Each year brings a deluge of excellent new cookbooks. There are the ones we admire: 10-volume sets dedicated to molecular gastronomy, books from restaurants filled with deeply technical recipes, niche tomes aimed at those obsessed with sourdough or air fryers or the theoretical food of the imaginary realm where their favorite Netflix binge takes place.
And then there are the ones we use, books we turn to again and again because the recipes they contain are so appealing, because the techniques they teach are indispensable, because they show us that we can cook well, both in and out of our wheelhouses.
It's fun to be an armchair cook, to look through a book whose life will be lived largely on a shelf. But as a gift giver, it is more satisfying to procure just the right book, the one that enlarges or enhances the recipient's repertoire, the one that gets its corners bent down, splatters on its pages, notes in its margins. All cookbooks are beautiful and useful to someone. The following 10 essential volumes are gifts that will get used by most anyone who cooks, again and again.
"American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta," by Evan Funke with Katie Parla
This could be viewed as a niche tome, if so many people didn't love pasta so much. For anyone who wants to learn how to make it, "American Sfoglino" is both invaluable and aesthetically satisfying, starting with the table of contents, which can be read like a poem or sung like a jolly nursery rhyme: lasagna verde alla bolognese, pappardelle, tagliatelle, maltagliati, strichetti, garganelli, triangoli, tortelloni, balanzoni, tortellini, sorpresine, cestini, caramelle, strozzapreti, gnocchi di ricotta! (Emphasis mine.) Author Evan Funke, of Felix Trattoria in Venice, Calif., is the American sfoglino (pasta maker) of the title. He learned his craft from Alessandra Spisni, a pasta maestra who runs a cooking school in Bologna, and now he passes it on to us. (Also always buy any Italian cookbook with Rome-based writer Katie Parla's name on it.) The book begins with the fundamentals: recipes for four master doughs, along with information about ingredients and equipment. (Funke shares his feelings about pasta machines in words I'm not allowed to use here. Suffice to say you do not need one.) With ingredients sometimes nothing more than flour and water, technique counts for a lot. Instructions are clear and accompanying photos and troubleshooting tips helpful; it will still take a little practice before the initiate, too, can read newsprint through the rolled-out pasta dough. After getting the hang of it, move through the different shapes and doughs, paired with recipes for appropriate sauces: pappardelle with duck ragu, tortellini in brodo, caramelle with artichoke filling (they look like little wrapped candies), that utterly rich and beautiful green lasagna. Anyone who starts at the beginning and works through to the end will be well on the way to fresh-pasta mastery.
What to make first: tagliatelle al ragù, one of Bologna's greatest hits.
"Double Awesome Chinese Food: Irresistible and Totally Achievable Recipes From Our Chinese-American Kitchen," by Andrew, Irene, and Margaret Li
Fans of Mei Mei will particularly enjoy this cookbook from the siblings behind the food truck-turned-Fenway restaurant. It's filled with familiar recipes for Magical Kale Salad, a variety of dumplings, Frito pie, and of course the Double Awesome, a cheesy egg sandwich on scallion pancakes. There are also deeper cuts: hot-and-sour borscht, brisket lettuce wraps, ginger-scallion lobster rolls. It's all based around Mei Mei's values, emphasizing the local, seasonal, sustainable, and nourishing. The book is worth having around for the pantry basics alone. From ginger-scallion oil to peanut sauce, they can transform even the hastiest meal into something special.
What to make first: whole grain porridge with toppings — or, for something completely different, kung pao chicken dip (can you say Super Bowl party?).
"Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family," by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna
This is a family story told through food, in the irreverent voice of Priya Krishna. The portrait of a modern American family is sweet enough, but you're here for the Indian-ish recipes. First: "Dad's Yogurt." The process outlined is so simple, so basic, it's hard to resist. It turned me, previously an intermittent yogurt maker, into a regular one. Krishna explains how to use the spices and pulses of Indian cooking, and introduces readers to chhonk (the tempering of spices in fat, to be added at the end), which she calls "the greatest Indian cooking technique ever." The Most Basic Dal is so quick and satisfying, it will become a regular lunch; kaddu, sweet-and-sour butternut squash, is a Thanksgiving staple for the Krishnas for good reason. Then there are savory bulgur wheat bowls, herbed avocado sandwiches, and the uber-comforting tomato rice with crispy cheddar. These are the kind of dishes one wants to eat on the daily, and probably will.
What to make first: Most Basic Dal, to understand the power of chhonk.
"Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking," by Toni Tipton-Martin
Toni Tipton-Martin's 2015 book, "The Jemima Code," illuminated black cooks' role in American cuisine by exploring almost 200 years' worth of cookbooks by African American writers. "Jubilee" is the natural celebration that follows. "I have tried to honor the kind of joyous cooking that would have turned yesterday's enslaved and free cooks into today's celebrity chefs," she writes. Recipes for the likes of sweet potato biscuits with ham, okra gumbo, coffee-scented short ribs braised in red wine, pork chops with caper-lemon sauce, and pineapple upside-down cake are irresistible — homey, elegant, and festive in turn, and sometimes all at once.
What to make first: black-eyed peas and rice, a classic dish to usher in a lucky new year.
“The Last Course,” by Claudia Fleming with Melissa Clark
The cook who holds this dessert book is lucky. Claudia Fleming, who got her start as pastry chef at New York's Gramercy Tavern, wrote it in 2001. Then it went out of print, becoming a cult classic. Now, finally, it's back. Fleming likes to take one ingredient — say, pineapple — and use it in many different ways: "That way, the diner can really get to know the different personalities of a pineapple," she writes in the introduction. Her desserts have a sweet simplicity; they aren't showy, just lovely. And they make beautiful use of seasonal fruit, as in a chilled apricot-muscat soup, which simply contains those two ingredients plus some sugar. Particularly for anyone who likes to make frozen desserts, it is a must, including flavors from prune-Armagnac ice cream to almond-milk granite to Concord grape sorbet. Guinness stout ginger cake? Saffron rice pudding? The salty-sweet chocolate caramel tarts Fleming became known for at Gramercy Tavern? Your favorite home pastry chef will want to make them all.
What to make first: buttermilk panna cotta with strawberry rosé gelee, pure flavor and bouncy, silky texture.
“Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over,” by Alison Roman
From the author behind one of 2017′s best cookbooks, “Dining In,” comes this new guide to making really good food to share with people you like. It’s as simple as that. Roman writes the kind of recipes that tend to break the Internet: the chickpea stew, the salted chocolate-chunk shortbread cookies. They’re not hard to execute, and they’re so appealingly conceived. This is a whole collection of them, with embraceable names like Any Excuse to Make Shrimp Cocktail, A Very Good Lasagna, and Tiny, Salty, Chocolatey Cookies. Vegetables are a strong suit, from roasted radishes with green goddess butter to just-cooked cabbage with butter, anchovy, and lemon, as are main dishes with a point of view: one-pot chicken with dates and caramelized lemon, spicy pork meatballs in brothy tomatoes and toasted fennel. Guaranteed: unapologetically more anchovy recipes than in any other cookbook around.
What to make first: lamb chops for the table, a platter of seared chops with garlicky, herby melted butter and lemon. When you deliver them, Roman instructs, you must cry out, “Lamb chops for the table!"
”Pastry Love: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes," by Joanne Chang
Flour chef-owner Joanne Chang's fifth cookbook takes its name from the act of arranging pastries in the case so that they look their best: pastry love, they call it at the bakery. "We are all looking for connection with others in this crazy, unpredictable world," Chang writes. "Every time you bake for someone or share a recipe, you are sharing a part of yourself." Here, that sharing takes the form of dozens of recipes for breakfast treats, breads, cookies, pies, cakes, confections, and more, each with its own photograph. (There are a good number of vegan and gluten-free offerings in the mix.) Nutty Seedy Breakfast Cookies and apple cider sticky buns, Japanese-style milk bread and Nutella babka, caramel popcorn cookies and double chocolate rye cookies, blueberry hand pies and peach crostata, olive oil cake with grapes and matcha cream puffs: It's an embarrassment of riches. Chang doesn't worry about giving all her secrets away, though. A visit to Flour is about the pastries, but it's just as much about that connection she describes.
What to make first: coconut sticky rice with mango-lime curd and mango snow, a riff on the classic Thai dessert.
"Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen," by Adeena Sussman
The slang term "sababa," a Hebrew word derived from Arabic, means "everything is awesome." That's true for Adeena Sussman when she trawls the markets of Tel Aviv, where she lives, early in the morning. Sussman, who has written cookbooks with Chrissy Teigen, now has one of her own, and it is built around those market discoveries. It had me from the wonderfully bright 24-hour salted lemon spread, more speedily achieved than preserved lemons. Then it got me again on the very next page with cardamom-kissed schug, a version of the Yemeni hot sauce. And again with 40-minute amba (a mango-based condiment), and roasted sheet-pan cherry tomatoes. I wasn't even through the first section of the book. For breakfast, there's green shakshuka and red shakshuka, Jerusalem bagels, and tahini smoothies. Hummus is here, as are multihued takes on tahini, baba ghanoush, muhamarra. There are clever intercultural riffs such as Israeli street corn and "pitaquiles." A za'atar roast chicken over sumac potatoes is a simple showstopper; fish gets wrapped in chard leaves, then simmered in a lemony sauce. End the meal with a tahini caramel dessert Sussman calls the "Gal Gadot of tarts."
What to make first: jeweled rice, basmati adorned with herbs, nuts, and barberries.
"Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes for the Home Cook," by Enrique Olvera with Luis Arellano, Gonzalo Goût, and Daniela Soto-Innes
This is one of the year’s most exciting and reinvigorating cookbooks. It should come as no surprise given the authors: Enrique Olvera, chef of renowned Mexico City restaurant Pujol, wrote it with partners Daniela Soto-Innes (chef at Atla and Cosme in New York, recently named “World’s Best Female Chef”), Gonzalo Goût (former general manager at Cosme), and Luis Arellano (chef at Criollo in Oaxaca). But often chef books aimed at home cooks don’t quite land. This one does, offering just what the subtitle promises. The revelation is how accessible it is for home cooks to nixtamalize dried corn, or treat it with pickling lime, in order to make masa. Or to pull together flour tortillas that put store-bought to absolute shame. Dishes such as Veracruz-style cod, classic Christmas fare; pozole; a bright green mole made from pistachios; and corn esquites are compelling without being overly complicated. And there are many straightforward recipes perfect for weeknights: a simple quinoa salad; a lentil dish inspired by ceviche; chicken tinga, a common first dish for many Mexicans learning to cook. Now anyone can make it.
What to make first: Consomé de pollo, a revitalizing chicken soup stocked with chickpeas, chayote, and mint, served with avocado, lime, cilantro, and tortillas.
"Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors," by Andrea Nguyen
With books such as “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” and “The Pho Cookbook,” Andrea Nguyen has spent the last dozen years making Vietnamese food accessible to the home cook. “Vietnamese Food Any Day” may be her most accessible volume yet, drawing entirely on ingredients common to most grocery stores. This is easier than ever, as fish sauce, rice paper, and coconut milk have become American staples. Soon enough, chile garlic chicken wings, wontons in gingery broth, turmeric coconut rice, banh mi sandwiches, Viet-Cajun seafood boil, and no-churn Vietnamese coffee ice cream will be on the table.
What to make first: Ginger-garlic fish parcels, an easy route to a fragrant steamed fish dish.
Plus a few more to consider:
"Cannelle et Vanille: Nourishing, Gluten-Free Recipes for Every Meal and Mood," by Aran Goyoaga. The very beautiful cookbook those who don't eat gluten deserve (and also equally lovely for those who do), from chef-turned-writer Aran Goyoaga, who is behind the blog of the same name.
"From the Oven to the Table: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves," by Diana Henry. British food writer Diana Henry is an utterly reliable source for delicious, appealing recipes. These ones also need very little minding. Among other things, the book includes a deserved celebration of that weeknight wonder: chicken thighs. Dinner is solved!
"Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors," by Sonoko Sakai. California-based cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai shares her deep knowledge in recipes that reflect her philosophy of freshness, seasonality, simplicity, beauty, and economy. It's like attending one of her workshops without leaving home.
"Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker, and Megan Scott. The 2019 edition of the foundational classic, fully revised and updated. The perfect gift for anyone who is learning to cook or whose old copy is so broken in it's barely usable.
"Maangchi's Big Book of Korean Cooking: From Everyday Meals to Celebration Cuisine," by Maangchi with Martha Rose Shulman. If you've ever searched online for how to make kimchi, bulgogi, sundubu jigae, or japchae, you've come across the delightfully energetic Maangchi, whose YouTube channel has 3.7 million subscribers. Here's a book for that!
"Tartine: A Classic Revisited," by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. We learned so much about baking from the first "Tartine" cookbook, published in 2006. Now the team behind the influential bakery releases this version, with 55 updated recipes and 68 new ones. We're sure to learn just as much this time around.
"Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook," by Carla Lalli Music. Bon Appetit's food director, whom you may know from the magazine's YouTube videos, shares her approach to home cooking. It's practical, it's delicious, and it offers a bridge between culinary aspiration and busy daily life.
“Zaitoun: Recipes From the Palestinian Kitchen,” by Yasmin Khan. A former human-rights campaigner, Khan brings us recipes and stories that give a sense of Palestinian life in Israel and the occupied territories. Via recipes for roast pumpkin, sage, and maftool (Palestinian couscous) soup and Gazan beef with chickpeas and chard, we are reminded of the many ways food can function as sustenance.