In 1950, when the iconic Betty Crocker Cookbook was first published, those “famous tested recipes” included jellied consommé and pot roast, Tuna Supreme and a “delicately refreshing” molded garden salad with lemon gelatin and cauliflower florets. Vegetables existed as a sidekick for meat. Cocktails were perfect “for a weary husband when he comes home at night.”
The mega-bestseller was meant as an all-encompassing kitchen guide, a friendly and essential handbook.
The book’s core mission is not much changed a few generations later. But America is a different place — different from its publicly projected image in that era, different from how it truly was.
The 13th edition of the cookbook, the first update since 2016, includes loaded kimchi fries as well as deviled eggs, a “classic baba ghanoush” along with a classic cheese ball. One variation on sloppy Joes relies on red lentils (purists breathe easy; another option is sloppy Joe casserole using ground beef and frozen Tater Tots). Homemade oat milk is on the list, as is home-brewed kombucha. Multicookers (like an Instant Pot) and air fryers now exist in Betty’s universe.
It’s “a big reset,” said Cathy Swanson Wheaton, executive editor of cookbooks at General Mills, the icon’s home. Nearly 400 of the book’s 1,300-plus recipes are new, plus added focuses like meatless mains and five-ingredient recipes and tips on avoiding food waste.
“People’s taste palates have definitely changed …” Wheaton said. “There are just so many other ingredients that people are aware of now, but they’re not necessarily sure how to use them in their own kitchen, like miso or harissa.”
The wider lens isn’t just for ingredients, though.
The original brown-haired Betty with the neat signature and motherly wisdom was a corporate creation, one meant to strengthen sales of Gold Medal Flour (and, eventually, mixes like Bisquick). The Washburn-Crosby Company, a predecessor to General Mills, invented Betty to answer pleas for cooking advice that poured into the company in 1921, according to “Finding Betty Crocker,” a 2005 book by Susan Marks. A long-lived radio show further elevated Betty to new status as a national authority on food, Marks wrote.
When the cookbook (then titled “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book”) arrived it was a remarkable production that took 10 years of planning and three years of project development, wrote Marks.
It was loaded with photo guides and classic cookies and cakes and practical homemaking tips — some unsettling to the modern eye, like the illustrated advice to lie down on the floor and nap a few moments if housework got too tiring.
The book was also a raging success. Lit Hub lists it as the bestselling nonfiction book of the year for 1950. The Daily Meal ranks it as the bestselling cookbook of all time, saying it “shaped the way generations of people cooked.”
Updating it is a significant responsibility. New editions typically arrive every five to seven years, reflecting how quickly the way people cook is changing.
Wheaton worked more than four years on the project with a team of recipe developers, backed by professional test kitchens, food stylists and a photo studio.
“We pick apart everything. Is that the right bowl size for mixing those ingredients? Did you mean spread that batter or do you really pour it? Is the title really reflective of what the recipe is? Every little nuanced thing is looked at to try to make it easy for anybody who doesn’t cook, even, to be able to figure it out and be successful.”
(COVID-19 threw a wrench in their preparations when it hit partway into the first photography session; a test batch of kombucha was left brewing in the closet during their three-month shutdown. It did not explode, but they did not drink it either.)
Wheaton, who has degrees in food science and food and nutrition in business, has worked on Betty Crocker products most of her career and developed hundreds of recipes. She started this cookbook update by “doing the Julie and Julia thing,” cooking her way through book recipes she wasn’t familiar with and asking, “What are the basics that need to be there?”
The answer included evergreen material like roasting a turkey or making the best chocolate chip cookies. “Our banana bread is phenomenal. It’s been in every single edition of our Big Red,” she said. Some fundamental flavors were off-limits for tweaks: “People expect a meatloaf to taste like a meatloaf, right?”
Other recipes were updated with more efficient techniques or replaced by ones that better reflected current taste trends and a wider range of possible ingredients, like the jackfruit that subs for pulled pork in a new vegetarian taco. “I think we have some recipes that are familiar to people on one hand, but we’ve modernized them for the way people are wanting to eat today.”
Then came new recipes, techniques and philosophies to fill the modern-day gaps.
“Unlike social sites that are pretty much instantaneous, I have to project trends,” Wheaton said. “A lot of that comes from seeing what’s happening in restaurants or food service, because if people get familiar with it because they’re eating out than they’ll want to know how to make it at home.”
It’s a factor not just for ingredients, but audience.
“Betty Crocker has always been about trying to make it easy for anyone to cook,” Wheaton said.
Ingredients had to be available in a large local grocery store to be included — but that covers a range now that was unimaginable in the 1950s. Betty Crocker might need to explain what tahini is and in which aisles it might be stocked, but she has no question people want it. And, while the 21st century equivalent to Jell-O salads do exist (perhaps the queso taco pockets made from refrigerated pie crust?), they’re side by side with homemade pizza crust and Turkish pide.
Wheaton would ask herself, “Would this make sense for the young kid just out of college who’s got his first apartment, who’s learning how to cook? Would it make sense for my friends with young children? How about for my friends who are retired? This friend’s gluten-free, this friend’s vegetarian …
“In the 1950s it was the woman doing all the cooking and they were pretty much stay-at-home moms, and today it’s everybody, it’s every gender, it’s every age range, it’s every life stage.”
Though most readers know by now that there’s not a real Betty Crocker, it feels a little heartening to know the real people behind her.
“I love sharing food with people,” Wheaton said. “I think that food is a love language and it really has the power to not only feed your body, but gather people together and create memories and joy. I was like, what could be better than that?”