The 3 Best Cookbooks of 2017

I’d say I saw about 300 new cookbooks in 2017, and liked 40 of them enough to keep them out of the donation bin. These include every book I reviewed this year, plus a smattering of books that appeal to my personal biases. (You know, books I might actually cook from or reference at some point.)

Overall, I didn’t find 2017 to be a particularly thrilling cookbook year. Maybe it’s cookbook burnout, maybe it’s an industry that’s finding it harder (or less necessary) to reinvent the wheel with every title. Either way, I found myself flipping through book after book thinking, haven’t I seen this before?

These three books are the exception. They are books I’ve cooked from extensively and enjoy thoroughly, and I put the entire weight of my cookbook reviewing expertise behind their recommendation. There were other good books this year—I plan on spending my winter cooking from Alison Roman’s Dining In, making cocktails from Robert Simonson’s Three-Ingredient Cocktails, and dreaming of faraway lands with Olia Hercules’ Kaukasis, for examplebut these are 2017’s groundbreakers.

See you next cookbook season.

Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden with Martha Holmberg

I don’t think I have ever used a cookbook as much as I used Six Seasons this year. Every trip to the farmers’ market, every random Tuesday’s boring bundle of greens, every potential dinner party: down from the shelf came Six Seasons to find out what McFadden would do.

Many have tried their hand at writing this sort of encyclopaedic vegetable recipe book, complete with basic information like storage and prep, as well as recipes. What sets Six Seasons apart are the recipes: they’re unique, they’re delicious, they’re personal, they’re ahead of trend, they’re—dare I say—exciting. They’re also just restauranty enough. You’ll buy an ingredient or two you’ve heard of but don’t keep on hand, probably, but you won’t be flipping through the book chasing down sub-recipes.

Here’s an incomplete list of recipes I have made from Six Seasons that now live in my Keeper Recipes binder: herbed butter with warmed bread; grilled radishes with dates, apples, and radish tops; sugar snap peas with cherries and peanuts; roasted fennel with apples, taleggio, and almonds. And that list only gets you barely into the second of the six seasons.

On a personal note, this was the last book I reviewed (warning: PDF) for Lucky Peach, and I have to admit I was a immensely relieved that I got to end that gig with a book I could recommend whole-heartedly. And rumor has it McFadden’s working on a sequel—fruit!—so we have more to look forward to.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Since this book came out, I’ve had multiple pals who read it tell me it changed how they thought about cooking. But Samin Nosrat changed how I thought about cookbooks.

I honestly wasn’t even going to read it. Lucky Peach had just shuttered, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever review another cookbook again, and the last thing I wanted was to dive into a dense, wordy, philosophical cookbook without pictures. (SFAH isn’t really any of those things. Well, it doesn’t have pictures.)

But then I listened to Nosrat’s episode of the Longform podcast. I had never, ever heard someone from outside the food world take a cookbook author so seriously. In the interview, Nosrat discussed at length the process of developing this book. She had to tackle questions that, in the grand tradition of philosophy, are seemingly simple but actually immense and knotty: How do people learn to cook? What do they need to know? What is the easiest way for them to learn it?

And then she put her head down for years and hacked it out. The result is a book that explores the basic, titular elements of cooking (although I have to admit I originally thought “heat” meant spice) and how home cooks may deploy them to achieve the results they desire. If Six Seasons gives cooks the map to vegetable success, Nosrat explains how they can chart the course themselves in the future.

Everyone stands to learn something from this book, beginners and professionals alike. As for me? I learned that—just when I started to get jaded and cynical about cookbooks—it’s possible crack open the form and write something that can truly inspire home cooks.

Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks

After the year America has had, we could use a cookie. Or seven. And for American baking, Bravetart is the best cookbook to come along in years.

Bravetart has a lot of things other baking books have: all the classics, precise recipes that are easy to follow and work as promised, baking history and science. It has recipes for everything from homemade Oreos to towering fancy layer cakes to a pie dough anyone can master (even you). And it has enough variations on these to keep you occupied for a good long while: think German chocolate triple oatmeal cookies, apple cider spice cake with butterscotchy brown sugar marshmallow buttercream, and a coconut lemongrass lemon meringue pie. Intrigued? Thought so.

But what makes this book stand out from dozens of similar cookbooks is the way those elements build on each other. Stella Parks’ highly researched histories of foods like, yes, Oreos and red velvet cake and Girl Scout cookies explain how these foods earn their status as classic Americana, and her recipes build on these essays. In other words, she explains why Crunch bars crunch, and then explains how to make them do so.

As I wrote when I reviewed the book for Food52, Bravetart has another thing those other books don’t have: joy. Pastry and baking books can be fussy and precise to the point of intimidation. Parks never forgets that these are cookies and cakes and pie we’re talking about, and cookies and cakes and pie are fun. And lord knows we could all use a little bit of fun these days.

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