I love vintage cookbooks! They’re fascinating windows into kitchen practices and household management from the past. But some of the best vintage cookbooks are also still incredible cooking resources. These classic cookbooks, some of which are well-known and some of which aren’t, all have tons of useful, interesting and entertaining information for the modern cook. Here’s some of the best vintage cookbooks that I use all the time.
Where relevant, I’ve also included information on buying copies.
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1 – Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck
Published in 1961, this is one of the big heavies of classic cooking and it’s definitely one of the best vintage cookbooks. Julia Child is arguably one of the most famous food personalities and her books are a treasure. They’re written in a brisk but amusing manner. She does an excellent job of breaking even complex cooking techniques and recipes into manageable steps.
MAFC starts with a detailed glossary and overview of cooking tools and techniques. It then jumps into soups (Julia’s Potato Leek Soup is divine, by the way). From there, Chapter II covers the five mother sauces and expands into other classic sauces, including vinaigrettes, butter sauces and stocks. Because sauces are such an integral part of French cuisine, it makes sense that MAFC focuses on them. Frankly, it’s worth buying the entire book just for the sauce chapter. Julia then proceeds with souffles, quiches and puffs before giving meats, vegetables and desserts their turn.
Each dish is titled in English with a French translation. The text is in English and written for an American cook. Julia provides brief, relevant background information on dishes or ingredients and offers great advice on purchasing or selecting ingredients, including substitutions.
Why it’s one of the best vintage cookbooks:
MAFC breaks complex cooking into very manageable parts and is written in a very matter of fact and encouraging way. You never doubt for a second that you, too, will be able to whip up every recipe, no matter how elaborate it sounds. While each recipe is well-constructed and delicious, the emphasis is on technique and execution. I found this very helpful in learning good cookery. And it’s very easy to transfer the knowledge one gains from on preparation to other meals.
I learned and then perfected roasting a chicken from this cookbook. Julia’s method is top-notch and easy to replicate or adapt.
This is a very functional cookbook and it is text heavy. There are few illustrations, even in the 2016 reprint. Be prepared to turn the page to finish out the recipe and for the ingredients to be listed alongside rather than at the beginning. To get the most out of a recipe, it’s best to read through it several times first.
Not a downside, necessarily, but I wouldn’t suggest this as a starting point for a new cook. Julia explains each technique and step very well but it’s a lot of information to process. This is a great choice for someone with some kitchen experience who wants to learn new techniques and recipes.
One needs to have an appreciation for French food to really reap the benefits of this book, I think. Having said that, the fundamentals from these recipes are very transferable, especially the techniques for cooking meats and many of the vegetable preparations.
Where to Buy Mastering the Art of French Cooking:
The 2016 edition is a lovely, sturdy book that carefully copies the details from the original 1961 edition. If you want a true vintage edition, eBay generally has some listings.
There is a second volume (Master the Art of French Cooking Vol 2), which is filled with new recipes but which is not quite as accessible or universal as Volume 1. Both Volume 1 and the two volume set are available at the links below.
2 -The American Woman’s Cookbook – Ruth Berolzheimer
First published in 1938, this gem was revised and re-printed until at least the early 1950’s. My edition belonged to my grandmother and dates to 1941.
It’s full of recipes (one source suggests as many as 10,000, I confess I haven’t counted) and covers everything the vintage housewife needed. There are delightful sections on meal planning, table setting and serving (including suggestions for how to manage if you don’t have any servants). It also includes a genuinely fascinating appendix offering advice for cooking with World War II rationing.
From an actual cuisine standpoint, you’ll find recipes for things as basic as sandwiches and cereals to more complex dishes like chicken fricassee and stuffed pork chops. Then there are recipes for things like sweet-sour hearts (veal), smoked beef tongue, reindeer and tripe. Oh, and cottage cheese sandwiches. I freely admit I have not tried any of those recipes but if you do, let me know how they turn out!
Why it’s one of the best vintage cookbooks:
This is one of most comprehensive cookbooks I’ve ever seen. There are tons of recipes and they really run the gamut. If you are curious about cooking an unusual meat or organ or want to find a delicious vintage recipe (try the oyster omelette!), this is a great book. You’ll also find all of the mother sauces and pretty much every common American entree or side dish.
It’s also fantastic if you’re interested in vintage housekeeping. For me, that’s a significant part of the appeal to this cookbook,the window into history. Of course that’s not something the original author planned for but I think it’s an important part of vintage cookbooks.
Also, despite offering advice for the “servantless household”, this is actually a very down-to-Earth cookbook. It’s aimed at a solidly middle to lower-middle class housewife who has a limited grocery budget and is interested in feeding her family well, entertaining and setting an attractive and “proper” table. Ruth touches on household economy, meal planning and nutrition, food preservation, canning and re-purposing leftovers.
The recipes rely on whole foods and from-scratch cooking. This is probably one of the last cookbooks from the 20th century before the dominance of canned food, gelatin powder and pre-packaged convenience food took hold.
Like most very old cookbooks, this book expresses the viewpoint of its time – that women were the ones running households and doing all the cooking.
AWC also assumes the cook is reasonably familiar with cooking and food preparation. The recipes are brief, contain no images and do not emphasize technique, only directions. Despite that, the recipes are thorough, if succinct, and aren’t likely to leave the cook adrift. Be prepared for recipes that don’t always specify amounts of things. One is instructed to simply “add butter” and it’s assumed the cook will intuit how much butter should be dotted over the top of the assembled casserole. Note that quantities are always specified when an ingredient is to be mixed into the recipe, though.
Where to buy The American Woman’s Cookbook:
This is truly vintage, so eBay or Etsy are your best bets for picking up a copy. There are several editions spanning 1938-1950. The 1941 edition includes an appendix on war time rationing and how to compensate, which is very interesting.
Out of Kentucky Kitchens – Marion Flexner
I am a transplant to Louisville, KY and have called it home for the past decade. Naturally, I have an interest in our local and regional dishes and was very excited to find a copy of this cookbook, first published in 1949. Out of Kentucky Kitchens has been reprinted several times since then, with the most recent edition printed in 2012. Not as well-known (outside of Kentucky), I think it nevertheless belongs on any list of the best vintage cookbooks.
My copy is from 1949 and includes a preface from Duncan Hines. Candidly, I thought Duncan Hines was yet another fictional food company mascot until I read this cookbook. But it turns out Mr. Hines was a real person, a “well-known gourmet” and resident of Kentucky, making him a suitable choice for this cookbook introduction, I suppose.
Out of Kentucky Kitchen is a regional heritage cookbook, filled with traditional southern recipes as well as Kentucky originals like the Hot Brown Sandwich (it turns out there is ALSO a Cold Brown Sandwich, another discovery). For those readers who aren’t from the Bluegrass state, the Hot Brown in an iconic open-faced sandwich first served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. It’s two pieces of bread or toast topped with turkey, cheese sauce and eight slices of bacon. You can see why it’s so popular, though I must confess that I have never eaten one. Suffice to say, the Hot Brown is the food equivalent of the Mint Julep when it comes to Kentucky associations.
The book is filled with tidbits about Kentucky personalities and events. The recipes are excellent, and often have attributions to local figures. It does include party and event menus and has a lengthy section on pickles and preserves. As a note, while the canning recipes look delicious, they are not considered safe to can as written. They are sealed using paraffin rather than a water bath or pressure canner, which doesn’t adequately prevent spoilage or botulism. There are some excellent punch recipes and the dessert section is one of the best I’ve ever seen. At almost 100 pages, it makes up a full third of the book and there are some fantastic recipes. Even if you’re not interested in vintage cookbooks or southern cuisine, you may want a copy just for the desserts.
Why it’s one of the best vintage cookbooks:
This book is quite large and provides a truly comprehensive dive into Kentucky/Southern cuisine. Included are iconic dishes like beer cheese (supposedly created in Kentucky), Benedictine, Henry Bane sauce, the Hot Brown as mentioned, bourbon balls and bourbon-pecan pie. If you want to find an unusual or iconic southern dish for your next dinner party, this is a great place to look. The recipes are generally excellent and Marion’s genuine love of cooking and attention to detail is very much in evidence, as is her love of Kentucky. As mentioned above, if you’re into desserts, you’ll probably want a copy of this book. This is also a great choice if you want to create a Kentucky themed menu for your Derby party.
Although Out of Kentucky Kitchens includes a few references to “vittals” and country cooking, it definitely skews to the fancier side of southern cuisine. There are very few illustrations and a certain comfort in the kitchen is assumed and expected. The canning recipes would not be considered safe by modern canning safety standards.
Where to buy Out of Kentucky Kitchens
If you want a truly vintage copy, eBay or Etsy.
This is the 2010 edition, available for purchase on Amazon and other retail websites.
The Joy of Cooking – Irma Rombauer
I don’t think it’s even legal to have an article about the best vintage cookbooks and not include The Joy of Cooking. Irma wrote the first edition in 1931 and it has pretty much been in print ever since, with the most recent edition dating to 2019.
It’s hard to find a more comprehensive cookbook. JoC covers nutrition and meal planning and has a fantastic chapter on hosting and entertaining. It includes both detailed instructional sections and an enormous and thorough catalog of recipes. Reader, there’s even a menu suggestion for a backpacking trip. There is a wonderful chapter on drinks which includes an array of punches and soft drinks as well recipes for all the classic cocktails. You won’t just learn how to make a canape in JoC, you’ll also learn how to make it look like a flower. If you’re interested in knowing how to cook well and want a huge range of dishes at your disposal, this is your book.
Why it’s one of the best vintage cookbooks:
The sheer scope of The Joy of Cooking is incredible. It’s also very well-organized, by food type and then by preparation. If you’re the type of cook who looks at their ingredients at hand and thinks “what should I do with this spinach?”, JoC is a great resource. Likewise, it’s also top notch if you want a really solid and reliable recipe for just about any common American dish at hand. Like I said, if you’re only going to have one cookbook, this is the obvious choice.
Like the first two books, there are minimal visuals and those that are present are black and white line drawings. I’ve praised JoC for it’s scale but that could be a drawback for some cooks. There is a LOT in this book and if you’re just starting out or aren’t looking for a huge repository of recipes, JoC could end up being overwhelming or distracting. I do think it’s written in a very beginner-friendly manner, though, so don’t let the size of the thing scare you off. The recipes themselves are short and to the point but there is a lot of supplemental information included and it does a great job of filling in the blanks. If you’re an experienced cook, this format makes it easier to skip straight to the recipe, which can be nice.
Where to Buy It:
If you want a vintage edition, try eBay or Etsy. Or ask your mom or grandma – my copy is from 1971 and it was my grandmother-in-law’s. I have a feeling there’s a lot of copies of JoC languishing in cabinets and attics.
The 2019 edition looks very sharp but I haven’t taken it for a spin in person.
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