These days, vegetarian cooking is far more mainstream than it was even a decade ago. That's partly due to the newly prominent notion that eating less meat is not only good for us but also good for the environment. It's also thanks to chefs and cookbook authors, like Yotam Ottolenghi or Travis Lett of LA's Gjelina, who have embraced that idea and made vegetarian and "vegetable-forward" cooking cool. Vegetarian cookbooks have largely shed their hippie reputation, along with their reliance on tofu and nutritional yeast (not that there's anything wrong with those things, at least in moderation), and instead embraced boutique vegetables and lush color photography.
Now is a great time to get into vegetables, and, whether that means going full-on vegetarian, embracing meatless Mondays, or just cooking better vegetable sides, a good vegetarian cookbook can be an invaluable source of information. But it's not just the glossy new books that can provide inspiration: There are some great classic vegetarian cookbooks that, despite the cuisine's historically stodgy reputation, offer lots of delicious meat-free recipes and vegetable-cooking techniques.
Below are four of the best vegetarian cookbooks to add to (or start) your collection. Two are older, encyclopedic classics; two are brand-new books that make exciting and worthwhile additions to the genre. These are books for every level of cooking expertise and every kind of vegetable-eater, from the newly converted vegetarian to the chef looking to expand their repertoire. Each one offers its own unique content, so you won't find too much duplication here, and it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable to go out and get them all if you're looking to build your collection.
I chose these books largely based on my own six years as a vegetarian, during which time I amassed and pored over a wide range of cookbooks on the subject. I'm not a vegetarian anymore, but I still have plenty of books and recipes I love and turn to regularly, After reviewing the options, I picked the first two books on this list for being some of the most comprehensive out there. They're the books I turn to most often, whether I'm looking for a last-minute meal idea or an alternative to Thanksgiving turkey, and the ones I think no vegetarian kitchen should be without.
The last two books on this list happen to be some of the newest ones in a growing field of meat-free cookbooks, but I picked them for also being the most representative of the ways in which that field is growing. Vegetarian cooking has become more like vegetable cooking, and these books both put the focus sharply on great produce in ways that are alternately elegantly simple and elegantly creative.
While finalizing the list, I also spent a fair amount of time cooking from each book, selecting a few recipes from each to test for accuracy, ease, and flavor. Though it's hard to narrow any book down to three or four of its recipes, I tried to pick ones that represented the range of each collection, from simple to complex. Excepting one recipe, where I chose to pan-fry rather than deep-fry a chickpea panade, I followed each to the letter.
For the Beginner: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman
For anyone new to vegetarianism, or even just new to cooking in general, the vegetarian volume of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything series should be considered essential. If what you want most is a cookbook that will teach you how to cook, this is it: Bittman excels at laying out the basics and showing you how to riff on them, becoming a self-sufficient cook in the process.
This kind of knowledge, the knowledge that allows you to play comfortably with ingredients and think creatively when piecing together a meal, is especially important for vegetarian cooking. For meat-eaters, a fallback meal will often revolve around a big piece of protein, so it's okay if the sides are simple—steamed broccoli, say, or roasted potatoes. For vegetarians, the sides often are the meal, so you have to learn how to make them interesting, or even turn them into something that can stand in for meat at the center of the plate.
Working with each vegetarian staple in turn—beans, rice, vegetables in general, and more—How to Cook Everything Vegetarian tells you how to make five different kinds of dal, plus variations on each, or how to turn rice into a pilaf, a risotto, a stir-fry, or a sushi bowl. There are seven different veggie burger recipes and 17 suggestions (!) for how to serve vegetable pancakes. The book includes charts and tables devoted to topics as specific as make-ahead salads and stuffed vegetables, but will also instruct you in helpful essentials, like how to boil an egg, how to cook a pot of beans, and how to make your own gnocchi.
This is a book you can turn to on those nights when you're scrambling to figure out what to do with whatever's in the pantry or fridge. For those times there are dishes like a Japanese chirashi bowl (fish free, of course), which turns something as simple as vegetables over rice into something special. All it takes is a few added details like vinegared sushi rice and strips of tamago, the lightly sweetened, soy sauce-enhanced Japanese omelet (called Japanese egg crepes in this book). It's also a book that, despite an overall emphasis on simplicity, has its share of outside-the-box ideas like a tomato cobbler, which tops stewy tomatoes (or leeks, if you follow a variation) with fluffy cornmeal drop biscuits for a charming and unusual main dish.
The ability to improvise is a good skill for any cook, but for a vegetarian especially, it can save you from subsisting on endless iterations of pasta or beans and rice. Most of the recipes are easy, and Bittman's simple, clear instructions, paired with his anything-goes approach, make them pretty impossible to mess up. Even more experienced cooks will find plenty of good ideas and jumping-off points for creating a simple weeknight meal or a celebratory spread.
It's worth noting that a "completely revised" 10th anniversary edition of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is coming out in November of this year. I obviously haven't tried that one out yet, and I can't say how much it will improve on the current edition, but if you want to wait for it, you can certainly do so.
If You Get Just One Book: The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Another encyclopedic essential for the vegetarian kitchen, Deborah Madison's The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is one of the most beloved vegetable cookbooks out there. It's thorough and approachable, combining coverage of the fundamentals with a reverence for produce that feels distinctly Northern Californian. Madison has lived in Santa Fe for a long time now, but she got her start cooking in and around San Francisco, including at Chez Panisse, and it shows. This is not a new book—the original Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone came out in 1997; this update was published in 2014—but that California sensibility has given it an enduring vitality that some other older vegetarian cookbooks lack. Like the newer generation of vegetable-forward chefs, Madison champions placing fresh, local ingredients at the center of the plate.
Besides pure and simple vegetables, the chapters in this book cover a range of topics, including soups, salads, gratins, casseroles, and "the soy pantry" (meaning tofu, tempeh, and the like). The recipes are diverse, though they lean Mediterranean, interspersed with some loosely Indian, Chinese, and Japanese dishes. Madison's Southwestern home also comes through in multiple recipes for pozole and beans laced with various chilies. There's plenty in here that's quick and easy (or, in the case of a dish like beans with olive oil, slow and easy), but this is also a great source for somewhat more complicated preparations that can work as vegetarian centerpieces for special-occasion meals. The most elaborate dishes, like empanadas with greens and olives, made with a paprika-laced yeasted crust, or fresh-made saffron cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and chard, take time, patience, and ambition to make. They're not the kind of thing you can throw together on a weeknight, but they're totally worth the effort for an impressive holiday dinner.
Madison provides many fundamentals here (including, for example, basic instructions for cooking five different types of rice), but her ventures into more challenging territory make this book as valuable for practiced cooks and longtime vegetarians as it is for novices in either arena. And no matter the complexity of the project, Madison always takes a relaxed approach: The recipes are straightforward, many no more than a few sentences long, and often include suggested substitutions and variations. The original Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone still holds up, but if you don't already have a copy, buy the new one. The update expands on the 1997 book, adding more recently popularized ingredients like chickpea flour and farro, plus 200 more recipes on top of the earlier edition's 1,400. As a result, the 2014 tome may be the most comprehensive and current collection of vegetarian recipes out there. You could get several years' worth of meals out of this book alone.
For Easy Inspiration: In My Kitchen by Deborah Madison
To those who are already devotees of Deborah Madison's classic volumes on vegetarian cooking, parts of her new book, In My Kitchen, will seem familiar. The recipes published here, as Madison explains in the introduction, have all made their way into her regular routine, and they include tweaked and tinkered-with versions of dishes that have appeared in past books. And yet nothing in this cookbook seems repetitive or dated. In step with vegetarian food generally, Madison's cooking has evolved over the years, becoming lighter, brighter, and often simpler. "We change as our culture changes," she writes, "and I found I have been cooking in a more straightforward, less complicated fashion."
But, for all their simplicity, the recipes in In My Kitchen are consistently excellent, and perfect for anyone, vegetarian or not, who wants to refresh their vegetable repertoire. The book is not nearly as exhaustive as Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but it is wide-ranging, including everything from basic salads to heartier gratins and even a few desserts. It's a great book for fans of Madison looking for an updated take on some of her classics, or for those looking for a more focused cookbook offering recipes that are invariably easy to throw together on a weeknight. It's also heavy on beautiful photos, if that's something you prefer.
Many of the recipes, like seared radicchio draped with mozzarella or braised chard with cilantro, are so dead-simple that they're barely recipes. But they're also marked by clever little touches that elevate them to greatness. A recipe for caramelized onions, for example, is really just a tip you didn't know you needed—finishing a pan of slow-cooked onions with a splash of sherry vinegar and a pinch of cloves can heighten the onions' warm, sweet flavor. On the next page, a simple frittata made with those caramelized onions and a handful of chopped parsley is brilliantly enriched even further when it's doused in a sauce of melted butter and sherry vinegar.
Even if you already own a few of Madison's other books and recognize some of the recipes in this one, the updated versions are worth trying. Dishes like red lentil soup with lime, one of the plainer items in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, have been totally transformed—in this specific case, by the addition of a homemade berbere spice blend, which Madison makes with smoked instead of sweet paprika. Others, like a chard and saffron flan, have been made simpler and lighter with the removal of fussy elements, like a tart crust. It's those little things that make a significant difference in vegetable cooking, separating the dull salads and boring blanched greens from the elegantly simple dishes that are both easy enough for weeknights and beautiful enough for parties.
The book has no chapters, but is instead organized alphabetically by main ingredient; a recipe for quince braised in honey and wine is sandwiched between recipes for red chili pozole and quinoa buttermilk pancakes. The system works surprisingly well, and that's probably because modern vegetarianism is much more focused on honoring the vast world of non-meat ingredients than on serving up the traditional entrée-plus-sides type of meal. Unlike vegetarian cookbooks of a previous generation, this book includes only a few tofu dishes and pastas. The vast majority of recipes center on a vegetable or fruit, and can be mixed and matched with other dishes as more or less substantial parts of a meal. (Note that if you are looking for a specific type of dish, like a dessert, the index does list items by category.)
Madison has always had an easygoing approach to cooking, but here it's especially prominent. Both headnotes and instructions are peppered with suggestions and possible substitutions ("if you like" is a common refrain). That comfortingly laid-back tone, plus the book's ingredient-focused organization, make it the sort of thing you'll want to flip through after visiting the farmers market, or just while taking stock of your fridge.
For the Aspiring Chef: On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox
In some very general ways, On Vegetables, a new book that's generated a lot of buzz among chefs, is much like In My Kitchen. It, too, is organized alphabetically by ingredient, although recipes for "larder" items, like dressings, sauces, pickles, breads, and garnishes, are separated into an appendix. The author, California chef Jeremy Fox, has the same reverence for vegetables that Deborah Madison does, leading him to similarly include some recipes so simple they barely warrant the name—like broccoli di cicco dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic and served with burrata.
But Fox earned his reputation, and a Michelin star, as the chef at Ubuntu, a vegetarian fine-dining restaurant (now closed) in San Francisco, and he makes no bones about the fact that On Vegetables doesn't contain much weeknight-dinner fare. "This is not a book intended to give you a full menu for your dinner party, or to show you how to throw together a vegetarian family brunch," he writes. "This book, quite simply, is about cooking plants: to expose people to all the different things one can do with a vegetable." It's one of those chef-driven cookbooks, with dishes that need to be started a week in advance and plating instructions with every recipe. That said, it's not a cookbook that's better left on the coffee table than in the kitchen. It's smart, continuously surprising, and full of recipes for a wide range of skill levels. For an adventurous cook, it's a great way to expand one's vegetable horizons into the weird, uncharted territory beyond the scope of a down-to-earth approach like Madison's.
Part of what makes this book unexpectedly useful is that "larder" section at the back. When Fox says that these recipes are his "building blocks," he really means it. Most of the dishes in the book steer you back to at least one larder recipe, if not two or three or four, and most of the larder recipes play a role in multiple dishes. Some are true basics: mayonnaise, ricotta, classic vinaigrette, and pain de mie. Others are out there: sea moss tapenade, black olive caramel, dried-pickle powder. And yes, some of them are fussy, or assume access to an incredibly well-equipped kitchen. But even if you don't own the dehydrator necessary to make your own garlic powder, there's plenty more here that's shockingly easy to make and wonderfully versatile.
One recipe, for instance, explains how to make black garlic in a rice cooker. And that black olive caramel calls for nothing more than Kalamata olives, sugar, and about 10 minutes of your time. It pops up in a few of Fox's recipes, including one for crisped planks of chickpea flour and cornmeal panade (easy to make, and a nice source of protein) topped with black olive caramel, chopped celery dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, and shaved Manchego, but would also make a nice addition to a cheese plate. Miso bagna cauda tastes amazingly like the real, anchovy-based thing, and you'll want to put it on every vegetable (Fox recommends roasted broccoli).
The dishes that make use of Fox's larder recipes are often pretty and fanciful—things like rhubarb, ricotta, and radish toast, or the peas with white chocolate and macadamia nuts that became one of Fox's best-known dishes at Ubuntu. But Fox does slip in some humbler meals, like a lentil soup inspired by his mom's cooking. And in between you'll find a lot to be inspired by, especially once you have some of those larder items prepared. If you have enough confidence in the kitchen to know when you can trade deep-frying for pan-frying, and when you can replace the squeeze bottles he calls for with plain old spoons, quite a few of the recipes will turn out to be less trouble than you'd think.
Admittedly, a handful of the recipes in On Vegetables do require ingredients too rare for most of us—I'll probably never make the citrus salad that calls for both pink lemons and oca, a South American tuber. Many more, however, rely on humbler, more accessible vegetables. The only other issue I had with the book was a copyediting one: More than once, a recipe lists the incorrect page number for one of the larder components it uses. But that, like so many of the other techniques in this book, is something you can easily figure out.
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