The year in food brought some polarizing themes in cookbooks: whole animal vs. vegan, gluten-free baking vs. comfort-style starches, and classic recipes vs. experimental, science-driven dishes. As always, we’ve also got books that translate the good cooking of other cultures for American culinary sensibilities. But the best books of the year aren’t all cookbooks. There's a meditation on the value of being in the present moment while cleaning, chopping and sautéing; an exploration of the language of menus; and a riveting narrative of the dark side of the California wine industry. Here are 10 fascinating reads that would make wonderful gifts for friends and family or excellent additions to your own bookshelf.
The more we learn about the problems with industrial meat production, the more chefs and food activists have stepped up with solutions to basic animal husbandry challenges by advocating sustainable and healthy nutrition throughout the food chain, ethical slaughter, and good butchery. Most available resources are aimed at restaurants and butcher shops, one endpoint at which our consumption of meat occurs. The Ethical Meat Handbook, by Meredith Leigh, is a brief compendium on home butchery with an eye towards many of these moral considerations. Leigh, a food and farming specialist who has worked in various roles in the sustainable food movement for 13 years, argues for a relationship to meat that is integrated into a robust and varied diet.
The book is divided into sections for types of meat (beef, pork, lamb and poultry) and discusses raising animals throughout their lifespans and butchering them for different kinds of cooking. She offers recipes at the end of each section. While she addresses the issues around slaughter and directs us to some resources, she doesn’t spend much time delving into the details, as most people who raise their own meat don’t have the wherewithal to kill large animals safely or ethically.
One of the most thoughtful books of the year is a book about just that: mindfulness in an act we perform (or benefit from) everyday -- the act of cooking. Dana Velden’s Finding Yourself in the Kitchen is a meditation on the power of simple presence in our daily lives. Velden, a Zen priest, opens the book with a William Stafford poem about the gift of the present moment, then continues with many small chapters on details — minutiae, even — of our relationship to the preparation of the foods that sustain us, divided into three larger sections on the theme of intimacy: with the world, with oneself, and with others.
There’s a reflection on patience as a great teacher, bread dough as a lesson in letting go of control, and emotions such as warmth and love that outweigh fancy gadgets and expensive ingredients. She also delves into the challenges of forgetting one’s breath and losing attention, which is bound to happen, even to the calmest cook.
FOOD52 is one of the most successful online food ventures in recent years. Founded by New York food veterans Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs in 2009, it’s a go-to site for recipes and articles with great food advice from the general to the specific. The duo is now in the business of curating print books. Two that came out this year with Ten Speed Press in a series called FOOD52 Works are FOOD52 Vegan and FOOD52 Baking. They're both handy guides on their primary topics for home cooks who are pressed for time.
FOOD52 Vegan is written by one its regular columnists, Gena Hamshaw, a clinical nutritionist and raw-food advocate. But the book is full of mostly cooked, vegetable-driven recipes intended to complement an omnivorous diet. (There are a few recipes with meat substitutes like tempeh, either to go alongside meat proteins or as stand-alone dishes.) The book is divided into straightforward sections: breakfast, appetizers and snacks, soups, salads, main dishes, and desserts. Recipes are equally simple and accessible, eschewing the esoteric in favor of repositioning the foods we eat every day.
FOOD52 Baking, edited by Hesser and Stubbs, focuses on drilling down the art of baking to simple steps you can accomplish daily so you don't have to wait for a special occasion to break out the rolling pin and flour sifter. There's sections on breakfast, cookies and bars, fruity desserts, cakes, puddings and more that will assuage any sweet hankering that you, or anyone in your family, might have. Similar in mission to FOOD52 Vegan, FOOD52 Baking points you to readily accessible ingredients, often in new combinations (tomato soup and cream cheese, for example) and doesn’t send you on a wild goose chase to forage for hard-to-find obscurities.
Billed as “the world’s most trusted authority on deliciousness,” Serious Eats is indeed a comprehensive resource on all things food, from how to survive Thanksgiving to locating the best sushi in Tokyo. Its managing culinary director, J. Kenji López-Alt, is the author of the wildly popular (and James Beard-nominated) column on the site, The Food Lab, where he waxes scientific on cooking technique. All of this know-how has migrated to print form with The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, which is also chock-full of step-by-step photographs by the author himself.
This hefty 950-page guide is a desert-island cookbook, designed to be the only reference you need in order to understand basic kitchen science. López-Alt is a self-described “nerdling,” the son of a microbiologist and grandson of an organic chemist, and his book is arranged around seven imperatives: eliminating bias, control, isolating variables, staying organized, avoiding palate fatigue, tasting, and analyzing. But this isn’t a lecture, it’s a fun, experiential immersion course.
Perhaps the most beloved chef since Julia Child, Jacques Pépin has made his way into the kitchens of home chefs throughout the world. He's won the hearts of cooks who love classic French cooking, rendered soulfully by his thoughtful mastery of straight-ahead, deeply satisfying food. Pépin's most recent of 25 cookbooks, Heart & Soul in the Kitchen, is the companion to the PBS television series of the same name that celebrates family through the act of gathering together around the table.
The beautifully designed and simply illustrated book presents Pépin’s overview of home cooking: specifically, the recipes he would make for you if you were invited to dinner at his home. One of the beauties of this book is that he acknowledges he never makes the same dish twice, allowing you, the head chef of your own kitchen, to tinker with these dishes to reflect your own sense of hospitality. There’s a helpful section in the back that offers menu possibilities for grouping the recipes around various themes, including seafood, Mexican dishes, seasonal impulses, and even a tribute to his friend Julia Child.
As much as we like to cook, many of us spend a great deal of time obsessing on the questions that come up every time we think about our next meal. Because these conundrums can’t easily be Googled or unpacked via Wikipedia, we spin our wheels, theorizing about where ketchup comes from, why Chinese restaurants don’t serve dessert, and why we eat turkey for Thanksgiving. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Dan Jurafsky gives voice to these burning questions, along with answers borne out of history and culture.
While this book was published in hardcover in 2014, it came out in paperback this year, and it's included in this list because
its content is unique in food publishing and will be of interest to the many people who inhabit the intersection of food and language. Designed like a menu, the book’s table of contents reflects the questions that come up during the natural progression of a meal from drinks to desserts. Condiments and other topics are thrown in not as asides, but as necessary additions that aid the exploration of food via linguistic analysis. Jurafsky looks at how we talk about food, how we make metaphors about it, and how we relate it -- consciously and unconsciously -- to addiction and sex.
Americans are having a love affair with fermentation. Pickles of more kinds than we knew existed are cropping up on grocery store shelves, in farmers market stalls, and on restaurant menus. Fermented foods are good for us, we’re told, so we’ve set about to see if there’s anything that can’t be pickled. Well, it turns out this trend isn’t so new. Among other cultures, the Japanese have been doing it for centuries, and Nancy Singleton Hachisu has brought these techniques together in Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen.
Hachisu is a California-born chef who has lived in rural Japan with her family for the last 26 years. This is her second book, and it’s the culmination of everything she knows about the traditional Japanese ways of preserving food. Learn to how to pickle fish and shellfish, make your own miso, brew your own sake and more. The book includes beautiful photos of Hachisu’s old restored farmhouse and its beautiful kitchen.
Just for fun, let’s throw into the mix a gripping narrative of homicide and arson among the high-powered elite of the California wine world. Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, by journalist Frances Dinkelspiel, reads like a novel, but it’s the true story of what lies behind the veneer of glitz and glamour when one man, Mark Anderson, defrauded collectors and destroyed more than $250 million in wine. The book also looks at other wine crimes throughout history that are rooted in California’s complex financial structure, heated battles over terroir, and the lasting effects of the havoc Anderson wreaked on the Napa wine industry.
Claire Ptak cut her pastry chops at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant before setting out for London to open a bakery of her own. The Violet Bakery Cookbook brings together her California sensibility with her European visual aesthetic to create one of the prettiest food books of the year. The sections are broken into four times of day -- morning, midday, afternoon, and evening -- with additional chapters on special recipes for parties and pantry staples unique to Violet. She ruminates on mise en place, which is important to the precision that baking requires, as well as reflects on sweet, salty, bitter, and sour flavors. These are serious recipes for home pastry cooks who care about exact execution, pleasing presentation, and utilizing the best ingredients at hand.