In the early days of cookbooks, recipes were more art than science and contained helpful instructions like “cook until done.” By the 1890s, recipes were becoming more standardized due to the influence of cooks like Fanny Farmer and the “domestic sciences” movement. By the 1920s, electric refrigerators and temperature regulated ovens made it possible to develop more precise instructions. The basic format evolved from a chatty, narrative style into an ingredients list with precise measurements, followed by a paragraph of instructions.
By the late 1940s, the fictional Betty Crocker further refined the modern recipe with illustrations and step-by-step instructions. The groundbreaking “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook” (also known as “Big Red”) was published in 1950 and remains one of the most popular cookbooks of all times. Here’s a peek inside some vintage cookbooks, showing how recipes have changed over the last 100+ years.
“The Vest Pocket Pastry Book” (1905)
Note the short, paragraph-style recipes; instructions were minimal and lacked oven temperatures or precise cooking times.
“Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners” (1928)
Note the reminder “All measurements are level” – such scientific precision in recipes was spearheaded by Fanny Farmer of the Boston Cooking School.
“Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook” (1950)
This groundbreaking cookbook combined a modern recipe format with clear illustrations and step-by-step instructions. In addition to being useful, it’s a sentimental favorite among cooks whose mothers or grandmothers cooked family dinners from it. It’s no wonder it remains one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time!