When holiday shopping this year, think of the cooks. Since March, the home kitchen has been both source of nutritious meals and primary entertainment theater, where we retreat to turn out snacks that break up the day, meals that counter ennui, desserts that take hours to create and minutes to decimate, in briefly orgiastic spells of joy and sweetness. After months of extra immersion, the sense of purpose may have started to wear a bit thin. Is it even legal to order pizza this often?
If the cooking’s in a rut, so’s the cook. Fresh inspiration truly is a gift, and the right book can provide hours of it — through new ideas, exciting flavors, and beautiful, transportive photography. This year’s best cookbooks are expansive. They broaden our understanding of kitchen practice; they take us far afield, evocatively. They also connect us. They bring us inside others’ experience, giving us a taste, literally, of what is meaningful to their creators.
Here are the best volumes of 2020 to give to the cooks in your life, tailored to the recipients.
For anyone really missing family this holiday season:
If they can’t be with their own relatives, perhaps they can take solace in the company of someone else’s. “In Bibi’s Kitchen,” by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen, features the recipes and stories of grandmothers from Eritrea, Madagascar, Tanzania, and other African countries alongside the Indian Ocean. Whether making Kenyan grandmother Ma Kauthar’s biryani, plantains with coconuts and prawns from Ma Josefina of Mozambique, or Hassan’s own recipe for Somali digaag qumbe (chicken stew with yogurt and coconut milk), readers will come away feeling they’ve spent time in a cozy and fragrant kitchen, learning to cook something delicious.
For anyone really missing parties this holiday season:
They’re known as hosts with the most, but the usual celebratory gatherings are called off. That doesn’t mean the festive spirit is canceled, though. It’s a good time to practice, plan, and learn some new party-throwing skills for the future. Bone up on mixology with “The New Craft of the Cocktail,” a revised edition from master bartender Dale DeGroff. History lessons; tutorials on techniques, tools, and ingredients; and 500 recipes ought to keep them occupied. With “Good Drinks,” Julia Bainbridge offers a pathway to balanced, sophisticated, alcohol-free cocktails, a boon for anyone who isn’t partaking. Take care of the snacks with “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life” (or at least make you Instagram-famous), Marissa Mullen’s guide to “creative gatherings and self-care” via gorgeously elaborate assemblages of cheese, charcuterie, and more. The next party your recipient throws is going to be bonkers, and you’ll be there to reap the rewards.
For those craving a change of scenery:
These books are for the cook who always has a travel bag packed, carries a passport at all times “just in case,” and has spent the past few months a) learning a new language, b) planning future trips down to the tiniest detail, and/or c) threatening to move to another country if things go irrevocably sideways. For anyone longing to travel to Seoul, or simply to eat at Hooni Kim’s New York restaurants, Danji and Hanjan, the chef’s “My Korea” offers recipes for galbi, kimchi jigae, and all the banchan one could want. Palestinian chef and Ottolenghi partner Sami Tamimi pens a culinary love letter to his homeland in “Falastin,” putting dishes such as maqlubeh (upside-down rice) and the oxtail stew sumaqqiyeh into cultural, political, and emotional context. Marianna Leivaditaki’s “Aegean” is the work of a London chef longing for home, Crete. Showcasing recipes for grilled squid with lemon, arugula, and sheep’s milk cheese and slow-cooked leg of lamb with orzo, it exudes love; the splendid light in the photos also provides vicarious Vitamin D. We journey to the Kola Peninsula in the far north of Russia with food scholar Darra Goldstein via “Beyond the North Wind,” then learn to make quick pickles, classic cabbage soup, dumplings with mushrooms and buckwheat, and more. Hop a train to Chennai in Maneet Chauhan’s “Chaat: The Best Recipes From the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India,” and pull up a chair in Lara Lee’s Indonesian kitchen, with her “Coconut & Sambal.” Look ma, no jet lag.
For celebrating Black culinary excellence:
This one’s for the aunties, the allies, the fighters of inequity, the students of history, the cooks who want to fill the kitchen with Black joy. In “The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food,” chef Marcus Samuelsson and coauthor Osayi Endolyn take a journey through the past and into the future, through flavor and culture, showing the range of their subject and writing it fully back into America’s food history. Profiles of chefs, writers, activists, and educators are illuminating, but it’s the recipes — for grilled piri piri shrimp with papaya and watermelon salad, island jollof rice, cassava dumplings with callaloo puree, good vibes curry goat — that truly convey the breadth and sheer deliciousness of Black culinary contribution.
For eating mostly plants:
For sophisticated cooks who cut their teeth on Moosewood cookbooks back in the day, Meera Sodha’s “East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes From Bangalore to Beijing” is a must. In the column she writes for the Guardian, Sodha aims to make plant-based diets more tempting and satisfying. This volume is testament to her success. Recipients will want to cook everything herein, from rutabaga laksa to Sri Lankan beet curry to mushroom mapo tofu to the masala omelet the author’s mum used to make the kids each Sunday. And with “Vegetable Kingdom,” Bryant Terry takes readers into “the abundant world of vegan recipes” he introduced in previous book “Afro-Vegan.” They’ll swoon for warm butter bean salad with roasted bell peppers, creamy sweet potato-leek soup, panko-crusted cauliflower and coconut curry, and more.
For kids and those who love to cook with them:
Now kids get to benefit from the surefire Melissa Clark recipes adults have long enjoyed. Clark writes “Kid in the Kitchen” with a premise that’s hard to dispute: “If you love to eat, you should learn how to cook.” After introducing readers to skills, tools, and food-styling basics, she teaches them to make hot honey butter popovers, quickie beef pho, sticky soy sauce chicken, grain bowls, and tacos for a party. There are baking projects galore, from citrusy olive oil challah to salted chocolate chip cookies. Younger bakers may also be interested in Duff Goldman’s “Super Good Baking for Kids” and Christina Tosi’s “Milk Bar: Kids Only.” Note: There is absolutely no reason adults cannot also enjoy these volumes.
For the lab rats:
These are for the folks who view cooking as a great, ongoing science project, who want to know why the recipe works then use that knowledge to tinker endlessly in search of the Best Possible Version. It’s been a decade since Harvard introduced its famed Science and Cooking course, which brought some of the world’s best chefs to the university to lecture and cook. Now professors Michael Brenner, Pia Sörensen, and David Weitz fill a book with those lessons. “Science and Cooking: Physics Meets Food, From Homemade to Haute Cuisine” teaches readers about molecular interactions, microbes, and more via recipes for Corey Lee’s soup dumplings, Wylie Dufresne’s shrimp noodles, and Joanne Chang’s almond pralines. In “The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained + More Than 100 Essential Recipes,” molecular biologist and cookbook author Nik Sharma balances charts about spinach oxidation and discussions of the chemical structure of aromas with alluring recipes for chickpea salad with date and tamarind dressing, crab tikka masala dip, and coffee-spiced steak with burnt kachumber salad. And in “Koji Alchemy,” Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky teach fermentation heads how to use the mold koji in the creation of miso, bread, charcuterie, and more.
For the bakers:
This was a banner year for baking books. We have excellent offerings from professionals: Melissa Weller’s “A Good Bake: The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and Breads at Home” and Dominique Ansel’s “Everyone Can Bake: Simple Recipes to Master and Mix” stand out. Clare Saffitz, former host of Bon Appetit’s “Gourmet Makes,” offers her obsessed fan base recipes for apple and Concord grape crumble pie, preserved lemon meringue cake, and babkallah (a babka/challah hybrid) in “Dessert Person.” Yossy Arefi’s charming “Snacking Cakes: Simple Treats for Anytime Cravings” reminds us that cake needn’t be a big production or a special occasion, but can be whipped up and enjoyed on a whim. And for the person most likely to take a master class in pie baking, there are enough volumes to fill a shelf: “The Book on Pie,” “Pie Academy,” “Pie Camp,” “Pie for Everyone,” “Pieometry,” “Pie Style.” Bundle them together for the perfect themed gift.