Cooks can be divided into two broad categories: those who measure everything, and those who depend more on their senses, trusting their eyes, hands and taste buds more than numbers on a page or weights on a scale. Both approaches have their virtues, but it's rare that a person changes from one to the other – so it's good to know whether you're buying for a Nigella or a Harold McGee.
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji López-Alt (W.W. Norton & Co., 960 pages) Underestimate Serious Eats at your own peril. Just because the site doesn't have a legacy print product or a web platform that mimics a magazine doesn't mean that Ed Levine's stable of food and drink obsessives is any less knowledgeable than the crowds at Food & Wine or Cooks Illustrated. López-Alt is managing culinary director of the SE team, a man with deep culinary knowledge at his fingertips and a love of technique that borders on unhinged. Luckily for the world, he doesn't keep it to himself (just peep that page count!) – this book is the gift of 2015 for anyone who hankers after perfection.
Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix: More Than 700 Simple Recipes and Techniques to Mix and Match for Endless Possibilities, by Mark Bittman (Pam Krauss Books, 304 pages) Kitchen Matrix is not nearly so weighty a tome as Food Lab – neither in its conceptual approach nor its sheer poundage. But its cooking-by-diagramming methodology, borrowed from Bittman's long-running "Eat" column in the New York Times, appeals to a similarly brainiac cook. The tidy divisions are more logic-based than traditionally "cheffy" – e.g., a section on "Tiny Pancakes," another on "Picnic Baskets." Using one of Bittman's recipe generators not only helps a stumped cook improvise, it trains novices how to work from what they already have rather than shop all the ingredients of a recipe.
The Homemade Kitchen: Recipes for Cooking With Pleasure, by Alana Chernila (Clarkson Potter, 320 pages) Chernila, like Wilkins (below), emphasizes family as part of her love of food – the two are so entwined for her that she sees no division. This is a book for cooks who adore the feel of butter crumbling into flour, the aroma of a blackberry pie drifting from the oven, the perfect crackly gold skin on a roasted chicken – a perfect gift for anyone who thinks the pleasure of nourishing loved ones is the whole point of cooking.
Friends Food Family: Essential Recipes, Tips and Secrets for the Modern Hostess, by Sasha Wilkins (Quadrille Publishing, 192 pages) Wilkins, a London fashion editor who rose to prominence through her blog, libertylondongirl.com, is more of a hostess-with-the-mostest than an earth mama, but her cookbook is equally centered on the pleasure and necessity of simple nourishment – as she isn't a mother yet, she naturally focuses more on self-care and dinner parties than the family meal. Recommended for anyone who appreciates a healthy sprinkling of chia seeds on her steel-cut oats, but insists upon consuming it from the prettiest gilt-rimmed china bowl