The grandniece of Tita de la Garza begins telling Tita’s life story. Tita is the daughter of Elena de la Garza, an authoritarian and inflexible woman who, with an iron fist, rules the lives of her three daughters, Tita, Rosaura, and Gertrudis. Mamá Elena forbids Tita from marrying Pedro Muzquiz, arguing an old family tradition that insists on keeping the youngest female of a family from marrying, so that she can take care of her parents instead.
Pedro asks for Tita’s hand, but Mamá Elena offers her middle daughter, Rosaura, to him instead. Pedro accepts this proposal, realizing it is the only way he can be close to Tita, his real love. Likewise, Rosaura accepts her mother’s proposal of marriage to Pedro, knowing the damage it will cause her. Indeed, she is haunted by jealousy and the fear of losing Pedro.
Tita becomes the caregiver of the couple’s first child, Roberto, when Rosaura is unable to feed him. Miraculously, Tita starts to produce breast milk, and she begins to feed the baby. Mamá Elena worries that Tita and Pedro are getting too close, so she sends Rosaura and Pedro to live in another town with their baby. Tita remains in the house, devastated and worried for the baby’s well-being. Soon, Roberto has died of hunger. Tita, who is unable to cope with the grief, goes crazy. Full of sorrow, she hides in the dovecote, set up in the roof of the home, and remains there until Dr. John Brown, an American, convinces her to come down from the roof. Mamá Elena decides that Tita should be committed to an asylum, but John takes Tita to his home instead. With loving care, John nurses her back to health.
Tita returns to her home after learning that her mother has fallen ill, but not before promising John that she will marry him. Rosaura and Pedro also return to the house. Upon seeing each other, Tita and Pedro realize that their love is as strong as ever. Unable to contain themselves, they consummate their love, before John returns from a short trip. Tita also believes that she is pregnant with Pedro’s baby. Tita does not want to be unfair to John, so she breaks up her engagement, realizing that she loves Pedro more than she loves John. Rosaura finds out about her sister and John’s relationship and agrees to keep the secret as long as Pedro does not divorce her.
Rosaura gives birth to a daughter, named Esperanza (meaning “hope”). Years later, Rosaura tries to maintain family tradition by prohibiting Esperanza’s marriage to Alex, John’s son. Rosaura dies, and with the blessings of Tita and John, Esperanza and Alex get married. Tita and Pedro, on the night of the wedding, consummate their love, and die doing so. The ranch burns to the ground, and the only object that survives is Tita’s cookbook-diary.
Esperanza and Alex’s daughter, who has Tita’s ability and passion for cooking, reads Tita’s cookbook, noting that Tita will live on if somebody prepares her recipes. As the story goes, Tita comes to the world crying so much that her tears become ten pounds of cooking salt. She develops a strong connection to the kitchen, a connection that starts when her mother is unable to feed her as a baby and gives her to Nacha, the family’s indigenous cook, to be cared for. Nacha not only takes care of Tita but also teaches her all the culinary secrets that she learned from her Mexican ancestors. From Nacha, Tita learns that cooking is a reflection of her feelings and, as a result, she has the power to affect the people who consume her meals.
At Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding, Tita’s cake makes everyone feel sad; later, they all vomit. Nacha dies during the wedding, probably sharing the sadness of all the other guests and realizing that she may never find love. (Nacha reappears as a ghostly figure to aid and guide Tita.) Chencha replaces Nacha as the family’s cook. Like all the other women, she suffers the tyranny of Mamá Elena. Her life is difficult, not only for having to serve Mamá Elena; she also is raped by a group of revolutionary men. Still, she finds the love of her life, Jesus Martinez. Chencha becomes Tita’s companion in the kitchen after Nacha dies.
Tita, physically desiring Pedro, prepares a meal for the whole family. After the meal, Tita’s sister Gertrudis, unable to contain herself, rips off her clothes. A soldier, sensing her smell from a distance, rides his horse to her and takes her away. The meal that Tita had prepared was so powerful that Juan Alejandrez, the soldier, is unable to satisfy Gertrudis sexually, so he has to take her to a brothel at the U.S.-Mexico border near Texas. After some time, Gertrudis and Juan get back together and eventually return to the ranch.
Mamá Elena dies, and Tita is forced to keep a secret from Gertrudis, who is actually her half sister. Gertrudis’s father was mulatto, or mixed-race, and was her mother’s only true and impossible love. When Gertrudis has a mulatto child, Tita has to reveal the secret to save her sister’s marriage.