"The Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion"

Pros: Lots and lots of information
Cons: Some information could be more complete
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 5/15/2001

The “Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion” is somewhere between large and small. The cover is an odd coppery color, light, flexible yet somewhat rigid. You’ll need to prop it open. It also has a nice, dark green ribbon for a bookmark built in. This is definitely a reference book, organized alphabetically with no index. It starts off with an amusing Julia Child quote: “Cooking is often one disaster after another. What you learn is the only thing you can’t fix is a souffle.”

What You’ll Find in Here

Basic ingredients get their own entries, and you’ll find everything from artichoke to tamarind. These entries include tips on selection and storage, preparation and serving suggestions. These aren’t quite as detailed as those entries in the “Joy of Cooking” (JoC), unfortunately. You’ll find out how to steam asparagus, for example, but you won’t get an approximate cooking time. Sure, for anyone with any experience that isn’t a big deal, but it’s the sort of thing that’s too simple to show up in most cookbooks, and which thus not everyone knows (which, of course, is why there exists a JoC).

Unlike that other cookbook, however, you’ll also find entries on cookware and equipment. My only problem here is that there are both broader entries (bakeware, baking tools, etc.) and more specific. This is great, but since there’s no index you won’t necessarily hit on just the right category to go with your specific item. My advice is to just look up everything related to whatever you want information on until you hit the right thing. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

There are also entries on various methods and techniques of cooking, like frying, coffee-making, and even garnishing. The book also explains various bits of cooking terminology, such as zesting a lemon or orange. You’ll find all sorts of charts and special sections. There’s an entire five-page spread on wines: different sorts, selecting, pairing with food, and so on. There’s a “fat glossary” that compares the different sorts of fats we cook with. Little nuggets of useful information come in green sidebars labeled “Quick Bite” (random bits of information, like what determines the color of an egg’s shell) and “Quick Tip” (suggestions, such as how much extract you should use to flavor a certain amount of food). There are pictures to demonstrate concepts, and extensive cross-referencing to make up for the lack of an index.

But How Useful Is It?

All right, so occasionally the book leaves out a detail (like approximate steaming time for asparagus). On the other hand, it has just about everything else. No matter how experienced or inexperienced you are at cooking, you’ll find something useful here. For those without much experience, find out how to baste, and whether a plastic or metal bulb baster is more useful. For the more experienced, find out what “barding” is and how you do it. If you aren’t sure whether you want to use a standing blender or an immersion blender for a task, you’ll find surprising detail here on which blenders handle what, how much they aerate things, and what they’re best used for.

There are instructions and pictures for “How to butterfly and stuff a pork or beef tenderloin roast” or clean a soft-shelled crab. You’ll find out what buttermilk used to be, and what it is today, as well as how long it’ll keep in your fridge. If you’ve run out of buttermilk you’ll even find a substitute in here. If you’re new to caviar you’ll discover why you shouldn’t serve it with silver.

There are chicken safety tips, and the minimum temperature necessary for safe chicken eating. There’s a glossary of chile peppers. There’s a fantastic section on cookies that includes troubleshooting techniques. You’ll find a chart of dry vs. moist cooking methods, and cautions when using cooking spray. The cookware section goes into cookware materials – what they are, how they heat, what they’re good for, how they can affect taste. It discusses basic cookware and more specialized pieces (crepe pans, double boilers, griddles).

There’s a fantastic section on food safety that covers shopping, storage, preparation, and cleanup. You’ll find out which materials are best for freezer storage (not aluminum foil!). There’s even a chart telling you how much frosting you’ll need for various sizes of cakes! There are instructions for seeding grapes, tips for kneading bread dough, and storage information for kiwi fruit. Knife storage and maintenance tips abound, as does information on food labeling! Find out the specifics of what it means when a food is “low” in something, or “extra lean,” or “fresh.” You’ll finally understand which cuts of lamb are good for what. There are even simple tips for reducing the amount of fat you cook with under “Low-Fat Cooking.” Before I looked in here I had no idea there were four different kinds of meringue.

Believe it or not, this is a fun book to look through. Check it out when you’re learning a new cooking technique, or find out what you’re missing about the things you think you know. When a recipe calls for a “mystery ingredient,” learn about it in here. Instead of wondering whether your buttermilk is still good, find out. No kitchen should be without this handy little book!

Posted in Cooking, Reviews

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