The top cookbooks of 2020 also make the best holiday gifts

From "New World Sourdough" to "The Nom Wah Cookbook," we've got everyone on your holiday gift list covered

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 20, 2020 5:44PM (EST)

Stack Of Books With Rolling Pin (Getty Images)
Stack Of Books With Rolling Pin (Getty Images)

Who could have predicted what this year would bring? It's been a tough 365 days for everyone — some more than others — but one of the things that's brought joy to many of us is the opportunity to find our way back into the kitchen.

During this holiday season, I truly believe that one of the most thoughtful gifts is a cookbook that's been chosen based on the interests of the intended recipient, such as their big culinary dreams, their current eating patterns, their favorite flavors or the ways in which they want to grow in the New Year. 

We've put together a list of some of our favorite cookbooks of 2020, all of which would make excellent gifts for the food-lovers on your list. 

RELATED: Cookies make the best holiday gifts: Here are a top pastry chef's tips for shipping your baked goods

For your friend who really wanted to get into bread making during the pandemic — but was too intimidated

Bryan Ford's "New World Sourdough" dives into what actually makes a perfectly imperfect loaf of bread (a welcome dose of reality in a world of hyper-manicured #crumbshot posts on Instagram). The Bronx-born line cook and baker steers clear of wonky talk about hydration and percentages, instead making space for primers on crafting a good sourdough starter and recipes that tie into his Afro-Honduran heritage. 

The recipes in "New World Sourdough" are divided into two categories: "Rustic Breads" and "Enriched Sourdough Breads." The Rustic Breads section is rooted in what a lot of readers would likely consider some of the basics of bread baking — standard loaves, wheat breads and focaccia. The Enriched Breads section adds a little more flavor, with recipes for Choco Pan de Coco and Bananas Foster Sourdough.

Ford makes the point that the definition of artisan bread could definitely be more inclusive. "A dense loaf of pan de coco is no less 'sourdough' than a crunchy bâtard with an open, light crumb," he writes.

For the vegetarian in your life who's fallen into a macaroni and cheese rut

In "Vegetable Kingdom," James Beard Award-winning chef and author Bryant Terry thinks of himself "as a collagist — curating, cutting, pasting and remixing staple ingredients, cooking techniques and traditional Black dishes popular throughout the world to make [my] own signature recipes."

He pulls from African, Caribbean, American Southern and Asian flavors to create dishes like Jerk Tofu Wrapped in Collard Greens and Caramelized Leek and Seared Mushroom Toast. Each recipe is paired with a different song — Terry pulls from classic and contemporary hip-hop, jazz, R&B, reggae and Afrobeats catalogues — and poignant writing about the ways in which plant-based eating has become stratified in the U.S. 

Another fantastic option is "East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing," which was released in the U.S. in 2020 after originally being published in the U.K. Author Meera Sodha, who has a weekly vegan column for "The Guardian," collaborated with East Asian and South East Asian home cooks to take readers from India to Indonesia, Singapore and Japan by way of China, Thailand and Vietnam. Along the way, she details how to make noodles, curries, rice dishes, tofu, salads, sides and sweets, most of which are weeknight-friendly. 

For your most spontaneous friend (or the person on your list who just dislikes planning)

Think about which of your friends would be most likely to open their fridge when they're ready to make dinner, only to be confronted with a smattering of random ingredients. Granted, that sounds like everyone during the pandemic, but Lukas Volger's "Start Simple," which was released in February, is perfect for anyone who likes to whip together a full meal with just a few pantry staples. 

Vulgar asserts that magic can happen with just a few ingredients, and he lays out several building blocks with which to start: tortillas, tofu, sweet potatoes, squash, mushrooms, hearty greens, eggs, cauliflower, cabbage and beans. These can be transformed into flavorful meals, such as Steel-Cut Oats with Squash and Tahini, Honey-Orange Tofu and Carbonara with Marinated Greens and Capers. 

For the person on your list that would be happy with a wheel of cheese under the tree

The title of Polina Chesnakova's new cookbook, "Hot Cheese," immediately calls to mind some of the most comforting dishes on the planet: bubbling macaroni and cheese, crisp and creamy grilled cheese sandwiches and savory enchiladas. And that's the beauty of the concept.

As Chesnakova told Salon in October, "you can find melted cheese in almost every cuisine . . . because it really does appeal to everyone."  She compiled 50 cheese-based recipes — including her stand-out Butternut Squash, Ricotta, Pancetta Stuffed Shells with Baked Burrata — which are perfect for winter nights inside. 

For the person with whom you most miss sharing restaurant meals 

For the last 100 years, Nom Wah Tea Parlor has been a dim sum staple in New York's Chinatown. Now, owner Wilson Tang — with the help of food writer Joshua David Stein — tells the story of how the restaurant came to be and how to prepare its legendary dishes at home. "The Nom Wah Cookbook" features recipes like egg fried rice arancini with sambal kewpie, steamed spareribs and red bean buns. 

For the amateur baker in your life who's ready to move beyond basic banana bread 

In her first cookbook, "Dessert Person," former Bon Appétit staffer and YouTube star Claire Saffitz takes the problem-solving skills she became known for in her series "Gourmet Makes" and applies them to more than 100 original recipes, including Apple and Concord Grape Crumble Pie, Malted Forever Brownies and Strawberry-Cornmeal Layer Cake. Each recipe comes with details on how to fix common baking mistakes, such as a cracked pie crust or a sunken cake. 

If cookies (which also make a tremendous Christmas gift!) are more your speed, Sarah Kieffer's "100 Cookies: The Baking Book for Every Kitchen, with Classic Cookies, Novel Treats, Brownies, Bars, and More" is a must-read. Kieffer skyrocketed to baking fame after her famous pan-banging chocolate chip cookies — which are ringed like a tree trunk and layered with chunks of chocolate that rippled out from the soft center —  went viral. 

For the person whose pandemic dream was to move to the middle of nowhere and start a farm

There was likely someone in your pandemic pod who fantasized about moving from tending to their windowsill to tending real crops. Even if that's just a daydream, Andrea Bemis' "Local Dirt: Seasonal Recipes for Eating Closer to Home" would be right up their alley. 

Bemis, who is a farmer, provides a roadmap for home cooks on how to source and use fresh ingredients from their own communities to craft wholesome, sustainable meals — like her delectable Pumpkin and Sage Frittata. 

For the person on your list who misses traveling the most

In "Chaat," Nashville-based chef Maneet Chauhan lays out the recipes she discovered and experienced during an epic cross-country railway journey across India. Each stop brought different local markets, street vendors and home-cooked meals, ranging from Goan Fried Shrimp Turnovers and Chicken Momo Dumplings from Guwahati in Assam, to Hyderabad's Spicy Pineapple Chaat and Warm-Spiced Carrot and Semolina Pudding from Amristar.

For the grandmothers in your life

This year has been hard for many reasons, but being separated from parents and grandparents has been one of the hardest. "In Bibi's Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean," by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen, is a love letter to the ultimate home cooks, the matriarchs who keep us fed and inspire future generations to enter the kitchen. Part a cooking guide and part a series of profiles, Hassan interviews women like Ma Gehennet, an Eritrean who emigrated first to Canada and then to New York, and Ma Wambui from Nairobi.


Read more from our favorite cookbook authors: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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