The Vegetarian (and Vegan) Cookbook Smackdown
A pair of recovering carnivores, faced with too many recipe options, put five plant-based cookbooks to the test
When I pitched the idea to my husband of eating less meat, I was surprised when he actually seemed excited about it. He only had one request: “Can we actually use cookbooks and not just wing it with the recipes?”
I pulled out my old Moosewood Cookbook, the Bible of all nineties-era vegetarians. But the recipes (many of which called for fat-free dairy ingredients) felt dated. So I turned to my trusty Amazon Prime account, but searching “plant-based cookbook” turned up more than 1,200 options. Clearly I’m not the only one yearning for a more conscientious diet these days. Where to start, though?
Lucky for me, plenty of my friends are practitioners of plant-based diets, so I asked them for their favorite cookbooks and ordered the five that seemed to be on everyone’s list. Then we lived off them for a few weeks. I wanted to find the book with the tastiest recipes, of course, but I was also looking for one that fit my lifestyle. That means recipes I can make fairly quickly after my post-work run, ingredients I can find and afford, and a maximum of three vessels required for cooking (we don’t have a dishwasher).
This is how the books stacked up.
#5: The Plantpower Way
The Authors: Ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll and his wife, plant-based chef and artist Julie Piatt.
The Sell: Meat is the only thing standing between you and your best self (or something).
The Plantpower Way shines brightest in the salad section, with clever combinations like cabbage beet ginger slaw and a roasted corn and tomato number that’s perfect for summer. We also had decent luck with the blackened tomato and cashew sauce served over pasta—though in our reforming meat-eater eyes, it seemed lacking on protein for a post-workout meal.
I didn’t get to try as many recipes as I’d like from this book for one big reason: many of them call for specialized ingredients like gluten-free tamari, mung beans, or soy-based pasta noodles. My best grocery store is Walmart, and Whole Foods is more than an hour away. Those are things that I—and many other Americans—simply cannot get.
My other issue with The Plantpower Way is that, because I have a history of disordered eating, I try really hard not to equate my self-worth with my food choices. But in this book, the two are completely intertwined. There’s lots of talk of detoxing oneself from heavy metals by eating cleansing foods like beet soup. Roll and Piatt are quick to point out in their intro that this is not a diet book, but they give clear instructions for “transformation via the phoenix path.” With no oils, fats, processed foods, gluten, or refined sugars, it sounds like a diet to me. I love that their popularity is converting others to a plant-based lifestyle. But by the end I felt myself teetering on the edge of falling back into disordered eating. This book wasn’t for me.
Taste Factor: Good, but not great. The recipes I tried worked fine, though I did end up adding more salt and sometimes amping up the spice.
Usefulness Factor: If I lived in a different place, with access to a Whole Foods and a Visa Black card, I would probably keep this book in my collection for inspiration. It does offer many primers on useful basics for plant-based eating, like how to make homemade coconut milk and punchy fermented kraut.
Smug Factor: GOOP on gluten-free, raw, vegan EPO.
The Author: Celebrated London chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi.
The Sell: Gorgeous, restaurant-quality dishes where veggies are the star.
This book came highly recommended by several friends and, all important, my mom. Ottolenghi isn’t a vegetarian, and so this is a good transitional book for meat eaters who are trying to reform their ways. He tops dishes with eggs, allows cheese in the mix, and even suggests pairing a few items with smoked fish or meat. Alongside some of the more strict books, this felt downright reckless.
The recipes are fantastic, with rich flavors, great mixes of texture, and plenty of protein and fat to make the dishes feel satisfying. Unfortunately, they’re also hellishly time consuming. The first recipe we tried was a mushroom ragout with poached duck eggs, in which the mushrooms have to be cooked in small batches so they sear properly. I started cooking at 7:30 P.M. after going for a run, and we ate well after 10. The same thing happened when constructing a roasted veggie tart.
The other problem with this book is that it’s organized by vegetable. While that’s great for figuring out what to do with the chicory that came in your CSA box, it’s sometimes unclear whether a dish is meant to be an appetizer, side, or main. Things like roasted butternut squash with sweet spices, lime and green chile, or caramelized endive with Gruyere, seemed stuck in the middle—too hearty (and complicated) to be a side, but too light to be a main.
Taste Factor: Unreal. The dishes we tried, we adored. I’d pay good money for them in a restaurant.
Usefulness Factor: Very low. This is not a book made for harried weeknight chefs. Save these recipes for dinner parties or special occasions.
Smug Factor: Nonexistent. Ottolenghi admits upfront that he’s a meat eater, and you never feel judged for thinking, “I’d like to put an egg on that.”
#3: The VB6 Cookbook
The Author: New York Times food journalist and recipe writer Mark Bittman. Of all the authors on this cookbook list, I trust his judgment the most.
The Sell: Eating plant-based breakfasts and lunches, then eating whatever you want for dinner, can make you a healthier human.
VB6 stands for “vegan before six,” and it’s a philosophy Bittman devised to stay healthy while being a food writer. He consumes no animal products for breakfast and lunch, then eats a healthy “flexitarian” dinner. Sometimes that means meat, sometimes it doesn’t.
This is technically a diet book, which I didn’t realize when I ordered it. But the recipes aren’t particularly carb- or fat-phobic, so it doesn’t feel overly focused on weight loss. In fact, the whole thing felt refreshingly moderate.
We found the recipes to be an easy bridge between eating tons of animal products and eating less of them. Think of these as dishes to wean you off of meat. Eggs and dairy are allowed at first in creative recipes like a dinner porridge. But there are plenty of vegan lunch recipes you can make for dinners once you’re ready to go cold turkey, like teriyaki tempeh with bok choy. There are a couple of places where Bittman and I don’t see eye-to-eye, like when he calls for brown rice in his risotto (blasphemy!), but for the most part, the recipes are what I’ve come to expect from his New York Times writings—bold flavors, fuss-less preparation, and helpful intel on new ingredients and techniques.
Taste Factor: More, please! Dishes are uncomplicated but delightful.
Usefulness Factor: My only real complaint is that I tend not to cook new breakfasts and lunches every day—I don’t have time. Because most of the true plant-based meals in the book were created for those meals, I had to wait and cook them on less-rushed weekend mornings. We’ll end up keeping a lot of the excellent flexitarian dinners in rotation, even if they don’t completely count within the scope of this story.
Smug Factor: Zero. This is a judgement-free zone. Bittman won’t tell you what not to eat—instead he guides you through what worked for him.
#2: Oh She Glows Every Day
The Author: Angela Liddon, a plant-based blogger turned cookbook author.
The Sell: Nutrition-packed food that your whole family will eat.
I had to be talked into trying this book, with its oh-so-juice-cleanse-y title. But I’m glad my friends made me give it a try. The recipes are excellent and written with time and ease in mind. The creative salads are the standouts. Liddon has a gift for turning the oft-maligned side into a bona fide main dish, topped with seasoned legumes, roasted nuts, and interesting grains. She celebrates produce rather than falling into the vegetarian-cookbook trap of trying to imitate favorite animal-product-laden dishes.
We thoroughly enjoyed her sweet potato, spinach, and coconut curry recipe, along with her Big Tabouli Bowl. Her marinated lentils have become a standard in my fridge, and I’ll often top a lunchtime salad with a spoonful.
Taste Factor: Yum. You could cook from this book for a year without boring your palette.
Usefulness Factor: Excellent. Liddon’s prep and cooking time estimates were accurate, and she notes if something needs to be started the night before (like overnight soaking grains or beans).
Smug Factor: Gwyneth in training. The Miracle Healing Broth and Satiety Smoothies will make you roll your eyes a bit, but Liddon does keep it real enough to admit that sometimes her kid won’t eat her recipes.
#1: Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give A F*ck
The Authors: Matt Holloway and Michelle Davis are Southern California food bloggers who have turned their vegan cooking into a cookbook empire with three plant-based titless plus a whole host of veggie-amorous merchandise.
The Sell: Fast(ish) food for adventurous eaters.
When I asked my Facebook friends what plant-based cookbooks they adored, they mentioned this more than any other volume. People love this book, and I can see why.
These recipes are made for people who want to eat hearty food that doesn’t require the sacrifice of an animal, not for those looking to consume mostly lettuce and fresh-pressed kale juice. The authors helpfully categorize recipes as breakfasts, snacks and salads, soups and stews, and mains, so there was no question about whether something I was making was going to be substantial enough to suit our dinnertime needs.
We plowed through the five-spice fried rice with dry-fried tofu after a five-mile evening run and felt completely satisfied. The black bean tortas with coconut chipotle mayo were equally rich and made enough leftovers for several days.
Taste Factor: Excellent. The authors aren’t afraid to use hefty doses of curry or five spice powder to make a dish interesting. (I usually ended up adding a touch more spice than the recipes called for, but we’re heat lovers, so that’s not unusual.)
Usefulness Factor: Weeknight appropriate. I do wish the recipes gave an estimate of the time they take, but for the most part I was able to make dinnertime happen before 9 P.M.—a reasonable time for me.
Smug Factor: Surprisingly low. On a scale from 1 to GOOP, I’d rate this book as a newbie Crossfitter who’s excited about their new find but not in so deep as to be supremely annoying. Plus, the authors are pretty good at explaining some of the more unusual ingredients they use (like nutritional yeast) and give ideas on where to find these items.