The New Best Recipe
When people ask me what cookbook I would recommend to someone as their first or only cookbook, I always tell them, without hesitation or reservations, to get a copy of The New Best Recipe. This is the best all-purpose cookbook I've seen. Every single recipe is top notch, fully tested, and well documented. But, better than the recipes themselves is the page or two preceding each recipe which explains what the goal of the recipe is, what variations were tested and how those changes affected the final dish, and why the steps and ingredients in the recipe are there. For any novice or seasoned cook, reading a recipe from this book will actually teach you how to cook better without having to go through too much trial and error. Of course, there's nothing like experience (never be afraid to experiment in the kitchen), but having the benefit of reading about all the experiments the fine folks at America's Test Kitchen / Cook's Illustrated Magazine have performed puts you two-steps ahead even before you start your own experimentation.
For anyone who is interested in learning as much as they can about cooking (both classical/traditional and modern/avante garde), there is nothing better than a copy of Modernist Cuisine. Don't let the hefty price tag (~$500) scare you off immediately - it's worth every penny. As of the writing of this article (Nov 2011), there is no more complete collection of cooking knowledge put down in one place. What's incredible is that not only is there all this information but they've made it exceedingly easy to comprehend without "dumbing it down". The writing is clear and interesting, the illustrations and photography belongs in an art museum, print quality and paper is the best looking and feeling I've ever seen, and the whole 50 pound set comes in it's own acrylic storage case (which is fortunate because the books are so large they don't fit on most bookcases). Many of the recipes are difficult to make at home without significant investment. The few I've attempted have been excellent. As examples to show application of the techniques discussed in the books, they are outstanding. If you can afford it, this six volume set (the sixth book is a waterproof kitchen manual containing all the recipes in the five main volumes) makes the perfect gift for anyone who has a passion to learn about cooking and how it really works.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
No recommended book list on Cooking For Engineers could be complete without including Harold McGee's influential and masterful On Food and Cooking. This is the book that made the how's and why's of cooking accessible to the masses and made websites like Cooking For Engineers possible. An incredible resource for anyone who wants to understand food.
Cooking for Geeks
Jeff Potter's cookbook is chock full of science, recipes, and interviews that both satisfy the curious chef as well as open up new avenues of curiosity. The writing is clean and amusing with strange (but useful) hacks like roasting peppers in an upright toaster, how to disable the safety mechanism of a vacuum sealer, and an optimal cake dividing algorithm. Personally, my favorite part is pages 262-263 where I'm briefly interviewed. :)
The Visual Food Encyclopedia: The Definitive Practical Guide to Food and Cooking
This hard cover book is brilliantly illustrated and filled with useful information covering over 1,000 ingredients. It does a successful job providing information on history, buying, serving suggestions, preparation, storing, and nutrition without being dry and boring. In fact, I find the illustrations, photographs, and page layout so pleasing that flipping through the book is fun (and educational)!
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home
A lot of other ice cream books focus on a pleasant base and different variations (via mix ins) fill the rest of the book. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams has a recognizable base but her recipes fully incorporate flavors and ingredients like browned butter, burnt caramel, and more exotic ones like goat cheese and sweet corn. Not only are the ice cream recipes excellent, but Jeni Bauer has developed techniques to get perfectly smooth, creamy, and velvety ice cream at home. Her ice cream is so good, I used it for Cooking For Engineer's Butter Pecan Ice Cream recipe. Perfect for the ice cream lover who wishes they could make ice cream at home as good as any artisan small batch producer.
Weber's Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling
For visual learners, this is an excellent guide to grilling with delightful recipes ranging from steaks to a truly delicious lobster roll. Perfect for new grill owners (or someone who could use a little more grill knowledge).
Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed
Shirley Corriher uses over 200 recipes to explain how cooking works and provide invaluable practical advice and tips. If you're a fan of On Food and Cooking, you'll find this one almost as informative, more useful while cooking, and less dense. A must have for any inquisitive cook's library.
The Bread Bible
Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote this extraordinary bread book which not only helps you make great bread but also provides educational sections labeled "Understanding" and "Pointers for Success". Not for those who like the simplicity of and are satisfied with bread machine bread - but invaluable for those who want to make bread at it's maximum potential.}?>
The Professional Chef's Knife Kit
An excellent guide to how to use knives in the kitchen. It seems this softcover, large format book is out of print, but plenty of third-party sellers are selling it (so I don't feel bad for recommending it). The illustrations and instructions are so easy to follow, I think it's a great book for any novice chef.