We can all agree that ordinary cooking is somewhat dull, at least if you do it daily. But did you know soul food cooking style can really set the thing on a different course? That’s true, given the deep Southern food history that spans over 400 years back. That may sound like a daunting task to even attempt, but with the best soul food cookbooks, you are assured of success, no matter what skill level you might be at.
Even with so many cookbooks in the market already, finding an ideal one isn’t easy. You may end up trashing it somewhere in your pantry, never to turn a page again. In this soul food cookbook review, I will take you through the 7 best cookbooks that both novices and pros can use without referring to the internet for some unfamiliar jargon or getting lost within some confusing chapters.
Why Do You Need A Soul Food Cookbook?
Seasoned soul food experts may not realize the full advantage of owning a cookbook on this type of cooking, but an absolute beginner will only go so far before giving up. Nevertheless, even experienced chefs have needed advice and tips from others before them. Here are some reasons lesser-known reasons why you should have a soul food cookbook:
Soul Food Recipes Are Difficult To memorize
Unless you are experienced, carrying every soul food recipe by your memory will be hard. A cookbook ensures you always have a reference whenever you are unsure of anything.
It also makes more sense to have a printed copy, either hardcover or paperback, that you can store in the pantry. Sometimes things get messy in the kitchen, and a smart device wouldn’t be ideal to refer from.
You can avoid making mistakes
Soul food cooking is a delicate game, where you can make many mistakes. Reading a cookbook allows you to learn tips and hacks to the perfect meal while avoiding mistakes others have made.
A soul food cookbook teaches you more than just recipes
This is also a consideration you should make when selecting a cookbook. Ensure the guide doesn’t cover only recipes but all the aspects of soul food you are interested in.
As mentioned above, good cookbooks share all or most of the aspects of soul food, in addition to recipes.
A cookbook gives you unlimited access to information, unlike consulting from a professional
Consulting from others with experience is indeed the easiest and shortest route to learning the art of soul food, but if you have constantly bombarded them with questions, they’ll probably not like it.
You need a friend, such as a good cookbook, to always refer from, without fear of judgment or nagging feeling.
Interesting Facts About Soul Food
You now understand why you need a soul food cookbook by your side, but do you know what makes this type of cooking so unique? Here are some exciting things you should know before even getting into the actual cooking:
- What does ‘soul food’ refer to exactly?
The term ‘soul food’ usually refers to the cuisines of African American origin, found in the interior parts of the Deep South. This was the cuisine left behind during The Great Migration when African Americans left the interior region to the North, Midwest, and West areas.
The left-behind cuisine is often a combination of West African, American, and Western European traditions. However, another iteration of this cooking is found in Georgia and South Carolina. It’s referred to as the Creole cuisine of Louisiana in that state or simply the low-country cuisine of Georgia and South Carolina.
- The term soul food’ was coined in the ’60s
It was not until the ’50s and ’60s that soul food came to the limelight, a time when black cultural identity and expression were at their peak. The term is closely related to gospel sound around jazz music that came to be applied in almost all aspects of black culture. It all began with ‘soul music,’ proceeded to ‘soul brother’ and ‘soul sister,’ and then to ‘soul food.’
- What’s inclusive in a soul food meal?
There are 5 parts crucial to soul food. These include sides, entrees, cornbread, desserts, and beverages.
Sides: Possibly the most integral part of a soul food meal, including macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, stewed veggies (like cabbage, turnip, collard greens, mustard, and kale), and candied yams, which are primarily dark-fleshed sweet potatoes.
Entrees: Entrees are responsible for the meaty flavor in soul food. They can include fried fish, fried or smothered chicken, or even smothered chop pork or chitlins (swine intestines).
Cornbread: Square, muffins, or sliced cornbread adds bulk to the soul food.
Desserts: As with every other great and complete meal, soul food needs a dessert accompaniment. Popular options include peach cobbler, banana pudding, sweet potato pie, and pound cake.
Beverages: There’s a beverage typical of all soul food- red drink. This is a red-colored drink, not a typical signature in southern cuisine.
- Soul food is not the same thing as Southern food
Contrary to the widespread and erratic misrepresentation, soul food is not the Southern food you know. Although the two meals share a lot in prep and cooking techniques and ingredients, they ultimately perform differently.
Typical to black culture, soul food is more intensely flavored due to a higher amount of salt, fat, and spices. This makes soul food sweeter than Southern food. The original soul food was also characterized by turkey necks, ham hocks, and oxtails, which gave it an even more distinct flavor profile.
- Soul food comes in 3 different types
The traditional soul food has, over time, evolved into three subgroups, namely; Down Home Healthy, Vegan soul food, and Upscale Soul.
Down Home Healthy substitutes lard with vegetable oil or margarine, pork with smoked turkey, and other sweet substitutes instead of sugar.
The upscale soul can be seen as a direct contrast to Down Home Healthy. Here, extravagant ingredients like heritage meat, duck fat, and heirloom vegetables come into play.
Vegan soul food is the last and probably the newest sub-cuisine. As the name suggests, it’s vegan-friendly, which might not seem typical of a soul food meal. Instead of meat being a primary source of flavor, the sub-cuisine follows the way of life of enslaved African Americans who consumed a largely vegetarian diet, with tiny dried, smoked and salted meat pieces as seasoning. By far, vegan soul food seems to retain the most traditional aspect of the cuisine.
- There’s still some criticism around soul food
As much as some people are critical of soul food, it’s for two reasons. Given the distinct look of an overflowing greasily-fried and syrupy-sweet soul food, some have suggested that the food should come with a label that ‘you can die if you eat it regularly.’
But if you look at the major ingredients, leafy greens, fish, sweet potatoes, and legumes, soul food doesn’t really depart from what nutritionists encourage us to eat. You may only need to alter preparation methods by, for example, baking meats instead of frying them, or you could skip the meats altogether and stick with the veggies.
The other criticized point suggests that soul food is ‘slave food’ or poverty food’ and shouldn’t be celebrated. But would you say the same considering that Queen Elizabeth I and King Richard II had their royal cooks make macaroni and cheese for them? How about Henry VII, who loved sweet potato pie with chitlins?
- What cities are soul food centers?
Since soul food inception, Atlanta in the South has remained the home to soul food, including the three sub-cuisines of the dish. Other popular cities outside the South with the soul food scene include NYC, San Francisco Bay Area, and Chicago.
- You can easily get started making soul food right at home
Due to the negative publicity surrounding this meal and notions like soul food should be cheap and served in plenty, the culinary culture is slowly dying. This demise is further accelerated because most soul food restaurant founders are exiting the game by retiring or passing, with only a handful of their children and staff willing to carry on the culture.
You can have a taste of soul food at home, thanks to several cookbooks published on this culinary art. What’s more? You get to preserve and possibly pass down the culture to your kids, should they get interested.
The 7 Best Soul Food Cookbooks Reviews
There are already tens if not hundreds of soul food cookbooks published. Nevertheless, not all of them are created the same. Some are more elaborate and simple to follow through, while others depict the most profound aspects of this food tradition.
In this review, I will share the 7 best soul food cookbooks that I’ve found most useful for beginners and accomplished home cooks. Ready to learn the soul food magic? Let’s dive in!
1. I Heart Soul Food: 100 Southern Comfort Food Favorites by Rosie Mayes
One thing that comes to mind whenever Rosie Mayes is mentioned, the iconic I Heart Recipes. Rosie is also a celebrated home cook, but that’s not all. She grew up learning from her mom, which afforded her access to a rich soul food background, in addition to the cooking.
In this cookbook, Rosie splashes the secret of southern soul food cooking, ensuring you learn not only the recipes but also the reason why a particular ingredient combines better with another and such. Get into the ins and outs of classics like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and collard greens, all of which form the foundation to an authentic soul food recipe. You also earn how to incorporate fried ribs and sweet potato biscuits into the meal for the perfect soul vibe.
You don’t have to constantly go the Upscale Soul way- I Heart Soul Food recipes are authentic and approachable, and you can buy the ingredients from a single store. That’s how convenient the cookbook is without sacrificing the signature savory flavor of a soul meal. Call it the perfect Sunday supper meal, though you can still make it a main for any other celebration.
I Heart Soul Food is organized by meals, covering over 100 recipes. The first few pages include favorites like Blueberry Cornbread Waffles and Shrimp and Andouille Sausage and Grits. If you prefer making main dishes as soul, the cookbook is even more promising with Oxtail Stew, Sweet Cornbread, Smothered Chicken, Soul Food Collard Greens, Baked Candied Yam, and other sides.
Within the 259 pages, Rosie also discusses drinks and desserts to accompany the meal. Do you prefer peach cobbler? Or is sweet iced tea and pralines preferable for you? Learn all this, including her 70+ custom soul recipes that any expert would try out.
What we like:
- Instruction is approachable and easy to follow
- Ingredients are available in all grocery stores
- Includes over 70 new recipes and 30 favorite ones
- Recipes are accompanied by over 90 photographs for clear illustrations
- Available in both Kindle and paperback version
- Fairly priced
2. Vegan Soul Food Cookbook: Plant-Based, No-Fuss Southern Favorites by Nadira Jenkins-El
You rarely hear of classic soul foods without Nadira Jenkins around it. Also, if you want to enjoy the same richness and satisfaction of soul food while keeping it vegan/ vegetarian, this is the author you should search for instead of just cookbooks.
In this cookbook, Jenkins promises and delivers exciting your taste buds with plant-based soul recipes that are unbelievable savory to be vegan. Vegan Soul Food Cookbook even includes Cajun Fried ‘Chicken,’ bound to bring out furry in any vegan or vegetarian, only for them to find out it’s totally vegan! The taste is, however, that of fried chicken in soul.
Some other favorites include Gumbo and Biscuits and Gravy, all of which are reminiscent of the soul food boom in the ’50s and ’60s.In total, Vegan Soul Food Cookbook has 101 intricately modified soul food staples that infuse a modern touch into the traditional soul food vibe while keeping it vegan.
Worried about where to source ingredients? Not with this cookbook. Despite the intricacies involved, you can buy every component under a single roof, making the recipes not only accessible but also hassle-free to try out.
If you are an aspiring vegan but don’t know what veganism is all about, you can learn that from a cookbook! Not many, though, but Vegan Soul Food Cookbook is one of the few to accomplish it. Learn about the basics of going vegan, benefits to both the environment and health, and how to veganize comfort foods.
What we like:
- Easy to follow vegan recipes for beginners and pros
- Recipes are based on easily accessible and inexpensive ingredients
- Includes a crash course on going vegan
- Affordable price
- Available in multiple versions, including Kindle, paperback, hardcover, and spiral-bound
3. Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration by Carla Hall
In a stunning 336-page cookbook, ABC’s Emmy Award-winning Carla dives straight into her traditional Nashville roots to detail America’s favorite comfort cuisine- the soul food. Notably, Carla is also a TV chef and a fan favorite on Bravo’s Top Chef, giving her the authenticity a soul food author would ever need.
Through this cookbook, we can easily trace back the history of soul food, which according to the book, originated from Africa, into the Caribbean, and finally the American South. There is no better way to learn about a subject than to dig deep into its history or source, an approach that makes Carla Hall’s Soul Food such an enjoyable read.
With extra focus on traditional plant-based cuisines, the cookbook brings out vibrant veggie goodness, just as good as you find in fried chicken and cornbread soul food variants. This book proves barbecue, cheese, and mac are not the only savories we can ever enjoy as comfort foods.
Some incredible Southern recipes include:
- Tomato Pie with Garlic Bread Crust
- Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Hot Sauce Vinaigrette
- Field Peas with Country Ham
- Sweet Potato Pudding with Clementines
- Cracked Shrimp with Comeback Sauce
- Poured Caramel Cake
- Roasted Cauliflower with Raisins and Lemon-Pepper Millet
These are just some of the many ways you can indulge in rich celebration foods, courtesy of Carla Hall’s Soul Food. Still, you can incorporate buttermilk biscuits and deviled eggs in the mix for a different taste. Nashville hot fried chicken and decadent coconut cream layer cake are favorites you shouldn’t miss out on.
Grab this 145-recipe cookbook with beautiful illustrations, and transform your perception of soul food and all about it.
What we like:
- Recipes are illustrated with beautiful photographs
- Contains as many as 145 original soul food recipes
- Includes a history of the soul food cuisine, making the book more interesting to read through
- Authored by an award-winning TV chef
- Available in Kindle, audiobook, hardcover, and MP 3 CD versions
4. The Twisted Soul Cookbook: Modern Soul Food with Global Flavors by Deborah VanTrece
Comfort foods are not ideally ‘comfort’ without a touch of uniqueness. This must have been the motivation behind Deborah’s The Twisted Soul Cookbook, whereClassic comfort foods elevate to astounding dishes worthy of your celebration through the cookbook.
It could be Deborah’s Kansas City background, or it could be her comprehensive travel, or still her career in the state of Atlanta responsible for her way with food. Either way, one thing is sure—she’s incredibly good with food preparation and presentation. Combine these skills with her love for soulful recipes, love for culture, and tradition, and you get one of the best soul food cookbooks ever in history.
Deborah asserts from her previous cookbook that soul cooking is just as versatile as California cuisine while still impressive, like the French technique. She describes this as seasonally powered as La CucinaPovera. In her able and experienced hands, common ingredients transform into dynamic dishes in a dramatic style, resulting in surprisingly twisted classic recipes.
The Twisted Soul Cookbook features exciting photography alongside numerous recipes. Deborah covers fresh salads, side dishes, and the main course, incorporating sassy desserts, seafood, pantry staples, sauces, relishes, and dressings, all in an everyday cooking style. She delivers these recipes in a storytelling manner attributed to her teaching career.
What we like:
- Explicitly laid out steps and instructions
- Vibrant photography illustrating each recipe
- Has over 100 recipes surrounding soul food cooking
- Simple ingredients that can be found in all grocery stores
- Simple enough for beginners, yet sophisticated for pros who want to push their limits a bar higher
5. The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook by Marcus Samuelson
The Rise is not an ordinary cookbook. First, it was voted as Eater’s best cookbook of fall 2020. It’s still authored by a best-selling author cum TV star—Marcus Samuelson. As if that’s not enough, the book goes on to detail 150 recipes in a contemporary manner, themed on celebrating Black cooking.
Another reason this book is not like any other is its delivery. We all know black authorship has not progressed as fast as other worlds like music, art, sports, and film. This alone seems to have been the motivating factor for Samuelson to put the cookbook together.
The Rise brings together feast food, culture, and Black history in a modern cooking guide. In his quest to overcome bias and revive black cooking traditions while pumping fresh energy into a new cooking generation, Samuelson puts down his history, coupled with the 150 mouthwatering recipes. These recipes are inspired by activists, top chefs, and writers. This is also why you find snippets of these icons’ creativity and influence along with the recipes they inspired.
This is a cookbook you really don’t want to miss out on if your focus is not just soul food but also the origin and history of the culture. You’ll learn the African roots of soul food, how it traveled to the Caribbean and spread across southern America. You’ll learn celebration cooking of everyday meals, as well as unique recipes including:
- Tigernut custard tart served alongside poached pears to honor Toni Tipton-Martin
- Island jollof rice on Eric Adjepong honor
- Crab curry with mustard greens and yams
- Steak frites with green vinaigrette and plantain chips.
- Grilled ribs with saffron tapioca pudding and marinade, among others
What we like:
- Beautifully illustrated recipes
- Pays tribute to iconic black culture personalities
- Affordable price
- Available in kindle and hardcover versions
6. Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook: Soulful Southern Recipes, from My Family to Yours by Robbie Montgomery and Tim Norman
In just 224 pages, Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook tells the tale of the renowned restaurant by that same name. Robbie is also the star in Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s reality show, where you learn about soul food recipes. Now forget about the show, and think of every detail about soul food, put down on a nicely illustrated cookbook—that’s what Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook is all about.
As a child who learned most of her culinary skills from her mother, Robbie is one of the most experienced surviving soul food ambassadors and cooks. She’s 72 at the time of writing this, which means her experience is near unmatched. She has been through generations, witnessing culture change around soul cooking, and is now the nearest person to a soul encyclopedia.
The cookbook details recipes to prepare her special meals like salmon croquettes and smothered pork chips while throwing in humorous narrations of her life. There is no better description for Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook than the book itself.
Grab a copy today and immerse yourself in the skills of a legend who began her career at the same time when soul food was booming!
What we like:
- Humorous narrations make the book so fun to read
- Easy to follow foolproof recipe descriptions
- Beautifully illustrated recipes to give you a glimpse of the end product
- Fairly priced
- Available in Kindle and hardcover and paperback print versions
7. Keto Soul Food Cookbook: Homestyle Favorites to Enjoy on the Ketogenic Diet by Marrekus Wilkes and Krysten Wilkes
You are on a keto diet, but the soul food temptation is so high—what option do you have? Meager, you’d say, but that’s not entirely true. Armed with Keto Soul Food Cookbook, you’ll discover much more about keto than just ketogenic soul food recipes. If you also want to just eat healthier, this is the soul cookbook to learn from, without sacrificing the traditional cooking style, the texture, or the flavor of a soul food meal.
Keto Soul Food Cookbook introduces you to keto cooking, the basics of a keto diet, and the working principle while offering actionable advice on adapting classic soul food to a ketogenic diet. You also discover how to best stock your pantry to make the whole idea workable.
A keto diet is obviously a conscious one, especially nutrition-wise. Keto Soul Food Cookbook includes nutritional calculations for every recipe, so you remain within your health goals while enjoying the satisfaction of soul food.
What we like:
- Focused on a ketogenic diet
- Contains some of the healthiest soul food recipes
- Available in both soft and hard copy versions
- Very affordable
Soul food is truly food for the soul, and there is no better way to enjoy it than to make your own variations, just as you prefer. The above are the 7 best soul food cookbooks that an absolute beginner can take advantage of and contend with the pros. Alongside the interesting facts you’ll learn in those books, there are also tips for making other meals.
Get yours today, and you might just have found a new hobby.
Jennifer D. Simon has spent the last 26 years studying and practicing nutrition science. She has used a larger part of this time in improving people’s livelihoods. She has done so by coming up with unquestionable ideas on how to tackle food problems in her community. Read More