In November 2019, I spotlighted some of my favorite food writing, insisting that the genre was “so much more than step-by-step instructions.” But even if food writing can be more than recipes, the traditional cookbook is still a valuable art form. Of course we can all access recipes via TikTok, Instagram, Pinterest, and random googling. But Internet recipes often have to build our trust in their creators’ ability and expertise. Finding a recipe is easy; finding a good one is the real challenge. When I open a cookbook, I hope to find a new friend whose voice I appreciate and trust. With every recipe, I learn from the writer’s personal tastes, their unusual experiments, and their favorite ways of mixing and preparing. I can watch them, question them, learn from them, and laugh at their tendencies. I can cook alongside someone I’ve never met, then decide whether I want to do it again.
The cookbooks below are ones that I find myself pulling off the shelf over and over again. In the last two years, I’ve started to mark up the recipes I try, noting the date and a few comments: Double the filling. Substituting banana for applesauce worked well. Add red peppers for spice. Of all the cookbooks on my shelf, these five probably have the most scribbles of delight. So good! Make in June. Perfect for sick days. If you have a frequent kitchen-dweller on your Christmas list, these titles might help you shop. And if you decide to treat yourself, I won’t be tattling—I just added another cookbook to my shelf this weekend!
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
Perfect for: That one friend who’s always asking how you made that without a recipe.
I first learned of Samin Nosrat in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, where she serves as the journalist’s cooking teacher. And Samin really is the perfect instructor: her book is a wonderful introduction to understanding the elements that make food both balanced and delicious. When I’m tasting something—whether that’s dinner, a fresh-baked cookie, or a cocktail—Samin’s checklist of salt, fat, acid, and heat is the easiest way to understand what might be amiss. Some of her recipes show that they were developed by a restaurant chef with time and fridge space to spare. But—even if you have to use shortcuts like rotisserie chicken and store-bought caramel—this brilliant cook’s recommendations will stick with you long after reading.
Recommended Recipe: Samin’s chicken salad recipe (and its variations) is a fantastic meal to prep for summer lunches. Try the curry version if you’d like to melt into a puddle of delight.
The Love and Lemons Cookbook: An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking by Jeanette Donofrio
Perfect for: That one friend who wants everything at the farmers’ market—and doesn’t know what to do with any of it.
I received this cookbook as a gift from my friend Ericka, who shares my affection for cooking straight from the farmers’ market and the garden. Love and Lemons is an excellent companion for that rhythm: the cookbook is arranged by fruits and vegetables, allowing you to pick a recipe that matches whatever’s in season or on sale at the moment. Non-vegetarians might want to add extra protein to a few recipes, but this cookbook will encourage them (including me) to make produce the star of their meals, not just a side dish. When I spied on-sale broccolini at Trader Joe’s a few weekends ago, I knew just what to do with it: Jeanine’s recipe for sweet chili charred broccolini. As expected, it was spectacular–and just the right accompaniment for a vegetable I’d hardly ever cooked before.
Recommended Recipe: Kale & fennel vegetable soup. Last winter, I had a leftover half-head of cabbage and a desire to buy one of those frondy bulbs at Meijer. Now I’m a fervent fennel fan, and I can’t wait to make another round of this soup.
Magnolia Table: Volume 1 and Magnolia Table: Volume 2 by Joanna Gaines
Perfect for: That one friend whose home is the perfect combination of cozy and fancy, simple and special.
When I first opened these books, I was somewhat skeptical of Joanna Gaines’s work, since TV stars don’t always produce delicious (or sensible-to-make) recipes for people who live off-camera. But the Magnolia cookbooks surprised me with the quality and variety of their selections. Volume 1’s very first recipe is for buttermilk biscuits and gravy, and from the start, I was impressed. These biscuits are buttery, flaky, and better than any other homemade biscuit I’ve ever made—partially because of an excellent technique. Instead of creating a cramped wrist through repeated cutting of cold butter into flour, Joanna’s recipe taught me to freeze the butter and grate it into flour with a cheese grater. Now I use the method for every other recipe that requires “cutting butter into flour,” including scones, pie crust, and shortbread.
Recommended Recipe: Cucumber kimchi, the side dish for “Mom’s Bulgogi” in Volume 1. Joanna’s mother’s bulgogi recipe is good, though a little sweet for my taste. But her cucumber kimchi recipe has gained a spot in my regular rotation. It’s a fresh and addictive companion for Korean (and other Asian) dishes, and it’s a fantastic way to use up those cucumbers at the back of the produce drawer. If I finish making it before the rest of my meal is done, I’ll be snitching spoonfuls until the timer rings.
Dessert Person and What’s for Dessert by Claire Saffitz
Perfect for: That one friend who’s always idolizing the contestants on The Great British Baking Show.
You might recognize Claire from her time as the host of Gourmet Makes on Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel, but in the days since then, she has been creating even more incredible recipes that you might actually be able to make. Claire’s recipes still tend toward the gourmet, with recipes like bla, bla, and bla across the pages. But her simple recipes—like the Rhubarb Crumb Cakes from What’s For Dessert (ideal for spring) and the Maple Seedy Muffins from Dessert Person (now a favorite of my friend and her four-year-old)—are a great pick for a weeknight bake.
Recommended Recipes: Spend the Saturday before Easter whipping up the carrot cake and its browned butter cream cheese frosting. I often find frosting cloyingly sweet and heavy—not this one. I could eat this one straight out of the bowl—but why skip the amazing cake?
Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna
Perfect for: That one friend who knows where to find the best local food spots and international markets.
Priya Krishna wrote Indian-ish with her mother, whose ingenious ways of making Indian dishes in American contexts shaped the cook writer Priya is today. The book includes helpful and fascinating explorations of spices and cooking techniques, and I love it as a way to discover ways that millions of people, all over the world, approach their meals and care for others through food. But that makes it sound as if I just love this book academically—and these recipes are far too delicious for me to let you even consider that idea! The ginger-pepper chai eased my suffering during hay fever season this spring, and the cardamom chai can make me happy on just about any day. I love flipping through Indian-ish before a trip to an Indian market and selecting a recipe to make—when I return, I know something amazing is ahead.
Recommend Recipe: I’m going to cheat and give you a meal plan: Make aloo ka rassa (spicy potato-tomato soup) and kaddu (sweet-and-sour butternut squash). Serve together on a chilly fall or winter evening for a hearty, happy, and flavorful dinner you won’t forget. Or bring some kaddu to your Thanksgiving gathering!
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.