Tips & Techniques

Why We Should Be Cooking Like Our Grandmas

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October 16, 2017

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we've partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

If you shop at the farmer’s market, keep a Tupperware (or repurposed yogurt container) filled with homemade stock in the freezer, or have tried your hand making pickles or jam, you have—knowingly or not—embraced “grandma cooking.” Broadly speaking, grandma cooking refers to an approach to food preparation that is thrifty, intuitive, inherently seasonal, and delicious—the kind of food that nourishes and delights without unnecessary flash. The term has been floating around in the collective culinary lexicon for a decade or more, and was popularized in Michael Pollan’s seminal book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

"Grandma cooking": thrifty, intuitive, inherently seasonal, and delicious. Photo by Julia Gartland

“If you think about grandmas, they are some of the most experienced cooks in the world,” said Samin Nosrat, Pollan’s cooking teacher and colleague, and author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Art of Good Cooking. She’s right. Anyone who has chased their own grandmother around the kitchen, trying to capture the secret behind her beloved apple cake or pupusas, understands their magic.

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Increasingly, food experts like Pollan and Nosrat say that embracing grandma cooking also has larger importance. For generations, grandmothers (and grandfathers too, though the majority of home cooks have historically been women) literally cooked from scratch. They slaughtered and plucked chickens for soup. They grew the onions, tomatoes, and garlic that would become jars of sauce to last through the winter. They gathered together to roll and fill hundreds of pastries or dumplings for festive meals. In doing so, they gained traditional wisdom and skills that could be passed down to the next generation.

In stark contrast to the grandma cooking philosophy, today’s conventional food system typically positions itself as forward-looking—using technology and lab-made ingredients to feed consumers. As more households came to rely on canned convenience foods and microwaveable meals over the second half of the 20th century, people lost touch with cooking’s familial, communal, cultural, and ecological significances.

Thanks to Pollan, and many other influential writers and cooks, however, the tide is turning back toward deep, connected, and skillful cooking—something Food52’s community demonstrates every day. But whether you are a cooking novice or a bonafide grandma cook yourself, there is always something to learn. We turned to Nosrat and to the writings of three other expert cooks and authors—Darina Allen, Tamar Adler, and Patricia Tanumihardja—for philosophies and practical tips to bring “grandma cooking” home.

Deepen Your Cooking Instincts

The more one cooks, the more patterns begin to emerge and a culinary muscle memory kicks in. “I’ve heard countless stories of Midwestern grandmothers putting the pot of water on to boil before sending the kids out to the garden to pick corn,” Nosrat writes in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. “Just a few minutes, they’d tell the kids, could mean a noticeable loss in sweetness.”

This kitchen wisdom checks out scientifically: The sugar content in starchy vegetables like corn diminishes rapidly after harvest. But the grannies Nosrat refers to probably did not know that. They cooked by touch, by smell, by taste—pulling from an intuitive knowledge developed and refined over generations of inherited trial and error.

Novice and experienced cooks alike should consider moments at the stove as opportunities to further develop those instincts. “Smell seasoning pastes and taste coconut milk before you add it to a dish,” advices Patricia Tanumihardja, author of The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, which gleaned wisdom, stories, and recipes from dozens of women. “Learn to listen to the sizzle of garlic or the gurgle of curry to gauge when to move on to the next step. Experiment and discover how a dash of salt or sugar can take a dish from blah to blessed.”

Plan In Advance For Your Leftovers

Most recipes begin with a list of ingredients, and end when the food hits the table. But chef and food writer Tamar Adler believes that time frame is too limited. “Cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page,” she writes in her watershed book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. “There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.”

Thriftiness, both using every part of an ingredient and repurposing leftovers to avoid waste, is one of the hallmarks of grandma cooking. Begin weeknight meals with a mental or visual scan of what is in your fridge—both ingredients and leftovers—and think about how a container of roasted Brussels sprouts or leftover roasted chicken might be repurposed. Out of ideas? Go for Adler’s suggestion and make the French dish, oeufs en restes, or “eggs in leftovers,” which, true to name, takes meat or veggies from a previous meal, warms them in a pan with a little broth, and tops them with a sunnyside up egg. After dinner, end the meal by transferring whatever remains into see-through containers.

When in Doubt...Don’t Always Throw it Out

In her gorgeous cookbook Forgotten Skills of Cooking, Irish cooking guru Darina Allen writes, “I remember a time before electricity.” The co-founder of the esteemed Ballymaloe Cookery School was 9 years old before her village in the Irish countryside got electricity. So she grew up around people who shopped frequently and trusted their senses to judge when food had spoiled. “The introduction of the best-before dates on packaging started out as a good idea, but in reality this system has served to de-skill us,” she writes.

Her advice? Look past the sell-by date, which contributes significantly to the 33 million tons of perfectly edible food Americans waste each year, and get back to your senses. “Look at food. Smell it. Taste it—if in doubt, just have a small taste,” she writes. A piece of cheese with a bit of mold on the surface may just need a trim. A carton of eggs may have a month or more beyond the sell-by date before it spoils. As Allen writes, “When I was young, if we came across some mold in a pot of jam, we were told to stir it in. ‘It’s penicillin, it’ll do you good!’ I don’t know if that was true or not, but we survived to tell the tale.” If moldy jam isn’t your thing, set your own boundaries. But learn to trust yourself, not an arbitrary number on a package.

Reuse Your Cooking Water (Again and Again)

If your menu calls for, say, boiled green beans and pasta, reach for one pot, not two. You save water, dishes, and time by boiling them in the same pot, one after the other. And like a well-seasoned cast iron pan, each layer subtly flavors the one after it. “I often push the limits of a single pot of water’s utility, boiling broccoli or cauliflower, then pasta, and then potatoes, all in succession, and then use the water to make beans,” writes Adler in An Everlasting Meal. As long as you move from less starchy ingredients to more starchy ingredients, one pot of water can get you pretty far.” Use tongs, a pasta fork, or a slotted spoon to lift out the cooked ingredients before adding the next round.

Make Technology Work for You

Embracing a grandma cooking philosophy does not mean you have to shun technological or culinary advances. “You know the minute the food mill was invented, the nonnas started using it,” Nosrat said. The trick, she said, is to figure out a way use those advances to support the same traditional food values. So if your goal is to make homemade yogurt or trade in canned beans for dried ones, go ahead and flip on the Instant Pot. Or if you are committed to making baby food or preserving summer produce, there is no shame in employing a Vitamix to whirl up some roasted sweet potatoes or a heap of pesto for the freezer.

Expand Your Grandma Community

Those of us who have a skilled cook (or two or three) in our family to learn kitchen secrets from should count ourselves as blessed. But if your own grandmother is more likely to burn toast then prepare a from-scratch family meal, hope is not lost. Find a friend who knows how to bake sourdough bread or injera, or roll from-scratch linguine, and make a cooking date. (Always offer to bring wine and provide the ingredients.) Or work your way through one or more classic cookbooks. There is no reason that, with a little patience and practice, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Alice Waters, Claudia Roden, Sandor Katz, Yotam Ottolenghi, Diana Kennedy, or Samin Nosrat—to name just a few—cannot become your personal cooking elders.

Don’t Get Derailed By Perfection

Allen’s cookbook shares the secrets behind foraging for wild herbs and berries, churning butter from fresh cream, curing bacon at home, and keeping laying hens in the backyard for sunset-yolked eggs. It’s a lovely and delicious ideal she offers: grandma cooking taken to its pastoral extreme. But trying to fit butter churning into a 9-to-5 work schedule is not exactly practical. For those of us cooking in small kitchens with limited time, budgets, and outdoor space, it can be easy to get overwhelmed.

Don’t get discouraged that you can’t do it all. “There are plenty of Italian nonnas in Brooklyn and Vietnamese grandmothers in East Oakland who cook nourishing food in very small kitchens,” Nosrat said. If you have the space for a container garden, or an afternoon to apple picking with friends or family, go for it. But you do not have to commit to a 24/7 pastoral perfection to channel your inner grandma.

In an age of ever-expanding, boundary-pushing innovations in food, reliable information is more vital than ever. Keeping in mind the timeless wisdom of previous generations, we've partnered with Organic Valley to bring you stories from the front lines of the food system.

31 Comments

Marilyn V. December 12, 2017
I find the term "grandma cooking" to be endearing and very easily identified. This IS how both of my grandmas cooked! Simple, planned ahead, eat it if it wonʻt kill ya. They taught me how to really cook. Now Iʻm a grandma whoʻs taught my son, whoʻs teaching my granddaughter the basics and mysteries of cooking. Grandmas and grandpas were alchemists who were under appreciated. I am amazed that people take umbrage at, what to me, is clearly meant to evince a sense of tradition and warmth. Iʻm sorry your grandmas were battle axes and that the though of them is offensive to you.<br />
 
Shelby W. November 24, 2017
What is with all the animosity?? The article was a lovely sentiment on thoughtful cooking, using the classic image of a grandmother (not necessarily yours or mine) to convey why thoughtful cooking is a great tradition that should be continued, even as the world and cooking advance.<br /><br />Not everything has to be problematic. This article was meant to be joyful and nostalgic, not divisive or sexist.
 
Betty C. November 19, 2017
My first article at Food52, and I have to say I'll skip reading comments on any further articles I might read here. Why all the outrage? I thought it was a sweet term, "Grandma cooking", though one of my grandmothers couldn't cook her way out of a paper bag. <br /><br />In this age when "making cookies" means, to so many, getting some weird dough at the supermarket, I cherish my own need to make jam (occasionally) from wild berries - yes, while working full time. I have no need to learn to make butter or cure bacon, but I do like to know how to do the basics myself. I happen to be female, and definitely believe women have rights and command respect. I'm not sure my food values would be any different if I were male, and I know plenty of folks whose grandfathers passed down important food knowledge or recipes. <br /><br />BTW- "grandmothers" is traditionally a very powerful feminist term and spiritual invocation.
 
Ellen October 19, 2017
My mom was born in 1915, and she told me about what it was like living on their farm when she was a child, and living through the depression. She said my grandmother always had a pot of soup on the stove, and anyone that was hungry and knocked on their door, they were always invited in and given a hot bowl of soup and a sandwich, and a couple sandwiches were made for them to take with them. They never turned anyone away hungry. Times were different then, and I don't know if I could let total strangers in my home, especially around children. But, with their farm and butchering and canning and way of life they always had enough for them and enough to hand out to others. What a blessing that was.
 
Ellen October 19, 2017
I cannot eat middle eastern (Indian) curry, but I love the curry in oriental curried chicken and rice. What is the name of that curry? There are no oriental grocery stores where we live. Is there a good place to order this from?<br />
 
Joanna S. October 19, 2017
For those who question the use of the term "grandma cooking," thank you for bringing this to our attention. While this piece was intended with great respect for the many smart and resilient women in our collective ancestries, perhaps the same concept could've been communicated using another term. <br /><br />I was lucky enough to inherit many of these practices from my mother and my grandmothers. Their lives certainly weren't without hardship, but I like to believe that in continuing their traditions, I'm honoring and celebrating all that they've achieved.
 
M October 19, 2017
Respectfully, I think a little more reflection is needed because "I like to believe that in continuing their traditions, I'm honoring and celebrating all that they've achieved" is precisely the problem.<br /><br />Applying this sentiment beyond your experience, it becomes a suggestion that we should follow our mother's and grandmothers' habits in the kitchen if we want to celebrate and honour all they have achieved. For the mothers that achieved more, this reduces their "all" to their lives in the kitchen, and if they weren't able to accomplish dreams outside of the kitchen, it celebrates their lives' restrictions.<br /><br />We can celebrate practicality and tips from the past without gendering it. And we can explore familial traditions and knowledge without it becoming a universal all that ignores the diversity of experiences.<br /><br />For example, Depression Cooking Clara was a beautiful exploration of her experiences, struggles, and ingenuity during terrible times. Focus on the person and their experience, and honouring women of the past flips from one that whitewashes badness to an appreciation of strength that acknowledges context.<br />
 
AntoniaJames October 20, 2017
Thank you, M, for your thoughtful contributions to this debate. I've been thinking about this article a lot since it was first published (really bothered by it for many of the same reasons you mention). <br /><br />My grandmothers and grandfather did not pass down to me any of the practices others feel lucky to have learned. Many women in my grandmothers' era did not cook because they didn't have to. It's been like that for centuries - cooking is hard, often tedious and backbreaking work. Many grandmothers and grandfathers (and aunts or uncles or godmothers, family friends, etc.) pass on other traditions and values. Instead of spending time in the kitchen, they take their young companions to the theatre or to museums and art galleries, and then enjoy simple meals at home or out -- who cooks it or how isn't really the point, but that the people who are eating it are enjoying one another's company, discussing the exhibit or play or what they've read in the newspaper or other publication, and enjoying one another's company. I feel fortunate to have received so much of value from influential people in my life, lessons that have shaped me personally and professionally and that have benefited me immeasurably. Some have come from family members, others have come from peers, many of have come from mentors of all kinds. Not one of them is derived from a "grandma" cooking experience. <br /><br />And, for the record, why do we insist on using the word "grandma" instead of "grandmothers"? I don't know a single grandmother who is called that and to use it as a noun and not the diminutive that it is, after all, seems denigrating. ;o)
 
M October 20, 2017
Thanks, Antonia.<br /><br />Funny how absolutely foreign one person's everyday experience can be to another's -- I called both of my grandmothers "grandma," as did everyone else I knew. Otherwise, my experience is similar. <br /><br />I think part of what makes me bristle at this term is that it seems like a childish way to look at dynamic and resilient women -- using their acts of love (cooking, motherly actions, etc) to define their overall life. As children, it's hard to imagine our elders as anything other than the positions they hold in our lives. Our culture is riddled with jokes about children coming to terms with the fact that parents/grandparents are people -- who date, have sex, made mistakes, have secrets.. <br /><br />The most cherished lesson I learned from my grandmothers came long after they both passed. It was how to stop my vision of them as "grandmas," and how to see them as women and explore how their experiences dictated their personalities and actions. It's quite an eye-opening experience to look back and lift the grandmother veil.
 
Kathi December 12, 2017
Oh chill out M, you are ridiculous. I AM a Nonna (Grandma) and LOVE the term and all it implies.
 
L May 22, 2018
"For the mothers that achieved more, this reduces their "all" to their lives in the kitchen, and if they weren't able to accomplish dreams outside of the kitchen, it celebrates their lives' restrictions."<br /><br />This seems to a bit of an overreaction and projection on your part. Your perspective is not true for everyone. I feel grateful to see grandmothers (yes, grandmothers, who enjoy that term as I do and others I know) recognized and appreciated. Obviously grandmothers are humans as well, and not all grandmothers are incredible cooks or cooked by choice. But many did and do, and this is appreciating their unique contributions, stories, and experiences.
 
Mindy S. October 19, 2017
Cooking and eating like our grandparents doesn't have to be daunting. It is more about eating simply than extravagantly using whole foods not processed, using fresh herbs, spices, creating flavorful dishes and sitting together at the table for meals instead of on the run, in the car or whenever someone can pull themselves away from the computer/television. It isn't complicated, it just takes interest in re-learning how to view/prepare/eat food.
 
Traci N. October 18, 2017
Commenter "M" has hit the nail on the head. I would encourage more of us to think clearly about what these nostalgia-laden pushes do to the everyday lives of women who already feel the pressure to more than humanly possible. This article (link included) provides one insight that more of us need to pay attention to. http://cornellsun.com/2017/10/05/professor-argues-increasing-focus-on-environmentalism-has-negative-effect-on-gender-roles/
 
AntoniaJames October 20, 2017
Traci, thanks so much for the link. Bernstein's ideas are thought provoking and well taken. ;o)
 
Sue H. October 18, 2017
Thank you for writing your article on generational cooking wisdom. I have been fascinated with perusing old cookbooks written before 1945. Many I have found were written by home economists and nurses and were geared toward helping teach young mothers how to cook healthy, well balanced meals on a budget, utilizing war rations and victory gardens. I especially enjoy reading their notes written in the margins of some of the well used cookbooks. Reading those notes is like sitting in their kitchens listening to them tell their family story. There was a lot of nutritional knowledge and sage advice offered before the invention of Betty Crocker. Those cookbooks can still be found occassionally in the back of flea markets but for the most part they have been devalued much like the women who wrote in their margins. I find it sad that so many women today feel the need to judge past women so harshly.
 
M October 17, 2017
Superficially, "grandma cooking" is a wonderful concept that merges practical and natural approaches to food in the guise of warm, nostalgic familial memories. But we should be mindful of the context we are embracing when we choose to label more thoughtful cooking as "grandma cooking," and maybe think of better ways to celebrate familial bonds and boost the wisdom of generations past.<br /><br />If we want to get back in "touch with cooking’s familial, communal, cultural, and ecological significances," the first thing to remember is that it is all based on archaic notions of a woman's place. <br /><br />Historically, grandmas had no choice. Countless generations of women were forced to find peace with very limited lots in life. They were barred from careers. They were barred from choice. That so many woman suffered, and yet became iconic, warm "grandmas" we'd want to celebrate says a lot about their strength, and their ability to be warm and positive in spite of their histories.<br /><br />Their histories include sexism, racism, great depressions, war and genocide, and the absence of so many social norms we take for granted today. There were countless women enslaved, whose ingenuity in the kitchen credited to the white people who owned them. (Michael Twitty, who has contributed here, has written extensively on the subject.) <br /><br />This movement ignores how many current and recently passed generations of grandmothers grew up when the commercialization of food had already happened. Grandmothers taught by media for years that so many processed foods were better. For every story of superhero-grandma cooking, there is another of add-water feasts and grey, bone-dry roasts. Of recipe cards left behind with myriad processed foods and cheats. Of habits we should keep, and others that weren't employed out of skill, but necessity or ignorance.<br /><br />Our grandmothers are not a universal one. And why are we gendering cooking in 2017 anyway? The first step to embracing the "familial, communal, cultural, and ecological significances" of cooking is to recognize the historically negative building blocks of these significances and create new systems that take the best and leave behind the interference and limitation.
 
kaleandsalt October 18, 2017
Yes, thank you!!! I saw a handmade sign on a telephone pole here in Portland the other day that said "Chop Wood, Fetch Water, Cook Food." My first response was f*** that, domestic labor has been used to oppress women for centuries! I will gratefully accept the labor-saving devices that allow me to have a career rather than spend all of my time working in the home, and although I love to cook and preserve, it is by no means expected of me because I'm a woman, and I do not make an elaborate, from-scratch, thrifty meal every damn day. My mother-in-law grew up in France and she describes her own mother's life as dominated by the tyranny of household chores - she was expected to put a full meal on the table three times a day, and so her entire day was filled with cooking, cleaning up from the meal, cooking the next one, cleaning up that meal, cooking the next one, cleaning up that meal, and fitting in all of the shopping and washing and chores around the edges. To this day, my mother-in-law sees cooking as a chore, despite being a phenomenal chef, whereas I grew up cooking for fun with much less societal pressure and thus see it as means of relaxation.
 
Stephanie November 19, 2017
That made my head hurt. 😐
 
cookinginvictoria October 17, 2017
I love this article and the premise behind generational cooking (and eating). My great-grandma (Italian), my two grandmas (one Irish and one Mexican) and my mom were huge inspirations to me as a home cook. All were great, instinctive home cooks and bakers. My great-grandmother cooked for a huge extended family, rolled out ravioli on her kitchen table with a broomstick and baked pizza in a brick oven in the backyard. My grandmas, who came of age during the Depression and World War II, were thrifty cooks but also very creative in the kitchen. Even though they occasionally cooked with Jello and cake mixes and other "time-saving" techniques, their most enduring, from scratch recipes are ones that I regularly make today. (They are delicious . . . one of these recipes even won a Food52 contest!) I am grateful for all that they have taught me.
 
Susan D. October 17, 2017
You mean cooking real food from natural ingredients? My mother cooked like that, and I cook like that. Consequently, my adult children cook that way too. It's the only way you can be sure of what you're eating. While I like the essence of your message here, calling it grandma cooking is both sexist and ageist.
 
L May 22, 2018
I'm not sure why commenters are taking such offense at using the descriptive term "grandma" or "grandmother." This article is nothing but respectful of everything we can learn from generations past. It seems more ageist and sexist to assume that "grandma" is a derogatory term somehow.
 
Elle October 16, 2017
Great article! Old school parents and grand parents definitely had skills of selecting produce and cooking from scratch that I totally admire. Maybe I'm nostalgic but think it's very important to gain generational cooking knowledge from the elders. It's such an important thing to pass down.
 
Azora Z. October 16, 2017
I love love love this concept!
 
Gibson2011 October 16, 2017
I like the mission and motivation behind making more things at home. It does seem like there's already a larger trend to locally sourced, personally prepared foods. I just wonder if this always has to be wrapped in the "cook like grandma" myth. Nostalgia is well and good for some things, but I don't think that we have this as a shared reality. When my grandmas were caring for their growing families in the 1960s, they frequently used commercial mixes, cans, boxes, etc. One of them has since moved away from that while the other no longer cooks at all. I just wonder if we have to keep peddling the "Just like grandma used to make" myth. Anyone else feel like this is glorified past is just a little too rosy?
 
Patty C. October 16, 2017
Gilson2011--Maybe because it refers to MY grandmas--born in 1876 and 1900 instead of your grandmas. Although, I learned to cook in the 60s and 70s and did everything from scratch.
 
Stephanie B. October 16, 2017
Really depends on the grandmas! Mine are Romanian, and like most people in Romania under Ceausescu's dictatorship they were not very well off. When they emigrated they took their thriftiness and inventiveness, which was developed by necessity, with them to the US. So I can nostalgically look back on plucking chickens with my grandparents, pickling with my mom, and chatting in the kitchen as three generations of women made food together. I learned a lot about cooking from my family, though their cooking is pretty rigid and now I think I'm the better cook! I'm grateful I got to learn all that "grandma" stuff from the comfort of middle class US, and not by necessity like my family had to - I just don't think it's possible to make all your food almost purely DIY from your own little subsistence farm and have a career. Plus I'm pretty sure my family left Romania so I wouldn't have to.
 
BerryBaby October 17, 2017
I agree... the author mentions people like Julia Child born in 1912. Maybe it should have read 'cooking like your great- grandmother'. My grandmother was a fabulous baker. She made her own pastry dough and could stretch it tissue paper thin for the most incredible apple streusel. I use to do this when first married (over 40 yrs ago) but now use frozen puffed pastry. It's good but it will never be as delicious as grandmas.
 
TheFritschKitchen October 17, 2017
I agree!! My grandma (the one who actually cooks) was famous for pizza bagels and hamburger lasagna. But she was trying to feed 7 kids in the 1960's on a budget, while working full time. SPAM on her pizza bagels was common, and her hamburger lasagna used the now dreaded American cheese product. That being said, the woman made sugar cookies like nobody else (and definitely used margarine in them, haha).
 
kaleandsalt October 18, 2017
My paternal grandmother was more in 1916 and cooked only boxed crud until the day she died, and I doubt that much changed in the 4 years following Julia Child's birth in 1912. There have always been crap cooks (and the 1940s and 50s didn't help anything!), so I'm not sure why we fetishizing "Grandma" cooking rather than just using ingredients sensibly.
 
kaleandsalt October 18, 2017
*born, not more
 
Ellen December 1, 2017
I have a Grand Union Tea Company cookbook dated 1902, that was my grandmother's, and it is full of wonderful recipes, and my grandmother had her own as well. It's a shame that there always has to be one, nasty and arrogant woman that has to be a troll and try to ruin someone else's happiness.