Bread, long described as the staff of life, apparently also is the cudgel of cookbook publishing. That sounds rather aggressive, but when the subtitle of one of the year's many bread books is "show the dough who's boss," you go with it.
The number of excellent bread cookbooks this year indicates that our love of loaves hasn't flagged. Even better, many in the current crop deepen our knowledge about ancient grains and flours and the role of breads in ethnic cultures. Several take on the demonization of gluten with a clearheadedness that's often absent in the debate.
"Crumb," by Richard Bertinet (Kyle, $34.99) — the one with the bossy subtitle — continues the superb tradition of his earlier volumes, "Dough" and "Crust." More than 40 recipes and dozens of photos fill the 224 pages, ranging from baguettes to English muffins to salted caramel brioches. Bertinet, known for his method of kneading dough, tries to make this book accessible to the new baker. But honestly, it's geared toward those with some experience. One clue: All recipes are measured in grams. (Time to finally buy that kitchen scale.)
In the same vein, Daniel Leader's "Living Bread: Tradition and Innovation in Artisan Bread Making" (Avery, $40) presumes experience. But Leader, a baking master, also rewards it, with almost 60 recipes such as curry tomato ciabatta, vegan brioche, 100% einkorn bread and chocolate sourdough babka. The first hundred of the book's 368 pages are devoted to a study of flours, techniques and his baking philosophy. Not only are his recipes measured in grams, Leader supplies the baker's percentages, placing this volume firmly in the realm of bakers who know their way around a banneton. This is an essential contribution to the world of bread.
Far more accessible is "Bread on the Table," by David Norman (Ten Speed Press, $35). Here are several dozen recipes sorted by French, Scandinavian, German and Italian roots — plus a chapter on the breads of Central Texas, where Norman lives and owns the Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. Hence, the smoked flour recipe. Recipes are by weight, but also volume, i.e., cups and teaspoons. Norman's instructions are conversational and encouraging. He also has roots in northern Minnesota and worked a stint at the long-gone Gelpe's Old World Bakery in Uptown Minneapolis. Hence, the lefse recipe.
Also deserving of mention: "Flour Lab: An At-Home Guide to Baking with Freshly Milled Grains," by Adam Leonti (Clarkson Potter, $35), is a deep exploration of the challenges and rewards of grinding your own flour for breads, pasta and pastries. Grain geeks, this one's for you.
Regional baked goods shine in Shauna Sever's "Midwest Made: Big, Bold Baking from the Heartland" (Running Press, $30.) She's collected and adapted more than 125 recipes such as Polish paczki, Danish kringle, Ozark skillet cake, Nebraskan runzas and sandbakkels. There's even a Jell-O-inspired dessert, but made with real gelatin and berries. She has the recipe for Chocolate Éclair Dessert in a 9- by 13-inch pan, and a tea loaf that tastes like a powdered sugar doughnut. A lot of yum in these pages.
The folks at America's Test Kitchen rarely are denied a spot on annual "best" lists. This year, they're offering "The Perfect Pie" (ATK, $35) as "the ultimate guide to classic and modern pies, tarts, galettes, and more." It's reliably exhaustive, loaded with product recommendations, touting all-butter crusts, while offering butter-shortening, vegan and gluten-free options, and inspirational with all sorts of top crust ideas among its more than 180 recipes. There's nothing wildly innovative here, but as expected, solid recipes gleaned from relentless testing.
Joanne Chang, the James Beard award-winning Outstanding Baker 2016 turns her attention to her favorite recipes, after four earlier highly praised cookbooks. "Pastry Love" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40) is a stunner, with 125 recipes that will make you want to head to the kitchen, with recipes the likes of Malted Chocolate Cake and Housemade Nutella Babka.
Gluten-free treats are no longer on the fringes of serious baking, thanks to more cookbooks such as "Gluten-Free Baking at Home," by Jeffrey Larsen (Ten Speed Press, $30), who has worked on a number of allergen-free cookbooks. This is his first solo effort. His mainstay flours are sorghum and oat, although he covers the gamut. Larsen also champions fruit and vegetable purées (and quality baby food) for boosting nutrition and flavor in his baked goods. Measurements are by weight and volume.
It's a tribute to the continuing popularity, and integrity, of "The Great British Bake Off" that each year now inspires books from certain contestants. "The New Way to Cake" is by Benjamina Ebuehi (Page Street Publishing, $21.99), a 2016 contestant who wowed judges with her surprising flavors that dial back the sweet. Golden Turmeric Cake, Plum and Black Pepper Cake, or Fig, Blackberry and Tahini Cake are among the 60 recipes that illustrate her Nigerian/London vibe.
Then there's "The Big Book of Amazing Cakes" (Clarkson Potter, $27.99), by the folks at "The Great British Baking Show," featuring the contestants of Season 10 (and more), along with recipes by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. No obscure technical challenges here, but lots of how-to techniques. And, despite all of the weighing shown on TV, the ingredients here are by volume. For the fan of "Ready, set, bake!"
A fresh take on classic recipes is the hallmark of this reissue of "The Last Course," by Claudia Fleming (Random House, $40), a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef. Working with Melissa Clark, Fleming and her desserts are inspiring and her methods encouraging throughout a whopping 175 recipes. Chapters are by ingredient: Berries, Stone Fruits, Herbs and Flowers, Vegetables, Chocolate, and so on. Beautifully photographed, this is a go-to resource for serious bakers.
The big finish here has to be "Tartine: A Classic Revisited" (Chronicle Books, $40) by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. Here are 68 new recipes and 55 updated favorites, with more than 25 gluten-free options from the original 2006 book. It includes the Tartine Morning Bun, which the California bakery claims is its most requested recipe. With measurements by weight and volume, the recipes range from "terribly challenging" canelés to classic thumbprint cookies. They're also seriously into matcha. While it lacks the how-to photography of most of the other books on this list, it's nevertheless an irresistible addition to the bookshelf.
Kim Ode, a former Star Tribune reporter, wrote "Baking Central" for a decade for the Taste section.