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The Best Vegan Cookbooks

recommended by Alicia Kennedy

No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating by Alicia Kennedy

No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating
by Alicia Kennedy

Read

Vegan cooking has been transformed over the past 20 years. No longer is it trying to replicate non-vegan tastes and dishes or provide an alternative to meat. As the food writer Alicia Kennedy explains, the best vegan cooking is just excellent cooking, on its own terms. She recommends five vegan cookbooks to help you get to grips with vegan cooking techniques and to understand the range of vegan culinary possibilities.

No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating by Alicia Kennedy

No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating
by Alicia Kennedy

Read

One preliminary question before we get into the vegan cookbooks. Are there particular and constant limitations to vegan cooking, and are there equally constant ways to overcome them? Or is that not how you look at it? 

I don’t think that there are limitations. I think there are limitations when someone is new to vegan cooking. Especially in the West, we’ve been conditioned to think of a meal in a very specific way, and to think of cooking in a very specific way where meat is the center of the plate. We love butter, we add dairy. But I think if someone were to sit down and really break it down, they would see that actually, these aren’t the most significant components of what they eat every day. It’s vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc. When you think of it that way, it isn’t that hard to adjust toward a more plant-based way of cooking.

I’m a vegetarian, but I specialize in veganism. Once you start to think of cooking and eating in this way, it becomes easier to add animal products as something nice additionally, and not something that has to be the defining piece of the plate.

I think people get afraid of a vegan cookbook or of vegan cooking because they think it’s going to change their entire life and identity. It doesn’t have to be that way. The books that I’ve picked are specifically ones that will shift people’s consciousness around what it looks like to make a vegan meal and to move toward plant-based eating, versus other books that might smash you over the head with ideology around vegan cooking. These books will give you techniques for bringing more plant products into your world rather than just making you a pain in the ass to your family at Christmas.

Let’s get to them. The first one is Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook.

Veganomicon came out in 2007. Isa Chandra Moscowitz had already put out a vegan cookbook called Vegan With a Vengeance that was really cool, personality-driven, really rooted in her punk aesthetic and upbringing. That’s how she came to veganism and how she came to cooking as well. She was cooking for bands who came to stay in her house on their way through Brooklyn. And she had to make them vegan food.

Veganomicon, which she wrote with Terry Hope Romero, is The Joy of Cooking for vegan cooking because it gives you so much insight not just into fun recipes that are going to be easy for you, but also into technique, and how to bring these different proteins—tofu, tempeh, seitan—into your life. It has a lot of really great tips that will teach you how to do things like use saffron, sprouts, a baking sheet. It’s very much a beginner cookbook, but a lot of people can learn from it.

It’s not big on pictures, it’s big on text. Isa Chandra Moscowitz, from Vegan with a Vengeance to now, has said that it’s knowing how to cook that’s the important thing for being vegan. So she really drills down into the importance of knowing how to cook from scratch, having knife skills, having some basic understanding of technique, and that’s why she’s really changed the game with Vegan with a Vengeance, with Veganomicon, and brought people more to an understanding of veganism as a culinary approach, rather than just an ideology.

The next of your cookbooks is The Homemade Vegan Pantry. This is by Miyoko Schinner.

Yes. Her first vegan cookbook came out in 1990. It was called the Now and Zen Vegan Epicure and it was based on recipes from her restaurant and her bakery that she had in San Francisco. Miyoko has a really interesting story. She grew up in California, went vegetarian quite young, moved to Japan, was vegan and started to sell vegan pound cake made with okara, which is a by-product of tofu making. Then, in 2012, she put out artisan vegan cheese. She really brought how to make different cheeses with nuts, as well as tofu, into the mainstream of vegan cuisine. She brought a little bit of fermentation into vegan cheese making and that really changed the game in 2012.

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In 2015, she put out The Homemade Vegan Pantry, which tells you how to make things like butter from scratch, meringue from flax seeds, stock, mushroom soups—things that you can make in a big batch, have in your house and that make your daily life a lot easier.  But it also covers veggie burgers, granola, rolls, baguettes, veggie dogs, and yoghurt—all these things you’d go to the store to get, but she tells you how to make it from scratch. That’s her—her book and her work. She’s really now known as the CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery, which is a non-dairy butter and cheese company, mostly based with cashews. But in terms of her cookbooks, what she really did is show that you don’t have to buy things, you can make things.

Miyoko is a lot more minimalist than Isa. The difference in their approaches is interesting. Isa’s is a very east coast, New York style and Miyoko’s is a very California style. Miyoko is like, ‘Look at these beautiful ingredients’. And Isa is like, ‘Here’s flavor and here’s how to cook for every holiday’. But Miyoko’s Homemade Vegan Pantry changed people’s minds about what it looks like to be vegan, and what it means to do vegan cooking from scratch. I think people assume that being vegan means restriction and it means a lot of processed foods. Miyoko goes against that grain, especially in this book.

Let’s move on to Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen. What’s special about this vegan cookbook?

Dirt Candy is technically a vegetarian cookbook, but it has vegan substitutes for everything. It was written as a graphic novel, which is super cool. It’s the story of Amanda Cohen opening Dirt Candy in 2008 in New York City. It’s a vegetable restaurant—that’s what she calls it—and it’s still open. It’s expanded, and it’s just got a Michelin star.

She’s been doing the work of bringing vegetables into fine dining and making them the center for over a decade now. She gives you a taste of what it’s like to do vegetarian fine dining in terms of people’s responses to it, which is really funny. Because of the graphic novel format, she’s able to show not just her story, but what it’s like when you bring a dish to three different tables and one loves it, one hates it and one is eh about it, even though it’s the exact same thing. It really reframes how to think about dining out and what it means to please a huge swathe of people. Basically, it shows you can’t.

But she also gives you a lot of cool techniques for elevating your home cooking. So if Isa and Miyoko are like the Martha Stewart and Ina Garten of vegan cooking, Amanda Cohen is like—I don’t know, I don’t want to compare her to a male fine dining chef, so I’m not going to—but she is someone who will help take your cooking to another level. If you’re a really good home cook, but you want to do something out of the box, make tomato pearls or do a little molecular gastronomy, she’s the one who can introduce you to those techniques. And she gives you ways to make everything vegan.

She does really cool things, like kimchi doughnuts with a wild arugula salad and cilantro sauce. There are a lot of cool flavor combinations—Greek salad with king oyster mushroom rings, smoked maple butternut squash—so that’s going to be a little bit bacony. Cohen is someone who gives you storytelling and new flavor combinations and different ways of thinking about vegetables. It’s not just, ‘Let me roast it or let me sauté it.’ She gives you a lot more excitement, a lot more options, and a lot more technique.

Let’s move on to Raw by Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein.

Raw food is a very weird movement in vegan cuisine. It’s very tied to wellness culture and diet culture. Charlie Trotter had a famous restaurant in Chicago. Before 11 Madison Park was doing it, Charlie Trotter had a tasting menu option for vegetarians and vegans. Fine dining at the most expensive level has always had options for vegetarians and vegans, so you can find a lot of interesting techniques for vegetables and vegan ideas in the work of high-end fine dining chefs. Charlie Trotter put out a cookbook called Vegetables in 1996 which was all about using vegetables but would also use beef stock in a vegetable terrine.

For Raw, he worked with Roxanne Klein, who is a California chef who went raw because of a trip to Thailand where she met Woody Harrelson, the actor. Anthony Bourdain makes fun of this book in one of his books, Medium Raw. But in this raw food cookbook written by two very hoity-toity chefs, you find a lot of techniques and interesting ways to approach things that you might otherwise not have thought of. It’ll tell you how to dehydrate, how to use cashews to make cheese etc. All of the technique with vegan cheeses that exists now really has its roots in raw food.

It’s very vegetable-focused, which is great. You get a lot of new ways of doing things. Even if you’re not going to eat raw all the time, you can take technique from here. If you’re a home cook, you can find ways to do a dinner party with a nice vegetable terrine or new ways of using all the tomato, its skin and the tomato water. Or it will tell you how to use kohlrabi, which everyone gets in their CSA box in the fall and doesn’t know what to do with.

If you want to go raw you can, but this book just provides another way of elevating technique with vegetables, doing yoghurt sauces from nuts or seeds or doing a sour cream made with cashews, that sort of thing. It provides a different way of thinking about the ingredients rather than a book that tells you ‘you should eat like this’. If you approach this book as a new way of thinking about ingredients it’s really, really interesting—like raw polenta with a wild mushroom ragout, which sounds bizarre but is really good. I love the portobello mushroom pave with white asparagus vinaigrette. Maybe you’re not going to do this at home, but it’ll give you a new idea for how to eat mushrooms, how to make desserts, how to approach all of these ingredients that you might have at any given time. This book was the most useful thing that came out of the raw vegan movement. Like Amanda Cohen, it’s a way of elevating your technique and taking vegetables seriously.

The last book is Sweet + Salty: The Art of Vegan Chocolates, Truffles, Caramels, and More from Lagusta’s Luscious by Lagusta Yearwood.

Lagusta Yearwood has a chocolate shop in New Paltz, New York called Lagusta Luscious. It’s been growing exponentially for the last 10 years. This book is all about chocolate confections. She has the most incredible approach to vegan sweets because it’s just obsessive. It’s not just a cupcake or a cookie. It’s truffles, it’s decadence. It’s a caramel that’s flavored with sorel or with seasonal herbs. I think there’s a lemon-rosemary caramel truffle.

Then there are also some more approachable recipes in the book. She makes the best chocolate ganache. If you want to make vegan chocolate ganache, her recipe is the absolute best. I have it committed to memory. It is something you can take out of your back pocket all the time and impress people. Just throw it in a shortbread crust and everyone will be very excited with you.

Her approach is super important in terms of this evolution of vegan cuisine that we’ve seen over the last two or three decades because she drills down into the technique, rather than being obsessed with the ideology. It’s in the technique that you see the possibilities. In her book, she shows you how to make really rich caramel, really rich truffles with all of these flavors that are standard in an omnivorous kitchen.

Vegan sweet cookbooks tend to focus on nostalgia and nostalgic flavors, showing you how you can have the same birthday cake you had in 1990, but vegan. What she shows you is that you can actually take things to a new level without animal products and using very ethical, well-sourced chocolate. She’ll show you how to make candy canes and lots of other stuff. But the idea here, again, is that you can do vegan stuff at a really high level, at a really technique-driven level, and have it be exciting.

Lagusta, with her chocolate shop, has really changed the game. She put out a chocolate bar that was called the ‘Pig-Out Bar’, which had smoked yuba—this was when bacon was all the rage. She smoked yuba, which is a by-product of soy milk, and then put that in a chocolate bar. It’s just super high-level weird stuff that she does.

In the book, you get that and you get her personality and her story, which is super interesting. She went to the Natural Gourmet Institute. She was doing a meal service and started making truffles on the side and it just took over her life. Then she had a chocolate shop, she had this cafe. They’re opening a big factory now. I feel this book, Sweet + Salty, came out at a moment in time when she’s been able to package her approach so it could be really influential not only to people who want to do vegan sweets, but also to vegan business owners who want to approach things in a different way because she also writes a lot about her approach to the business.

Are the recipes easy to do? 

There are recipes that are easier and there are recipes that are harder, but I think that’s true of any cookbook. It depends on your experience working with sugar or chocolate, whether it’s going to be an easy thing or a hard thing to do. A person who makes truffles every Christmas is going to have an easier time switching to vegan truffles, obviously. If you’ve never made a caramel before, working with sugar is really hard. So that’ll take some trial and error.  People don’t factor in the significance of cumulative experience and of trial and error. If you’re going to cook, you have to fuck up a lot to get better at it. It’s the attention and the effort that you bring to it that counts.

Cookbooks are important for teaching you not how to cook, but how to think and how to bring new techniques to ingredients and how to approach what’s in your own kitchen in new ways. When you go to a cookbook, and your approach is ‘just give me things to do, and I’ll do them’ that’s going to help you become a better cook. That’s going to solidify you in terms of ability. That’s why I picked these cookbooks. There are two that are really approachable for the home cook and then the other ones are ones that redefine, in my perspective, how vegan cuisine is thought of, how it’s evolved.

I have a book coming out next year which is about the history of plant-based food in the US. When I look at all the cookbooks that have come out—and vegan cookbooks have been huge for the last 20 years—I see a sea change that’s really compelling, from making the case for veganism to doing a book on confectionery technique. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen that shift from, ‘I’m going to convince you that it’s okay sometimes not to eat a steak,’ to ‘We know that it’s okay sometimes not to eat a steak. And here’s how to actually serve a beautiful vegan centerpiece, entree and complex vegan dessert. Maybe you don’t even have to tell people it’s vegan.’

We’ve really come a long way and all these books are really significant forces and changing that narrative around what it means to primarily eat vegetables and what that can look and taste like.

There’s a lot of focus on comfort food historically, in vegan cookbooks. For me, that’s what I want to get away from. It’s all a bit too easy, a bit too banal. To me, it’s important to show that we’ve come from tofu ricotta and comfort foods or cupcakes, to making your own butter at home and making meringue from flax seeds to doing really high-end chocolate work and sugar work with butter and without heavy cream. That’s a really interesting trajectory.

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Obviously, the raw cookbook is an outlier. But I do think it’s interesting to show as well, how, historically, high-end chefs have done this work. The people who are famous for cooking steak have also been doing a lot of compelling stuff with vegetables. That gets forgotten a lot in narratives of vegan cuisine. 11 Madison Park in New York City went plant-based, and everyone was like, ‘Wow, this is such a new thing,’ but it wasn’t. Reframing how people think of these things as not just a new fad but something with a lot of precedent and a lot of technique behind it is important. There is a lot of ingredient-driven thoughtfulness behind it. That’s a really important part of changing how people think about plant-based eating.

November 15, 2022

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