The Southern Living Cookbook, first published in 1987, is my favorite cookbook for classic Southern recipes and how-to tips and tricks. Like so many Southern Living readers, I grew up thumbing through my mother’s issues of the magazine, marking specific recipes I wanted her to try. While I don’t recall specific conversations with Mama about the validity and quality of the recipes, it seems I just always knew that a Southern Living recipe could be trusted to be good – perhaps, in part, due to the fact that Mama herself was such an excellent cook and everything she put on the table was delicious.
Like a lot of Southern cooks, Mama cooked straight from memory (just like she played the piano). When she did use a recipe, it was invariably one from Southern Living. Her copy of The Southern Living Cookbook would fall open, like a well-used Bible, to the pages that held the family favorite recipes. Now my own copy is equally worn and splattered, a testament to the many hours spent whipping, blending, baking, and experimenting, and the many calls to my Mama about whether or not this was how she really did it.
Over the years I have learned a lot from the step-by-step illustrations and how-to’s throughout this book: notably, the one for making caramel frosting. I can humbly say that, by studying the visuals and reading the instructions (especially Step 2 that begins “you’ll think you’ve messed up when…), my first attempt at making caramel frosting was a silky and smooth success. How to score a holiday ham, frost a layer cake, and make pastry dough are all explained in a way that even novice cooks can have success in the kitchen.
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As a new cook, the measurement charts (how many cups are in a pint?) substitution suggestions (what to do when you are out of baking powder) and food safety tips (it really isn’t a good idea to reheat that soup for the third time) were invaluable, and I still refer to this book today for straightforward information about food preparation, garnishing hints, and serving ideas.
What drew me to this book to begin with, however, and what keeps me coming back, are the more than 1300 recipes selected and tested, over and over, by the Southern Living Food Editors and Test Kitchen staff. Whether I use a recipe for Old-Fashioned Cornbread Dressing, Million Dollar Pound Cake, Zesty Pot Roast, or Buttermilk Fried Chicken, I can be sure the recipe will produce a quality dish that tastes just like Mama made. The instructions are so easy to follow you will think you are having a one-on-one cooking lesson: “just cream the butter, honey, and then slowly pour in the sugar. Don’t just dump it all in there or it will fly everywhere…ok, now add your eggs…” This book may be filled with every Southern Classic imaginable, but it also allows you to spread your culinary wings and experiment with what I considered “fancy recipes” like Individual Beef Wellingtons, Chocolate Mousse Baked Alaska, and Plum Pudding. Thanks to the well-written instructions and how-to’s, these fancy recipes are as easy to make as the better-known old favorites.
WATCH: Peach-Raspberry Buckle
This cookbook has been reprinted throughout the years, and each reprint is as good as the original. The covers get a little brighter and more contemporary, but the recipes are just as delicious and the instructions are just as clear and precise. For sentimental reasons I will stick to the original, however, with the twig basket and vegetables on the dark brown cover. Reading through this cookbook is like having a conversation with my mama about cooking and, quite frankly, there is no better recommendation for a cookbook than that.