As someone who is both a cookbook author and a relatively new vegan, I field a lot of questions from family, friends, and readers looking for help with making the transition to a more plant-based diet.
First: What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
One of the first questions I get involves the terminology itself. These days, the terms “plant-based diet” and “vegan diet” are often used interchangeably and for the purposes of this article, that’s how I’ve used them. There are no official definitions. However, “vegan” often refers to a whole lifestyle and value system with ethics and animal welfare at its core. True vegans don’t wear wool or leather, for example.
Plant-based, on the other hand, usually refers to a diet whose focus is health. A “whole-food plant-based diet” usually eschews even oil and flour on the grounds that these ingredients are processed and not whole foods. Plenty of people who follow plant-based diets also consider themselves vegan.
Some people claim that a plant-based diet can include some animal products or even meat, but I think people who follow that approach are more accurately described as “vegetarians” (if they eat eggs and dairy), “pescatarian” (if they eat eggs, dairy, and seafood), or “flexitarians” (if they eat plants most of the time and anything else in moderation). Regardless of how you label your way of eating or the way you aspire to eat, adding more plants in the form of fruits and vegetables to your diet is an unambiguously positive thing.
Second: What Are the Best Resources for Starting a Plant-Based Diet?
No matter what kind of dietary transition you are making, I know firsthand that it can be overwhelming and confusing from when I made the shift in 2017. There are so many vegan recipe resources out there—blogs, magazines, apps, cookbooks, and more. I learned the hard way that some of these recipes are a lot more reliable than others.
For me, cookbooks have been the most trustworthy source for learning plant-based cooking techniques. So when I've helped other people kickstart their plant-based diets, I typically give them a few tried-and-true cookbooks to help them establish a strong knowledge base that they can build on. In addition to working from a trusted source (resulting in actually delicious food), this approach cuts overwhelm and decision fatigue. I suggest cooking exclusively from one book for a month to really get to know and learn from the recipes and techniques
Here are the top four vegan cookbooks that I have personally cooked through and recommended countless times to anyone who wants to eat less meat and more plants.
When I ordered this cookbook, I was both surprised and delighted to learn that every recipe in the book could be made vegan. (Most are vegan as written; some call for dairy but always include a plant-based alternative ingredient.)
I think of this book as being “stealth vegan,” because it doesn’t exactly advertise its plant-based bona fides. It doesn’t scare off anyone.That’s what makes it a perfect cookbook for someone who wants to put plants at the center of the plate but might be turned off by what they think of as “vegan food.” The recipes in this collection are, first and foremost, delicious, and secondarily, accidentally, or offhandedly plant-based.
I wouldn’t necessarily steer a brand new beginner cook to this book because some of the ingredients lists and cook times are a bit long. And novice cooks are sometimes a little intimidated by cooking dried beans. But regardless of skill level, if the kitchen is your happy place and you love beans, this book will help you put countless meatless meals on the table that will leave you delighted and satisfied.
- Spicy Ethiopian Red Lentil Dip (page 27)
- French Green Lentils with a Trio of Mustards (page 61)
- New Orleans Red Beans and Rice (page 106)
Remember when I said I wouldn’t send a kitchen newbie into Cool Beans? This is my top pick for the less experienced cook looking to add vegan dishes to their routine. In fact, I gave my own mother I Can Cook Vegan and there are several recipes here that she can now make with confidence. (We made some of them together via Zoom during the pandemic, and I think that helped her, too.)
Isa Chandra Moskowitz is a prolific cookbook author and this volume is her most recent. It reflects current sensibilities and approaches to plant-based cooking, and it’s written with the beginner in mind. It’s packed with foolproof basic recipes that you’ll turn to again and again along your plant-based journey.
The book is organized by broad categories like “pasta and noodles,” “soups and stews,” and “sweets,” which makes it easy to decide on a recipe. Unlike many vegan cookbooks, there are little to no special ingredients. You’ll find plenty of pantry-friendly meals you can put together with stuff you likely have on hand right now. The recipes are also weeknight-friendly so you’ll be able to get a home-cooked dinner on the table even in a time crunch.
- Broccoli Mac and Cheese (page 34)
- Cream of Mushroom Soup (page 124)
- Fluffy Quinoa Pancakes (page 270)
America’s Test Kitchen is famous for its fastidious approach to recipe testing and development, and this excellent cookbook is no exception. They call the recipes “foolproof” and it’s a claim you can take to the bank. If you always want to understand why one ingredient is used instead of another and the science behind what you’re cooking, this is the cookbook for you. The authors dive deep into the ins and outs of using aquafaba (aka chickpea liquid) as an egg replacer and why oat milk is the best non-dairy milk for baking.
As fans would expect from this brand, the recipes aren’t generally 30-minute meals. Many are project recipes, but I’ve yet to embark on one that wasn’t more than worth the time and effort required. Every step is spelled out in exacting detail, enabling even new cooks to take these recipes on.
I’ve served many of these dishes to groups of omnivores with no complaints and many second helpings (the lasagna is a real crowd-pleaser). For ATK loyalists and others who want a lot of information on the science of plant-based cooking, this book is an ideal entry point for all things vegan.
- Tortilla Soup (page 93)
- Hearty Vegetable Lasagna (page 190)
- Pan-Seared Tempeh Steaks with Chimichurri (page 206)
Several years before I went vegan, I bought this cookbook at a used bookstore on a whim for a couple of dollars. I’ve always enjoyed plant-based food as well as international recipes. But mostly it sat on my bookshelf—until the pandemic arrived and severely curtailed my restaurant visits. It was generally in restaurants that I enjoyed dishes from cultures around the planet.
Longing for ramen and finding a recipe here, I kicked off a love affair with this book in the winter of 2020 that is still ongoing. The recipes aren’t all quick or easy, but every one I’ve tried has been a complete success and very satisfying. The instructions are straightforward and clear enough for even a beginner home cook.
This is the perfect book for someone who likes to use a world of different spices and flavor profiles. People who are looking to dine less at restaurants and enjoy more home cooking would be happy with the recipes in this book. Terry Hope Romero writes in her introduction that “meat is just meat, the true building blocks of cuisine across the planet are the spices, herbs, and grains.” All of those plant-based elements and more are used to great effect in this treasure of a cookbook.
- Harissa Carrot Salad (page 106)
- Sauerkraut Mushroom Soup (page 130)
- Ramen Noodles in Soymilk Sesame Broth (page 226)