The Best Cookbooks of the Century So Far
The Internet really ought to have killed cookbooks. Recipes—tidy, self-contained packets of information that for centuries were individually swapped and shared, indexed and catalogued—are ideally suited for digital transmission. As they migrated online, liberated from the printed and bound, multiplying giddily, the thousand-recipe doorstops and easy-weeknight omnibus editions that had, for so long, stood in hardcover at the end of the shelf closest to the stove were rendered obsolete. And that should have been the end of it.
Yet, somehow, cookbooks stuck around. In fact, as the rest of the book industry found itself in a post-millennial free-fall, cookbooks were selling better than ever. This is because, coinciding with the rise of the Internet, cookbooks reinvented themselves. What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more—a mood, a place, a technique, a voice. Cookbooks of the pre-Internet age remain essential, of course. (What would any kitchen be without the guiding voices of Madhur Jaffrey, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Harold McGee, and a hundred others?) But, to my mind, the best cookbooks of the twenty-first century are among the very best ever written.
What follows is a list of my personal favorites from the beginning of the new millennium to the present. It’s a list that’s shaped by the particulars of how I eat, how I cook, and how I read, and its ten volumes—which include a profanity-filled restaurant scrapbook, a historiological cookbook of cookbooks, and a multi-thousand-page set of culinary lab notes—may not be the same that populate the Top Ten of any other cook. But what compels and delights me about my particular catalogue is that each book is, at heart, a text that teaches rather than dictates, that emphasizes cooking as a practice rather than as merely a means to a meal. They’re books that not only have great recipes and gorgeous images but take exuberant advantage of their form—subverting, reconsidering, and reframing the rules and limits of cookbook writing. If I’m stuck on what to make for dinner, I have only to Google some variation of “salmon arugula cast-iron easy.” For proof of what an extraordinary object a cookbook can be, I turn again and again to these.
“The River Cottage Cookbook,” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2001)
Changing one’s relationship to food “involves no sacrifice, no hardship or discomfort,” Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes, in his poetic ode to the hands-on, homestead-ish life. His prescription is simple: get in there and do it yourself—grow your own food, meet your meat, learn the colors and patterns of the landscape around you through all its seasons. Years before “farm to table” was a buzzword and Michael Pollan a household name, Fearnley-Whittingstall was urging readers to move away from industrial food systems and reacquaint themselves with lo-fi self-sufficiency: he will teach you how to cultivate your own berry brambles, trap your own eels (this is a very British book), and raise (and slaughter) your own pigs. The idea that pastoral practices can be pleasurable instead of burdensome is old news for the many home cooks today who know how to spot ramps in the wild and whip up D.I.Y. ricotta. But “The River Cottage Cookbook” ’s ideas (and straightforward, elegant recipes) remain striking reminders that what we eat isn’t just food on a plate but part of a thrilling natural cycle, our human lives brushing up against countless others, plant and animal alike.
“The Zuni Café Cookbook,” by Judy Rodgers (2002)
Since its introduction, in the late nineteen-eighties, the roast chicken served at San Francisco’s Zuni Café has earned a reputation as the best roast chicken in the world—crisp-skinned, impossibly juicy, served atop a salad of torn bread and bitter greens whose tart vinaigrette blends with the rich, golden drippings. That recipe alone would land this book on any list of the great and essential, but the rest of the volume has a magic, as well. Judy Rodgers got her culinary footing in France, living for a year with the family of the chef Jean Troisgros, and in Berkeley, where she cooked at Chez Panisse, and this five-hundred-page manifesto draws on those threads of experience (and others). The result is a remarkable collection of emphatic culinary opinions, several hundred of which are disguised as recipes: the merits of some soft cheeses over others, the precise way to dress a salad, the nonnegotiable importance of salting raw beef and fowl a day or more before it’s cooked. The book’s magnificent opening chapter, “What to Think About Before You Start, & While You Are Cooking,” lays out the philosophical blueprint for every New American and California-casual cookbook that followed.
“Baking: From My Home to Yours,” by Dorie Greenspan (2006)
It’s true, unfortunately, that the art of baking is more rigid and exacting than that of stovetop cooking. The whims of a search-engine algorithm won’t cut it if you want your biscuits perfectly fluffy, your cakes precisely lofty yet moist, and your cookies angelic; a baker, more than any other cook, needs a recipe writer she can truly trust. To my mind, there is none more reliable than Dorie Greenspan, a lapsed academic who found her calling in cakes and pastries and built a career writing uncommonly precise road maps for replicating her success. With her as a guide, there is no room for self-destructive improvisation: her stylish, rigorous, cheerful recipes work because she tells her reader exactly how to make them work, anticipating our errors and our questions, building contingencies, alternatives, and solutions right into the text, and evincing a soothing flexibility. (If the ganache at the bottom of a layered pudding spills up the sides of the cup, “it’s pretty; if it doesn’t, the chocolate will be a surprise.”) And if you only have one Greenspan book, it should be this one, a masterwork spanning breakfast to midnight snacks—not to mention her famous World Peace Cookies.
“Momofuku,” by David Chang and Peter Meehan (2009)
For many accomplished restaurant chefs, authoring a cookbook is just another checkbox on the to-do list of culinary celebrity, something to fit in after headlining a charity auction but before doing a stint on reality TV. Accordingly, countless celebrity-chef cookbooks consist of little more than dinner-party recipes sprinkled with pleasantly superficial biography. David Chang, whose Momofuku restaurants blew up American restaurant culture and then rebuilt it again in a decidedly hipper, more global, more postmodern form, did something similarly upending with his Momofuku book. Co-written with Peter Meehan, who later became Chang’s collaborator on the now-defunct food magazine Lucky Peach, the book is sometimes brilliantly cookable—see the dazzlingly effective method for cast-iron ribeye, or the near-instant ginger-scallion sauce, which tastes good on almost anything. Other times, by design, it is absolutely impossible, outlining finicky and complex recipes that are best suited for a brigade of swaggering line cooks. (I love the headline for the frozen foie-gras torchon, which advises you not to make the dish.) Throughout the volume, Chang spends time grappling with what was, at the time, the central drama of his career: initially the proud outsider, devoted to rejecting the restaurant world’s stodgy establishment, Momofuku’s culinary subversion was so forceful (and so appealing) that it became an establishment of its own.
“Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet (2011)
The molecular-gastronomy movement was in full swing in 2011—you could hardly snap a napkin in a top-tier restaurant without hitting a spherified cocktail and disrupting a stabilized emulsion or two. Into the haze of edible smoke thudded Nathan Myhrvold’s five-volume, 2,438-page, several-hundred-dollar magnum opus, the result of three years of testing in a full-time, fully staffed research kitchen. (Myhrvold, a technologist and former Microsoft C.T.O., has a habit of professionalizing his extracurricular interests.) “Modernist Cuisine” strapped turbo boosters to the slow, iterative experiments that had been happening in restaurant kitchens, delivering hundreds of ideas, models, and scientific answers on a scale that had been previously unthinkable. (For those of more modest culinary means, there’s also the companion volume “Modernist Cuisine at Home.”) Curiously, almost as soon as the book landed, high-end chefs’ attentions moved elsewhere—the mad-scientist era of gels and foams gave way to the more anthropological, emotional sense-of-place cooking spearheaded by chefs like René Redzepi, of Noma. “Modernist Cuisine,” it seems, had explored its subject so comprehensively that there was little ground left to cover.
“Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (2015)
This book isn’t responsible for the new trendiness of Middle Eastern food—that honor belongs, arguably, to the collected works of Yotam Ottolenghi, and his artful deployment of pomegranate seeds and tahini. But, in my mind, Ottolenghi’s books make better sources of inspiration than instruction or learning. For the latter, there’s Michael Solomonov. “Zahav,” like “Momofuku,” is a restaurant cookbook that avoids the clichés of restaurant cookbooks—it’s based on the menu of Solomonov’s Philadelphia restaurant of the same name, where the kitchen specializes in what he calls “modern Israeli cuisine,” a patchwork of Levantine, Maghrebi, Persian, Egyptian, Yemeni, and Eastern European influences. The book goes both deep (into Solomonov’s own life story, which is marked by great loss) and broad (addressing the cultural and political complexities of considering Israel as a culinary entity). It’s also a patient and encouraging guide to Solomonov’s dazzling recipes, worth the price of entry for almost any single chapter alone, especially those covering Solomonov’s magnificent salatim (dips, salads, and other small vegetable plates) and his approach to open-fire grilling.
“Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto,” by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay (2015)
There are a handful of conventional recipes in this book—a few sauces, a coleslaw, some beef ribs, your usual barbecue accoutrements. But the big one in “Franklin Barbecue,” the singular one this book exists to document, is the one for the Austin pitmaster’s legendary smoked brisket. The actual brisket recipe fills eight pages late in the book, but the two hundred or so pages that come before are, arguably, as essential to the process. With the reverent intensity of the true believer, Aaron Franklin delivers an almost comically sweeping exercise in obsession and precision: if you want to make Franklin Barbecue–quality barbecue, you can’t just buy a hunk of meat and light a fire. You need to build a smoker and learn how to make it purr, you need a wood guy, you need to learn how to manipulate flames and air. The great lie of most restaurant cookbooks is the promise that you and I can do it at home. Like Chang’s frozen foie-gras torchon, Franklin’s barbecue comes with a hard truth: you probably can’t. But if you wanted to—if you really wanted to—he’s here to show you every single thing you need to know to pull it off.
“The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks,” by Toni Tipton-Martin (2015)
Early in her career, the food writer and editor Toni Tipton-Martin noticed that virtually none of the cookbooks she encountered in professional kitchens were written by black cooks. Over decades, she read and researched hundreds of rare and often forgotten works of the African-American culinary record. “The Jemima Code” is a chronicle of her learning, an annotated catalogue of some hundred and sixty volumes, many from Tipton-Martin’s own library, spanning from the days of slavery to just a few years ago. Whether writing about a brief recipe pamphlet or a dense guide to household management, Tipton-Martin gives each book a generous page or more of comment, limning the biographies of the authors and celebrating their accomplishments. It’s a beautiful and essential corrective to the ongoing erasure of generations of black American culinaria and its indelible influence on American cuisine writ large. (“Jubilee,” Tipton-Martin’s more conventional cookbook, compiling recipes from the books in this collection, is publishing this fall.)
“Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” by Samin Nosrat (2017)
Reference books, almost by definition, aren’t meant to be read straight through; they’re index-driven, drily instructive knowledge-delivery mechanisms. They’re certainly not supposed to do what “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” does: just flat-out teach you, from the ground up, how to be a good cook. The title’s four words refer to the central pillars of cooking; the book explains how mastering them will transform everyday cooking from rote recipe-following to something more intuitive, jazz-like. The lush, four-episode Netflix series inspired by this book might be the trebuchet that launched Samin Nosrat to household-name status, but it’s her book that we’ll still be reaching for decades from now, as a guide for beginners in need of essential egg-scrambling techniques or for experienced cooks looking to burnish their confidence and bolster their skills. I always thought I knew how to use salt, for example; after applying Nosrat’s lessons—layering different varieties, seasoning at various stages of the cooking process, exploring the mineral’s different guises and effects, bold and subtle—I feel like I’ve levelled up from journeyman to master.
“Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” by Anissa Helou (2018)
Anissa Helou, who grew up in Beirut, made her name with lyrical Mediterranean cookbooks that make ideal celebratory dinners. “Feast” maintains her crisp, evocative prose and approachable recipe writing, but shifts its boundaries from the geographic to the religious, chronicling Muslim culinary traditions across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The book’s three hundred recipes trace the path of Islam from its seventh-century origins in present-day Saudi Arabia to the vibrant Muslim communities of Senegal, India, Indonesia, China’s Xinjiang province, and more. The food itself is phenomenal—breads, salads, stews, curries, sticky-sweet desserts—but even more illuminating is Helou’s decision to include blocks of different recipes for a single dish. At first, they seem redundant: half a dozen simple flatbreads, or innumerable variations on ground spiced meat formed into kebabs. In fact, in outlining their minute differences side by side, Helou reveals the habits, rituals, and histories that make up a vast and heterogeneous religious culture and cuisine.