What’s best depends on what you want to do and learn. Do you want to know why a recipe works so that you can learn to improvise your own or do you just want dependable instructions for your favorite dishes?
If you want to know the “how and why”, The Science of Good Cooking by Cook’s Illustrated is an excellent choice and one of my favorites. There are 400 recipes and each describes not just what to do, but why doing it that way works best.
The 400 recipes are used to teach 50 basic concepts beginning with “Gentle heat prevents overcooking” to “Cocoa powder delivers big flavor”. In between you learn that salty marinades work best, fat makes eggs tender, how to “bloom” spices to increase their flavor, and why you should put vodka in your pie dough.
How to Cook Everything: The Basics is a good starter cookbook. It has 185 recipes that are designed to teach basic skills. There’s even a iTunes app for it for those that prefer digital media to books.
If you’re looking for more specialized cuisines, here’s some to try:
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking comes highly recommended for having clear instructions on how to make traditional Italian food. If you want to duplicate the meal you had at an Italian chain restaurant, you won’t find that here. If you want to eat authentic Italian food, this should be the first place you check.
Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop, the first westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine will introduce you to the recipes and cooking techniques used in Sichuan, China.
No collection of world cuisine cookbooks is complete without the one that first made this kind of cooking accessible to the average cook – Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.
There’s an iTunes app with selected recipes if you want to try out a sample first. You can also find videos of Child’s TV shows, including this one from her The French Chef series;
The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy will teach you traditional Mexican recipes. She traveled to villages all over the country to track down regional recipes.
If you want to eat animal-product-free, Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz hass simple instructions related in a friendly, chatty style.