Cookbooks are my favorite sort of book. I read them all the time—in the bath, on the train, before bed, at my desk, at the dining table—but I haven’t cooked as much as I’d have liked to this year, for reasons welcome and not. I’ve been distracted by work and by family, delighted by the return to dining in restaurants, weighed down by the anxiety of reading the news each day and feeling like the world is unravelling. Certain people boast about consuming cookbooks outside the kitchen—as if it’s somehow more virtuous, more culturally pure, to read a recipe than to cook it. Maybe that ought to make me feel better about losing my drive to get in the kitchen, but instead it fills me with a small sort of sadness. It would be impossible for me to make a dish from every book I open, but reading a cookbook without cooking from it always makes me feel a bit like someone trying to learn how to play the violin by reading a biography of Beethoven.
The most reliable way I’ve found to access that “By God, I’ve got to cook something” feeling is to read killer recipes—the kind that I want to know physically, not just intellectually. Often, I discover them on Instagram and TikTok. Midway through mindless scrolling, I’ll be overcome by the need to make a chopped salad with the dressing poured into the bowl first, or to roast butternut squash with a brick of feta and stir it all into pasta. But there is something especially wonderful about finding that burst of feeling in cookbooks: a note of satisfaction, a resolving chord, as if the book itself is glad that I’m doing what it intends for me to do. This year, I’ve found myself most drawn to cookbooks that are written more as conversations than as instruction manuals—those that speak in clear, intimate voices, telling personal stories with openness and grace, with recipes full of generous guidance. The ten books here, listed in alphabetical order and representing just a fraction of the year’s excellent crop, are the ones that have most forcefully pulled me off the sofa and into the kitchen. They’re worth the read, but they deserve to get their spines broken and their pages stained, too.
It is a universal truth that bakeries are potent vessels of nostalgia. There’s something about the smell and taste and feel of flour, yeast, and sugar that lodges in our sense memories as children, no matter where we are. Kristina Cho’s cookbook, which features traditional Chinese baked goods—pork-floss rolls, custardy egg tarts, pineapple buns sandwiched around a slab of butter—along with new creations, describes family visits to Hong Kong, weekends spent visiting her grandparents in Cleveland’s Chinatown, and cheesecake runs to Costco. The book is rounded out with recipes for dumplings, drinks, and a few street-food classics such as bubble waffles. Like those at most commercial bakeries, many of the treats here are based around a handful of master recipes (a milk dough, a steamed-bun dough, a sponge cake, etc.). It’s in the form and in the details that each dish finds its identity. My lifelong Chinese-bakery favorite, for instance, is the joyously silly hot-dog flower bun, which is something like a remixed pig in a blanket, with the weenies wrapped in luxuriously soft milk-bread dough and finished with a joyful shower of green onions and sesame seeds.
Anthology cookbooks rarely rise beyond novelty status—it’s hard to play ball in the same arena as the 1996 masterpiece “In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy,” which intersperses James Taylor’s baked bluefish fillets and Maya Angelou’s jollof rice with lustful porcine bons mots. This book is an exception. Since 2012, the culinary-literary organization Tables of Contents, led by the chef Evan Hanczor, has mounted regular dinners inspired by literary works, often with the authors in attendance. “Tables of Contents Community Cookbook” contains forty-one recipes from the kitchens of such writers as Angela Flournoy (collard greens braised in coconut milk), Carmen Maria Machado (a gloriously lurid pineapple-pecan cheese ball), Alexander Chee (turkey aloo keema), and Heidi Julavits (“Lentils”). The headnotes before each recipe provide intimate glimpses into the writers’ lives, histories, and idiosyncrasies. “Would I be as delighted by this dish if it were called a Utrecht Popover?” the novelist Paul Lisicky wonders, introducing his take on Dutch-baby pancakes. “I don’t think so.”
There are many books about Chinese cuisine, and Chinese American cuisine, and Chinese restaurants. But the marvel of Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho’s book is the way it trains a focussed, celebratory, reverent lens on the phenomenon of American Chinatowns. The book frames a Chinatown in any city as both a community and a living testament to the consequences of anti-Chinese political exclusion and racism (which is not a matter of the distant past—the book’s epilogue deals with the ugly anti-Asian sentiment that reared its head with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic). Jew is particularly concerned with the ways tradition, in Chinatown culture, brushes up against modernity; Mister Jiu’s (the name is a more accurate Pinyin of Jew’s family name), located in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, is situated in a building that previously housed a century-old banquet hall. For cooks new to Chinese gastronomy, the book patiently lays out the fundamentals of tools and techniques. The recipes range from beautifully simple (a gorgeous salad of mandarin oranges and Chinese almonds; garlicky Taiwanese-style eggplant) to restaurant-level ambitious (a dazzling fermented-grain jook with tender lobster). “Mister Jiu’s” is the best book of the year on the always-shifting nature of identity and identification: as ballast, as a millstone, as fire and fuel.
If you’ve read cookbooks by alumni of Alice Waters’s venerable Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse (among them Samin Nosrat, David Lebovitz, Tamar Adler, Cal Peternell, and David Tanis), you’ll be familiar with their shared culinary vernacular. It’s based on a philosophy of beauty and simplicity that, despite emerging from a restaurant, feels far better scaled to a home kitchen: good bread, good fruits, simple roasts, the efficient redeployment of scraps and leftovers. In this sweet, serious, clever little book—seventy-eight pages, paperback, pocket-size—the Chez Panisse alumnus Danny Licht distills that common language to its essence. Each of the dishes from his sixteen-ish recipes is connected to the next: a pot of beans becomes a pasta dish, which becomes a soup, and so on, through a roast chicken and a frittata and rigatoni alla Genovese, and then all the way back around to a pot of beans again. (There is also an excellent, whiskey-spiked chocolate cake, the one dish that lives outside of the other recipes’ elegant closed loop.) “My desires are marked by ambivalence,” Licht writes, introducing an herbaceous green sauce. “I go to the store and get what looks good so that I can surround myself in the kitchen with good options only. This way my ambivalence is absorbed by what I have on hand, which remakes it into intuition.” The photographs—spare tabletop still-lifes by the artist Laura Letinsky—break up the diaristic prose like quiet exhalations.
Joanne Lee Molinaro, a lawyer and home cook, has 2.8 million followers on TikTok, where she shares videos that follow a reliable and remarkably engaging form. Over percussively edited shots of slicing, searing, saucing, and plating gorgeous food (most of it rooted in Korean tradition, all of it vegan), she tells stories, in voice-over, about her life. Frequently the stories have a confessional, almost therapeutic slant. During a montage of making kimchi jjigae, she unpacks her childhood shame at her father’s Korean accent. As she undertakes a gnocchi-fied riff on ddukbokki, she offers a candid discussion of disordered eating. In cookbook form, this weaving together of recipes and personal history lands a bit more conventionally, but Molinaro’s clear, encouraging voice and appealing food continue to shine. Dishes such as mushroom galbi (standing in for the traditional short ribs), a two-day gochujang lasagna, and an egg-substitute version of a gyerranmari (a Korean-style omelette) feel simultaneously personal and rooted in the practice of generations.
A few years back, I wrote about “Living and Eating,” the 2001 cookbook by the minimalist architect John Pawson (co-written with the food writer Annie Bell). One of my favorite cookbooks ever published, it’s a potent document of its turn-of-the-millennium era, full of imperious and impeccable culinary diktats and an aesthetic perspective so austere as to seem almost opulent. “Home Farm Cooking,” co-authored with Pawson’s wife, Catherine, is his second book. We’re in the couple’s country home now rather than in their London house, but the space has again been given a sculptural flensing, and the food is in the same key as before: lush, simple, with the slightly kooky elegance of English tradition. There’s a leek-and-Stilton tart, grilled mackerel with marigold-orange romesco, a vivid magenta summer pudding made from slices of stale white bread, macerated with red berries and sugar and molded into a mountain. It took two decades for Pawson to publish this follow-up to “Living and Eating,” but—and I mean this very much as a compliment—it reads like it’s been barely two weeks.
Sheldon Simeon is a “Top Chef” fan favorite and the proprietor of Maui’s beloved restaurant Tin Roof. He’s also a third-generation Hawai’ian from a Filipino family of superlative cooks. His book is in part a document of his restaurant and in part a sensitive survey of the wildly diverse cuisines of the Hawai’ian islands, offering a corrective to the touristic misconception that the local cuisine is all pig roasts and poke. Simeon’s ambitious, cheffy restaurant recipes share space with more approachable home-cooking ideas, such as boiled peanuts spiced with the flavors of oxtail soup, Chinese-style fried wontons filled with shrimp and pork, and Hawai’i’s ubiquitous spam musubi. The grilling section is particularly inspiring, with wallopy marinades and smart tips on technique. Throughout, the book unpacks the influences that have shaped Hawai’i’s gastronomic identity, from Filipinio to Japanese, Portuguese, European, and Kānaka Maoli, or native Hawaiian. The book uses food to consider how a fractured history of colonialism brought people from all over to a tiny, beautiful, fragile place.
A portrait of a single, enormous chocolate-chip cookie gazes out from the cover of this book, as both an invitation and a challenge. Jesse Szewczyk, a recipe developer and food stylist, understands that even the most entry-level home cooks feel as though they have a handle on making cookies. What he also understands, and is vibrating with excitement to tell us, is that a vanilla-scented dough pocked with hunks of chocolate is only the beginning. The hundred recipes in this book prove that variety doesn’t demand complexity: simple, often subtle additions and substitutions transform the everyday into the extraordinary. He sprinkles cilantro and lime zest in a sugar cookie, stirs malt powder into brownie biscotti, and dollops savory red-pepper jelly in a thumbprint. Szewczyk has an uncanny sense of flavor, especially when it comes to floral and umami elements. Even that cover specimen is more than it appears—the classic cookie is twisted and sharpened with a pinch of dried lavender. Featuring friendly instructions and clever indications of the equipment each recipe requires, “Cookies” is an ideal book for a connoisseur who’s ready to move beyond slice-and-bake.
You’d be doing yourself no favors at all to treat this as a book only for reading—not when the recipes include stunning dishes such as the chef DeVonn Francis’s braised goat with preserved citrus and chef Nyesha Joyce Arrington’s coconut corn-bread pudding. But calling this a cookbook is a little bit like calling the Odyssey a poem. Bryant Terry, a cookbook author and the editor-in-chief of the imprint 4 Color Books, brings together some hundred contributors under one cover, and presents their essays, poems, art, and self-reflection in a way that echoes the rhythms of live performance. “Rise and flour,” the Reverend Marvin K. White writes at the beginning of the collection, listing the names of under-heralded Black cooks in a poetic benediction full of dizzying wordplay. “What would it feel like to enter both the kitchen and the bedroom with no one’s appetite but my own?” the anthropologist and essayist Savannah Shange asks, in an essay about Black queer taste. Other contributions touch on land, diaspora, practices of care, history, family, and justice. This is a wonderfully hard-to-summarize book, the sort of project that feels like history.
Spend time in any cool-people wine bar these days and you’ll almost certainly find yourself faced with Las Jaras, a line of minimal-intervention wines whose bottles bear giddy labels outside and charismatic-weirdo juice inside. The man behind Las Jaras is Eric Wareheim, an all-purpose hedonist perhaps best known for his Surrealist comedy (he’s half of the prolific duo Tim and Eric), who seems to have the uncanny ability to professionalize his hobbies and produce shockingly excellent results. As of this year, he is not only a winemaker but a cookbook author. “Foodheim” ’s pages are a party, a psychedelia of fonts and colors and silly-gorgeous-grotesque food photos. (Yep, that’s a unicorn-tail butt plug on page 58, by the artist Carly Mark.) The recipes are a globe-spinning mix that covers, aguachile, crab hand rolls, back-yard pizza, Wareheim’s mother’s schnitzel, and a cascading tower of head-on shrimp that resembles nothing so much as a crustacean Cousin Itt. All are designed for maximum enjoyment: fun to read about, fun to think about, fun to cook, fun as hell to eat.