These Classic Retro Cookbooks Are Still Indispensable

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In the age of the internet, one might think that cookbooks would have become a relic of the past, and yet the genre is as strong as ever, with crisp tomes by new culinary voices published weekly. In the digital age cooking itself remains blessedly, stubbornly analog. Even with the dawn of molecular gastronomy and all manner of gadgets to simplify and speed up various processes, at the end of the day, you still gotta roll up your sleeves and make a little mess if you want to make dinner for yourself. 


Cookbooks have and will continue to be our partners-in-crime for the process, their dog-eared corners and sauce-splattered pages like a diary, reminding us of the times that we showed up and did a thing. I celebrate each and every new cookbook that manages to drown out the digital noise and make its way into published existence, but let's not forget about those books and instructors whose voices have been with us for generations, and still have much wisdom to impart.

Joy of Cooking

There are about a billion reasons to own this classic American cookbook, but let's focus on a few. One: The New York Public Library named it one of the 150 most influential books — not just cookbooks — of the 20th century. Two: It served to inspire the goddess Julia Child herself in her pursuit of a French cooking book. But for me, it's point number three that makes it most worthy of a space on my kitchen shelf: Its very title reminds us that cooking is supposed to be fun. It's the "Joy of Cooking," not the "Drudgery of Cooking" or the "Guilt About Spending Money Dining Out of Cooking." Originally published in 2006, it retains the original voice of the author, and there is a joy to be found even in the table of contents, with sections including "Griddle Cakes and Fritter Variations" and "Poultry and Wildfowl." 


Purchase "Joy of Cooking" for $21.99 on Amazon.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

The cookbook that inspired everything — the genesis of cooking television, a tribute blog, a major motion picture. So let it, outfitted in its simple, fleur-de-lis-clad glory, continue to inspire you. Sure, you can look up hundreds, if not thousands, of Boeuf Bourguignon recipes online, but will your process have the appropriate je ne sais quoi factor without this book propped open on the counter, and the quirky falsetto of Julia herself whispering in your ear?


Purchase the two-volume set of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" for $49.94 on Amazon.

Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook

It is the red gingham of this book that conjures my own earliest kitchen memories and comforts me with its ongoing commitment to practicality — the spiral-bound inside, the category tabs, the helpful introductory sections on measuring and ratios, the photo series that delineate everything from pasta shapes to cuts of beef. Even though each edition has added new recipes to stay contemporary and relevant, it hasn't lost sight of its roots, and it's what I want to reach for when the urge for classic comfort foods like scalloped potatoes or pot roast strikes.


Purchase "Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook" for $9.99 on Amazon.

The Moosewood Cookbook

Long before "local" and "seasonal" became principals that modern American cooks dared aspire to, Katzen's Moosewood Café and corresponding cookbooks had fervent fans who were committed to those very ideals, presented through Katzen's imaginative approach to vegetarian cuisine. "The Moosewood Cookbook," now in its 40th Anniversary edition, still has much to show us about what to do with what we grow, showcased in a charming, hand-written, and illustrated format.


Purchase "The Moosewood Cookbook" for $17.26 on Amazon. 

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

What Julia Child did for French cuisine in the U.S., Marcella Hazan did for Italian. Well, sort of. While Child brought the complexity and richness of classic French foods to Americans who were altogether unfamiliar with it, Hazan brought an upgraded, often lighter, and more nuanced version of Italian food to a culture that knew it only for its most robust, heavily red-sauced dishes. Hazan's simple but genius basic tomato sauce, a three-ingredient masterpiece, sets the tone for a volume whose lessons on taste and texture through an Italian lens are numerous.


Purchase "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" for $32.96 on Amazon.

How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food

Putting a book originally published in 1998 in a "Retro/Classic" roundup makes me feel the same way as when I hear 90s music on an "oldies" radio station. But it's no disrespect to Mr. Bittman, rather the opposite. His eye-opening, page-turning, less-is-more approach to simplicity is the modern classic the world needed, in 1998 just as now.


Purchase "How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food" for $37.23 on Amazon. 

Betty Crocker Cookbook

She's America's original cooking sweetheart. Before there was Ina Garten, there was Betty. Before there was Julia Child, there was Betty. She was born in the "Saturday Evening Post" in 1921 and has remained a cultural icon synonymous with the American kitchen ever since, adapting her image as needed like any true icon should. Even with a line of "store-bought" convenience products bearing her name, Betty always wants you to feel like you're cooking from scratch, and armed with her cookbook, you are well equipped to do so.


Purchase the "Betty Crocker Cookbook" for $15.89 on Amazon.