Chefs, cookbook authors and home cooks share invaluable cooking wisdom passed down from their grandmothers.

Vidya Rao
November 09, 2020
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Chef Seamus Mullen, acclaimed chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, with his grandmother.
| Credit: Photo by Colin Clark; Design by Tyrel Stendahl

Our series, "Just Like Grandma Used to Make," explores why we're craving Grandma's cooking now more than ever—and why we should all embrace our comfort-food cravings.

Grandma's cooking takes us back to a simpler time, when delicious food seemed to just magically appear on our plates. It's a comfort we could all use right about now. While many people remember their grandmothers as cute old ladies, the truth is, many of these women were complete badasses, being incredibly resourceful and using brilliant cooking techniques to coax flavor out of the ingredients they had available. We spoke to several people, many of them chefs themselves, about how their grandmothers' cooking influenced them. Here, they share the most valuable cooking wisdom passed down from their grandmothers, which they continue to incorporate in their own kitchens.

Pictured, clockwise from top left: Baker Jocelyn Belk Adam’s grandmother (photo by Chuck Olu-Alabi); EatingWell fellow Alex Loh’s grandmother Mary; EatingWell digital content director Penelope Wall’s Granny Dot; Wall’s grandmother Mama Sonia; Nellie Wong (photo by Pat Tanumihardja); EatingWell senior digital editor Victoria Seaver’s Grandma Mary.
| Credit: Design by Tyrel Stendahl

Bloom your spices

"I grew up visiting my grandmother and great-grandmother on their farm in the Dominican Republic," said Yadira Garcia, a food justice advocate in New York City. "What I learned from them was to always bloom your spices. Put the spices into fat to release flavor, and then crush or grind them. They would heat oil in a cast-iron pot, add the spices and then throw it into a pilon (mortar and pestle), mash it up and throw it back in the pot. It extracted an incredible amount of flavor, and now I teach the same technique to my students."

Use a paper bag to dredge foods for frying

"Growing up in New Orleans, my grandmother would make red beans and rice every Monday, and fried chicken every Wednesday," recalled Gason Nelson, a New Orleans-based private chef. "After coating the chicken in buttermilk or doing an egg wash, she would drop the chicken into a paper bag that had flour, garlic powder, salt, pepper and other seasoning, and she would shake it all up to coat the chicken. Then, she would fry it up in a cast-iron skillet. To this day, this is how I fry fish or chicken. For one, it's less messy—fewer dishes and your fingers stay clean—and two, no piece of chicken is cheated out of seasoning."

Don't overlook the importance of acid

Both of chef and cookbook author Seamus Mullen's grandmothers were classically trained chefs, so he cooked with them constantly while growing up on a Vermont farm. His grandmother Mutti on his maternal side taught him the importance of acid. "The very first dish I ever made was pan-fried trout with brown butter, lemon and capers," said Mullen, who is currently working with the Institute of Culinary Education. "She taught me to make the brown butter sauce and to squeeze a little lemon juice and add the capers. The lemon juice was really important to create a bit of acidity to cut through the richness of the butter and balance out the flavors."

Add raisins to meatballs

"My grandma always put raisins in her meatballs, which added just a touch of sweetness," said food and travel writer Juliet Izon. "I normally can't stand them, but they were so good in that recipe!" Izon's grandmother Sylvia Naimo was Italian-American and grew up in New Jersey. "My grandma learned it from her mom (my great-grandmother), who was born in southern Italy, in a wine-growing region. So there would have been a lot of grapes/raisins around!"

Master onions, garlic and tomatoes

"My grandmother Maria Elena was from a rural part of Mexico called Yahualica. She raised me from when I was about 10 to 15 years old, so I learned a lot about cooking from her. She always told me if you master the onion, garlic and tomato, you'll be able to cook a lot of things," said Juan Muñoz, San Francisco-based head of operations and executive chef at Proper Food. "At the time I didn't understand what she meant. As I got older, I started realizing how many different things you could do with the onion—like, you can chop it up different ways to use it fresh, you sauté it, you caramelize it for a sweeter flavor, you can char it for certain types of salsas, and the same is true for tomatoes and garlic. You can get so many different flavors from the same ingredient. I realized, holy crap, this is at the core of almost every type of cuisine."

Get more flavorful pickles

Seattle-based cookbook author Pat Tanumihardja got the chance to learn cooking tips from 10 different surrogate grandmas, who she interviewed and profiled for The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. One of them was Nellie Wong (pictured above, in the center), who was born in China, grew up in New Zealand and migrated to Indiana in 1964. "When making pickles, she taught me how to slice and feather cucumbers," she explained."She just used a light touch with her knife and she just makes shallow cuts in the cucumber." This allows the flesh to open up, "so that the brine would seep in to the cucumber quicker and deeper, giving a fuller flavor." (Nellie Wong photo courtesy of Pat Tanumihardja.)

Add fish sauce at the end of cooking

Another grandmother Tanumihardja interviewed for her book was Huong Thu Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who taught her "to add fish sauce at the end, so it won't stink up your kitchen or your clothes" when cooking Vietnamese dishes. Try it in this recipe for Vietnamese-Style Coconutty Brussels Sprouts by Andrea Nguyen.

Egg whites are the key to chopped liver

"My grandmother and I would make chopped liver whenever I visited her," recalled Matt Toder, a New York-based videographer. "She had a tiny but immensely heavy meat grinder that my grandfather would haul out and put on the counter whenever we were coming over. She used a tiny amount of hard-boiled egg whites. They went right into the meat grinder. Mixed with the liver, the egg whites created a creamier texture, and also cut the pungency of the liver just a hair."

Blanch for flavor

"The most special memory for me was one of my great-grandmother's recipes that was passed down to my grandmother," said Bianca Borges, a contributing food editor to Milk Street. Her grandmother grew up in the South. "The recipe was for preserved figs, but she didn't chop up the figs, she kept them whole, so they were beautiful. She would blanch them two to three times in boiling water, changing the water each time. Then she would put sugar into the figs, equal to the weight of the figs, and cook them down with a little more water so it creates a syrup. I learned later that there's a real science behind the blanching—you're not just cooking them, you're opening up the cell structure to get the figs sort of primed to soak up the sugar syrup. They are delicious. You can eat them on your toast, you can eat them with cheese, you can add them to meat."