What’s the difference between a classic and a modern cookbook? It’s all in the recipes.
With so many modern cookbooks being released these days, it’s easy to be distracted by their glossy photos and slick book designs, only to be disappointed by their ho-hum recipes.
In contrast, a classic cookbook won’t likely have photos (and if there are any, the number of photos would be minimal). It’d also would be formatted in a simple and sensible lay-out. But the recipe collection? That’s where a classic book stands out from the crowd.
That’s because these recipes are reliable and have withstood the test of time These are the recipes that we grew up, the ones that our parents have come back over and over again through the years so that each page has earned its sauce stains and dog-eared corners as badges of honor.
It’s these books that we now come back to whenever we want to pass on to the next generation our family’s favorite recipes or teach our young ones basic cooking skills. These are the heirloom books that occupy an important place in our kitchens.
In this list, I’ve compiled the best of the classic cookbooks published in recent decades. Some of them will be familiar, probably because our parents probably used an earlier edition to cook our favorite childhood dishes. Taken all together, this is a fine selection of cookbooks that are filled with foolproof recipes and have a wealth of information useful for any beginner cook.
Here are my top ten classic cookbook must-haves.
Best Classic Cookbooks
- Joy of Cooking: 2019 Edition Fully Revised and Updated Hardcover
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I: 50th Anniversary Edition: A Cookbook Hardcover – Illustrated
- James Beard's American Cookery Hardcover – Illustrated
- Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking Hardcover – Illustrated
- The Taste of Country Cooking: The 30th Anniversary Edition of a Great Southern Classic Cookbook
- The Complete Asian Cookbook Hardcover
- The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: A Cookbook Hardcover – Illustrated
- Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts Hardcover
- Betty Crocker Cookbook, 12th Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Cook from Scratch Spiral-bound – Illustrated
- Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book Hardcover
1. Joy of Cooking: 2019 Edition Fully Revised and Updated Hardcover
This is the latest edition of a classic cookbook that has been updated by the author’s great-grandson and his wife. The legacy recipes have been improved and there are now more than 600 new recipes added. Every chapter has also been updated to reflect new ingredients and techniques used in home kitchens. Some new techniques that are featured include low-temperature and sous vide cooking, fermentation, and cooking with both traditional and electric pressure cookers.
There are new sections on streamlined cooking, party planning and drinks for entertaining. It also includes a index for the recipes which are vegan for easy reference.
Readers liked this book not only for the variety of recipes but also for the comprehensive reference information which they found useful. One liked that those recipes that required cans of soups have been replaced with whole food, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern recipes. Another noted that the party planning chapter was useful in generating more ideas for menus.
2. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I: 50th Anniversary Edition: A Cookbook Hardcover – Illustrated
This cookbook has 524 recipes accompanied with 100 helpful illustrations that teach anyone how to cook French food every step of the way.
It breaks down French cuisine into a logical sequence of essential recipes and techniques that are the foundation of Gallic cooking and then presents all the variations on these so that any reader will be able to make authentic French dishes using local ingredients and pantry staples in a typical American kitchen.
The instructions are well-written and easy to follow. Readers liked this book because it teaches a lot of technique so that one can develop French-inspired dishes easily. Another found it useful for improving his own cooking skills.
3. James Beard's American Cookery Hardcover – Illustrated
This book features more than 1,500 recipes that celebrate American-style cooking. This is a repackaged edition that features the original text and illustrations and has a new foreword.
Unlike the rest of the starter cookbooks in this list, this book presents its information in a “how-to” instruction format, including sections like how to cook an ear of corn and how to cook an egg. There is lots of useful information here since the author is considered a heavyweight in American cookery. The recipes, meanwhile, are all familiar American comfort food.
Readers liked this book because not only are the recipes interesting and reliable, they also illustrate the history of American cooking. One mentioned that this is his go-to cookbook for many entrees, soups, and desserts.
4. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking Hardcover – Illustrated
This volume brings together two of the author’s classic books on Italian cooking: The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. It has been updated to include 50 new recipes and several new sections.
This book is written as a manual for all cooks of any expertise so that they can easily recreate classic Itailian dishes using traditional techniques and authentic recipes. There are no photographs in this book; instead, illustrations have been added to demonstrate the techniques.
Readers liked the book for its fool-proof Italian traditional recipes. One called it “old school perfection”, with the explanations based on history and Italian culture and why every little thing is the way it is.
5. The Taste of Country Cooking: The 30th Anniversary Edition of a Great Southern Classic Cookbook
This is a commemorative edition of a classic cookbook that’s the forerunner of the farm-to-table cooking philosophy. It features recipes that celebrate the American country cooking style in the South.
This is part cookbook and memoir. The author grew up in a farming community settled by freed slaves and the menus featured in this book are the ways by which their community prepared and enjoyed fresh seasonal produce.
Recipes are presented according to seasons and use techniques and methods of cooking from the days of slavery and crop farming. Because these are old recipes, some of the ingredients may no longer be available. Readers, however, like it because it offers an engaging view into a food culture that’s not widely documented in culinary lore. Another said that recipes are timeless and rich in tradition.
6. The Complete Asian Cookbook Hardcover
This is the latest edition of a classic cookbook that features 800 classic and contemporary dishes from 15 countries in Asia. While most Asian cookbooks tend to concentrate on the dishes of a particular region, this one presents a representative meal to highlight each region in Asia.
The book describes a typical meal for each regional cuisine and lists the utensils and ingredients needed to replicate it in a home kitchen. There’s also a glossary that’s comprehensive in scope and describes exotic ingredients.
The recipes are written in a straightforward manner and are easy to follow. There is also information on how each local dish is prepared and served. This book will walk the newbie step-by-step through every recipe.
7. The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution: A Cookbook Hardcover – Illustrated
This book showcases 200 recipes that use fresh produce and rely on simple cooking techniques that bring out the best flavor and texture for the dish.
This book is meant to be read from beginning to end because it’s designed to help a newbie build a repertoire of culinary skills. The first part of the book teaches basic techniques like braising, roasting, steaming, etc, and features recipes that illustrate these techniques. The second part presents the recipes that are categorized according to meal types, from appetizers, soups, entrees, and such.
Recipes are detailed and are easy for anyone to follow. They also emphasize the use of local and fresh produce which is in line with the book’s mantra of eating locally and sustainably. Readers liked the book for its useful and practical advice on how to cook and plan your meals. One called this a real cookbook instead of a recipe book because it teaches one how to actually cook instead of relying on a recipe.
8. Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts Hardcover
This classic dessert cookbook features fool-proof recipes for blintzes, cakes, cheesecakes,cookies, cream puffs, crepes, pastries, popovers, puff pastry, pies, ice creams, and souffles.
The author is well known for the meticulousness of her recipes. As long as one follows the steps exactly as it’s written, the dessert will be successful. With a few exceptions, the recipes use ingredients that are easy to obtain and there’s enough range for the newbies and skilled cooks. There’s also a section on flourless recipes.
The book also gives you an overview of the essential equipment and pasty staples that one will need when making desserts. Readers liked this book for the reliability of the recipes.
9. Betty Crocker Cookbook, 12th Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Cook from Scratch Spiral-bound – Illustrated
In this 12th edition, classic recipes are joined by new ones as there are now 1,500 recipes in this selection which are accompanied by more than 1,000 photos.
There are now new and expanded chapters on one-dish meals, beverages, DIY foods, whole grains, and vegetarian cooking. Ingredients are now organized by region with corresponding color photos for easy identification. The skills and technique section now has hundred of how-to photos to aid the reader.
Recipes are labeled Calorie Smart and include nutritional information. Each recipe section has multiple categories, including sections on how to substitute for gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegetarian ingredients.
Readers recommend this book for learning the basic steps of cooking. They liked that the information presented is reliable enough to build one’s confidence in trying out the recipes and making substitution as needed.
10. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book Hardcover
This is the 17th hardcover edition of this classic and its recipes have now been updated to include more flavor variations and options for ingredient substitutions, as well as tips and recommendations for making dishes healthier. There are more than 1,000 recipes and each one is accompanied by a color photo.
The directions are written clearly and there is a lot of how-to-photos to illustrate cooking techniques. The ingredients have ID photos for easy reference and there are charts for meat and poultry cooking times.
Readers liked the cheat sheets all over the book which present useful cooking information in digestable lengths. One said that this is the most detailed and user-friendly of all the editions of this book.
JOY OF COOKING by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, revised by Ethan Becker, John Becker and Megan Scott
As classic recipes go, the ones in this book are almost everything that an average American home cook grew up. So if one is looking for a childhood dish, chances are it will be found in this book. This latest edition though has updated its recipe selection to reflects modern culinary tastes. It now includes familiar dishes from cuisines all over the world.
Readers like the fact that this book does not assume that the reader knows anything about cooking and so it presents recipes and techniques in a user-friendly manner. The information is organized well and it has a great index.
If you’re looking for a reliable all purpose cookbook that covers everything from emergency substitutions to complete banquet spreads, this book is an essential must-have in your kitchen library.