“How to Cook Everything” has made its way into more than a million first apartments, college dorms, and family homes since it debuted. Guided by author Mark Bittman’s chatty, relaxed coaching, countless cooks have used the book to get comfortable in the kitchen. “Anyone can cook, and most everyone should,” wrote Bittman in its 1998 introduction. Recipes relied on pantry staples, and built aptitude in basic techniques.
If your vintage copy is hanging on by the pancake batter, you’re in good company — and help is on the way. Twenty years after its first release, a completely revised anniversary edition will feature updated recipes, color photos, and an emphasis on sustainability.
On a recent afternoon from his Hudson Valley kitchen, Bittman reflected on the two decade mark.
“You know, ‘How to Cook Everything’ was never intended to be, ‘This is the best way to do this, and this is the best way to do that,’ ” he said. “It’s more, ‘This is a really good way to do this that’s not going to drive you crazy, and it’s going to work.’ ”
Cleaning up from lunch, Bittman could see his small flock of chickens from the kitchen window. As he clattered, it was impossible not to wonder how the cookbook author and former New York Times “Minimalist” columnist stocks his own pantry.
Bittman reports he’s in what he calls “spend-down mode,” the time of year when he works through the “10 or 15” types of beans and whole grains on his shelves, augmented by his own garden bounty. He’s an avid bread baker and enjoys making tortillas; his simple spiced lentils went over well with recent dinner guests. In essence, he practices what he preaches.
“I do think that’s the strategy,” he said. “It’s not ‘go to the store and buy haddock.’ It’s ‘go to the store, buy what looks good, and then I’ll help you figure out how to cook it.’ ”
The 1998 edition reversed baroque tendencies of the 1970s with a simpler “come as you are” approach to cooking. Instead of delivering complicated shopping lists and unwieldy techniques, “How to Cook Everything” invited readers to make the best they could with what they had.
The 20th anniversary edition introduces color photography, something the debut did without, instead relying on Bittman’s calm narration to bring recipes to life.
“That was a very conscious decision in the original ‘How to Cook Everything,’ and it’s an equally conscious decision to put them in,” said Bittman.
At the heart of the update is how people consider meat.
“If [I] speak in front of an audience and I say, ‘Who’s eating less meat than they were 10 years ago?’ every single person, except for the people who want to appear rebellious, raises their hand.” said Bittman. “Not only do people eat meat less frequently, we tend to eat less meat at each serving.”
The revised book reflects that change, reducing the emphasis on meat-centric courses, and shrinking the portion size of those dishes — a shift that began in 2008 in a 10-year anniversary update, which launched alongside a vegetarian edition.
“Certainly [for] people of my generation, everybody ate a steak when you sat down to eat beef,” said Bittman. “Now in my experience, we cook a steak and divide it two or three or four ways.”
A desire to reduce meat intake is part of Bittman’s broader thinking around not just how we cook, but the impact of our consumption. He first began writing “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” as soon as he completed the debut book. This past spring, Bittman launched a new Medium publication called “Heated,” which he aims to serve as a platform for more complex food conversations, beyond simply pleasure and nourishment.
“For years, food has not been taken seriously,” he said. “We talk about the economy. We talk about politics, we talk about, to some extent, the environment. But we haven’t talked enough about agriculture, where food comes from, and how it’s produced.”
All of that takes root in the kitchen. In the 1998 edition, Bittman lamented the creeping prevalence of convenience food in our diets. “Why are people eating so much junk?” he asked at the time. “Why are they eating in restaurants so much, and why is home cooking dying? That was my crusade.”
Since then, he sees some things changing for the better. “I used to have to drive across town to buy soy sauce and olive oil. . . . And now, obviously, those kinds of things are in every supermarket,” he said. But disappearing farms and an increase in monoculture means that while local ingredients may be easier to find, prices are higher, and overall, he said, food quality seems to be lower.
That’s bad news for our tastes and our diets alike.
“Everyone in the United States has been raised to have problems with food, because we’re encouraged to eat junk food, animal products, and sugary food from the time we’re born,” he said.
“That’s how our palates have developed, and study after study show those styles of eating in general are, if not addictive, highly habitual. To break those habits is the work of a lifetime.”
But it’s possible.
Back in the ’90s, Bittman mused that he’d be successful if he could convince Americans to eat rice and beans once a week. Now, he said that’s not so lofty a goal — whole grains and legumes once a day could be a new target.
“It seems to me the change happens slowly, even in your own kitchen,” he said. “It happens by seeing that there’s a different way, and moving towards that.”
Still, there are bigger forces in play.
“To put all of this change on individuals is to ignore that our choices are limited to what’s out there,” he said. For instance, if the majority of supermarket products are made from monocropped corn and soybeans, “We’re not getting the kind of choices that we ought to get.”
That’s too much for any one home cook to solve, he said. “It’s sort of the same thing as saying, ‘Buy a Prius, turn off your lightbulbs, decrease your food waste,’ or whatever other perfectly sound ideas are out there about reducing your carbon footprint.”
What we need, said Bittman, are policy changes that impact the way we farm, process, and produce food. “Those changes can’t be made for the most part by individuals. They have to be made by regulation, by government, by mandate.”
So what’s for dinner these days? Two decades later, the Minimalist himself is still simplifying.
“Julia Child once said to me, ‘I don’t get what’s going on with Italian food — all they do is put a few herbs and olive oil on stuff and stick it in the oven.’ And that’s exactly right,” he said.
“Not to take to anything away from her, because obviously, she turned zillions of people on to cooking — but back then it was, ‘how elaborate can I make this dish?’ and now it’s kind of, ‘how simple can I make this dish?’ and I think that’s real progress.”
He chuckled. “I would say that.”
For many, progress looks like a book so well-loved it has a calorie count of its own. Don’t feel too bad if your copy has seen better days — it turns out that it’s not entirely your fault.
“The bindings were just terrible!” said Bittman. “People thought, ‘Oh my God, I really abused this book!’ But in fact, they fell apart immediately.”
Veteran readers and fledgeling home cooks alike will have a chance to start fresh when the 20-year edition hits shelves next month. This time, the book takes on a new flavor for Bittman.
“I had no idea this was going to happen, that I was going to write this arguably staple cookbook for a generation or two,” he said. “That’s a totally cool thing. And it’s equally true that there is a broader world out there in the world of cooking.”
Lindsay Crudele can be reached at email@example.com.