Eight essential modern cookbooks every home cook should have on their bookshelf

Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem had us all buying bottles of pomegranate molasses.
Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem had us all buying bottles of pomegranate molasses. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Our list of millennial kitchen tomes that have a proven shelf life, with enduring recipes and the ability to still stir the imagination.

Think back, if you will, to the year 2000, when life was simple and the millennium was fresh. If you'd told us then that the next 18 years would be the golden age of cookbooks, we might not have called you crazy, because that would've been rude, but we'd have gone home and written about it on our Livejournals. The internet was changing the way we lived and breathed, and at that moment, it looked like the publishing industry was going down the tubes.

Little did we know that a few big things would happen. One, the industry would double down on publishing big, useful, colourful books. Design, illustration and gift-giving would grow ever more important, which was good news for cookbooks and gave publishers an incentive to invest in quality.

Jamie Oliver's cookbook output is prolific.
Jamie Oliver's cookbook output is prolific. Photo: Simon Schluter

Two, the internet would create a new cooking culture, turning bloggers into superstars practically overnight, and chefs from Europe, Asia and America into household names as they beamed into our devices and our web browsers. For amateur and professional cooks alike, a key rite of passage was the publication of a first cookbook. It offerd the potential of being a major way to monetise their work.

These days, despite the splendid things the app developers have brought us, we have lost count of the times we've downloaded a promising new cooking app only to use it once before it languishes, forgotten. The screen locks when we walk off and stir the pot for one moment; we get oil on the home button and it's all over.

Turns out there's still room on the kitchen bench for cooking from a cookbook – even if that means getting stains on the pages we use most often. Maybe when the online world tracks our interests and gives us so much tailored content, there's pleasure in paging through a loved but overloaded cookbook and settling on a recipe you've passed over 50 times – because tonight is the perfect night to try it.

Legend has it, there are kitchen cupboards in the modern world that don't have a half-used bottle of pomegranate molasses bought in 2013. We have yet to come across them.

There are thousands of reasons a cookbook might be a modern classic. Sometimes it's a record of a restaurant that's defined the modern era; sometimes it's an iconic author who has the voice and story that teaches us something about how we eat today.

For this list, we've chosen eight cookbooks published since the year 2000 – with one exception, because it's our list, and we can cheat if we want to, plus, that book was updated in 2004, so who's counting? That means no Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child or How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson (published in 1998), no matter how contemporary they might feel.

What's a modern classic for our purposes? At first, we thought we'd choose books that have been "the most important", but books that mattered in 2008 often don't matter today. Then, we thought we'd try to predict the titles we'd still use several years from now – but we're home cooks and food writers, not psychics.

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Instead, these are eight books that count as modern classics because we use the living daylights out of them. Maybe they've lasted beyond their moment of cool, maybe they're still in it. Whatever they do, they hit their marks; they look good; they feel great; they matter to lots of people; and we use them to eat.

Finally, unlike a list of age-old classics, hailed through the decades, this list is meant to be disagreed with and debated. If you tell us we're crazy, all the better. 

The Cook's Companion

Stephanie Alexander, Penguin, $130

The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander.
The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander. Photo: supplied

Here's the one we cheated with, because it came out in the 1990s, but whenever we think of Australian kitchens in the mid-2000s, it's all about the warm, neon, rainbow cover of the updated edition. Housemates, parents, future spouses – all bowed down to Stephanie, with one ribbon bookmarking the thing they were making, another bookmarking the basics, and a spine cracked and weathered from total overuse.

Classic dish: Fish baked in coarse salt. ''This is a sensational and very dramatic way to cook a whole fish,'' writes Stephanie; she's not wrong.

Fan favourite: Zucchini soup. One paragraph, 20 minutes, three ingredients, buried on page 1071, this is the soup that fed a thousand sharehouses.

Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer.
Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer. Photo: supplied

Maggie's Harvest

Maggie Beer, Penguin, $125

How does a book manage to be this hearty, juicy, salty, and, well, farmy while also being absolutely grown-up and sophisticated? It's a lifetime's encyclopaedia just like Stephanie Alexander's, but when you open it, you never see zucchini or potato – it's always gooseberries and elderflowers, chestnuts, or oysters. This authoritative volume came at a crucial moment when Australians were wondering where the dinner came from, and whether it might be better if you poured some verjuice on it.

Classic dish: Pigeon and field mushroom pie, so fancy and comforting.

Momofuku by David Chang.
Momofuku by David Chang. Photo: supplied

Fan favourite: Green olive gnocchi with green olive sauce; it's green olive wonderful.

Momofuku

David Chang and Peter Meehan, Absolute Press, $49.99

You would not have to be a totally decadent hipster to have known someone who got two copies of this book from two separate people for Christmas the year it was published, 2009. But it helps. Soon, there was Lucky Peach, the restaurant in Sydney, and the photos of David Chang hanging out in Tokyo for GQ with James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem and Aziz Ansari. For now, there was this – a little bit Korean, a little bit American, a little bit of genius, and a lot of classy.

Veganomicon cookbook.
Veganomicon cookbook. Photo: supplied

Classic dish: Bo ssam, still the king of summer barbecues.

Fan favourite: The slim dessert section in the back of the book that forecasts the reign of Momofuku Milk Bar.

Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, Da Capo, $49.99

Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver.
Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver. Photo: supplied

Before veganism was a lifestyle choice roughly as common as ironing your clothes, Veganomicon was the book that saved the happy few from eating Nuttelex on toast for every meal. There are so many amazing vegan cookbooks out right now that it's even more amazing how much this one still stands out; it's a full service cookbook that lays out all the basics, and it's also not afraid to be 100 per cent itself, with a title that remains awkward, funny, and formidable.

Classic dish: Eggplant-potato moussaka with cashew tofu cream.

Fan favourite: BBQ seitan and crispy coleslaw sandwich, which will send you to an early grave, despite your principles.

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo: supplied

Jamie's Italy

Jamie Oliver, Penguin, $39.99

Next time you go out in public, look around and ask: how many of these people have a crush on Jamie Oliver, something deep and strange and hard to shake? The answer is all of them, and none of them quite know why – only that he's adorable and puzzling. He's also a cracker of an Italian cook, or really he's a home chef in cook's clothing. You can't mess this stuff up. You also can't get sick of it.  

Classic dish: Risotto bianco con pesto – simple, chic, and flawless.

Gourmet Today by Ruth Reichl.
Gourmet Today by Ruth Reichl. Photo: supplied

Fan favourite: La migliore frittata di gamberetti e prezzemolo, a.k.a. ''the best prawn and parsley frittata''. Jamie says, ''To be honest, I'm a bit fussy about my frittatas'' and in this recipe, it pays off.

Jerusalem

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Ebury, $49.99

It's not quite Israeli – and depending on who you ask, not quite Middle Eastern either – but it's packed with interesting recipes in that very loose manner, and packed with vegie dishes that quietly surpass the ones laid out by Ottolenghi in two previous cookbooks. Jerusalem was the book that cemented Ottolenghi and modern Middle Eastern cuisine as worldwide superstars. Legend has it there are kitchen cupboards in the modern world that don't have a half-used bottle of pomegranate molasses bought in 2013. We have yet to come across them.

Thai Food by David Thompson.
Thai Food by David Thompson. Photo: supplied

Classic dish: Shakshuka, because when else has dinner been as fun as breakfast?

Fan favourite: Conchiglie with yoghurt, peas and chilli – a picnic fave.

Gourmet Today

Ruth Reichl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $39.99

It's not what Reichl's famous for – that would be Gourmet magazine, or the first Gourmet cookbook, or possibly her memoirs. Or even what she's really famous for – that would be her Twitter account. But what's a list of modern classics if you don't have a wildcard? This lime green tome was buried in 2009, maybe because it was published two weeks before its namesake magazine closed its doors. This is a crime; it's thoughtful and delightful, with a thousand pages of dishes poised between the creative and the classic.

Classic dish: Afghani spicy scallion dumplings with yoghurt and meat sauces – ''both exotic and comforting'', which is kind of the whole book.

Fan favourite: Linguine with zucchini and mint, and an awful lot of garlic oil.

Thai Food

David Thompson, Penguin, $90

The platonic ideal of a cookbook about a cuisine or a place, this book sings with research, raises it high, and sometimes brings it low – there's feasts here that would make you cry if someone made them for you, and make you cry in different ways if you were forced to make them. There's also street food, and basics like pickled ginger.

Classic dish: Green papaya salad with sweet crispy pork.

Fan favourite: Chinese broccoli and crisp egg soup.