Food & Cooking » The Best Cookbooks

The Best Cookbooks of 2020

recommended by Becky Krystal

If nothing else, 2020 has at least given many of us a lot of time to experiment in the kitchen. Here Becky Krystal, lead writer for the Washington Post's Voraciously, recommends cookbooks relevant for a year in which grocery shopping has been complicated and the world has become more interconnected than ever.

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One preliminary question before we get on to your choices of the best cookbooks of 2020. Did you choose the books with the aim of providing a spread of types of cooking or approaches, or are these just the five standout books of the year, in your opinion?

It’s been a bit of a group effort with my colleagues here. These are the ones that people felt especially strongly about, and that people thought spoke to us a lot, given where we are at this point in time, globally. Obviously these books were in production well before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, but nevertheless, their publication right now happened to feel especially timely.

Let’s look at the books you’ve chosen. The first one is One Tin Bakes: Sweet and Simple Traybakes, Pies, Bars and Buns by Edd Kimber. Tell us about it.

This is someone you all are probably especially familiar with in the UK, since he was the first winner ever of The Great British Bake Off. This was my pick. I am an extremely passionate baker. I love looking at baking books. And I thought this was such a well done book. It ‘only’ has 70 recipes. Of course, that’s a lot, but you get a lot of cookbooks these days that are just absolutely massive and there are so many recipes, you’re never conceivably going to make your way through them. And sometimes you wonder whether there are too many recipes. Are they all going to be good?

But with this book, as soon as I got it, I wanted to make everything in here and I felt like I actually could. There are 70 recipes and I’ve already made about a half-dozen. Everything in here is made in a 9-by-13 inch pan. There’s a lot of simple stuff. There are traybakes, there are cakes and bars. It just shows you the diverse things you can do with this one pan. It’s a workhorse. And it’s kind of homely. It’s just a rectangle, but you can do cakes, cheesecakes, bars. You can do no-bakes, which is one recipe I’m featuring in our holiday cookie issue. The flavors are really good.

“I love looking at baking books”

I have a lot of admiration for people who write well written recipes and these recipes are extremely well written. They’re descriptive, but not over the top. There’s an economy of language, but one that says everything that you need to know. Kimber is based in London, so he uses the metric weights, which is the baking standard really, even for people here now, but he also includes imperial weights, which is still what a lot of people in America use—pounds and ounces. He does the same for volume.

This is a book that I think almost anyone could pick up and make something out of, even if you’re not a really confident baker. Everything I’ve tried has turned out extremely well.

They’re not complicated, then.

There’s a range. Some of them are just one-bowl things. One of the recipes I featured from here is a ‘Dutch baby’, which is a baked pancake. It is so easy. It’s really just flour and eggs and, basically, dump it in a pan and bake it. But then he has things I wouldn’t even have thought you could make using a 9-by-13 inch pan. He has cakes that you can turn into a roll, or where the cake layers are standing vertically in the cake. So, that’s what’s really nice. There’s this whole spectrum, from super-simple to things that are a little more involved, but still achievable.

It sounds great. Let’s move on to the next book, The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking by Nik Sharma. Why has this made your list of best cookbooks of 2020?

This is a really good book. It’s Nik Sharma’s second. He also has a pretty popular blog called A Brown Table. For people who are familiar with Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat and The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, this is like a natural extension of that. It gets into food science and why things work the way they do and why things taste the way they do. Nik has a science background, so he’s very comfortable talking about everything from the temperatures at which egg protein sets, to the different chemicals that cause certain aromas or pigments.

He has all these charts throughout the book that look a lot like things you might find in a science book, which I enjoy. Maybe that’s not for everyone, but I think anyone who wants to understand why food tastes and feels the way it does is really going to like this. It gets into those details in an approachable way.

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There’s certainly something in here for everyone. If you feel your eyes starting to glaze over because you don’t feel you need to know the name of the chemicals that cause food to smell the way it does, that’s fine. You can take as much or as little from it as you want. Even if you do nothing but look at the recipes and the introductory notes, it’s enough. For each recipe he has a section called ‘the flavor approach’ that explains why certain ingredients are in there and what they do. So, if you want to know why a recipe is in there, it tells you.

One of my colleagues said this book is especially great during the pandemic, when we’re all grocery shopping less because if you don’t have one ingredient, by understanding the concept behind it, you can substitute it with something else. She was making a collard green and chickpea stew which calls for tamarind, which she didn’t have and wasn’t going to run out and buy specially. But she had pomegranate molasses, which she knew from reading this book provides acid and brightness and was a good swap. So, it definitely helps you understand ingredients in ways that you can then swap them in easier. Obviously, if you make a recipe exactly the way Nik says, it’s going to be delicious. But it also helps you understand how to start taking things in your own direction.

Are the recipes deliberately designed to demonstrate to you some of the science he is discussing in the book?

Yes. He breaks the book into chapters that address particular flavors, but also how food feels and its aromas. There’s a ‘bitterness’ chapter. There’s a ‘sweetness’ chapter. There’s lots of connections between what you read in the front material and what’s in the recipes. The introductory part of each chapter goes more in-depth into the different types of tastes and, at the end of each introductory part of the chapter, he has quick tips about using things in the kitchen—for instance, if you don’t want your apples to brown, use lemon juice. There are a lot of practical kitchen tips in there.

It sounds fascinating. Let’s move on to book number three, Vegetable Kingdom: the Abundant World of Vegan Recipes. 

This is Bryant Terry’s fourth solo cookbook. He is really great and he’s plant-based. Bryant is extremely good with flavors. They’re really punchy. We ran a recipe for spinach salad with blackened chickpeas. You use this Cajun blackening spice that is amazing.

He’s doing things you wouldn’t think to do with vegetables. He’s not someone who wants a vegetable to replicate the experience of meat. He does these dried, dehydrated mushrooms, which a lot of people would call ‘mushroom bacon’ but he refuses to call it mushroom bacon. For him, it is what it is.

He’s African American and his wife is Chinese American. There’s this great eclecticism, pulling from different parts of both of their cultures. He talks about using recipes inspired by the African diaspora and there’s a lot of Asian flavors in there, too. They are not necessarily really delicate little recipes. These are vegetable dishes that you can eat with a knife and a fork that will be satisfying for what they are. They’re not pretending to be anything. He doesn’t like those tropes where you cook ‘cauliflower rice’—his attitude is, that’s not rice, just get over it!

There’s a sweet way he breaks out the book. He said it was inspired by his daughter in her gardening class at school. It’s divided into seeds, bulbs, stems, flowers, fruits, leaves, fungi, tubers and roots. Those are the categories and each chapter starts out with an easier recipe to get you comfortable with a technique like tempura frying, or something like that, and then he has a bunch of other ones.

“He’s doing things you wouldn’t think to do with vegetables”

Each chapter, as with some of his previous books, includes recommendations for music to listen to while you’re making it, or that he was listening to when he made it. He cites Dr Jessica B. Harris, another cookbook author, as his inspiration for doing that. It’s fun and really clever stuff.

He did this recipe with yard-long beans, which are a pretty popular Asian food. And one of the garnishes in there was just grated roasted peanuts. You take the peanuts and you grate them on a microplane zester. And I thought, ‘why have I never done that?’ That’s a great way to add flavor to the top, if you don’t want crunchy pieces of peanuts. He also has a lot of practical tips embedded in a lot of the recipes, things like how to make vegetable purées or tips on canning and pickling. And at the end he has this cupboard section of a lot of kind of pantry staples that you could just keep around to add flavour, or vegan staples like cashew cream, which is used a lot for dairy, plus flavored oils and vinegars.

There’s definitely a lot in there and I kept on thinking, ‘Oh, I want to make that’.

That’s the acid test of any cookbook, right?

Yes. We have made dishes out of all these things, so I can tell you that there’s a lot to like.

And, again, is it reasonably simple or do you need a certain degree of culinary sophistication to tackle these recipes?

He actually addresses this in the introduction to the book. There are lots of dishes—sides and lighter things—which he says you can make in 30 minutes. Then there are also the more in-depth recipes that maybe you’d want to do on a weekend. There are standard things like a squash soup, where you just cook some aromatics and throw in some squash and simmer it and puree it. And then there are more involved ones, like jerk tofu in collard wraps, which involves marinating and frying the tofu. Wherever you are, you can hop in here and find something to make.

Let’s move on to the next of your best 2020 cookbooks, In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries That Touch the Indian Ocean, by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen.

This is such a lovely book and it’s definitely different from any of the other ones that we have on our list this year. Bibi is the Swahili word for grandmother and the authors have interviewed and got recipes from grandmothers, so it’s not really the type of cookbook we’re used to. It’s not chef-y, it’s not from a blogger. These are everyday home cooks. Some of them have immigrated to the US or other places. Some of them are still in Africa. Some of them have immigrated within Africa. It’s just a beautiful book and it feels very relevant to today in terms of the political climate, especially in the United States (and elsewhere), with the current focus on Black Lives Matter and the immigrant experience. In food media there’s been this movement in the right direction to make sure that people discuss the origins of ingredients and give credit to cultures where it’s due.

These are the people who are at the origin-level of recipes, the people cooking in their home kitchens. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the countries in the book and starts out with interviews with a couple of the bibis. And it just lets them speak for themselves. This isn’t about a cookbook author swooping in and speaking for someone else. It’s literally a transcript of their view and it’s very approachable. These are women who are cooking for their families every day, or almost every day. For the people who are still in Africa, or who had these recipes from their family, these are people who don’t have access to sophisticated, fancy equipment or expensive ingredients. So again, especially important now, it’s very pantry-friendly. You get a lot of flavor without a huge investment in ingredients.

One of the recipes that we’re running is this chicken with ginger and garlic. There are five ingredients and it just blew one of my colleagues away. She made it for her family and everyone was like, ‘Wow!’ It’s so packed with flavour. The book has these simple dumplings with cardamom—one of my personal favorite spices.

It’s very accessible. There are not a lot of Africa-oriented cookbooks out there, and even fewer that treat each country as a unique culinary culture, as this one does. Africa tends to get lumped together. It’s a bit of a blind spot for a lot of people in food media and by having each chapter feature a specific country, with an introduction to the country’s history, its economy and resources, the language and religion, this book really is making a very concerted effort to explain the very wide breadth of food culture in Africa. It shouldn’t be treated in a uniform way. It’s a continent—people don’t talk about ‘European food’!

Right, and Africa is several times the size of Europe.

Exactly.

And just the African littoral nations of the Indian Ocean—it doesn’t cover India?

Right. It’s Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar and Comoros.

One of the things that’s mentioned in the book is that a lot of these places were integral to the spice route. So, spices play a big role in a good number of the recipes. They’re a really nice way to add flavor to otherwise humble ingredients.

And there are meat and vegetarian dishes?

Yes. One of the things the women talk about is that meat, for a lot of people in Africa, is a luxury. It’s expensive and maybe they get it once a week, if they have access to it at all. So there are a lot of vegetarian and even vegan dishes—a lot of greens.

It sounds great. Let’s go on to the last of your best cookbooks of 2020, Flavor by Yotam Ottolenghi.

We probably should have talked about this one and The Flavor Equation back-to-back because not only are they similarly named, but they are somewhat similar in concept.

Yotam Ottolenghi is known for flavors and he wrote this book with a co-author from his test kitchen named Ixta Belfrage. Like The Flavor Equation, it talks about the different types of tastes. Characteristically of Ottolenghi, they pull out a lot of specific ingredients that they use throughout the book. They have a 20-ingredient pantry. They don’t say you have to go out and buy everything, but that these are some of the things they think are worth having in your pantry. Some overlap with things that have been in his previous books; some are new.

Ixta, his co-author, is a significant influence here and she has a really global background, with a lot of roots in Mexico. So, there’s a lot of Mexican influence in here. Chilis pop up a lot. Ottolenghi has always been global, but with a Middle Eastern bias. In this book you get a lot more Mexican and Indian food. And there’s Thai stuff. I found that personally really exciting, too, because Indian is my favorite cuisine.

They are unabashed about fusion, which has become a dirty word in food and food media, as if it’s just diluting or just throwing stuff together. They point out that there are lots of cross-cultural hybrids and that this is what happens when food travels around the world. If you’re combining things while having respect for different cuisines, it’s totally OK. Don’t feel bad about it.

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And it tastes great! There’s a recipe that I would really like to make which they call ‘fusion caponata with silken tofu’. It’s a combination of Sicilian caponata, which is a sweet and sour eggplant dish, and mapo tofu, which is a classic Sichuan dish. It looks great.

There are a lot of fun-sounding recipes. There’s eggplant parmigiana meatballs, which I think is so great. One of the things people loathe about eggplant parm is the slicing and the breading and the frying before you do everything. Here you turn everything into meatballs, which you brown a little bit and then cook with the sauce.

“They are unabashed about fusion… it’s totally OK. Don’t feel bad about it”

This one definitely also has a range of recipes from beginner to more advanced. One of the things that’s thrown at Ottolenghi sometimes—and he’s poked fun at himself about this—is the length of some of his recipes and the amount of ingredients. His book before this was Simple, which was full of 10-ingredient recipes. Here you get a range. You have ones that are really straightforward and then you have ones with three or four sub-recipes. Those are probably the weekend ones, although some of them have components you can make in advance. But if you’re looking for some project cooking while you’re stuck at home during holidays, or in quarantine—go for it!

There’s a lot playful stuff in here. There are corn ribs, which were inspired by Momofuku Ssam in New York, which is one of the David Chang restaurants. You basically quarter corn cobs and fry them and they curl up into these little things that you can eat. They’re kind of like ribs.

And they group things. They have aged ingredients, acidic ingredients, heat (which is spice). It helps you to start thinking about ingredients and categories.

Part of our best books of 2020 series.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal is the lead writer for The Washington Post's Voraciously, a destination aimed at novice and intermediate home cooks. She came to the Post in 2007, and previously spent five years working for the travel section.