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Why We Should Be Cooking Like Our Grandmas

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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.

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"Grandma cooking": thrifty, intuitive, inherently seasonal, and delicious.
"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.

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.

Samin Nosrat's 12 Must-Know Lessons That've Changed How We Cook
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Samin Nosrat's 12 Must-Know Lessons That've Changed How We Cook

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.

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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.

How to Make Fried Rice Without a Recipe
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How to Make Fried Rice Without a Recipe

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.”

A Leftovers Lunch
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A Leftovers Lunch

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.

Tell Us: Do You Eat Browning Avocados?
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Tell Us: Do You Eat Browning Avocados?

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.

A Mortar & Pestle That's Both Utilitarian and an Heirloom
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A Mortar & Pestle That's Both Utilitarian and an Heirloom

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.

5 Grandma-Approved (Non-Chef-y) Baking Tips
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5 Grandma-Approved (Non-Chef-y) Baking Tips

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.