I have loads of cookbooks — as no doubt do many of you — but these eight are my favorite vegetarian cookbooks!
Vegetarian cooking is enjoying considerable popularity, and with good reason: it’s moved out of the tofu zone and into the realm of bright and snappy fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, rainbow-colored and well-seasoned with intoxicating herbs and spices, in dishes with textures that run from crispy to creamy. All without resorting to ingredients that are out of place in the western kitchen. No offense to the rest of the world, but bean curd does not live in my pantry.
Although this is a post about printed cookbooks, if allowed to comment honestly — and I will, here 😉 — I think the Internet is actually an excellent resource for recipes. Of course, I say that in part because I run two food blogs, but the fact is that I rarely turn to books anymore for the evening meal. Online recipes are often skewered by chefs and food writers because they’re seen as risky: under-tested, perhaps, or written by inexperienced cooks whose intentions are more to cash in on the [somewhat overblown] cash cow that is blogging than to educate and share a passion.
This has truth to it, of course, but I’ve also owned my share of printed cookbooks that were more useful as doorstops than their intended purpose. In fact, some years ago, I pared down my cookbook collection by 80%, and have never looked back with regret. When you get some cooking experience under your belt, you learn to spot minor recipe flaws, no matter their source, and quickly compensate without bother. It’s hard, authoring recipes, because everyone’s tastes are, to state the obvious, so different: My one teaspoon of smoked paprika bliss is someone else’s grimace.
But kitchen confidence inspires improvisation, which is my favorite form of cooking anyway. I find a recipe online and, no matter how wonderful it sounds as-is, I inevitably tweak it to my own preferences. It also helps if you take the attitude that creating a tasty dinner is not a zero sum game: one evening’s flop does not mean all hope is lost. It’s just one meal in a lifetime of thousands. This frees you to take chances and forgive failures, without losing the spark of interest.
With the admission that I do enjoy cooking from the web, I’ll further preface this list with the unsurprising note that many of my most wear-worn tomes are more reference in nature, rather than recipe-filled. My best recipe inspirations come from cooking know-how and an ever-growing ingredient and cuisine knowledgebase, not necessarily a notebook of others’ recipes.
Because I believe that, while our personal preference for one cuisine or another shifts over time, technique and ingredient expertise is timeless, and serves us well whether we’re preparing a simple plate of roasted vegetables or a complicated French entree. So, while recipe books are often more glamorous in scope and design, I hope you’ll give the humble reference book some special consideration.
To learn more details about each book, click through the links to Amazon, and browse the “Look Inside” feature, which should give you a good perspective of whether the book is a good fit for you. The links to Amazon, by the way, are affiliate links (which means that, should you place an order via that link, I receive a small commission from Amazon, for which I’m very grateful). However, if that concept is off-putting, simply go directly to Amazon and search for the book title. It’s all good, I promise.
“The Vegetarian Flavor Bible” by Karen Page
If I had to gift, or recommend, just one book to a new cook, this would be it. It is not — I repeat, not — a recipe book. I want to be clear about that, because, judging by the reviews on Amazon, not everyone understands what they’ve bought, lol. It is, rather, a reference book of ingredients. The reference book of ingredients … and their flavors, their qualities, their seasonality, and how they combine with other ingredients. It’s absolutely brilliant.
The author takes an ingredient, describes its flavor profile and seasonality, and then lists companion herbs, vegetables, fruits, legumes, vinegars, seasonings, and sauces that pair favorably with it, emphasizing those that are especially well-matched.
I find endless uses for this book, and, with summer on its way, this book will especially shine as I sift through my over-zealous farmers’ market purchases (I’m not the only one who does that, right?). Did I really need three types of eggplant? Nevermind, I have bell peppers, tomatoes, onion, tahini, miso, lemon, and garlic — all flavor companions, says the book — let’s make some zippy gazpacho!
If you like to cook without a recipe, or want to hone your instincts for tweaking recipes to suit your tastes, this book is indispensable for sparking inspired ingredient combinations.
“The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg
This is the precursor and parent, if you will, of “The Vegetarian Flavor Bible.” If you cook for omnivore family members, I would recommend purchasing this book, rather than the vegetarian version (which still has a lot to offer vegetarian cooks, just not as much specificity).
This James Beard Award-winning book was a game-changer for me. At the time of purchase, some 10 years ago, I was already enjoying freewheeling at the stove, but often hit a creativity wall. It’s easy for me to slide into ruts and prepare the same meals in the same way over and over, especially when my garden starts busting out in bushels of cukes, carrots, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and herbs.
Thumbing through this book is equal parts education and inspiration — highly recommended.
“Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference” by Jill Norman
This book makes me happy. Let’s just get that right out there. I love herbs and spices. So much so that my herb garden has begun to overtake my vegetable garden, in terms of the size of each. Vegetarian cooking is ridiculously easy when you have a collection of herbs and spices at your fingertips. It’s the secret, really: knowing how to season and tease the flavor out of your veggie-strong dishes.
Years ago, I wanted to write a book on cooking with herbs and spices. I feverishly started a manuscript — the way you do when you have a passion-fueled idea that completely takes over your brain — and then at some point came up for air to research the competition. This was back when Amazon’s “look inside” feature actually let you view a fair chunk of the book, lol, rather than just the index and intro. Long story short, I viewed this book and stopped right there. Halted my manuscript … and ordered Norman’s book for myself. There was no need to reinvent a wheel that already spun perfectly.
She features herbs and spices I’ve never even heard of, and writes about them in a way that both the cook and gardener in me appreciates, complete with growing and harvesting notes, where sensible. The book includes a section on spice blend recipes, plus regular recipes, but the real jewel is the herb/spice reference. The spice nerd in me enjoys even just browsing through this beautifully photographed book, always on the hunt for something new and exotic to toss into my soups and salads.
It looks like the book has been reprinted in a format slightly different from the photo of my copy that I show above, but the information within should be the same (if not updated). I have a little personal motto that says your meals are only as boring as your spice rack. With ready access to the world’s most interesting spices at an all time high, this reference book will help you stock the herbs and spices that will make your meals truly special.
“How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” by Mark Bittman
If you’re searching for just one vegetarian recipe book to add to your kitchen, this, I think, should be the one. Although not my sentimental favorite on this list, it’s a definitive resource for the typical home cook who wants to incorporate more plant-based meals into her cooking.
It’s worth noting that Bittman is not a vegetarian, although is a strong proponent of plant-based cooking. I’ve noticed this as a factor — whether related or not — among my most trusted author resources (including others listed here): the writer is not necessarily full-time plant-based. I’m not sure why that is, other than perhaps a sign of how much footing vegetarian cooking has gained this century. If you’re not full-time either, this should cheer you and encourage you to proceed confidently in your goals.
As Bittman notes in his foreword, vegetarian cooking has never been easier or more accessible to the mainstream. Grocery stores have made considerable precious shelf space available to vegetarian ingredients, including tofu, non-dairy milk, egg substitutes and so on, and creating craveworthy, vibrant, healthy — and varied — plant-based meals no longer means multiple stops at specialty stores. You can pretty much get everything at Kroger.
What I appreciate most about Mark Bittman is that, while he wields considerable influence in the food industry through his historical role at the New York Times, his is, at heart, a home cook. I don’t know that that’s something he’s ever specifically said about himself, lol, but it’s how I see him, and I mean it as a deep compliment. I’ve never read through a Bittman recipe and thought, well, that’s just ridiculous, I’m not doing that, or rejected a recipe because I don’t have a heat diffuser or a sous vide device (as I’ve done with numerous chef-penned recipes). His recipes are, in fact, highly approachable, and he invariably walks the cook through suggested variations that create considerable flexibility for each dish.
From breakfast through dessert, Bittman executes his “Everything” mandate with an indispensable collection of recipes. There’s something for everyone here, whether vegan or omnivore.
“The Homemade Vegan Pantry” by Miyoko Schinner
This book is fairly new to my cooking library, but I’m enjoying it immensely. When I reduced my dairy intake (eliminated it, for the most part), I needed to get up to speed quickly on vegan substitutes. Recipes are in plentiful supply on the interwebs, as I’ve said, but I wanted an immersion experience (without taking a class or some such thing).
A friend of mine had turned me on to Miyoko’s retail products (her cultured vegan butter is sublime), so it was a short hop to purchase one of her cookbooks. I love making condiments, and there’s a large section that I can’t wait to make my way through. But her soups and pastas and crackers (and more) give a valuable vegan approach to cooking, when suddenly butter and dairy and cheese are off the ingredients table.
“Vegetable Literacy” by Deborah Madison
This is another book that I can just curl up with a cup of tea and dreamily thumb through: striking vegetable and tablescaped photography bookends Madison’s lyrical writing on the lives and uses of vegetables, interspersed among her aspirationally simple yet complexly flavorful recipes.
Madison, a former chef at Chez Panisse, among the other notable experiences on her CV, is also not a vegetarian (she calls herself a “90 percent-er”). However, she’s indubitably the western world’s most well-regarded vegetarian recipe writer and cookbook author, and her books (including this one and another below) are classics that should be in everyone’s library (whether vegetarian or not).
“Vegetable Literacy” is a cooking gardener’s dream. Its recipes are organized by plant family, so, recipes for broccoli and cauliflower will be found grouped together, as will tomato and pepper recipes. This makes multitudes of sense because, as we learn, vegetables and herbs from the same botanical family are flavor companions.
Have you ever had roasted Brussels sprouts with mustard sauce? I hope you can say yes to that, because it’s a wonderfully tasty, non-bacon way to enjoy this vegetable. Brussels sprouts and mustard are, in fact, closely related as part of the mustard family, Brassicaceae, so of course they taste great together. And if you’re a soup fanatic like I am, it becomes crystal clear why carrots, celery, fennel, and parsley make effortlessly beautiful soup. It’s written in nature that they co-mingle deliciously as members of the carrot family, Umbelliferae.
There are very few chef-written recipes in my normal-day cooking repertoire, but several of hers have become muscle memory for me, including a summertime favorite of seared peppers with cherry tomatoes, mint, parsley, olives, and capers (and halloumi, when my cheese resistance is weak).
Anything by Yotam Ottolenghi
That’s not a book title, lol, simply a statement that any recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi is likely to please a food lover.
Another chef who’s not a vegetarian but known for his vegetarian creations, Ottolenghi’s dishes are an irresistible fusion of European and Middle Eastern cuisines. A recipe for roasted vegetables seasoned with za’atar and drizzled with tahini sauce stands out for me as a dish that I return to over and over again.
I have one Ottolenghi cookbook (called, simply enough, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook”), but I’ve cooked from borrowed “Plenty” and “Jerusalem” with highly enjoyable results. Not to put Ottolenghi in a box, but when I need a meal to impress, or want to step out of my go-to flavor palate, I turn to his recipes, which never fail to please everyone at the table, vegan and omnivore.
Mild warning, though: Like most chefs, his techniques — while impeccable, for sure — are sometimes fussy for the home cook (which is why you will rarely, if ever, find chef-written recipes on this website).
To wit, his cauliflower tahini recipe is incredibly delicious, on point with the balance of flavors and textures. However, it calls for you to full-on fry a prodigious amount of florets and spring onions in tiny batches. My home cook’s solution? Just roast everything in the oven at once and be done with it. So, instead of watching the clock ticking away from behind the stove as you tediously hover over the frying florets, this dish becomes a mostly hands-off preparation that lets you attend to the rest of the meal.
Such is the difference between chefs and home cooks.
But for special occasions, you can’t beat his innovative palate and crowd-pleasing results.
“The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison
Another must-have cookbook from Madison, this is the 2014 updated version of her classic, “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” From basic cooking techniques that are invaluable for new vegetarians, to dishes featuring her signature cooking style of inspired, well-seasoned flavor combinations, Madison has a way of building confidence as you proceed through her recipes such that you can’t help but end up feeling good every time you put this book to work.