Here are six books from my core collection that I couldn’t be without. My list won’t be the same as your list. The books we keep depend on who we are and what we like to cook. Both love and need are entirely subjective.
“Chez Panisse Desserts,” by Lindsey Shere (Random House, 1985). I am not a baker and a baker I will never be. My taste in desserts runs to simple, flavorful and fruit-driven. This book is my bible.
“Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gastronomia” (Selezione dal Readers Digest Milano, 1990). Kind of the Italian “Larousse Gastronomique” only better and published, oddly enough, by Readers Digest. This is a trove of Italian food information, with really terrific recipes; I’ve gone through three of them. It’s hard to find, even in Italy, but worth the search.
“Joy of Cooking,” by Irma Rombauer (Bobbs Merrill, 1943). I have a half-dozen editions of “Joy” (it’s fascinating how the book evolved over time), but the one I turn to most often is from 1943. That’s the one with the blue diamond pattern on the cover. This is my home cookbook, where I go for waffles and pancakes and the solid Midwestern food I was brought up on.
“On Food and Cooking,” by Harold McGee (Scribner, 2004). Need to look up an arcane food fact? Odds are you’ll find it in here. I don’t know a single serious food writer who doesn’t have this at their desk. It’s like our dictionary.
“Simple French Food,” by Richard Olney (Atheneum, 1974). This is my ideal cookbook. I can spend hours flipping through it, and I almost always find some technique or flavor combination that I’d never noticed before to inspire me. Quite a feat for a book that’s now more than 40 years old.
“Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2007). Great basic information on almost every aspect of non-meat cooking, including preparing vegetables and how to deal with different grains. The recipes range from the basic to the fanciful, but they always work and they’re always delicious.