry openly admits she loves cooking while also acknowledging that no one can conjure up complicated meals, seven days a week. It’s not the most pared-back cookbook we put to the test, but this title focuses on “bung-it-in-the-oven” cooking – so with just a little prep, you’ll come back to a fully complete meal guaranteed to impress. With beautiful photography, some recipes are fussier than others but as you become more confident you’ll want to tackle those too.

‘Delia's Complete How to Cook: Both a Guide for Beginners and a Tried and Tested Recipe Collection for Life’ by Delia Smith. Published by BBC Books

An oldie but still a goodie. Although this was first released back in 2009 it’s still just as relevant to newbies now as it was then. Featuring 700 pages of basic cooking guides, with years of experience under her belt, Delia gives us the definitive recipe for every dish you could realistically want to make – from how to cook an egg through to the perfect risotto. Step by step photos will reassure even the most inexperienced cook, with techniques thoroughly explained so that you really understand why you’re following each instruction. You’ll need to clear some space for this tome of a book but it’s one you’ll refer back to time and time again.

‘Good Food: 5 Ingredients: 130 simple dishes for every day of the week’ by Good Food Guides. Published by BBC Books

We often find recipes that have too many hard to find ingredients immediately off-putting. Not so with this back to basics cookbook by Good Food where each dish contains just five ingredients or less. Recipes may be straightforward but when you’re learning to cook or trying to rustle something tasty up mid-week, that’s exactly what we look for. The blackened salmon fajitas take just 15 minutes to get on the table but will leave you feeling very satisfied. With lots of clear photography, full nutritional information and numbered instructions, you can’t go wrong.

‘Mary Berry's Complete Cookbook: Over 650 recipes’ by Mary Berry. Published by DK

A home cooking bible, Mary Berry shows us the ropes with this encyclopaedic guide. The thorough introduction will help beginners collate the right kit, while a glossary explains common terms. Newbies will be greatly reassured by the step-by-step photography included for each dish, with the “master recipe” being the backbone on which you’ll refine your skills as you become more confident.

‘Leiths How to Cook by Leiths School of Food and Wine’. Published by Quadrille Publishing

Every chef worth their salt should know the best way to dice an onion, julienne a carrot and bone poultry. This book shows us all of the skills other books take for granted that we should know, with detailed step by step photos, before revealing the classic recipes our new found skills can be used in. It’s the next best thing to attending the prestigious Leiths School of Food and Wine in person (not to mention considerably cheaper!)

The verdict: Books for learning how to cook

Although not a new release, rereading Jamie's Ministry of Food feels just as relevant today as it did when it came out. Containing easy to follow, foolproof recipes that you and your family will actually want to make, in Jamie’s typical down to earth way.

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