The 23 Best Cookbooks (and Cocktail Books) of 2020

best cookbooks 2020

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If this year in cookbooks could be summed up in one neat phrase, we’d have to say it was the year of origin stories. We interpret that broadly. The books we devoured in 2020 retread ancient history, revisited homegrown habits, and reexamined roots. These books gently reminded us that looking backwards isn’t a foolish endeavor, especially when the rest of the world is stuck in this horrible present. Sometimes, a good memory is the best meal prep. That and a deep breath, especially when you’re standing in the kitchen with a slew of ingredients in front of you and a hungry table awaiting your final dish.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as looking back. Cookbooks this year come not just after months of self-taught cooking and social upheaval, but on the heels of a decade that was defined largely by opening up the mysterious, high-energy world of culinary arts to far more people. And that’s literally what cookbooks do. You’ll see it reflected through thoughtful storytelling, gorgeous imagery, and updated technique in the following cookbooks, which are our favorites of the year here at Esquire. Use them (or if you’re a dreamer but not a do-er, just display them) well.

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Chasing Flavor

By Dan Kluger with Nick Fauchald (Photographs by Evan Sung) bookshop.org

$32.20

Dan Kluger’s regular-guy persona undercuts the recognition he deserves for being an innovator. No, he doesn’t preen and proclaim like some “gastronomic pioneer,” but his modest wizardry with vegetables—at New York’s ABC Kitchen, originally, and more recently at Loring Place—has made him an important influence on American chefs and home cooks alike. Spending time with Chasing Flavor is like flipping through an encyclopedia of deliciousness. Roasted delicata squash with hazelnuts, spicy onions, and goat cheese? Zucchini pizza with soppressata and tomato jam? Brussels sprouts with mustard vinaigrette? Crushed cucumbers with yogurt and chiles? We want to eat this way every night. —J.G.

East

By Meera Sodha (Photographs by David Loftus; Illustrations by Monika Forsberg) amazon.com

$35.00

$31.50 (10% off)

Cookbooks are meant to be used: You cook the recipes contained within them. But cookbooks can also serve as vehicles of escape, especially during long slogs when we’re frozen in place at home—and in our heads. For most of 2020 I have been getting a nightly bedside recharge from the bountiful spirit of cookbooks. None transported me more than East did. Meera Sodha looked to various regions of Asia to find the inspiration for dishes like shiitake pho with crispy leeks and silken tofu with pine nuts and pickled peppers. The recipes alone would be enough to tantalize even the most stubborn carnivore, but the illustrations by Monika Forsberg and the photographs by David Loftus bring so much additional beauty to the page that East becomes a book you want to live in, not just turn to. —J.G.

Home Style Cookery

By Matty Matheson amazon.com

$35.00

$27.99 (20% off)

Just try dodging the beam of light that is Matty Matheson geeking out about food, tees, Bob Kramer knives, dive bars, Iggy Pop, whatever. He’s like a SAD lamp for kitchen crawlers and internet trawlers. Two years after his cookbook Matty Matheson: A Cookbook, which might as well have been a memoir of his life, from kid to viral chef star, Home Style Cookery is about other foundational things: taking basic cooking skills and building on them to become something of a pro. This book is packed to the brim with recipes for stomach-satisfying, spirit-supplementing sandwiches, cookies, main courses, and a whole lot of stock. You’ll want to commit it all to memory. —S.R.

In Bibi’s Kitchen

By Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen (Photographs by Khadija M. Farah and Jennifer May; Illustrations by Araki Koman) amazon.com

$35.00

$21.99 (37% off)

Shiro and zebhi hamli, doro wat and digaag qumbe, mukimo and Zanzibar pilau, tseke com peix frito and denningvleis: In Bibi’s Kitchen, from Basbaas entrepreneur Hawa Hassan, overflows with these delicious dishes from eight African countries that make contact with the Indian Ocean. Your guides, along the way, are grandmothers from those countries, matriarchs whose voices enrich each page with extra helpings of history and wisdom. The result is a breakthrough that will be remembered, years from now, as one of the essential food volumes of our time. —J.G. 

Spirits of Latin America

By Ivy Mix with James Carpenter amazon.com

$24.35

If you find yourself in the old rut of whiskey, gin, and vodka cocktails, Ivy Mix’s book, just like her bar Leyenda in Brooklyn, will inspire you to expand your horizons into the wide world of Latin spirits. There are meaty, earthy, pechuga-style mezcals; funky, dunder-style rums; bright, aromatic piscos; and, of course, a broad spectrum of tequilas. Behind it all is a celebration of the craft and terroir that make these dynamic spirits worth sipping on their own, but the book also holds the secrets to some of the most vibrant cocktails on the planet. —K.S.

Cool Beans

By Joe Yonan (Photographs by Aubrie Pick) amazon.com

$30.00

$27.00 (10% off)

Is the Washington Post’s Joe Yonan clairvoyant? Did he somehow sense that 2020 was going to be a year in which millions of us would huddle in our homes with bags of dried beans? If timing is everything, give the guy a trophy. In my own household, this book became a quarantine fixture in our kitchen as I searched for fresh treatments and wise techniques regarding lentils, chickpeas, borlotti beans, and black-eyed peas. —J.G.

Sushi Shokunin

By Andrea Fazzari bookshop.org

$87.40

I suppose you could argue that Sushi Shokunin comes from the opposite end of the timing spectrum as Cool Beans: In the middle of crushing shutdowns and furloughs, who wanted a glossy, gleaming peek into Japan’s priciest omakase sanctuaries? Well, I did. No, I can’t afford the exquisite plates of uni and toro captured in Sushi Shokunin, and I probably won’t be boarding a plane to Tokyo anytime soon, but I can dream, can’t I? And that’s what this book felt like every time I picked it up, which was often. It felt like a dream of beauty and pleasure. Someday I’ll get there, damn it. —J.G.

The Barbuto Cookbook

By Jonathan Waxman amazon.com

$40.00

$36.00 (10% off)

If you’re like me, you might not really want recipes for Barbuto’s famous roast chicken or its kale salad, in the same way that you don’t really want David Copperfield to show you how he does a magic trick. But learning about the infrastructure of the signature dishes at downtown Manhattan’s signature hangout turns out to be useful. (Cooking the JW chicken requires nothing more than salt, pepper, and olive oil, but everything depends on how you cut up the bird before you put it into the oven. The kale salad? You’re going to need surgical gloves—no joke—because it’s all about aggressively crushing the dressing and the kale leaves together. As Waxman puts it, “the kale needs force in order to loosen up and reveal its flavor.”) True, trying your (gloved) hand at Barbuto favorites is no substitute for the magic of going to Barbuto on a warm spring evening, but until that evening arrives, this is what we’ve got. —J.G. 

Good Drinks

By Julia Bainbridge (Photographs by Alex Lau) amazon.com

$22.99

$20.69 (10% off)

You could call 2020 a sobering year. I witnessed a shift among my friends as the pandemic dragged on. “Can we all agree to temporarily raise the bar for what’s considered an ‘alcoholic?’” Conan O’Brien tweeted way back in April. But by the end of summer a little abstinence seemed to go a long way toward helping us endure the housebound monotony. Along came Julia Bainbridge’s much-appreciated reminder, with Good Drinks, that forsaking booze now and then has nothing to do with abandoning elegance. The Shimeji Mushroom Elixir, the Squash & Sorghum, the King Palm—these are drinks that deliver plenty of pleasure to the eye and the palate without undermining anyone’s sleep cycle. —J.G.

Fermentation as Metaphor

By Sandor Ellix Katz bookshop.org

$23.00

No matter if you’ve bought one glass bottle of pink lady kombucha once or set up a sourdough daycare in your garage fridge, I recommend dedicating a couple afternoons to reading this book. In it, fermentation master Sandor Ellix Katz explains how all that bubbles and churns at a microbial level is actually far more than microscopic in importance. From the first paragraph (which invokes political partisanship, gender dualities, heaven and hell, to start), he uses visceral imagery and unflinching descriptions to connect fermentation to our understanding of our bodies, our homes, our environment, our childhoods, hell, even the coronavirus. And those are just the words. The photographs are scientific, technically, but really, artistry. It’ll reshape how you see the world, and I mean that quite literally. —S.R.

The Nom Wah Cookbook

By Wilson Tang with Joshua David Stein (Photographs by Alex Lau) amazon.com

$34.99

$31.32 (10% off)

Yes, you are reading that correctly: Nom Wah Tea Parlor has existed in Manhattan’s Chinatown for a century. You should go there when we can travel and congregate again. You should pay your respects with a gluttonous yet reasonably priced feast of turnip cakes and egg rolls and har gow and siu mai. Until then, you can rev up your appetite by swooning over these recipes and pictures. —J.G.

Snacky Tunes

By Darin and Greg Bresnitz bookshop.org

$22.95

This is the book you’ll dive into long before you even start thinking of a recipe. Because, more important than the fresh herbs you’ll need to buy and the sauces you’ll have to dig out of the cupboard is the cooking playlist. (Just imagine paring vegetables for soup or mixing up a marinade in silence—nightmarish.) The Bresnitz brothers, of the long-running podcast also by the name Snacky Tunes, spoke to 77 renowned chefs around the world about the music that drives them, and then, because music is one of our greatest sources of inspiration, recipes that grew from those songs (like Mac Daddy Hot Dogs for Kris Kross). It’s a decidedly cool way to see food and plenty of playlist fodder in one. —S.R.

Drink What You Want

By John deBary amazon.com

$25.00

$17.61 (30% off)

John deBary, who got his bartending start at the East Village speakeasy PDT and later would develop cocktail programs at many of David Chang’s restaurants, will make you comfortable mixing drinks like a pro, even if you’re an amateur. His knowledge is deep, but it’s his humor and decidedly non-precious attitude that ensure this tome is as easy to take in as a perfectly balanced daiquiri. If you only own one cocktail glass, make it an Old Fashioned glass; it’s okay to stir a drink with a chopstick; yes, atomizers are fussy, but a very good idea. Drink What You Want is filled with these kinds of little pro-tips. The greatest takeaway, however, might be a better understanding of the cocktails you genuinely like, and why you like them. —K.S.

Vegetable Kingdom

By Bryant Terry bookshop.org

$27.60

“Vegan” is no longer the maligned curse-word it used to be. It’s just vegetables—albeit lovingly prepared, borderline magical vegetables, if done like Vegetable Kingdom teaches. In this cookbook, which pulls from Afro-Asian tradition and avoids buzzy vegan powders and substitutes, you’ll find Terry’s approach to vegan recipes less like that of a wellness guru evangelizing about tempeh bacon and more like that of a close friend with garden-grown wisdom to impart. Bright color enlivens every page, too. —S.R.

The World Eats Here

By John Wang and Storm Garner amazon.com

$19.95

The trope is as old as eating: Food is the best way to understand the story of a person—where they came from, where they’re going, what they hold dear. And the world comes to roost in the Queens borough of New York City. More specifically, at the Queens Night Market, where stories flow as people chow down on paper baskets of street food. (Or rather, flowed and will flow again in 2021, one hopes.) Many of the Queens Night Market vendors brought their recipes to America from their homelands, and this books collects them, as well as the backstories that give them more flavor than salt and pepper ever could. —S.R.

Beyond the North Wind

By Darra Goldstein amazon.com

$37.50

$22.49 (40% off)

Russian food isn’t as boring as herring and paint-stripping-strong vodka, even if that’s all we really associate it with back in the States. The mother country is rich with flavor that Goldstein found hidden in its more remote Siberian villages and tumultuous history. Her recipes focus on the hearty grains, fermentation methods, and vegetables of Russia—and vodka, of course, but vodka on steroids. Here, you’ll learn to infuse it with pepper, horseradish, and other blood-thickening ingredients. —S.R.

Meals, Music, and Muses

By Alexander Smalls with Veronica Chambers amazon.com

$35.00

$25.49 (27% off)

Smalls began his adult life by tearing it up onstage as an opera singer (a baritone) and then pivoted to an illustrious career as a chef and restaurateur in New York. Quite the journey, no? His newest cookbook reflects it, leaning on stories and recipes from his early years in the South, as well as his musical heritage. Put more plainly, each chapter’s recipes, from okra skewers to roast quail in bourbon cream sauce, is themed around a genre of music and the tales Smalls can tell about it—gospel for greens and serenades for dessert, for example. —S.R.

The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook

By Mike Cioffi, Sara B. Franklin, and Chris Bradley amazon.com

$29.49

Esquire was a bit obsessed with the Catskills pre-pandemic, as the restaurants and hotels in the mountainous region north of New York have become a culinary destination we’re calling the alt-Napa Valley. The Phoenicia Diner is integral to this revolution, a pit-stop along the highway for biscuits and gravy and chicken pot pie that’s never not bustling. This year, the diner made a cookbook about its comfort food and Catskills roots. It’s almost as good as taking Route 28 west from the Hudson River, on the road to a good meal at Phoenicia yourself. —S.R.

The Outdoor Kitchen

By Eric Werner with Nils Bernstein amazon.com

$35.00

$21.35 (39% off)

We will never not be mesmerized by fire. Werner, of Hartwood in Tulum, Mexico, illustrates a fire-centric grilling philosophy that is aspirational to the extreme, if you’re the type to dream of ditching the modern world so you can roast meats and vegetables over an open flame in a wooded glen under a dusky sky. Or, you know, on the back deck. And the book itself is quite beautiful. With guidance on everything from building your own smoker to recipes, you’ll be loathe to ever cook inside again. —S.R.

My Korea

By Hooni Kim With Aki Kamozawa amazon.com

$40.00

$27.99 (30% off)

Kim received the first-ever Michelin star awarded to a Korean restaurant for his joint Danji in New York. The masterful presentation of small, tapas-style Korean dishes he perfected there naturally came from his background in Korean cooking, which he recounts here in a modern, invigorating cookbook that still pays homage to tradition. As you’ll learn, it all starts with doenjang, ganjang, and gochujang. —S.R.

How to Dress an Egg

By Ned Baldwin and Peter Kaminsky (Photography by Hirsheimer & Hamilton; Illustrations by Gerardo Blumenkrantz) amazon.com

$30.00

$20.25 (32% off)

They say you only really need to master one recipe before you’re allowed to consider yourself something that resembles a chef. And eggs—scrambled, over easy, omelet—are the most fundamental ingredient of all, whether you’re 11 and just learning to use a skillet or 77 and finally getting the hang of poaching. The humble egg leads to bigger, better, bolder dishes. This book, both quirky and homey, will show the way. —S.R.

Everything Is Under Control

By Phyllis Grant amazon.com

$25.00

$19.69 (21% off)

Here we’re pushing the definition of cookbook; this memoir is by a woman who indeed cooks, and there are indeed recipes included in its pages, but the power is in the vignettes Grant writes about love and parenting, growing up and settling down, baby food and wedding cake and Vicodin—all of which ring dead-true even though you don’t know Grant yourself. You’ll steamroll through it. And then you’ll start cooking. —S.R.

La Buvette

By Camille Fourmont and Kate Leahy amazon.com

$24.99

$17.60 (30% off)

Live like a Parisian, and you’ll know what bliss is. At least, that’s the idea behind La Buvette, a cookbook from the owners of the wine shop/bar by the same name in Paris that gives you the know-how to host and eat and laugh like you’re in a café on a cobbled street, surrounded by cigarette-smoking friends and carafes of wine, soaking in the early-fall sun before it sets beyond the Seine. In other words, La Buvette is Paris distilled into chapters of recipes, an escape anyone would be crazy to turn down right now. —S.R.

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Source : Esquire