Mother's Day

13 Essential Cooking Tips We Learned From Our Moms

It's true: Mother knows best.

May  7, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Being an only child, my mom has always been much more than just a mom to me. She's also my best friend. Sure, there were plenty of times when—as a parent—she dropped the iron hammer, but we've always had a closeness that was more like friendship.

Growing up she obviously taught me a lot of very important things: work hard, make good choices, and don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. But when it comes to cooking, the most important thing she instilled in me was small: Keep an organized work station, and clean up as you go.

Naturally, I hated this as a kid—who wants to waste time wiping down the counter or washing prep bowls in between licks of cake batter off the spoon? Couldn't everything wait until after we were done? No, my mom insisted. This was the way professional chefs worked. And it turns out she couldn't be more right.

So when I finally started living on my own in college (albeit with roommates), when I cooked, I couldn't help but make sure every part of the recipe had been prepped, do the dishes as I went, or wipe down spills and splatters as they happened. I'm a much more organized, prepared home cook as a result—not to mention, by the time I'm ready to eat, it's nice to know that most of the cleanup has already been taken care of.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I always told my children "different moms have different rules" when they would complain about friends doing things they couldn't. But this article has shown me different moms have similar cooking 'rules' - so many rang familiar to my years of cooking and entertaining! And probably most especially Erin, your own mother's - "clean up as you go" wisdom! Loved reading this article - thank you!”
— Amy L.

Of course, my mom's not the only one with advice to spare. So in honor of Mother's Day, I asked the Food52 team to share the best cooking tips they've picked up from their moms. From game-changing ingredient swaps to timeless kitchen wisdom, here are the very best tricks and techniques we've picked up:

We Got It From Our Mamas

"Everyone feels their family's sugar cookies are the best, but my mom uses almond extract instead of vanilla extract and thinking about those cookies make my mouth water." —Brian Mahoney, people operations manager

"My mom taught me not to use elbow macaroni or "regular" cheese when making mac and cheese! She doesn't do anything "special" or have a magic trick, but somehow it's the best macaroni and cheese ever; she tends to use cellentani, fusilli, farfalle or rigatoni noodles with a minimum of three types of cheese, which always includes a nicer cheddar." —Danielle Curtis-Williams, marketing coordinator

"My mom taught me a million little tricks—like always add more vanilla than a cookie recipe tells you to, or eat pasta out of the serving bowl on the couch (it tastes better this way). But I think the biggest thing is: She taught me to love cooking." —Emma Laperruque, food writer and recipe developer

"My mom didn’t necessarily teach me this, but I definitely picked it up from her: Try new recipes on company. I know this is something most people suggest you should avoid at all costs, but it honestly makes cooking much more exhilarating and really teaches you to trust yourself in the kitchen. My mom did this all the time growing up (she still does), and there was definitely a flop or two, but it was so much fun trying new things." —Joanna Sciarrino, executive editor

"Make dishes that are good at room temperature for a dinner party." —Merrill Stubbs, co-founder and president

"Cook as much as earthly possible the night before; I used to think she was crazy leading up to Thanksgiving, but now I see the logic. And also, be alert while cutting bagels! She cut herself really badly with a dinner knife once and I think about it every time I have to cut something wobbly." — Cody Kestigian, data scientist

"Always keep your sink scrubbed clean so when you have a vegetable (or the like) to wash, it's ready to go and won't feel like a chore. Similarly, she would always wash and prep all produce as soon as she got home from the grocery store so she could pack it neatly into the fridge, and it was more likely to get used. Un-prepped vegetables have a way of being neglected until it's too late!" —Amanda Hesser, co-founder and CEO

"Make sure your water tastes like the ocean (aka very salty) when you are boiling it for pasta. And if you place a wooden spoon over the pot it will prevent boil-overs." —Angela Bartolotta, drop ship supply chain manager

"She taught me that cooking doesn’t need to be intimidating and that casual, unfussy meals at home can still be delicious and special. But more specifically, she taught me to constantly taste dishes as I'm preparing them and to make adjustments and build flavor as I go. Whenever I ask her how much of an ingredient to add to a dish, her response is invariably "to taste!" While pretty frustrating, I credit her for teaching me to be a more intuitive home cook." — Laura Wolfgang, senior product manager

"Order Thai food." —Mollie Doherty, account manager

"Read your recipe first and make adjustments where you see fit." —Sarah Yaffa, data analyst

"My mom is a big proponent of keeping recipes simple and really focusing on making sure every ingredient is prepared in a way that makes it maximally delicious. (She feels most recipes are not honest about how long you actually need to spend caramelizing onions.) Another one: The only acceptable thing to eat for dinner if you've been sick all day is homemade chicken noodle soup that's almost utilitarian in its final presentation. You might get two to three noodles total in your bowl and each is the most delicious thing you've ever tasted; the only other components are an excellent, thrice-strained broth and tiny pieces of carrot and shredded chicken. Served with cola that's been sitting out in a glass so it's flat." —Ella Quittner, lifestyle writer

"You can leave soups and stews out on the counter for as many days as you want, as long as you bring it to a boil each time you eat it to kill the germs." —Eric Kim, senior editor

Do you agree with Eric's mom? What's the best piece of cooking advice you learned from yours? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Erin Alexander is the Brand Partnerships Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.


Steven W. May 2, 2020
In the 1960's rural CT. (there was and still are a few places here!)my mother had to make for a crowd and on the cheap. And a very "clipped it from Good Housekeeping magazine" cook---lots of casseroles of noodles or rice or potatoes. Hamburger, or kielbasa, or tuna. LOTS of cream of whatever soups. (I still want that kind of food regularly, I mean it was so good!) So I learned to cook from others around me and as I made my way in the food service industry. I taught son and daughter to cook, and I know LOT of dad's who can do more than grill steaks. How about an article featuring what we learned from our dads?
judy June 5, 2019
Best tip I got from my Mom was same as Frugal Cat. If you don't like my cooking, then cook it yourself. that began a short journey to becoming the family dinner cook. Mom truly could not cook, dad bar-b-q'd steak and did big dinner parties. The rest fo the week was mine. By the time I ws 8 I was expected to cook dinner 5 of 7 nights a week, as I was pretty good. Now I am 64, love to cook and my pantry and fridge are full of spices from all over the world!
FrugalCat June 4, 2019
The best cooking advice my mom ever gave me was "If you don't like the way I cook, feel free to make your own dinner." This turned me into a competent home cook as a teenager.
Valerie May 12, 2019
I think some people (especially Southerners) don't remember life before the Instant Pot. Many people kept food out all the time and did not die. They did not have refrigeration so they managed the best they could. Soups and beans were kept on the back burner (or the back of a wood stove at a constant low heat usually). Biscuits were kept in the bread warmer on top of the wood stove or under a cloth (so the flies would not get them). Picnics were full of things like potato salad (mayo) and eggs....mayo again. Remember, the mayo was made with....RAW egg!!!! Meat was often overcooked which sort of made it similar to jerky. Of course, meat did not usually last too long because there was not as much of it served. I sometimes think ladies today forget how their mothers survived and for that matter, how their grandmothers survived BEFORE!
Sandy S. May 12, 2019
No, I don't agree with Eric's mom. Bacteria may be killed but if there are toxins (chemicals) from the food left out, they will not be destroyed by heat. This practice is not consistent with current food science. Cool down foods and refrigerate within 2 hours for food safety. As a Master Food Preserver we say, "when in doubt, throw it out".
Beth D. May 12, 2019
My mother and I live on opposite sides of the country at the moment, which is hard at times. Whenever we get a chance to visit, the first thing we always do is go to the grocery store or farmers market and start dreaming up the meals that we want t ok make together, inspired by ingredients that look good and fresh. With this, I will never forget the advice that we always manage to ignore when we are together - "never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach!"
patricia G. May 12, 2019
Simplicity was among the valuable lessons my mother taught me. A meal doesn't have to be complicated to be shared with pleasure. A soft boiled egg with toast soldiers. An artichoke with a side of mayo, green with chopped herbs. A panful of garlicky sauteed mushrooms. Lovely meals, Mum.
Dawn C. May 11, 2019
My Mom was a GREAT cook! Not fancy, but her meals were always delicious.
She always said "If you can read, you can cook." She wasn't wrong.

A bit of advice. Get all of your favorite recipes from your Mommy committed to whatever medium you choose, so you can recreate them after she is gone.
Dana E. May 13, 2019
My mom is the same way Dawn! She loves to take recipes from cookbooks, the internet, etc. and change them up. She has a box full of her mother's recipe cards (handwritten) that she still uses all the time. I'm slowly re-writing them on my own cards.
Michele K. May 8, 2019
No! Do not leave the soup out. You cannot boil it long enough to kill bacteria
Amy May 8, 2019
Is Amanda Hesser by any chance related to Judy Hesser (of the Judy Hesser's Oven Fried Chicken fame???) If so, please pass along that I LOVE that recipe - it's become my new standard and I've been adapting it freely (I've added different spices to the flour/shake, and I cut little potatoes in half and put them cut side down in the roasting pan while the chicken baked - that was the only way I can imagine this wonderful recipe being any better, with an easy baked-in side dish!). Yum!!!!
Char D. May 8, 2019
My Mom would tell me "it's not a failure, it's a learning opportunity" when I'd goof up. Thanks to her, I was putting full meals on the table once a week by the age of 11 - except that I'd forget about the coffee since I didn't drink it back then. ~ I clean as I go if the flow of the recipe allows it. I had to do it when I was growing up since our kitchen had little counter space in for working. ~ Love the "order Thai" remark!
Cindy May 8, 2019
Nothing makes me happier than my grown kids calling me to ask a food question:) I was a very basic cook, made 100's of mistakes and learned as they grew up. But with the advent of the internet I learned a great deal and still am! And although they have that resource to lean on, they call mom:) And that is the greatest gift to me!
April May 8, 2019
My mom hated cooking and wasn’t great at it. I grew up with jar spaghetti, shake ‘n’ bake chicken, and over or undercooked meat. Mom told me to marry someone who could cook 😆, which did not happen. I learned to cook because I love to eat. Now, I get to cook for my mom and she is amazed at the skills I’ve acquired. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve picked up is buy the best ingredients you can afford. I love my mom dearly. Cheers to all the moms who did and are doing their best!
Jackie D. May 8, 2019
My Mom, God bless her soul, taught me never to throw food away, only, of courese had it gone bad. But that should never happen to a good cook..always make way with what you've got in the fridge or pantry, let your creativity run wild and CREATE, COOK, EAT and ENJOY!!!
lisa D. May 8, 2019
Hi Erin,
Every childs first teacher is mom, kids most of all spend with our mama, We all love our moms food and recipes, And Erin your recipes quit similar to my moms recipe and this is my favrite dish.
Stephanie B. May 7, 2019
I think I got cooking as experiment from my mom - I don't think she can faithfully follow a recipe to save her life. With cooking it rarely came back to bite her, so I learned that making things up in the kitchen = good. Similar to what another person posted, when I ask her for recipes I never really get them; everything is "until you like how it tastes" or "cook it until it's done". On the downside, she's a terrible baker for the exact same reason.
Smaug May 7, 2019
Well- I think that people worry way too much about leaving things out, but you can go too far; with food borne illnesses, you need not worry only about germs- various sorts of mold and mildew are prevalent, and their presence isn't the only problem- they may be producing toxins that don't break down when heated.
My mother was an excellent cook, but was (like me) not very comfortable with company when she was working, so I didn't cook with her often- also, I was interested but had a lot of other interests too. She did, before I left for college, teach me a few specific dishes. Beef stew (sequencing ingredients) and pie crust (basic pastry principles) stand out as learning experiences, but I think the most important thing I learned from her was not to let others tell me what I like.
Audrey W. May 7, 2019
I want Eric's mom to be right about soup.

I usually just leave my slow cooker on it's Keep Warm or Low setting for the day or two that it takes my husband and I to finish a soup. I can't bring myself to use one of my big pots that don't fit in the fridge and leave it out. It makes sense to me... But I don't know enough about food safety to be sure, and so I don't.
Eric K. May 7, 2019
The more the merrier, I say.

(re: bacteria)
Sandy May 3, 2020
As a Master Food Preserver (all about food safety and education), we say "life begins at 40", 40 degrees that is. Bacteria grow best between 40 deg. and 140 deg. F (the danger zone).
So, no, leaving your slow cooker on at low or keep warm supports bacterial growth in food. It's best to cool food down within 2 hrs. and then refrigerate it. And it's not a good idea to use your fridge to cool foods down (unless it's a tiny anount) because it warms up your fridge and the foods in it. Instead, put it in several smaller containers to cool it down more rapidly. I know. I know, more bowls to wash. To chill more quickly, put some ice in a clean ziplock plastic bag and put the whole thing right into your pot of food. Get the facts. For a reference google: Danger Zone - USDA FSIS.
Caralyn H. May 7, 2019
I tried the wooden spoon over the pot to prevent boil overs. It has not worked once. Keeping soups out of the refrigerator and just reheating them to boiling is taking a huge chance. I am not willing to risk getting sick by being lazy about refrigeration. Cleaning up as I go is not my thing. Why stop preparing a dish to go wash dishes every two minutes? It does not save time. Things like gathering the ingredients before cooking is a good idea. I love the order Thai food suggestion.
Author Comment
Erin A. May 7, 2019
The Thai food suggestion is one of my favorites too!
Smaug May 7, 2019
I can't really speak for other people's work habits, but I don't think many actually wash dishes as they go along, unless they actually need to use them again. When people talk about cleaning up as they go, it's more a matter of rinsing and stacking dishes, putting things away after you've used them, wiping up spills and generally keeping your work area from getting cluttered
Becky May 12, 2019
Oh, I learned to clean up as you go from my mom, and it is a lifesaver if done efficiently. I run a sink of hot water/soap as soon as I start cooking. I don't put much water in my deep sink to start as rinsing will add water. As I use things that I will not use again, I pitch them (literally) into the sink, and as I have breaks in the cooking process, I wash and put into a the drainer. I don't stop cooking to do this. By the end of cooking, I usually have at least half of the items I have used washed and dried. I think it saves a lot of time at the end of the meal, and by the time I have cooked, served, eaten, and cleared, I am ready to be finished! And I generally am close to being finished. It _does_ save time! My SIL learned this from my mother, and she says it is one of the most valuable things she learned in the kitchen.
Kelly May 12, 2019
I can't say that ALL the dishes and utensils are washed before I eat, but I have always cleaned as I go and find it makes life much easier. If I need to re-use an item, it's ready to go and I hate washing a huge mess after a nice meal with wine.
Sandy A. May 7, 2019
Such a great article and tribute to us moms! 🥰 I also learned some new tips as well, and loved “Order Thai Food” by Mollie. I really enjoyed reading about the cooking essentials and experiences that we share with our children, and that we hope someday they will pass these “treasures” on to their kids. As a mom we are always teaching - and yes kids do listen! 💐
Author Comment
Erin A. May 7, 2019
Love you, mom!