I can't think of many retail experiences more social than the cookbook section of a good bookstore in December. While over in Fiction or True Crime, or around the slippers and Slankets display at your local big box store, the pre-holiday browsing is so often a solitary pursuit, cookbook lovers can't help themselves from talking with each other. From the buying to the reading to that unique other thing that cookbooks allow – the feeding of friends and loved ones – cookbooks are a shared experience.
These are my picks for the 20 best cookbooks of 2013 – the books so good that I can't stop thinking about them and cooking from them. (Or telling people about them.) Consider this my excited shout from across the aisle.
FOR GLOBAL PALATES
Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking
Fuchsia Dunlop, a Brit who trained as a chef in Chengdu, China, is the go-to Western authority on regional Chinese cooking. Her latest, loaded with easy, extraordinarily tasty recipes (gingery beef brisket soup with goji berries), is also peppered with easy-to-follow instructions on Chinese cooking basics, from using a wok to proper knife cuts. Indispensable.
Japanese Soul Cooking
There are no high-end sushi creations here this accessible, beautifully written book by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat is a guide to the dumplings, curries, rice, ramen, noodle bowls and deep-fried delicacies – the soul cooking – that most Japanese people eat every day.
Pimentos & Piri Piri: Portuguese Comfort Cooking
Portuguese might be one of the planet’s most underrated cuisines; it is also a vital (if perpetually overlooked) part of Canada’s culinary heritage. With ridiculously tasty takes on both straight-up Portuguese and Portuguese-Canadian classics, Carla Azevedo’s terrific collection might change that. My favourite Canadian cookbook of 2013.
FOR SWEET FREAKS
FOR COOKS WHO LIKE EATING MORE THAN COOKING (I.E. NEWBIES AND INTERMEDIATES)
FOR DOMESTIC DIVAS (AND DIVOS)
FOR HOME CHEFS
Frankie Solarik, best known in Canada as “that crazy Toronto bartender with the $45 Manhattan,” is often cited elsewhere as one of the world’s top mixologists. His “Eucalyptus” cocktail combines two types of jelly, dry ice, coconut foam and cacao-infused mescal, among many other ingredients, into a smoking, meticulously plated (yes, there is a plate) masterpiece. If you’re humming that Hey Mr. Mixologist parody right now, fine, be that way. But for drink-lovers who aren’t afraid of new ideas, this superb book might just become a Magna Carta.
The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook
David Ort, a Toronto cook and beer writer, gives craft brew some long-overdue respect as a component of excellent cooking. Though there are a few tailgate-worthy recipes here, Ort’s creations are often light and complexly flavoured; this is cooking made better by beer, instead of cooking as an excuse for guzzling.
In the Charcuterie
Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller are charcutiers at San Francisco’s the Fatted Calf. Their outstanding book, though squarely aimed at home cooks, dives deep into the how-tos of whole-beast butchery (there’s a 14-page, step-by-step photo guide to breaking down pigs), and sausage making, as well as home curing and smoking, confits and terrines – not to mention the terrific recipes for what to do with it all. This one’s a food-loving DIY’ers fever dream – one of the finest meat books I’ve seen.