When confronted with a gift-giving occasion fraught with uncertainty, is there anything so easy as a cookbook? The right cookbook is the ultimate gift to both flatter and please, implying to your recipient that they too are the sort of person who whips up beef bourguignon on a Sunday evening or is familiar with the backstreets of Rome.
And cookbooks look good on the giver too: glossy, generous, and easy to find ... with overnight Amazon shipping! Win, win, win.
But what are the best cookbooks to gift — especially when you don't know your recipient terribly well? I think of the new sister-in-law, the kind but remote boss, the aunt hosting a lavish Christmas Eve, the office secret Santa pick with intimidatingly good taste. Well, we put our heads together and after some vigorous debate, emerged with our list of the best cookbooks to give — and to get.
But First! The Difference Between the Best Books to Give Versus the Best Books of All Time
Now, before you read another line, a major caveat: The best cookbooks of all time to give are not necessarily the same as the best cookbooks of all time. The geeky reference tomes we pull down for a quick check, the homestyle but low-style slow cooker books we adore and cook out of week after week — these and the other books we turn to regularly and dog-ear are often the ones already in other people's collections, or too workaday to feel like a proper gift.
No, the best cookbooks to give as gifts have a special sexy something — a glossy appeal to the cook we would love to be, with a sense of surprise and a certain fashionable appeal. And yet they can't be coffee table tomes, either; is there anything so dull as a cookbook that is never opened?
These are the books that we believe, in our own opinionated way, would make gladly received gifts for nearly any cook or eater, at any time.
But of course designating any group of a dozen books the best at anything is fundamentally an exercise in opinion and idiosyncrasy. We adore these books and think they make great gifts, but you may have even better suggestions! We'd love to hear your take in the comments!
For the stylish friend you want to impress just a bit.
- Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, $35
Let's start with the easiest pick. Have a stylish friend or boss, someone who you suspect doesn't cook much but loves food? Give them perhaps the most giftable cookbook of all time: Ottolenghi's wildly popular, arthouse-photographed paean to vegetables and Mediterranean cooking. It's gorgeous, substantial, and — as long as they don't already have it — probably the right cookbook for practically anyone.
For the friend who travels the world and lets you know all about it on Instagram.
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, $40
Have a friend who loves to travel and dominates your Insta feed with perfect snaps of the Eiffel Tower and Mexico City? Give her the right status book for her perfectly curated bookshelf: the French bible, the classic ur-cookbook for most Western cooks. She may never open it but she'll love to display it. Actually, that's not true, she's definitely going to open it.
For the friend who watches Chopped and Top Chef but doesn't cook (yet).
- Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, $35
Samin Nosrat's Netflix show is the sweet and soulful alternative to the forced adrenaline of cooking competitions like Chopped and Top Chef. If you have a friend who gulps down the fun energy of cooking shows and is ready to put a little of that energy into their own cooking, this is the perfect gift: an in-the-know show's originating text, full of wise advice for learning the intuitive elements of cooking.
For the sweet young person in your life who just needs a place to start
We tussled a bit internally over whether these books were too quotidian for a gift but decided, no — these are the comprehensive yet handsome manuals to wrap up for a young person in your life who just needs a place to start in their journey of feeding themselves well.
For the friend who's a real whiz at the grill
- Charred & Scruffed by Adam Perry Lang, $25
This may be a bit of a sleeper pick, but I feel strongly that this is a grilling book to delight anyone who aspires to be a grill master (or who considers themselves one already). Lang's philosophy cuts against many conventional grilling tenets, and substitutes surprising yet wildly effective techniques like "scruffing" — roughing up meat to get a good crust. It's a gorgeous read, full of gonzo challenges like six-pound steak and the ingenious "board dressing" that makes the most sublime ribeye I've ever had.
For the person who considers pasta their love language and always asks for a spoon at the nice restaurant.
- Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, $35
The best way to "understand true Italian cuisine minus the airfare," says Sheela Prakash, one of our editors, who spent quite a bit of time herself in Italy studying Italian cuisine. "It's a cover-to-cover read," she says, and nearly everyone else we polled on best books to give agreed. For that one person in your life who could live on pasta, waxes nostalgic about their grandmother's cooking (Italian or otherwise), give them the gift of Marcella.
For the coworker who wants to cook more and loves butter chicken.
- Classical Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, $29
And then there's the person in your life obsessed with Indian food and the flavors of spices they don't quite understand but crave. Give the gift of a master's introduction to Indian cooking. "It actually goes into the 'why' of Indian cooking," says Vijay, another on our panel. "It helps you understand technique, layering of flavors, and methodologies that then allow you to basically cook any Indian dish."
See above, but substitute pad Thai for the butter chicken.
- Thai Food by David Thompson, $45
And then there's Thai food — the gateway to flavor for so many of us who first tasted Thai takeout and said, What was that? For anyone curious about Thai flavors (or to visit there soon), this book is the most in-depth, beautiful, readable introduction to how to get those flavors at home.
For the friend who bakes too much already (but you know they can't stop, won't stop).
- Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan, $40
Dorie Greenspan is one of our most beloved baking teachers, and this book is her most extensive and enjoyable. Filled with lavish photos, and a wealth of recipes from cakes to cookies to breads, it's the one-and-done baking book any baking aficionado needs on their shelf.
For the expectant parents!
- Time for Dinner by Cookie Editors, $25
Got a set of first-time (or many-time!) parents in your life? This book from the defunct Cookie magazine is a wonderful and practical take on cooking for a family. Meghan Splawn, one of our editors, recommends it highly, especially for those who love the soothing practicality of Real Simple — but for young families.
For the cookbook-lover with nearly everything else already.
- Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook by Alice Waters, $25
This beautiful, unexpected book is a little bit different from the others: It's a collection of menus from over the years at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' famed heart of California cooking in Berkeley. It's not really a cookbook for every day — that's its charm. It's a record of a restaurant, a peek into the mind of a chef who has inspired millions of people's home cooking as well, as she pieces together menus for Christmas to Bastille Day to summer to winter. It teaches the art of food in a different sort of way, and as such, it makes a really sophisticated and unexpected gift for that cookbook-lover who has everything else already.
For that kind friend who wears slow fashion, has quit plastic straws, and always recycles.
Last but not least, for that friend who is gentle and kind, dressed in linen, conscious of the environment, beautifully put together on Instagram — a bundle of two of our favorite books of the past few years: Julia Turshen's smart and beautiful takes on home cooking, avoiding waste, and turning every weeknight into a moment of victory. Because what's a better gift than a victory?
Your turn! Take a shot at this nearly impossible assignment: What are the best cookbooks of all time to give — and to receive?