They're the Humvees of the cookbook set. Big bruisers, some more than 1,000 pages long, they're hard to ignore. And we didn't. We recommend these eight books for the simple reason that they're huge. Swaddle them in a couple yards of wrapping paper and a steroid-enhanced bow and you're bound to impress.
But wait. If you're wondering if there's more to these volumes than simply heft, the answer is surprisingly, happily, yes. These books are not only among the best published this year, they represent milestones in food science, in American cuisine, and, most importantly, in helping cooks find a recipe guaranteed to please.
ON FOOD AND COOKING: THE SCIENCE AND LORE OF THE KITCHEN
Harold McGee; Scribner, $35.
Number of Pages: 884.
Why It's a Keeper: Even if you don't know a beaker from a beignet, McGee's books are worth reading. His groundbreaking 1984 book (of the same title) quickly became a must-have for chefs, food scientists, home cooks and anyone who's ever wondered why bread gets stale faster in the refrigerator or what makes Pop Rocks pop. McGee's new book has been completely revised and updated -- not surprising, considering the many food developments of the past 20 years, from mad cow disease to irradiated food. He explains them all in easy-to-understand language, peppered with fascinating tips and anecdotes.
What We Learned: Breathing out through the mouth and in through the nose will keep you from coughing if you get too big a mouthful of wasabi or horseradish.
Whom to Buy It for: Curious minds, adventuresome cooks, chefs, scientists, teachers and those who love to know why.
THE NEW BEST RECIPE
From the Editors of Cook's Illustrated; America's Test Kitchen, $35.
Number of Pages: 1,028.
Why It's a Keeper: Being obsessive-compulsive is a good thing when it comes to recipe testing, as the editors of Cook's Illustrated have proven. They have created a mini-empire of magazines and cookbooks based on the philosophy that they will test a recipe as many times as it takes to get the most successful version for the home kitchen. The first "Best Recipe" came out in 1999; this one is double the size, with 1,000 recipes for everything from corn chowder to creme brulee. Don't expect glossy color photos of food. The book is like the magazine, with black-and-white photos and pen-and-ink illustrations of techniques.
What We Learned: To slice button mushrooms quickly and easily, use an egg slicer. Place the stem-trimmed mushrooms, one at a time, into the egg slicer. The pieces will be even and thin.
Whom to Buy It for: Beginning cooks nervous about messing up, experienced home cooks looking to expand their repertoire, anyone who likes recipes based on solid techniques that have been thoroughly tested.
THE GOURMET COOKBOOK
Edited by Ruth Reichl; Houghton Mifflin, $40.
Number Of Pages: 1,040.
Why It's a Keeper: It's been more than 50 years since Gourmet, the grande dame of food magazines, published a major cookbook. Editor in chief Reichl and two longtime food editors at the magazine whittled down an archive of 50,000 recipes to a core of 1,200 for the book. The recipes have been tested, tweaked, revamped and modernized. The book presents an interesting half-century snapshot of sophisticated American cooking, including recipes from some of the country's most innovative cookbook authors and chefs. This is the book to keep alongside your tattered "Joy of Cooking" for the times you need something a cut above the basic.
What We Learned: If a recipe calls for a 10-inch skillet, measure the pan across the top and not the bottom. (This also applies to baking pans.)
Whom to Buy It for: Those who love to try something new, those who love the magazine, those who consider themselves hip, contemporary and unafraid of a recipe that calls for more than three ingredients.
1,000 ITALIAN RECIPES
Michele Scicolone, Wiley Publishing, $35.
Number of Pages: 652.
Why It's a Keeper: Scicolone has authored nine Italian cookbooks and teaches cooking classes around the country. (She also occasionally writes for the Food section.) Whatever she does, her recipes are golden -- they're dependable, delicious, intriguing, creative . . . have we mentioned dependable? This book crams in an enormous sampling of dishes from the many varied regions of Italy. There are the favorites such as lasagna and risotto, as well as comfort foods such as eggplant parmigiana and meatballs. But the author also includes more unusual dishes she has learned from Italian friends and family.
What We Learned: Instead of adding a little ground pork to your meatball mixture, try adding a little mortadella instead (the real Italian "baloney"), as they do at a trattoria in -- where else? -- Bologna.
Whom to Buy It for: Any cook -- beginner to experienced -- looking for can't-miss Italian recipes.
PIE: 300 TRIED-AND-TRUE RECIPES FOR DELICIOUS HOMEMADE PIE
Ken Haedrich; Harvard Common Press, $24.95.
Number of Pages: 639.
Why It's a Keeper: Can you really have too many pie recipes? Haedrich, a longtime pie lover and baking teacher, thinks not. He has included recipes for everything from a very grown-up Apple-Pear White Wine Pie to Little No-Bake Butterfinger Pies easy enough for kids to make. Nervous about making pie crust? Haedrich includes recipes for 21 different kinds, from traditional shortening crust to press-in crumb crusts. His instructions are clearly written, and he includes practical advice for cooks of all experience levels.
What We Learned: When making a pie crust with shortening, measure out the shortening and put it in the freezer for 10 minutes while you assemble the rest of the ingredients. The result will be a flakier pie crust.
Whom to Buy It for: No one on a low-carb diet, that's for sure. But bakers of all stripes will enjoy this book.
THE KING ARTHUR FLOUR COOKIE COMPANION: THE ESSENTIAL COOKIE COOKBOOK
From the baking experts at King Arthur Flour Co., Countryman Press, $29.95.
Number of Pages: 509.
Why It's a Keeper: This is the companion to last year's surprise hit, "The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion." It reflects the earnest, straightforward New England philosophy of its authors, the baking experts at the nation's oldest flour company. Instructions are easy to follow, advice is generous and practical, and the collection of reliable recipes ranges from the historic to the contemporary. Something else to appreciate: The simple, unfussy layout of the pages make the recipes easy to read.
What We Learned: Spreading batter for bar cookies or brownies? Wet fingers work better than a spatula. The easiest way to make sure it reaches all the way to the pan corners and is fairly smooth is to wet your hands and use your finger to pat and push the batter where you want it to go.
Whom to Buy It for: Anyone with a lot of bake sales on their to-do list, dessert lovers, bakers of all levels of experience.
THE OXFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FOOD AND DRINK IN AMERICA, VOLUMES 1-2
Edited by Andrew F. Smith, Oxford University Press, $195.
Number of Pages: 1,541.
Why It's a Keeper: Fascinating, informative, these two volumes are a wealth of information on every aspect of American food and drink. Organized alphabetically, they contain 800 articles from more than 200 contributors. Entries cover the ingredients, people, publications, historical events, trends and advertising that comprise American gastronomical history. Open Volume 1 to the B section and you'll find the history of the bialy as well as explanations of bubble tea and binge eating. The W section in Volume 2 contains entries on wine, wraps, Wonder Bread and Harvey Wiley, an early pioneer of food safety laws. Want to learn about early American cookbooks? Betty Crocker? The fad diets of the 19th century? The inventor of Dr Pepper? It's all here. There's even a useful listing of food-related Web sites, organizations and festivals at the end of Volume 2. Truly an invaluable resource.
What We Learned: In 1843, an American, Nancy M. Johnson, revolutionized ice cream making. She invented (and patented) an ice cream freezer with a crank ouside the tub. Johnson's invention involved less work and made better ice cream. Best of all, "it democratized ice cream, since it allowed even those who lacked servants and helpers to make it."
Whom to Buy It for: Food professionals, students, scholars, historians or anyone who loves culinary trivia.
BAKING ILLUSTRATED: THE PRACTICAL KITCHEN COMPANION FOR THE HOME BAKER
From the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, America's Test Kitchen, $35.
Number of Pages: 514.
Why It's a Keeper: This is another in the "Best Recipe" series and a worthy cookbook addition for those who have had spotty success with baking. Like most Cook's Illustrated ventures, this book exhaustively examines every technique, ingredient and piece of equipment crucial for baking success. Each recipe is treated like a mini-cooking lesson, carefully explaining why other versions of that recipe often fail, plus offering kitchen-tested techniques to ensure that you will succeed. Recipes range from biscuits and yeast breads to pizza and focaccia to cakes and cookies.
What We Learned: Want to spray that muffin tin with cooking spray without making a mess? Place the tin on the open dishwasher door. Spray the muffin cups. Any excess spray that lands on the door will be washed away the next time the dishwasher is used.
Whom to Buy It for: Beginner bakers wanting to branch out, those who never bake because of fear of failure, those who appreciate Cook's engineering approach to cooking.