Nigella’s top 10 cookbooks and the paths of culinary influence

Nigella Lawson is one of the best-loved figures in the world of food. The sheer quality of writing in her books conveys an enthusiasm for good food that is both inspirational and inimitable. How to Eat, which launched her career, is a milestone of culinary writing, ranking at #20 on the 1000 Cookbooks all-time list. The book changed our approach to food and went on to influence a generation of food writers.

But what of those who came before? We are not ashamed to admit that we were thrilled when Nigella agreed to share her own top 10 cookbook list with us, offering a glimpse of her influences. Nigella was keen to emphasize that the books she selected had proved their worth over time:

“There are many more recent books I value, but these are the ones I have been cooking from over decades”

Below we analyse her selections, and the strands of our collective culinary heritage which each represents.

Nigella’s favourite cookbooks

“A beautiful beast of a book, over 1,000 pages long and weighing in at 2.5 kilos, this Australian classic bulges with ideas, inspiration and recipes that still seem fresh and original 20 years after it was first published.”

Many books claim to offer all you really need to know about cooking in one mighty tome. This comprehensiveness can make for a somewhat leaden style, though. In contrast, with The Cook’s Companion, Stephanie Alexander has created a work which is systematic, yet fresh and appealing, with an abundance of character. It is a book which has transcended its Australian origins to become a favourite of cognoscenti across the English-speaking world.

“Long before I started writing about food, I was inspired by the vibrancy of Australian cooking and this — along with the Cook’s Companion, above — was (and remains) a key text for me.”

The cookbooks favoured by chefs, and those favoured by domestic cooks and food writers are often very different. Despite this, certain restaurant cookbooks capture the Zeitgeist and go on to have a major influence on how we cook at home. The River Café cookbooks are familiar in the UK, while The Zuni Café Cookbook (#12 in our overall ranking) is a high-profile example from the US, still relatively unknown in the UK. The Bather’s Pavilion Cookbook, too, deserves to be more widely known outside its native shores.

“Warm, engaged, witty writing not just about food, but life.”

The best cookbook memoirs, like Laurie Colwin’s, deliver emotional resonance as they convey (and celebrate) the role played by food and cooking over the course of our lives.

“I struggled between choosing this or her Vegetable Book, but in either (and indeed in all her work) Jane Grigson is an unparalleled writer: she brings taste, charm, erudition, wisdom; hers is the most civilised voice in food writing.”

Jane Grigson’s ample legacy demonstrates the longevity of the best culinary writing. Fittingly, the Jane Grigson Trust, working with Oxford Brookes University, maintains one of the most extensive collections of cookbooks in the UK.

“This is the book that started my enduring love affair with bread-making. Subtitled ‘The Slow Rise as Meaning and Metaphor’, it gives so much more than recipes.”

The gluten-haters are going to hate, and the low-carb crowd may not be fans either, but bread is one of mankind’s great inventions. The alchemy of chemical and microbial transformation creates bread of near infinite variety, from bagels, to sourdough, to brioche, to pumpernickel. Bread can be the passion of a lifetime, and has the literature to prove it.

“Recipes are not mere formulae: they need to tell a story about who we are. And this book does just that — and with such charm.”

Simon Hopkinson, former head chef at Bibendum, is the example par excellence of a chef who has succeeded in translating the essence of his craft to the home kitchen. Working with food writer Lindsey Bareham, his bestselling book (#6 overall on the 1000 Cookbooks list) gets to the heart of the role food plays in our lives.

“Anna del Conte remains for me the greatest writer on Italian food in English, and this is a book that is as thoughtful as it is practical, and one of the most precious titles in my library.”

The world is abrim with rich local culinary traditions, but conveying the nuances of multi-faceted national cuisines to an English-speaking audience takes great skill. We are fortunate that writers as gifted as Anna del Conte (Italy), David Thompson (Thailand), Madhur Jaffrey (India) and Sri Owen (Indonesia), to name a few, have made it their vocation to do so.

“Even if I didn’t adore this book for its brio and unpretentiously brilliant recipes, I’d have to nominate it for the beauty of Henderson’s writing.”

Simple yet unusual recipes, enlivened with a generous spark of humour. This combination ensures that Nose to Tail Eating bursts with life — and makes you wish a few more cookbooks didn’t take themselves quite so seriously. Norwegian TV chef Andreas Viestad asked recently ‘why [are] many cookbooks so bloody boring?’ Not Nose to Tail!

Fergus Henderson’s masterpiece held the top spot on the 1000 Cookbooks list for months, and now jostles with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the #1 position.

“This book exemplifies the force of food writing as social history.”

Without Claudia Roden, would Yotam Ottolenghi ever have become a chef? Roden’s book played a pivotal role for Yotam, as it has done for many of the chefs and food writers behind today’s wave of enthusiasm for the food of the Middle East.

The canon of home baking in America (and beyond) has always held a particular fascination for me, and this book is an engaging compendium of the genre.

Clean eating trends may come and go, but the family-friendly joy of baking — embodied in Nigella’s own How to be a Domestic Goddess, the latest Mary Berry, or even Winnie-the-Pooh’s Teatime Cookbook — isn’t going away any time soon!

Where are all the cookbooks?

The world’s best cookbooks are too valuable to be left on the shelf as we ‘make do’ with the results of searching for free online recipes. Cookbooks deserve to be fully connected into our increasingly online world.

Imagine if the only way to listen to the Rolling Stones was to track down a second-hand vinyl LP. Fun as it is to dig around in record-store bins, sometimes it’s great to just go ahead and listen to a recommendation. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to find and share classic dishes from Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World, or Richard Olney’s The Good Cook, with similar ease.

1000 cookbooks is building a digital platform that will make this possible. We hope you will like it!

By Matthew Cockerill, Founder, 1000 Cookbooks

If you love cookbooks, please recommend and share this article!

1000 Cookbooks is building the ultimate online culinary resource, with the help of hundreds of chefs, authors, bloggers and food professionals. Users of the 1000 Cookbooks site can already explore a free, expertly-curated ranking of the most essential cookbooks. Later this year, a subscription service will give users access to recipes from the very best cookbooks of all time, allowing readers to explore the work of their best-loved authors, and follow their recommendations to discover popular favourites, lost classics and hidden gems.

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