I want one that is more textbook than cookbook.
It's the old give-a-man-a-fish-or-teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy.
It's nice to know how to make a specific recipe, but I'd rather understand how that dish came together so I can apply the techniques to my own creations.
The latest Williams-Sonoma offering to cross my desk helps me do just that.
"Sauces: Made Easy with Step-by-step Photographs" (Free Press, $19.95) is a perfect book for the beginning cook.
It gives easy instructions on making sauces and expands the theme to include gravy, salsa, relish, chutney and coulis, and there's a whole section on making barbecue sauces.
Sauces take bland home-cooked food and give it the flavors that make a dish interesting.
Pan-fried pork chops can be ordinary, but top them with a golden yellow mustard sauce, and the dinner has become special - thanks to an extra five minutes of effort.
With illustrations and simple details, "Sauces" shows you how.
It's a cooking primer that explains how sauces differ and when each should be used, discusses ingredients, and explains the different methods of thickening and ways to serve.
It also gives the information that eluded me early in my cooking education: When a recipe calls for "white wine," go with an un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. (For red wine, use a Syrah, Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon.)
OK, don't get flustered when the "Basic Recipes" portion begins with a stockpot and a bunch of bones. Store-bought stocks work just fine with all of these recipes.
However, making stock from scratch is something every cook should try.
As promised, the steps are easy and illustrated
The "Key Techniques" chapter is a gold mine of information for the new home cook. Cookbooks that cost two and three times as much as this one don't explain the basics of dicing onions, shallots, carrots and celery. "Sauces" also shows how to work with garlic, zest citrus, seed a tomato, peel and chop ginger, and even separate an egg.
In particular, pay attention to the "Thickening with a Slurry" and "Thickening with a Roux" portions.
I was lucky enough to be shown how to do this by a former professional cook. This book takes the mystery out of these two crucial kitchen skills.
When I was beginning, I learned to make sauces from a laminated "cheat-sheet" I bought at the bookstore at FCCJ North Campus. The four-page guide cost $5 and gave me a crash course in sauces. It's packed with recipes, including ones I needed for tartar sauce, Thousand Island dressing and carbonara sauce.
It was a cheap way to learn, but when I made those sauces, I didn't understand at first how to apply the technique to other dishes.
With "Sauces," once you've learned to make a pan sauce, the book then shows how to use variations to make a White Pan Sauce, Madeira Pan Sauce, Herbed Cream Pan Sauce, Mustard Pan Sauce, Green Peppercorn Pan Sauce and Bourbon Pan Sauce.
After you've made a couple of variations, you probably won't need the book to figure out the rest.
Sauces make the meal. And "Sauces" will make you a better cook.
Macdonald is a food writer for Morris Communications in Jacksonville, Fla.