Because we here at Paste Food do not excel at following rules, the books we collectively deemed to be the Best Cookbooks of 2015 were not all published in 2015. One of them is not even a cookbook. And when compared to other cookbooks released this year (it was a good one), maybe not all of them rank up at the tippy-top when judged by the typical criteria: How useful is this book? Are its recipes clearly written and easy to follow, with dependable results? Are there random garnishes pictured in the photos that aren’t even listed in the ingredients? Will this cookbook stand the test of time as a cooking reference?
And sure, plenty of these volumes pass those tests with singing colors, but the biggest factor of our list is pleasure. Did these books compel us to dig deeper, to think differently, to be thankful? The answer is yes.
The title of this book sounds like the offbeat debut novel of a precocious novelist, but press on! This scrapbook/memoir/cookbook truly is about cleaning and cooking in Antarctica. In the 1990s, Devine organized crews of international volunteers to journey to the most southerly continent and clean up debris left behind at various scientific bases. She recruited Trusler as the cook, and thus began the adventure of uniting people of various backgrounds, languages, and food preferences with pluck and goodwill. Trusler’s freestyle approach to the recipes and Devine’s insightful braiding of their modern-day expeditions with the rich and treacherous history of Antarctic exploration elevates The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning from an amusing curiosity to something much more meaningful. Imbued with a sense of otherworldly wonder amidst the make-do mindset of cooking meals with limited provisions in an unfamiliar setting, this book is candy for fans of polar lore. (Sara Bir)
The first time I visited Cheryl and Griff’s Savannah bakery and spotted the marshmallow mobile, I knew I was home. And it has proven to be a home in Savannah for me—a place I go every time I visit. Their latest cookbook not only has killer desserts, but savory items too, and fun little craft and decorating ideas that teach you the bakery style. Plus, it’s beautifully shot by photographer Angie Mosier, whose photographs can inspire a baker to spend a quiet morning in the kitchen, especially when one of these dishes are the result. (Stephanie Burt)
Segal helms Chicago standby Hot Chocolate, where there’s not a bad item on the menu. I adore her book Cookie Love especially for its comprehensive chapter on bar cookies, which too often seem like cookies’ frumpy cousins. Here, standouts like Blondie Butterscotch S’mores and Apple Confit Breakfast Pie Squares, do require some planning and ingredient hunting, but the results are well worth the effort. (JoAnna Novak)
I’ve been on a vintage cookbook kick of late. Honestly, I’d probably only consider actually making about a third of the recipes in the 1951 Cordon Bleu Cookbook (dill pickle soup? salmon pudding? no thank you!), but both as a recipe guide and a history book, it’s pretty fascinating. (Holly Leber)
As Geek & Sundry sing in their song “Write Like the Wind,” George R.R. Martin loves writing “six page descriptions of every last meal” in his ASOIAF book series. Many readers complain about these loquacious descriptions, but food lovers (like yours truly) lick their lips as they read the descriptions of pigeon pie and lemon cakes. This last year, to my ultimate joy, my hubby got it right and gifted me the official ASOIAF cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire, written by Chelsea Monroe-Cassell and Sariann Lehrer. In this book, bibliophiles will find recipes and photographs of dishes from various parts of Westeros. (Madina Papadopoulos)
How sad is it for the American coffee break to have evolved into consisting of nothing more than waiting for a pedigreed cup of artisanal coffee we’re probably not cool enough to drink anyway? If waiting endless minutes for a cup of joe at the latest trendy coffee roasterie eats up the entirety of your coffee break, you have no one to blame but yourself. You could have taken a beautifully drawn page from food writer Anna Brones and illustrator Johanna Kindvall, turning that coffee break into a Swedish fika, a daily sanctuary of coffee and snacks, a making of time for comfort from the rest of life. With 50 recipes, the authors thoughtfully cover every fikasugen (fika craving) from buttery semlor for a day of indulgence, or a slightly less rich cinnamon bun for a day ending in y, there is a Swedish baked good for every break and every craving. (Minerva Orduno Rincon)
If you like to experiment with alternative flours, this is your book. It’s the book I’ve been waiting for because it smartly leads with the flavor profiles and possibilities of flour types (I want to call them families). And Medrich, a total baking pro, gets down to the nitty gritty about the testing process and trial and error that went into the book’s creation. Flavor Flours isn’t really about being “gluten free” in any kind of overt, marketing-driven way; these recipes, which incorporate oat, corn, buckwheat, teff and more, are instead quietly revolutionary. Medric is an assured companion for anyone looking to delve more deeply into gluten free baking or expand their own understanding of how these flours work. Medrich’s recipes also reinforce the necessity of using a scale, which becomes even more crucial with this kind of baking. This thinking baking person’s gluten-free cookbook was released in fall 2014 and this year won the James Beard Award for Best Baking and Dessert cookbook. (Carrie Havranek)
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is a mad scientist chef, and his skills are on full display in this over-sized, step-by-step book. He’s famous for his Food Lab column on Serious Eats, which boils cooking down to a science, and the cookbook is likewise a collection of science-based tips, tricks, and recipes. One highlight: a comprehensive guide to buying, storing, and cooking eggs. Great for food and science nerds alike. (Laurel Randolph)
Just like the famed southern chef himself, Brock’s Heritage is full of jokes and anecdotes detailing the history of everything from corn to moonshine to proper ham. The recipes range from feasts fit for the holidays to incredible, but simple, breakfasts. It was my most spilled-on, burned, and loved cookbook of the year. (Max Bonem)
What was cooking like in 1839, you ask? Just leaf through Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife and you’ll get an insightful peak into the erstwhile southern pioneer lifestyle. She includes 1,300 recipes, ranging from squirrel soup (“take two fat young squirrels, skin and clean them nicely, cut them into small pieces”) to “harsh a knuckle of veal” and how to roast coffee. Life was much different then, with homemakers cooking and eating every part of the animal and making home remedies for snake bites (this involves tobacco juice) and broiling partridges for the sick. In many ways, this type of DIY spirit still thrives in 2015. (Garin Pirnia)
You love the magazine. Now, in the eponymous cookbook, you can read Peter Meehan’s low-key, wry, and accessible voice for pages on end. In true Lucky Peach fashion, the combinations run from classic—the pan-fried dumplings with shiitakes and cabbage will banish your take-out menu—to the simply radical (pesto ramen). Plus, in a move that’s truly counterculture, the pictures are understated. Everything looks good, but not in that hyper-close-up food porny way.
Part history lesson and part personal storytelling, Matthew Gavin Frank’s The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Through America’s Food is some of this year’s best food writing. He delves deep into the food culture of every state and focuses on one prime delicacy per state, such as the Mint Julep, key lime pie and Cincinnati chili. We learn fun facts, like how the world Julep is derived from the Persian word for rose petal, gulab. The book’s so dense with details, it makes sense that a Goodreads reviewer would say this is the type of food book David Foster Wallace would’ve written. (Garin Pirnia)
There isn’t much about Olvera’s food which may be familiar as Mexican food to a public more used to carne asada tacos than thinking of Mexico as having a proper cuisine.
Sure, there are taco recipes in Enrique Olvera’s first English-language cookbook, of course (mesquite smoked wild Mexican mushrooms glistening on a perfect pillowy blue corn tortilla, for example), but you won’t find much else typically expected from a Mexican cookbook. No guacamole, no perfect ‘pico de gallo’ salsa. Gorgeously photographed, Mexico from the Inside Out is exactly as could be expected from a man considered to be one of the most influential chefs in the world. Exacting and careful in detail and though, demonstrating an edible representation of the multilayered cultural influences in the long history of Mexico’s cuisine. (Minerva Orduno Rincon)
I spent a lot of time in Emily Dilling’s kitchen, and at her table, as she worked on My Paris Market Cookbook—so in full disclosure, I am partly biased in choosing this one as one of my favorites for 2015. But what I love about this book is that it draws inspiration from the markets and dishes of France, and makes them accessible no matter where you are. Dilling is an advocate of eating locally and in season, no matter where you are, and her book is an inspiration to do more of it. (Anna Brones)
South America is still having its moment as a de rigueur source of culture, history, and food for European and North American audiences. But I figure that moment is more of a long-term shift that goes way beyond the availability of six varieties of quinoa mix at the upscale neighborhood market. Brazilian-born blogger Hara lives in London, and in this cookbook, he shares recipes reflecting his take on Nikkei cuisine, the food of the Japanese who decamped for South America (mainly Peru and Brazil). He gives us Nikkei classics as well as contemporary dishes with a Nikkei spin that inspires the reader to look at familiar ingredients in an excitingly unfamiliar, but entirely intuitive, way. (Sara Bir)
I might be a bit biased because I interviewed Jenn Louis for an article I was writing and found her to be one of the most wonderful people I have ever spoken with. However, Pasta by Hand really is a delightful book. I’ve been perfecting my fresh pasta recipe for years, and this book is helping me take it to the next level. Pillowy gnocchi, decadent gnudi, even wobbly little orecchiette are possible if you just follow Jenn’s careful instructions. Of course—patience is basically a requirement, one that I’m learning through trial and error. (Jackie Varriano)
The humble package of instant ramen may be the least likely culinary hero in America. Cheap, salty and filling, for years it has been the stable of the college student on a shoestring budget, rich in appetite and culinary creativity, short on money. Gustavo “Goose” Alvarez and actor Clifton Collins Jr. (of Pacific Rim and The Experiment fame) share the story of instant ramen’s other devoted consumer: the prison inmate. Before Prison Ramen, a concoction of orange Kool-Aid, pork rinds, rice and ramen, would have been nothing but the fantasy of a demented chef on a molecular bender. After the stories of food behind bars found inside this book—from Alvarez, actor Danny Trejo, screenwriter Roger Avary, and a host of famous folk brought together by dehydrated noodles and time behind bars—meals thrown together from condiment packages and ingredients smuggled in pockets, shared with others even in the violence of a prison riot, bring a perfect sense of edible comfort. (Minerva Orduno Rincon)
Hamilton’s highly anticipated first cookbook came out in 2014, but I didn’t get my copy until 2015, because I always check cookbooks out of the library first to vet them. Even when they are by one of my favorite writers. What can I say—I’m frugal and no-nonsense. So is Hamilton, whose fingerprints are all over this book in a nearly literal way, as it’s designed to resemble the gunk-caked recipe binder you’ll invariably find in any restaurant kitchen. The pages bear her annotations in pen and Sharpie on masking tape, but the takeaway you get from reading it is that any good kitchen runs as a team with lots of respect but little coddling. (Sara Bir)
Steven Satterfield’s clean, honest, and simple approach to cooking has made him a beloved Southern chef. His cookbook, one of my faves, reminds me of Alice Waters’ work: at once exquisitely beautiful and yet very approachable for the home cook. (Stephanie Burt)
Jadah Sellner and Jen Hansard will make you excited to drink smoothies all winter long. I think these gals have single-handedly come up with the best-textured shakes on the block. (Hint: they kick-off every recipe by blending greens with liquid and build from there). What’s truly awesome about this book, though, is the emphasis on affordable, healthy eating. Plus, thanks to their chapter on basics, I’m never going to buy premade coconut milk again. (JoAnna Novak)
The last few years have not been kind to Nigella Lawson, with a very public divorce and other tabloid-worthy nonsense. It’s not a surprise that she would emerge from this changed in some tangible way—yet her essence remains intact. With Simply Nigella, we have a wiser, more experienced Nigella here, pared down but still delicious, authentic and creative. She’s always been ahead of her time about world flavors; here, she just looks comfortably current as the rest of the world has finally caught up to her, albeit with caveats; she may be using trendy health-forward items such as chia seeds and goji berries in some of these recipes, but you’ll never catch her proclaiming their nutritional virtues. For Nigella, it’s about the taste and how it makes you feel. As it should be. (Carrie Havranek)
Nicole Taylor didn’t especially consider her Southern food heritage until she landed in Brooklyn where Southern was all the rage. Once in the big city, she saw biscuits and chicken everywhere and began to reconnect with her roots. In doing so, she updates many Southern classics, such as deviled eggs, where she adds some smoked trout. This cookbook is the result of her journey back to the food of her childhood and how she transforms it for her current life, and it includes a church punch. That’s right, y’all. Get out the punch bowl. (Stephanie Burt)
Yes, this book came out in 2012, but I just discovered it this year after receiving it as a birthday gift from my foodie brother. The Slanted Door (and the Ferry Building in general) is always a must-stop for me when I swing through San Francisco and I couldn’t wait to delve into the mind of Phan. This book is everything I want out of a cookbook; beautiful photos, wonderfully written—but not so contrived that I can’t imagine myself within its pages—and the right amount of “reach” recipes, meaning ones that I’m might not be ready to tackle yet, but they’ll one day be within my reach (I’m looking at you, rice paper tamales). (Jackie Varriano)
Main photo by kathryn CC BY