The book is divided into 12 sections named after the months of the year, starting with January. Each section begins with a Mexican recipe. The chapters outline the preparation of the dish and ties it to an event in the protagonist's life.
Tita de la Garza, the novel's main protagonist, is 15 at the start of the story. She lives with her mother Mama Elena, and her older sisters Gertrudis and Rosaura, on a ranch near the Mexico – US border.
Pedro is a neighbor and another main protagonist with whom Tita falls in love at first sight. He asks Mama Elena for Tita’s hand in marriage, but Mama Elena forbids it, citing the De la Garza family tradition that the youngest daughter (in this case Tita) must remain unmarried and take care of her mother until her mother's death. She suggests that Pedro marries Tita's sister, Rosaura, instead of Tita. In order to stay close to Tita, Pedro decides to follow Mama Elena's advice.
Tita has a love of the kitchen and a deep connection with food, a skill enhanced by the fact that Nacha, the family cook, was her primary caretaker as Tita grew up. Her love for cooking also comes from the fact that she was born in the kitchen.
Pedro and Rosaura have a son, Roberto. Rosaura is unable to nurse Roberto, so Tita brings Roberto to her breast to stop the baby from crying. Tita begins to produce breast milk and is able to nurse the baby. This draws her and Pedro closer than ever. They begin meeting secretly, snatching their few times together by sneaking around the ranch and behind the backs of Mama Elena and Rosaura.
Tita’s strong emotions become infused into her cooking, and she unintentionally begins to affect the people around her through the food she prepares. After one particularly rich meal of quail in rose petal sauce flavored with Tita’s erotic thoughts of Pedro, Gertrudis becomes inflamed with lust and leaves the ranch in order to make ravenous love with a revolutionary soldier on the back of a horse, later ending up in a brothel and subsequently disowned by her mother.
Rosaura and Pedro are forced to leave for San Antonio, Texas, at the urging of Mama Elena, who suspects a relationship between Tita and Pedro. Rosaura loses her son Roberto and later becomes infertile from complications during the birth of her daughter Esperanza.
Upon learning the news of her nephew's death, whom she cared for herself, Tita blames her mother. Mama Elena responds by smacking Tita across the face with a wooden spoon. Tita, destroyed by the death of her beloved nephew and unwilling to cope with her mother's controlling ways, secludes herself in the dovecote until the sympathetic Dr. John Brown soothes and comforts her. Mama Elena states there is no place for "lunatics" like Tita on the farm, and wants her to be institutionalized. However, the doctor decides to take care of Tita at his home instead. Tita develops a close relationship with Dr. Brown, even planning to marry him at one point, but her underlying feelings for Pedro do not waver.
While John is away, Tita loses her virginity to Pedro. A month later, Tita is worried she may be pregnant with Pedro’s child. Her mother's ghost taunts her, telling her that she and her child are cursed. Gertrudis visits the ranch for a special holiday and makes Pedro overhear about Tita’s pregnancy, causing Tita and Pedro to argue about running away together. This causes Pedro to get drunk and sing below Tita’s window while she is arguing with Mama Elena’s ghost. Just as she confirms she isn't pregnant and frees herself of her mother's grasp once and for all, Mama Elena's ghost gets revenge on Tita by setting Pedro on fire, leaving him bedridden for a while and behaving like “a child throwing a tantrum”. Meanwhile, Tita is preparing for John's return, and is hesitant to tell him that she cannot marry him because she is no longer a virgin. Rosaura comes to the kitchen while Tita is cooking and argues with her over Tita's involvement with Rosaura’s daughter Esperenza’s life and the tradition of the youngest daughter remaining at home to care for the mother until she dies, a tradition which Tita despises. She vows not to let it ruin her niece's life as it did hers. John and his deaf great-aunt come over and Tita tells him that she cannot marry him. John seems to accept it, “reaching for Tita’s hand...with a smile on his face”.
Many years later, Tita is preparing for Esperanza’s and John's son Alex’s wedding to one another, now that Rosaura has died from digestive problems. During the wedding, Pedro proposes to Tita saying that he does not want to “die without making [Tita] [his] wife”. Tita accepts and Pedro dies making love to her in the kitchen storage room right after the wedding. Tita is overcome with sorrow and cold, and begins to eat matches. The matches are sparked by the heat of his memory, creating a spectacular fire that engulfs them both, eventually consuming the entire ranch.
The narrator of the story is the daughter of Esperanza, nicknamed "Tita", after her great-aunt. She describes how after the fire, the only thing that survived under the smoldering rubble of the ranch was Tita's cookbook, which contained all the recipes described in the preceding chapters.