I'm going to sound like an echo here but I would definately start my cookbook collection with Joy of Cooking
(Scribner Edition) NOT
"The New Joy of Cooking
". It has a lot of information about "stuff" in addition to tons of recipes - for example in the section on herbs it explains what each one is, what it taste like, and when they are most often used. You can almost always find these used at amazon.com for under $12-$15. Get the hardcover edition - not the comb-binding (I've heard the paper is so thin you don't have to turn the page to read what is on the next page). Also, I've been told by a couple of people who grew up with Joy
to stay from the New Joy
because they left out a lot of the "stuff" about foods and techniques to make room for just more recipes.
I also have to second the vote for any of the Cook's Illustrated
cookbooks (The Best Recipes, The Quick Recipes, etc.). Before they give you the recipe they discuss what they tried to get the best results - what they tried, what worked and what didn't, and why.
How To Cook Everything
by Mark Bittman is also good.
Getting more into the science of cooking we have Alton Brown's books, Cookwise
by Shirley Corriher (has some recipes based on the science discussions), What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained
by Robert L. Wolke, and On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
(Revised Edition) by Harold McGee (just science - no recipes). If you are an Alton Brown Good Eats
fan - the majority of his food science comes from Corriher (she has been a guest on several episodes) and McGee - so much so that I often think of Good Eats
as "Harold and Shirly - The Movie!"
There are lots
of good cookbooks that can teach you something about techniques (anything written by Julia Child for example). These are just some of my favorites for someone wanting to move beyond just following a recipe.