Thursday, February 23, 2012: Maximum Shelf: How to Cook Everything The Basics

Wiley: How to Cook Everything The Basics by Mark Bittman

Wiley: How to Cook Everything the Basics by Mark Bittman

Wiley: How to Cook Everything the Basics by Mark Bittman

Wiley titles by Mark Bittman

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: How to Cook Everything The Basics

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything The Basics, which is a March 19, 2012, publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Debra Ginsberg. John Wiley & Sons has helped support the issue.

Wiley: How to Cook Everything the Basics by Mark Bittman

Books & Authors

Review: How to Cook Everything The Basics

How to Cook Everything The Basics by Mark Bittman (Wiley, $35 hardcover, 9780470528068, March 19, 2012)

Mark Bittman is so confident about his prowess with food that he calls his series of cookbooks How to Cook Everything, and after using his cookbooks, thousands agree that his confidence is not misplaced. The books are big, they are densely packed with recipes and ideas, and they assume a certain level of competence and knowledge. But even the seasoned cook may wonder at times about certain things: dotting with butter--how small should the pieces be, how far apart? Batter for frying should be the consistency of thin pancake batter, but what if you don't make pancakes? Buttermilk biscuits shouldn't be overstirred--but what should the dough look like before that fatal overstirring?

Now, with How to Cook Everything The Basics, Bittman has broken recipe instructions down to the most basic level, with photographs by Romulo Yanes illustrating both dish and technique. There is a photograph of butter dotting--the size of the dots and the space between them; a photograph of batter for frying, threading from a whisk; biscuit dough--what the ingredients look like in a proper "shaggy mess." Ever wondered how to peel ginger without losing half of it? It's not just you--it really is tricky unless you don't mind leaving behind a lot of peel and root.

But even before explaining (and showing) the difference between a boil and a simmer, or the right way to hold a knife, Bittman starts with setting up a kitchen. If you think this is a skippable section, think again--you may want to clear out your pantry and start over after reading what he suggests. For instance, if you don't use rice and other grains within six months, or flour and cornmeal within three, you should freeze them. Dried pasta? It's usually assumed that the best comes from Italy; Bittman agrees, but notes that price is not a measure of quality, it's good as long as it's Italian. As for kitchenware, Bittman is no Martha Stewart--if you're worried about lack of serving ware, just dish up food in the kitchen, he says. You need only three knives, but they must be the best you can afford. Kitchen towels should be cotton and changed every day. It's best to have one brush for meat and one for everything else, and you can save money by buying paintbrushes. Use a ruler to measure until you are comfortable eyeballing cubes and slices. Now you are ready to boil and simmer.

The chapters and recipes progress from easiest to most challenging, starting with breakfast and buying real maple syrup ("incomparably delicious, a gift from nature"), cooking breakfast meats, cooking oatmeal, making smoothies and then... eggs. This section showcases the value of the photographs. Bittman first shows the difference between eggs boiled for five different times, then moves to creamy scrambled eggs, showing what the eggs look like when starting to set, which is when you can add other ingredients. Fried eggs--okay, even showing you how to flip an over-easy egg won't negate the need for practice, but it does give you hope. And then the egg Waterloo for so many: poached. But he also has a substitute for this: the six-minute egg.

Another food that many are nervous about cooking is fish, but Bittman reassures: the more you cook fish, the better you'll become at visually recognizing doneness without cutting and looking. Roasted Salmon with Butter is a good place to start. The center should be bright pink and still a little translucent, and in the photo you can see the color to look for--if it gets any paler on the outside, it will become overcooked and dry. He adds a few variations on this simple but fabulous dish with Herb-Roasted Salmon and Salmon Roasted with Olives and Thyme. For meat, try Perfect Roast Beef, with Bittman's perfect instructions. You won't worry about messing up an expensive prime rib if you follow them. His tips: check the temperature early and often; roast some potatoes in the same oven; and turn the heat up to 450 for the last few minutes to get a crisp exterior. If you want a perfect, less-expensive roast beef, he offers a minor change using a boneless rump roast.

What's better for dessert than chocolate? He starts with Brownies, "ridiculously easy, ridiculously good," and says to err on the side of underbaking. The toothpick test doesn't work with them, because a dry toothpick means a dry brownie; instead, look for a crust on top with a slightly jiggly center underneath. Bittman also features Blueberry Cobbler, Raspberry Sorbet and Apple Pie ("A bit of a project, but now that you're a cook, how can you not try it?"), among other desserts.

Of course, there's much more to the The Basics than salmon and brownies. Pasta (Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto), grains (Bulgur with Feta and Shrimp), vegetables (Stir-Fried Cabbage with Ginger), breads (Buttermik Biscuits), salads, soups and stews, poultry, appetizers (with suggestions on how to throw a party). It's all logically laid out, the instructions are clear, the tips and variations are helpful (like how to turn a Caesar Salad into a main course, and, no, it's not just tossing a chicken breast on top). Bittman's voice comes through with humor, a passion for great food and a good helping of common sense: read the recipe through at least once before starting; it's okay to serve most dishes warm or at room temperature ("No rush. No Pressure.... Enjoy the process."); be safe, but not insane, about cleanliness.

The purchase of a cookbook assumes the purchaser wants to cook, but still, many cookbooks gather dust despite intentions and resolutions. That shouldn't happen with this one--1,000 color photographs and 496 pages of delicious recipes are persuasive, but so is Mark Bittman's introduction ("Why Cook?") to How to Cook Everything The Basics. It's worth reading as many times as it takes to take hold. Cooking, "at its heart," is simple and straightforward; cooking is satisfying; it saves money; it produces truly nutritious food and "fresh ingredients don't need much help to taste good." Cooking is time well spent, it leads to family meals and it is rewarding: "Eating your own food--and sharing it with people you care about--is a crucial human activity." There really is nothing better than sharing food with others, and Mark Bittman makes it a compelling, fun and even exciting endeavor. --Marilyn Dahl

 For a sample of How to Cook Everything The Basics, click here.

Wiley: How to Cook Everything the Basics by Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman: Real Food

How to Cook Everything The Basics is an indispensable guide for those new to the kitchen. What will experienced cooks learn (or re-learn) from the book?

I'm a pretty experienced cook, and there are things in there I'll look up from time to time. And people who seem to me to know how to cook are always asking me things like what's the best timing for hard-boiled eggs. So I think it's valuable for everyone. Having said that, it's clearly geared to real beginners or people with limited experience. 

There seems to be tremendous pushback to the idea of eating less meat and dairy and more plants. What makes this and similar discussions about food so charged and emotional?

Habit--everyone is devoted to the diet with which they grew up. And let's not forget that billions of dollars are spent each year marketing the status quo. "Don't change your diet" is effectively the message that people hear every day, over and over.

What advice can you give people who feel that it's too difficult and/or expensive to find fresh produce or cut back on readily available processed food?

Except for the very poor, the expensive thing is bogus; real food is not more expensive than junk food. "Difficult" means time or skills. A book like this can give you the skills you need. Time is undoubtedly precious, and it takes a commitment to make time to cook, but it's worth it. If most people look at their lives, I think they'll find that they routinely do things that are less valuable than putting real food on the table for themselves and their families.

What is the most important thing to remember when approaching the task of cooking or preparing food?

You're doing something great for yourself and anyone else you're cooking for. Really.

Skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases, even climate change, have all been linked to the failings of our modern diet, yet Americans seem to be eating as usual. Do you think there will be a shift in consciousness in the way we view, prepare and consume food? Do you see evidence of that shift now?

Yes and yes. The evidence is in the fact that people are cooking more, buying better food and, mostly, in thinking about it. The changes will become more evident with each passing year. --Debra Ginsberg

In December 2007, Mark Bittman gave a fiery and funny TED talk on what's wrong with the way we eat now (too much meat, too few plants; too much fast food, too little home cooking), and why it's putting the entire planet at risk. Watch the talk here.

photo by Romulo Yanes

Mark Bittman's Poached Eggs

Restaurant-style fare at home and easy to master.

TIME 10 minutes
MAKES 1 or 2 servings

2 eggs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put about 1 inch of water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the water barely bubbles.

Crack one of the eggs on a flat, hard surface and open it into a shallow bowl, being careful not to break the yolk. Gently slip it into the water. Repeat with the other egg.

Cook the eggs undisturbed for 3 to 5 minutes, just until the white is set and the yolk has filmed over. The longer you cook them, the thicker the yolks become. Lift the eggs out of the pan with a slotted spoon, letting as much water as possible drain off. (If you want to make them look really nice, trim off the raggedy bits with kitchen shears.) Serve right away, sprinkled with salt and pepper.


If you boil an egg in its shell for 6 minutes, you have a perfect substitute for a poached egg. Run under cold water, crack the shell, and peel--gently--as you would a hard-boiled egg.

You can poach as many eggs as will fit comfortably in the water, so use as large a pan as you need. To keep the eggs from clumping together, let each set a bit before adding the next. Try to keep track of which went in first and take them out in the same order.

To poach eggs for a large group, poach them ahead of time, but take them out of the water about 30 seconds earlier than you normally would and transfer them to bowl of ice water. Before serving, reheat them in gently bubbling water.


7 Things to Put Under Poached (or Fried) Eggs:

Toasted bread, English muffins, or split chunks of corn bread
Tossed green salad
Tomato sauce
A bowl of beans
Pasta with garlic and oil
Plain (or fancy) rice
A cooked hamburger patty


Book Brahmin: Mark Bittman

With more than one million copies in print, chef/food writer Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything books are a mainstay of the modern kitchen. Bittman writes on food policy for the Opinion section of the New York Times; is a columnist for the New York Times Magazine; and is featured regularly on the Today Show in "How to Cook Everything Today" segments; and stars in The Minimalist on the Cooking Channel. He wrote "The Minimalist" NYT column for 13 years. The flagship book in his How to Cook Everything series won both the IACP and James Beard Awards, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian won the 2008 IACP Award. He is also the author of Food Matters, Food Matters Cookbook, Fish and Leafy Greens. Wiley will publish How to Cook Everything The Basics on March 19, 2012.

On your nightstand now:

Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Depends on the definition of "child." But let's say A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Or Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (One grows up quickly in N.Y.C.)

Your top five authors:

Can't do that one, I don't like favorites. I'd have to do 50.

Book you've faked reading:

Never have.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Can't say I've done that either. I've bought many for the title and never read them, but books are a little like shoes; they might look good in the store, but that doesn't mean you'll fall in love with them.

Book that changed your life:

The House of India Cookbook, a 1960s paperback (you'll never find it).

Favorite line from a book:

"All morons hate it when you call them a moron." --Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

photo by Romulo Yanes


Mark Bittman's Brownies

Ridiculously easy, ridiculously good.

TIME 30 to 40 minutes
MAKES 9 to 12

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract, optional

Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a square baking pan with butter or line it by overlapping 2 pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil crosswise and grease the lining.

Combine the stick of butter and the chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally. (Or microwave them in a large microwave-safe bowl on medium for 10-second intervals, stirring after each.) When the chocolate is just about melted, remove the saucepan from the heat (or bowl from the microwave) and continue to stir until the mixture is smooth.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl (or use the bowl you put in the microwave) and stir in the sugar. Then beat in the eggs, one at a time. Gently stir in the flour, salt, and the vanilla if you're using it.

Pour and scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until just barely set in the middle. Cool on a rack until set. If you used parchment, lift it out to remove the brownies. If not, cut them in squares right in the pan. Store, covered, at room temperature, for no more than a day.

FAILING THE TOOTHPICK TEST A clean toothpick might signal some cakes are ready, but it means brownies are overcooked. Their signal: a crust on top with a slightly jiggly center underneath.


If you use parchment paper (or foil) to line the pan, leave an extra inch or two overhanging each end. When the brownies are cool, grab each flap and lift them out of the pan.

Err on the side of underbaking: An overcooked brownie is dry and cakey, while an undercooked brownie is gooey and delicious.


Nutty Brownies: In Step 3, substitute ¼ cup finely ground hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, or pecans (use the food processor or blender to grind them) for ¼ cup of the flour and add 1 cup lightly toasted, roughly chopped nuts to the batter.

Cocoa Brownies: After the brownies cool a bit but are still warm, put 2 tablespoons cocoa in a small strainer and shake it over the pan to dust the tops of the brownies.


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