For our body size, humans exhibit higher energy use yet reduced structures for mastication and digestion of food compared to chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. This suite of features suggests that humans are adapted to a high-quality diet. Although increased consumption of meat during human evolution certainly contributed to dietary quality, meat-eating alone appears to be insufficient to support the evolution of these traits, because modern humans fare poorly on raw diets that include meat. Here, we suggest that cooking confers physical and chemical benefits to food that are consistent with observed human dietary adaptations. We review evidence showing that cooking facilitates mastication, increases digestibility, and otherwise improves the net energy value of plant and animal foods regularly consumed by humans. We also address the likelihood that cooking was adopted more than 250,000 years ago (kya), a period that we believe is sufficient in length for the proposed adaptations to have occurred. Additional experimental work is needed to help discriminate the relative contributions of cooking, meat eating, and other innovations such as nonthermal food processing in supporting the human transition toward dietary quality.