Best Cookbooks of 2020: Critics Picks

January 4, 2021 | M. Elwood

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It's time once again for my annual list of the cookbooks that appeared the most on "best of" lists this year. Everyone from bloggers to important culinary magazines makes lists. This year I looked at 50 lists which had 216 different books named.

In 2020, 31 books about baking were on the list as people in lockdown improved their skills. Most surprising to me was a staggering five different books about pie. They were: The Book on Pie, Pie Academy, Pie Camp, Pie for Everyone, and Pieometry.

If you baked bread in 2020 you were not alone. There were five books about bread included, with two specifically about sourdough. They were: Bread Illustrated, Bread Therapy, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, Mastering Bread, New World Sourdough and Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. Although most of the titles listed this year came out in 2020, some of these bread books are from previous years. People are very enthusiastic about bread. 

There are lots of books focusing on international cultures and cuisines. Cookbooks allowed readers to escape to other places without actually travelling.

These are the books that had the most mentions:

Bibi's kitchen

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

When author Hassan, herself a refugee from Mogadishu, noticed that women's voices were missing from cookbooks, she decided to change that. Her book In Bibi's Kitchen tells the stories and shares recipes of family matriarchs from Africa. It was the cookbook mentioned on 23 critics' lists in 2020. 

Flavor

Ottolenghi: Flavor by Yotam Ottolenghi, Ixta Belfrage and Tara Wigley

Pretty much any time Yotam Ottolenghi releases a cookbook, the critics take notice. Ottolenghi's previous book Simple was the most recommended cookbook of 2018. On a personal note, Simple has a great recipe for roasted tomatoes and rice that is one of the easiest and most delicious things I've ever made. This year's release, Flavor was on 20 best of 2020 lists, beaten out only by the grandmothers.  

Flavor is a celebration of vegetables and how to transform them through smoking, browning, aging, charring, infusing, marinating, and intensifying flavours. The recipes here are mostly vegetarian, although some use non-vegetarian ingredients like fish sauce – vegetarian substitutions are always offered. These recipes are usually quick to prepare with no excessive prep time. 

Flavor equation

The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More than 100 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma 

Nik Sharma's 2018 cookbook Season was a favourite of critics but didn't have the massive success of The Flavor Equation. Sharma brings his experience as a molecular biologist to his culinary career, considering why his recipes work (or don't work) from a scientific perspective. I can't wait to read this one. 

Vegetable kingdom

Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes by Bryant Terry

Unlike some vegan meals that involve unconvincing meat-imitations, Bryant Terry instead focuses on celebrating plants themselves as sustainable, nutritious, affordable and delicious sources of food. For this cookbook, he has drawn inspiration from "the African Diaspora in a world where European cuisine is at the center and Black food is often at the margins". In adapting traditional Black dishes from around the globe, he hopes to help Black Americans connect to their history and reclaim veganism as a movement for everyone.  

Falastin

Falastin: A Cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley 

Falastin is a celebration of Palestine: "its food, its produce, its history, its future, its people and their voices". Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley are key members of Yotem Ottolenghi's restaurant empire. When Tamimi and Ottolenghi were writing the 2012 cookbook Jerusalem, Tamimi realized how much of his own cooking was influenced by his Palestinian childhood. Co-author Wigley describes Falastin as "Sami's love letter home".

Coconut and sambal

Coconut and Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen by Lara Lee

This cookbook was inspired by Australian chef Lara Lee's journey through Indonesia on a quest to trace her family's culinary heritage. As she shares recipes from her travels, she also includes stories about how the dishes are meaningful for her. 

East 12 vegan and vegetarian recipes

East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing by Meera Sodha

Meera Sodha was inspired by her Indian heritage and by her travels to other parts of Asia for this vegetarian/vegan cookbook. 

Xi'an famous foods

Xi'an Famous Foods: The Cuisine of Western China from New York's Favorite Noodle Shop by Jason Wong with Jessica K. Chou

Jason Wong, CEO of Xi'an Famous Foods, tells the story of the restaurant chain from its beginnings when his father opened a bubble tea shop that sold food on the side. The Wong family immigrated from Xi'an and recreated the food they missed from home using Jason's grandfather's secret sauce. Eventually they decided to concentrate on food and expanded to 15 locations as of 2019. The book includes recipes for some of their most popular dishes. 

Dessert person

Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking with Confidence by Claire Saffitz 

Claire Saffitz is a pastry chef and YouTube star. Dessert Person, her first cookbook has won over both novice and experienced bakers alike. Each recipe is rated on a difficulty scale and each section of the book progresses from simple to more challenging so the reader can gradually build up their skills. The front cover displays a Blood Orange and Olive Oil Upside Down Cake and I'd very much like to have a piece of that. 

The rise

The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food by Marcus Samuelsson with Osayi Endolin; recipes with Yewande Komolafe and Tamie Cook

This book celebrates Black American food with recipes and stories from Black chefs and cooks from all over the United States. Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, wanted to highlight the connections between contemporary food and its African origins, as well as spotlighting the creativity of Black cooking throughout the history of the United States. 

A good bake

A Good Bake: The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies and Bread at Home by Melissa Weller and Carolyn Carreno 

It's about baking. Everything you need to know for the new lockdown.

 

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