4 Unforgettable Cooking Lessons We Learned in 2020

Plus, a bunch of the recipes we made over and over.

December 29, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

I think we can all agree that 2020 was a year we'll always remember. None of us could have predicted how it played out, but all of us are looking forward to a clean slate come January. While we all experience setbacks and a fair share of tough times, the year gave us some necessary time to reflect and work on ourselves.

Because of the circumstances, there has been such a dramatic shift in the way we carry out our daily routines, many of us have found ways to adapt. Unsurprisingly, this shift has made its way into our kitchens, and has all but transformed the way we've all been cooking. I recently talked with some chefs, cookbook authors, and passionate home cooks about how the past year has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. In our conversations, one thing was resoundingly clear: We all came out of the year with a new appreciation for the little things, and a focus on moving in a positive direction as we look ahead. With that in mind, here are the cooking lessons we'll take into 2021 and beyond.

Don't Scrap the Scraps.

"One thing we've learned to take advantage of during quarantine is our scraps," Valerie Zeweig and Taryn Pellicon, co-founders of Prescription Chicken, told me. "Throughout the week, we collect bags of vegetable discard (carrot peels, celery butts, onion skins, mushroom stems, scallion ends) and bags of bones (from a rotisserie chicken, leftover steak, or even the carcass from a turkey). Then, on the weekend, we pop the scraps and bones into a pot filled with water; throw in some salt, peppercorns, and ginger; and let it cook for the afternoon.

If we're looking for [a lighter] stock, we cook it for three to four hours; if we want a heartier bone broth, we cook it more like four to six hours and add in some tomato paste and apple cider vinegar. It's the perfect way to repurpose leftovers and avoid wasting good food."

For me, as a home cook and recipe tester, I also found ways to make do in ways I didn't before. Because of fewer grocery runs, my new mantra has become: "What's in the fridge?" Using the restaurant concept of FIFO (first in, first out), before I even head to the store, I do an inventory of what could be merged and assembled into a meal.

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“We’re settling in to some tried and true dishes: (Chocolate oatmeal with berry compote, Giant salad with power greens, beans, and crunchies, Smoothies with nut milk, fresh fruit and vegies), and experimenting with brand new recipes. Lemon bars with cashew cream, no dairy - my husband’s first time ever baking. I walked out of the kitchen and so glad I did, cuz he was successful and very proud! Now we are into winter, and the bean soups are proliferating. The kitchen has been our mental health saving grace of 2020! ”
— Suxin

This critical rule also led to another epiphany: Meatless dinner doesn't just need to be on Monday. Vegetable fritters, big salads, and veggie soups have been taking center stage at dinnertime. Eating more greens and reducing meat consumption has been on my priority list for a while, and this year finally got me to embrace it.

The Secret Ingredient Is Right Under Your Nose.

2020 had us rooting around in the back of the pantry. Many times, unused, forgotten ingredients now seemed to have found their purpose. As a recipe tester, I am continually buying components for a dish and then, unfortunately, forgetting about them as they slowly get pushed to the back of the cupboard. This year, I found ways to incorporate these ingredients into dishes. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

For Bobbie Lloyd, Chief Baker of Magnolia Baker and author of The Magnolia Bakery Handbook, a few simple ingredients was all it took to make any recipe a bit more special. "For baking specifically, I learned that sometimes just a little something added to a favorite recipe really bumped it up a notch. Brownies and cookies are always a favorite around here, but add a drizzle of caramel or a swirl of peanut butter to the mix, and it's in another realm."

This might also mean reinventing classic recipes entirely, using what you have on hand. For chef Stephen Parker of Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer, a surprise pantry ingredient led to his chocolate chip cookie recipe's perfection. During the early weeks of the pandemic, the chef "focused on perfecting recipes for a couple of household staples that I normally don't have time to focus on, such as the perfect chocolate chip cookie (two words: milk powder)."

Try New Things (& Don't Be Afraid to Fail).

2020 most definitely became the year where home cooking took center stage. With the new focus came exploration into new cooking methods and projects like never before. As Sherryl Mascarinas, proud home cook and moderator of her town's Facebook cooking and baking club, happily reports: "The best thing I ever did when the quarantine started last March was to face a project so intimidating that no matter how much I wanted to do it, I kept putting off: sourdough bread making. I took the bull by the horn and made my starter from scratch, feeding it patiently for weeks. When it became active enough, I had to experiment with different ways to make the bread: bread machine versus by hand, baked on a sheet pan versus a Dutch oven.

"I learned that you can never know how successful you'll be in making something if you don't try it. I have made many dishes after sourdough that I may not have even have considered trying before. My outlook on trying different things has changed for the better."

As for me, I found this time as an opportunity to plant a home garden, in an effort to keep my seven year old engaged. Getting through schoolwork was challenging, so we decided to take some of our education outdoors. We grabbed hoes, hauled rocks, and then planted a variety of vegetables and herbs. As we researched different varietals and watering schedules, my seven-year-old son became utterly enthralled with his crops. Growing gave my son an optimistic look into each morning, when he would scamper outside barefoot to see the progress. And each ripe fruit or vegetable was a small victory.

Give Yourself a Break.

Probably the most important lesson we learned in 2020 was to slow down and put less pressure on ourselves in all ways, but especially so in the kitchen. Michele Gaton of N.Y.C.'s Extra Virgin found that "As a restaurant owner dealing with the constant changes and ambiguities, I had to change myself. I'm particular with the details and aesthetics of Extra Virgin: What's on the table, the uniforms, the check presenters, the flowers, the colors. It's just my personality. But in crisis mode, I've had to go with whatever works. When I look at all the steps we've taken to get where we are, it's pretty amazing. My energy had to switch into survival and calm."

Hana Asbrink, food writer, recipe developer, and mother, also explains: "I can tell you how I propagated scallions from its roots or embarked on my first sourdough journey (both of which I did do!). But the biggest thing I learned during this time at home is that it's okay to take a break and heat frozen pizza or order that takeout sushi. It's great to run an efficient kitchen, but not at the expense of my well-being. Giving myself the grace to step back and accept help where and when I can has been a big lesson I'll take with me long after the pandemic's over."

While 2020 may not be a year we necessarily want to repeat, it did provide us with perspective, optimism, and confidence to adapt to this new normal. We headed into the kitchen to reinvent the way we cook, the way we think about what we eat, and how we live. As we look ahead, we'll certainly be grateful to leave many aspects of this year in the past, but it's important to reflect on the positives it's brought and use those to guide us into a better tomorrow.

What cooking lessons have you learned in 2020? Let us know in the comments.
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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tessa
  • Pamela Losey
    Pamela Losey
  • Suxin
  • Kathleen Hamman
    Kathleen Hamman
  • Smaug
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


Tessa February 27, 2021
I’m so grateful for this time that we have delved into the truth of food. We’ve created things from nothing, and savored our scraps. I love seeing creativity bloom in the kitchen. It feels like the world is growing up from boxed, processed, and bland meals, and looking for extra spice, zest, and flavor!
Pamela L. January 1, 2021
Where is the recipe for chocolate chip cookies using milk powder? The recipe posted uses buttermilk. Pls post the one referenced in the article.
Suxin December 31, 2020
Man, what a ride this year has been! And the main locus of comfort and quiet has been my kitchen, for me and my family. We are doing the whole vegan thing - Whole food, Plant based. We’re settling in to some tried and true dishes: (Chocolate oatmeal with berry compote, Giant salad with power greens, beans, and crunchies, Smoothies with nut milk, fresh fruit and vegies), and experimenting with brand new recipes. Lemon bars with cashew cream, no dairy - my husband’s first time ever baking. I walked out of the kitchen and so glad I did, cuz he was successful and very proud!
Now we are into winter, and the bean soups are proliferating. The kitchen has been our mental health saving grace of 2020!
Anna F. January 4, 2021
thank you for your comment. it truly has been quite a ride.
Kathleen H. December 31, 2020
I love good food. Cooking has been my creative outlet, but now that chemo has taken away lots of energy and my taste for wine, I found the chefs’ comments on giving ourselves a break comforting. We are never too old or too accomplished to learn from others! I love you all at Food 52! Keep up all your great work! Kathy
Anna F. January 4, 2021
Wishing you all the best in 2021 Kathleen. xo
Smaug December 29, 2020
For a lot of us older folk, cooking- while it may be a hobby and a pastime- is first and foremost a basic life skill and this type of lesson is old hat.