The 5 French Cookbooks To Have on Your Shelf
….beyond Julia Child! Here are our editors’ picks
Every cuisine has its patron cookbook saint—in the case of French cooking, Julia Child often takes the crown, but there is so much more to delve into. Us editors have picked out our favorite French cookbooks for you to discover, from two (different) volumes on French country cooking, an opus on Paris, to how to master baguettes, which one will inspire you to keep it French in the kitchen?
Sardine by Alex Jackson
To tell you the truth, I’ve never been much of a French cooking aficionado—I’ve always been more firmly fixed on neighboring Italy. Naturally, I knew the greatest hits— your coq au vin, your ratatouille, moules frites by the pot-full, souffle so laced with Grand Marnier you wouldn’t dare drive afterwards—but my knowledge of regional flavors was pretty much carte blanche.
So ahead of our trip to Provence to film episode 1 of To Market, We Go—I needed a good primer. Sardine by Alex Jackson, whose London restaurant of the same name is a chapel to the region’s food, seemed like a good start for understanding southern French cooking today. Inside, I found a colorful cuisine with the kinds of dishes I love to cook—no fuss recipes where vegetables and pulses are the real heroes, swimming in local olive oil and seasoned with punchy vinegars, capers, olives, herbs, and anchovies—proper Mediterranean stuff.
Best of all, the recipes in Sardine really show how a cuisine is a larger conversation between soil and people: A cold almond, pastis, and melon soup nods to Spanish ajo blanco to the west, pates au pistou is the cousin pasta alla Genovese to the east, and looking to the south a tuna, potato, and fried pepper sandwich is inspired by the North African bakeries of Marseille. The latter is a kind of Niçoise salad in a baguette, with potato, harissa, and padron-style peppers thrown into the mix (serve it up buffet style and let everyone make their own, it’s a sandwich worthy of being its own meal). This is not only my favorite French cookbook du jour, but might end up my favorite of the year.
French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David
The first time I leafed through Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking, I was sitting on the floor of my husband’s grandparents’ basement. I had stumbled upon a stack of old books, giddy to find a 1954 illustrated edition of the acclaimed work in rather good condition, save for a few tears and annotations that result naturally from a well-loved book.
David is famous for having helped revitalize home cooking in Great Britain in the mid-19th century, much akin to Julia Child in the United States thereafter. She continues to bear influence on food writers and chefs the world over, her work considered as important for its literary prowess as it is for its culinary expertise.
True to form, French Country Cooking is as much fun to read on its own as it is to cook from. Take, for example, the recipe for spinach cooked in butter, or Les Epinards du Chanoine Chèvier, originally recorded by Jeanne Savarin in a weekly Parisian magazine in 1905.
The recipe calls for only two ingredients (spinach and butter), but it’s the instruction that’s noteworthy. Starting on a Wednesday and concluding on Sunday, butter is added incrementally each day to a batch of sautéed spinach, allowing the dish to absorb it and rest in between. On Saturday it notes: “Beware of temptation; the spinach will be giving out a wonderful aroma.” Truth be told, I haven’t tried it yet, but a recipe hasn’t excited me like this in a long time—the intrigue of the preparation method, the charm of the story behind it, and the sheer amount of butter have me sold.
The book is peppered with these gems, in addition to classic recipes like coq au vin and mushroom soup. As I see it, every home cook should have a copy on their shelf as a reference—or an escape to days of yore in the French countryside.
My Paris Kitchen, David Lebovitz
I first came across David Lebovitz—pastry chef, cook, prolific author, and blogger extraordinaire—when I started working for chef and television personality, Andrew Zimmern. I was an intern tasked with sorting through thousands of production stills from various years of Bizarre Foods—labelling and filing them away according to an "easily searchable" keyword system.
It was in the Paris episode (season 3, episode 5) that I came across stills of Andrew and David as they picked up some goods at the Bastille Market, then headed out to the countryside to make a market-inspired lunch. Andrew opted for simple rabbit's liver and onions that had me holding my breath at the computer, but David sold me with his candied bacon and eggs ice cream. Later that week, I dug into his blog and have followed him since then—through the release of his nine cookbooks.
My Paris Kitchen is my favorite, featuring both sweet and savory dishes, remastered classics, lesser-known recipes, and plenty of surprises. The cookbook also includes a torrent of anecdotes about being an American in Paris—stories I find funny and extremely relatable, myself being an American expat in Berlin.
From duck fat cookies to butternut squash crumble, cassoulet to a croque monsieur, this is a cookbook full of recipes representing what modern Parisians eat, as much as it is a lovely compendium of stories, photographs, and notes on what it's like to be an American in Paris.
French Country Cooking, Mimi Thorisson
Flicking through Mimi Thorisson’s French Country Cooking feels like diving into another world: You find yourself sitting at sizeable wooden table in the middle of a kitchen in an the old winery Mimi and her family call home. Perhaps you’re put to work chopping herbs, or another small task that will sum up to a larger dish. Broth cooks on the stove, something’s baking in the oven – brioche or pear cake – maybe there are fragrant cinnamon pancakes wafting from the stove, and a breeze blowing in past the swaying trees outside the window. It’s peaceful here and miles away from home.
It’s a bit like being in a novel, or a film — and you don’t want to get back to reality. Besides, perhaps, to sip one of Mimi’s favorite drinks: coffee or red wine: choosing a a wine to match to one of her down-to-earth, but still that little bit fancy, recipes. It's also worth baking the simple walnut cake with rum, vanilla and sea salt that Mimi has pulled out of the oven countless times, or to paraphrase her: It’s not just a short crush but a love that stays.
Mimi Thorisson (and her husband Oddur, who took the photos for the book and for her blog) has said that, most of all, she wrote this book for herself. I’d suppose that's why it's so appealing—combining old-fashioned, favorite recipes in one book and one place (which you can also visit as part of cooking workshops)— the same recipes that are traditionally served throughout France, from breakfast to dinner and the same ones that are often overlooked in restaurants and other cookbooks.
La Rousse Bread Book, Eric Kayser
If you’ve ever fancied yourself cycling around with a baguette lolling out of your wicker basket, if you make for the boulangerie as soon as you touch down in France, or you’re just here for the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the house—this book is for you.
Written by master French baker Eric Kayser, this bready tome contains more than 80 recipes passed down for a good 250 years within his family—rustic, braided, honeyed, and twisted loaves, baguettes, brioche, fougasse, and breads studded with fruit. It’s truly an encyclopedia for breadmaking.
Having seen it on so many shelves over the years, when I think bread books, this is the one that comes to mind. What sets it apart is the level of guidance: I am always drawn to cookbooks with step photos (like one of my all-time favourites El Bulli’s Family Meal) and here they serve to walk you through the entire process so you get kneading action to decorative techniques all down pat. The imagery makes you feel so viscerally involved in the whole process, you can almost trick yourself into thinking that’s a freshly baked loaf you can smell in your oven!
Published on October 16, 2019