Despite all the handwringing over the fate of recipes in the digital era, cookbooks remain as popular as ever. But that’s at least partly because they are evolving: experimenting with new forms, diving into collaborations between word and image, building on blog platforms, seeking out communities of like-minded cooks. Cooks are sharers in a world that increasingly loves sharing. Nowadays, you may be desperate for vegan dumplings or you might have forgotten how to craft the perfect burger or maybe you’ve just dropped a pie on the floor, but one thing’s for certain: You’re not alone.
Some of this year’s books are like that friend who’s tried everything in the kitchen and knows so many shortcuts you learn stuff just by watching her in action. “The Food52 Cookbook, Volume 2,” by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs ($30), shows that virtually crowd-sourcing dinner can be, in some ways, just like a potluck. Contributors flaunt their cravings from Korean chicken wings and pastitsio to gumbo and cajeta, making no apologies for their eclectic tastes and techniques.
Cooking Channel chef Aida Mollenkamp challenges novices in “Keys to the Kitchen” ($35), using an information-rich format that takes you all the way from “How to Hold a Knife” to pistachio and apricot goat cheese-stuffed chicken. And “The Science of Good Cooking” ($40), from the indefatigable testers of Cook’s Illustrated, reinvents the cookbook as a sort of encyclopedia of advice, with chapters ranging from “Salty Marinades Work Best” to “Starch Helps Cheese Melt Nicely.”
Some books are like your most hedonistic friends, celebrating the good life with seasonal foods, luscious images, and trendy down-to-earthness (signaled by images of coarse linen, which you can find, if you look closely, on many cookbook jackets this year). The unconventional partnership of Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer of the Canal House quarterly, for example, unfolds in impeccably lit splendor in “Canal House Cooks Every Day” ($45). The way Hamilton and Hirsheimer dwell on their favorites — fresh spinach, pumpkins, gianduia (chocolate) — is a kind of poetry in recipe format.
Ian Knauer’s “The Farm” ($30) redefines rusticity, helping readers make the most of what’s in season in their farmshare box or at a local stand. It’s got everything from how to boil the perfect egg (serves 1) to how to cook a pig (serves 40 to 60). “Herbivoracious” ($24.95), derived from Michael Natkin’s blog of the same name, takes a similarly smell-the-roses approach from a vegetarian perspective. Natkin has an especially deft touch with the legumes that serve as his protein; they’re all dolled up and dressed for dinner, scarcely resembling their own beany, bland selves.
And then there are the single-subject experts: Nigel Slater, whose mouthwatering “Ripe” ($40) does for fruit what his “Tender” did for vegetables, with lovingly crafted recipes and ravishing passages of prose. There’s Bruce Aidells’ “Great Meat Cookbook” ($40), an ode to unapologetic carnivory — the perfect gift when you’ve already re-upped a guy’s subscription to the bacon-of-the-month club a couple of years running. And bakers will find a sweet and whimsical package in the “United States of Pie,” a blithe, regionally organized voyage from apple to ollalieberry, with marvelously clear instructions and an encouraging word for the dough-phobic.
Among these knowledgeable, pleasurable kitchen companions is one standout that is all of these things and more: “Jerusalem,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi ($35). The book has received a fair amount of play, thanks at least in part to its heartwarming celebration of Jews’ and Muslims’ shared culinary heritage. It may be a good story, and it may be pure eye candy, but when it comes right down to it, just one thing matters: This book cooks like a rock star. Or, to put it in terms a sharing world can understand, it cooks like a very talented and inspiring friend.