The cookbooks that resonate this year are the ones that get real. Whether encouraging you to use some kitchen smarts, or employing a brute-force meat-shredding method that relies on a sledgehammer, this season’s best cookbooks emphasize technique, authenticity, and the occasional bit of salty language. The fancy kitchen cookbooks are still out there but somehow feel less important, ceding their slots in our rankings to the tomes that focus on making better food at home, perhaps perfecting a long braise or getting a little philosophical instead of fussing with plating.
Edited by Kate Lebo and Samuel Ligon, Sasquatch Books.
This book is small enough to fit in somebody’s Christmas stocking, and it also contains a lot of swearing. Of course, those are both selling points for the right person.
If all that and co-editor Kate Lebo’s recipe for Motherfucking Strawberry Rhubarb Pie doesn’t tick off the boxes for holiday gift giving, you might give thought to expanding your social circle. Born of a wildly popular reading series of the same name, Lebo and co-editor Samuel Ligon have assembled stories from a cast of writers, a poet laureate, skilled pie slingers, Anthony Doerr, and a guy whose last name is Fries.
You’ll also learn as you pull out the ingredients to Lebo’s raspberry mascarpone walnut hand pies that if you make the pies round instead of triangular, the ingredients will both blend together more evenly while they cook and—pro tip!—the pies will be less likely to explode in the oven. Sometimes, like those hand pies, the recipes are legit—Funeral Pie certainly sounds like something to eat before you die and sometimes the drink recipe instructions start with a line like, “Find a shrub and chop it down with the hatchet.” Use the newfound resolve this book injects into you to try both.
By Jessica Easto with Andreas Willhoff, Surrey Books.
The whether-you-need-it litmus test for this book on coffee-making technique is an easy one: read the sidebar called “Percolator, Alligator” on page 68, which quickly lobs Mr. Coffee and friends onto the trash heap. Percolators? We don’t need no stinkin’ percolators! Instead, this is a manual for coffee minutiae lovers; the ones who would correctly argue that proper extraction times, conical burr grinders, and gooseneck kettles all make for a better cup.
Craft Coffee breaks coffee making into six themed chapters—Basics, Hardware, Understanding and Buying Coffee, Flavor, and Brewing Methods—then goes deep into each one. It (thankfully) lacks any latte art photos, or any photos at all, but writer Jessica Easto and coffee guru Andreas Willhoff stare boldly down the rabbit hole of coffee making, then dive in headfirst. If you’re ready to learn more about perfecting your morning cup, this is a great place to start.
By Melissa Clark, Clarkson Potter Publishers.
For a product verging on wild popularity, the companies that make electric pressure cookers sure make a hash out of presenting their products well. The preset on Breville’s Fast Slow Pro turned my chickpeas (and a few other foods) into mush, and Instant Pot‘s instruction manual is notoriously bad. Despite all this, you should take the plunge, letting New York Times food writer Melissa Clark’s new book be your guide. In Dinner In An Instant, Clark cleverly toes the line between go-to recipes like French onion soup, hummus, or even easy-to-peel hard-boiled eggs (hallelujah!), that will become the foundations to understanding how your cooker works, and more adventurous keepers like her Coconut Curry Chicken and Lamb Tagine With Apricots and Olives. It’s not a “Missing Manual” for your electric pressure cooker, but Clark’s recipes are well thought out and well tested, making Instant a workhorse reference you’ll keep on the easy-to-reach end of your cookbook shelf.
By Hugh Acheson, Clarkson Potter Publishers.
There are some excellent slow-cooker cookbooks out there, but I often wonder if there’s some unspoken mandate dictating that the recipes in them be bland enough for a potluck at grandma’s. Look at enough works in the genre and you too will begin to pick up on how they all seem to have a recipe for the likes of tortilla soup, pulled pork, turkey chili, and mac and cheese.
Flip to any page in The Chef and The Slow Cooker and you’ll immediately know that this book is different. First of all, it’s gorgeous, and while I speak from experience saying that praising the photographer before the author can feel like a backhanded compliment, here it sends a clear signal that we’ve moved up a few notches. The pictures of chef Hugh Acheson in various states of repose—a game of Stratego, anyone? Cello lessons?—also emphasize the hands-off rewards of slow cooking.
Acheson ups the game with both exciting and new-feeling recipes like Halibut Poached in Sherry-Pimentón Broth or Goat and Garlic with Jeweled Couscous. He also takes classics like that tortilla soup and jazzes them up enough to make you look at them anew. You might end up putting in a bit more work than what run-of-the-mill slow cooker cookbooks typically ask of you, but what’s most exciting about Acheson’s book is that by using smart techniques and excellent ingredients, he breathes new life into an old kitchen tool.
By Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, Ten Speed Press.
If your eyes go wide with excitement and possibility looking at a picture of a dude using a sledgehammer to nearly shred a cooked, marinated flank steak, then turning it into drinking food, Thailand might just be the place for you.
Stateside, chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok restaurants are adored for both their Thai authenticity and their hipness, but I think I prefer his more freewheeling Whisky Soda Lounge in Portland. I’m still trying to get the hot off my tongue from the spicy, addictive house-roasted red peanuts I had there on a visit two years ago. In his new work, Ricker goes full bore, taking a cross-Thailand road trip and turning it into a cookbook that takes you along for the ride.
Drinking Food skews toward pleasing boozers and adventurous eaters, both highlighting classics like grilled dried cuttlefish and the fine-chopped meat salads known as laap, leaving plenty of room for offal adventures and—if enough neurons are still firing—what a happy drinker might register as authentic finger food. While some of the dishes in the book might seem a stretch on our shores, Ricker wisely advises reader to head to an Asian supermarket or take to the internet to “collect a half a dozen bottled sauces and a handful of fresh ingredients” to jumpstart your effort. It’s certainly cheaper than a flight to Bangkok.
By David Tanis, Artisan.
A few years back, I bought a David Tanis cookbook for my mom as a Christmas present. A year later, I shamelessly stole it from her shelves and slipped it into my suitcase. (Hi Mom!) I justify the theft by cooking from it at least once a month. Tanis is perhaps best known for his long chef stint at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, but his cookbooks are top notch. While A Platter of Figs and Heart of The Artichoke felt in look and style like one excellent work lopped into two volumes, Market Cooking sets out in a clear new direction. It’s nearly vegetarian without making a fuss about it, and gives each vegetable several pages of recipes that sound fresh and new. Fennel, for example, is turned into a mozzarella-laced gratin heightened with fennel seeds on one page, and stars in a raw salad on the next. Fennel fronds become the clever basis of fritters on the page after that. It’s a format stealthily truffled with technique that harkens back to Simon Hopkinson’s landmark Roast Chicken and Other Stories. You learn as you cook, leaving you more skilled and happily stuffed.