In the Before Times, when we thought about the best cookbooks of the year, we sought inspiring dinner party recipes and fun dishes for a crowd. In those days, books full of elaborate baking projects were things to admire but only actually bake from once or twice a year.
Thinking about the best cookbooks of 2020—which ones we used the most, which ones kept us from ordering delivery after the millionth night of staying in—was different, of course.
We loved our cookbooks more than ever in 2020. But we loved them for reasons that are a little contradictory. 2020 saw the rise of project cooking: kneading dough as an edible stress ball, and folding butter into flour with the understanding that we weren’t going to be popping out for croissants with a friend any time soon. But this year also brought thousands of dinners cooked at home, bored kids signing off of virtual school and immediately demanding dinner, and dishes…all of the dishes. So we reached both for cookbooks that offered elaborate, time-intensive projects, and also for books that would allow us to get dinner on the table without having a breakdown. Hard and easy. Fast and slow.
Below are the 2020 cookbooks that we loved most of all. All of them were written before the pandemic, with no knowledge of just how useful and comforting and helpful they’d be. But these deep dives on dim sum, dependable guides to building dinner around cabbage, and unsnobbish instruction books for getting cocktails on our coffee tables did just that: instructed us, calmed us, held our hands. And in that not-so-insignificant way, they helped get us through this difficult year.
Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry
Food justice activist and chef Bryant Terry wrote this cookbook with the intention of making the many foods of the plant kingdom irresistible to his daughters—to inspire their curiosity and show them the pleasures of eating nourishing food. Turns out, the book has inspired many of us, too. With dishes like Citrus and Garlic-Herb Braised Fennel, Jerk Tofu Wrapped in Collard Leaves, and Roasted Sweet Potato and Asparagus Po’Boy, the collection of recipes emphasizes the ingredients, techniques, and dishes of the African diaspora. Each page offers proof that plant-based cooking needn’t rely on meat substitutes to be flavorful and fulfilling. Flip through Vegetable Kingdom, and you’ll find a number of delicious ways to enhance the vegetables you’ve always loved (and maybe find some vegetables that are new to you, too). Case in point: Creamy Ginger Dressing, which does triple duty as a marinade, dip, and goes-on-everything sauce. As in Terry’s previous work, Afro-Vegan, you can treat this cookbook as a soundtrack to your kitchen: He’s paired each recipe with the perfect song to play as you cook.
Start Simple by Lukas Volger
A lot of cooking in 2020 started with opening the fridge, fishing out whatever wasn’t wilted, and trying to figure out something to do with it. And for that, Start Simple seems prescient. Released in February, before the realities of America’s pandemic set in, the book quickly proved its value with vegetarian recipes that are uncomplicated, dependable, and specific to whatever’s on hand. Volger divided his book into chapters named for common foods you can build a meal around: “A Block of Tofu,” “A Head of Cabbage,” “A Stack of Tortillas.” His ideas for what to do with those things (ginger-scallion stuffed tofu, cheesy cabbage soup, swiss chard enchiladas) are neither revolutionary nor boring; instead, they hit the sweet spot of being craveable, but still familiar. So no, this isn’t really dinner party fare, but dinner parties weren’t a thing in 2020 anyway. And even when those parties come back, Start Simple will stay relevant. Those fridge-staring days may be slightly less common when the pandemic’s over, but as Volger knows, they’ll never go away completely.
The Flavor Equation, by Nik Sharma
As much a cook’s resource as it is a collection of recipes, Nik Sharma’s Flavor Equation teaches the science of, say, sweetness, and follows up that knowledge with a recipe for gooey Chocolate Miso Bread Pudding, or a saffron-swirled bun. It explains the chemical structures of aromas, and then shows you how to capture them through toasting, smoking, zesting. At first glance, some of the science may seem intimidating. Don’t worry. Each recipe more than stands on its own if you’re just here for the cooking—and Sharma has a knack for clear-eyed explanations. This is definitely a book for leveling up your cooking with newly finessed techniques and impressive dishes. But we’ve also turned to it for quick bowls of smokey raita, a week’s worth of dal makhani, and pitchers of tangy tamarind-laced refreshers. Whether you’re seeking a richly-flavored weeknight meal or a whole cooking master class, Flavor Equation does not disappoint.
East by Meera Sodha
Meera Sodha’s latest cookbook is a celebration of vegan and vegetarian cooking that highlights flavors from across Asia—”From Bangalore to Beijing” reads the subtitle, and that’s no exaggeration. Think a Thai-inspired eggplant larb; flaky leek-and-chard martabak made with frozen phyllo; sweet potato bibimbap; and chapters for sweets and condiments as well. Sodha presents the kind of food you want to make right this second: bright and flavorful, vegetable-forward (but not preachy in its meatlessness), weeknight-friendly, and hard to resist. Fans of her “New Vegan” Guardian column and the straightforward style of her recipe writing will love the 100+ dishes here.
New World Sourdough by Bryan Ford
Just looking at a guide to making sourdough online is enough to deter you from ever attempting a loaf. Recipes are long and excruciatingly detailed—and it can feel like if you do one tiny thing wrong you’ll end up with a pancake of a loaf. The world of sourdough and bread-making is also painfully whitewashed. As Epi contributor Rachel Khong wrote in her review of the book, Brian Ford’s New World Sourdough is the antidote to all of that, and the perfect book for anyone who’s wanted to try sourdough but felt discouraged by Instagram grids full of perfect scoring patterns and crumb structures. Ford wants to make bread-baking accessible rather than intimidating, so the book doesn’t contain complicated percentages or details about hydration levels. Instead, it offers simple recipes laid out in grams. And Ford offers a broader range than what you see in many other sourdough books, with recipes for pan de coco, sourdough tortillas, and challah. 2020 was the year of sourdough, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel exclusionary to some—luckily Ford’s book proved that…
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