Geeks, grains and globe-trotting. Nearly every one of this year's best food books seems to fall into one of those categories.
For those of us who (somewhat obsessively) watch the food world, there actually is some logic to that. Chefs have become fascinated by the hows and whys of cooking, delving into the science of the kitchen to find new ways to master delicious. After some fits and rough starts, publishers finally are learning how to make food science sexy to the home cook.
Meanwhile, we're always searching for the new "it" food. This year, wacky grains got their moment. And since ethnic is the new mainstream, cookbooks that help us grasp global cuisines — all the while making them feel familiar — hit a splendid pace in 2014. So whether you are in the market for a gift, or just looking to bulk up your own collection, here are my picks for the best food books from 2014.
Most cookbooks dedicated to the science of cooking miss the mark, assuming the audience is either would-be lab jockeys hankering for esoteric ingredients or obsessives who simply will not rest until having mastered the PERFECT! roasted chicken. And that tends to leave the rest of us scratching our heads.
But Cooking Light magazine columnist Keith Schroeder understands that average cooks can benefit from food science, too. His cookbook, "Mad Delicious: The Science of Making Healthy Food Taste Amazing" (Oxmoor House, $35), gently — and comically — guides readers through 126 everyday classics, explaining what to do and why. And his recipe format is almost genius. Each ingredient is accompanied by a brief explanation of its role in the recipe. The result: You learn even just by assembling your shopping list.
On the more hardcore end of the spectrum is Tyler Florence's foray into food science, "Inside the Test Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, $35). He mostly blows up conventional thinking on classic recipes, coming up with creative ways to do the basics better. His egg-roll omelet (it's cooked on a rimmed baking sheet) alone is worth the price of admission.
If brown rice and barley still count as exotic in your kitchen, it's time to catch up. Running parallel to vegetables getting sexy, unusual grains, seeds and legumes are suddenly hot — and increasingly available. But most folks find them intimidating. After all, raise your hand if you know how to prepare freekeh, wattle seeds and amaranth. Didn't think so.
Except it's not enough for cookbooks to merely explain how to use unusual ingredients. They also need to inspire you to want to. And that's why Molly Brown's "Grains" (Hardie Grant Books, $34.95) and Ghillie James' "Amazing Grains" (Kyle Books, $29.95) stand out. Both build comfort with the unfamiliar, as well as making you eager to get in the kitchen.
As the world gets smaller, our culinary reach broadens.Numerous wonderful books want to help us make sense of it all.
For the big picture, we have David Joachim's "Global Kitchen" (Oxmoor House, $29.95), another entry under the Cooking Light banner. It is simply a gorgeous book that immediately captures the beauty and breadth of world cuisine. The recipes make it enticing to embrace new dishes that (thankfully) never feel "light."
For anyone hankering for a Parisian fantasy, start with David Lebovitz's "My Paris Kitchen." A prolific blogger and author who moved from the U.S. to Paris a decade ago, Lebovitz makes French cooking accessible. Of course, his Paris kitchen is influenced by the many Middle Eastern and African cuisines that now call that city home, but that only makes the book that much more exciting.
Also from Paris is the sensual chocolate and sweets cookbook, "A La Mere de Famille," with recipes from the 250-year-old Parisian confectionary of the same name. Written by the company's chief chocolatier Julien Merceron, the book showcases one must-eat item after another. And the recipes are mercifully simple and short.
Speaking of sensual, England's Nigel Slater has offered up "Eat" (Ten Speed Press, $27.99), a collection of 600 straightforward dinner ideas that are global in scope, but midweek-friendly in manner. Slater is gifted at getting the cook in the moment and in the mood. This book — organized by cooking method, because some nights you only have time for a sandwich — should just live on your counter.
Finally, global in thought if not in geography is Douglas Gayeton's "Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America" (Harper Design, $35). This remarkable and stunning book tells the story of sustainable food via profiles of dozens of thinkers, growers and producers. Anyone who cares about foodwill care about this book.