Cooking Advice From Mom

Elise’s mom in the kitchen (more photos)

I was recently asked to write about what I’ve learned from my mother about cooking. Since I cook with my mom almost every day, this wasn’t a difficult exercise. I’m still learning from her, though now occasionally she learns something from me too. ;-)

My mother is one of those intuitive cooks in the kitchen. 73 years old, and having raised six kids, she doesn’t follow recipes anymore. If you watch her while she cooks, the timing just appears to happen seamlessly. Whereas I’m good for only making one dish at a time, mom can coordinate a whole meal for 8 – a main course protein, one or two veggie sides, a starch, and a salad – without getting remotely flustered. She’s always tasting whatever she is cooking, and adjusting the seasonings. She cooks from memory and a well developed sense of what works together well, and how flavors come in balance.

If you ever get the chance to meet my mom you’ll quickly learn that she loves nothing more than to give advice. About everything. If you work with her in the kitchen, she’ll continue to give you the same advice, over and over and over again, until it is clear to her that you have learned what she wants you to learn. Or perhaps it’s just me that she needs to give the advice repeatedly to, since I’m a typical daughter, my mother can’t tell me anything.

What are some of things about food and cooking my mother has taught me over the years? Here goes:

1. Do not be afraid of using salt, sugar, or fat in your cooking. They’re important for flavor and everything is okay in moderation.

2. Taste while you’re cooking. Taste when you think it’s done. To achieve the right balance of flavors you have to taste and make adjustments.

3. Balance acidity with sugar. When you are cooking a tomato-based sauce, tomatoes can be acidic, you may need to balance the acidity with a little sugar. You can either add a teaspoon of sugar to the sauce, or you can include in the sauce some sautéed onions and or carrots, which are sweet and will bring balance to the tomatoes. Same goes for salad dressings. If you are making a lemon juice or vinegar and oil based dressing, add a little sugar to balance the acidity of the lemon or vinegar.

4. Salt your food while cooking it. It will bring out the flavor of the food better than if you only add salt at the end. Remember to put plenty of salt in your pasta water! By the way, if you use whole, fresh ingredients you don’t have to worry about too much salt, because most of the excess salt we get in our diets comes from packaged foods.

5. Buy and cook what’s in season. It will taste better and be cheaper. If you don’t know what’s in season, ask.

6. Always read the ingredient label on the box or can. They put all sorts of junk in things these days. Especially watch out for anything that says “low fat” on the label; they usually pack those products with carb-based fillers.

7. Try to pick the heaviest one of its size when you buy a lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit. That one will be the juiciest. (This is one of the first things my mom ever taught me about food, I can still remember being a kid of 7, picking out the heaviest oranges from the bin.)

8. Use a separate cutting board for cutting poultry, and wash thoroughly everything that the raw poultry touches – your hands, counter, knives, cutting board – after you’re done.

9. A little bit of bacon fat is great for flavor, as is chicken fat, and of course butter. Do not be afraid to use these fats (in moderation, of course). Grapeseed oil is the best oil to use for frying foods; it has a high smoke point and is high in Omega 3. The only two oils you need for cooking are grapeseed oil and olive oil. Regardless of the latest diet craze, your body needs fat to function well. So don’t be afraid of it.

10. Eat fish the day you buy it and keep it cold before you cook it. Fish is best when very fresh.

11. If you want your meat to brown, don’t stir it, and don’t crowd the pan. Just let it sit there in the hot pan, until it is browned on one side. Then stir, or flip.

12. Buy and use a pressure cooker. Don’t be afraid of them. The new ones have all these great safety features. You’ll save plenty of time cooking with a pressure cooker, especially when cooking artichokes or dry beans.

13. Vary your meals from day to day. If you have chicken for dinner one day, have pork, beef, or fish the next. Do not eat the same foods every day. Our bodies are designed for variety.

This list could easily go on, actually. Mom can talk for hours, in an informed and intelligent way, about why fat is good for you, the best way to make jam, how to tell when a steak is done, how there is no one-size-fits-all diet for anybody, etc. etc. My mother is beautiful, curious, kind, strong, happy and healthy. Everything I know about food and cooking is inspired by her example. One doesn’t get luckier than that. Happy Mothers Day.

What are the most important things about cooking that you’ve learned from your parents? Please feel free to share in the comments.

58 Comments

  1. Linda

    Oh, Elise. What a nice tribute to your mom. I am copying her lessons and adding them to what I’ve written for my daughter. Both of you are so beautiful, happy and healthy looking. Your mom does not look 73! You are both so lucky to have each other and have such a wonderful relationship. I hope that my child will cook with me as we travel along this wonderful life. Take care and Happy Mother’s Day to your mom.

  2. Garrett

    Elise, your mom rocks! I always learn something new about food and cooking every time I see her! You and all your siblings are very, very lucky. =)

  3. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)

    What a lovely post — you’re so lucky to have a mom who likes to cook and likes to spend time with you in the kitchen. Happy mother’s day to your mom!

  4. Mrs. Mordecai

    What a beautiful post. Thank you.

    From my dad, I learned that it’s fun to add lots of herbs and spices to your cooking. From my mom, I learned that you shouldn’t add all of them. :)

  5. Kalyn

    Ah gee, I love that picture of you with your mom! What a great team.

  6. Bookwoman8487

    You’ve mentioned your mother a number of times when I’m reading your recipe. What a lovely way to honor your mother. The pictures are great. I have envy that you get to cook together all the time. I want a country kitchen where there are couches and a fireplace and rockers and everybody’s hanging out giving advice and visiting. I would also like for my mother to live closer that 1,200 miles from me!! Maybe someday…

  7. jonathan

    13 pearls of cooking wisdom from your mother.

    Okay…maybe 12. I still haven’t bought a pressure cooker and I don’t plan on it for fear of blowing myself up.

    Hey – your Mom won’t use the mandoline, I won’t use the pressure cooker. We’ll call it a draw ;-)

    Happy Mother’s Day!

    [Six kids?!? Bocce Balls!!! My hero(ine)!!!]

    You’re telling me! Mom walks on water. ~Elise

  8. Georgia

    What a nice tribute to your mother. My mother passed away a long time ago, but I think about her every day. She was a very good cook but not a fancy one. I was a very late baby and by the time I came along she had changed her way of cooking and no longer made some dishes she had made before I came along. I remember mentioning to her that I had jam cake at my mother-in-law’s home and it was so very good and said she gave me the recipe. My mom got very upset because I didn’t ask her for her recipe. Well, I didn’t know she had ever made a jam cake. I married very young and didn’t know squat about cooking. My husband was and is a very patient man. Mom never wanted anyone in the kitchen when she was cooking and the only thing I was allowed to do to help was peel potatoes and cut up onions. To this day I hate to peel potatoes and cut up onions. My husband loves to tell about my first picture perfect fried chicken. I was so proud of myself until we tried to eat it and blood ran out!!! Sorry for this lengthy memory sharing, but this Mother’s Day brings back so many memories of my mom. Thankfully, I am a pretty good cook these day. At least my family say so. But I have never been able to make vegetable soup as good as mom’s.

  9. caitlyn

    What a beautiful post, Elise! Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned from your mom. I love both photos in this post, as well as the ones in the Flickr set!

  10. Kristi

    What a wonderful post, and what a beautiful mom! It is a blessing that you have each other, to share your love of cooking and your lives. Happy Mother’s Day, Elise’s Mom!

    My mom died in 1990, when I was 17. Today (May 11) would have been her 74th birthday. I miss her for so many reasons, just one of which is that she was a marvelous cook. I wish that I had cared to learn about cooking from her while she was alive – of course, as a teenager, I had better things to do and thought I’d have forever for that kind of stuff. But somewhere along the line I discovered her love of cooking within me, and today cooking makes me feel close to her. :)

    As an aside, I have a pressure cooker that I’m scared to use! Perhaps you or your mom could teach us how in a blog post?

  11. Lunasea

    Wow, if I follow your mom’s tips, will I look that great when I’m 73?

    It’s so nice that you’re inspired by her.

  12. melissa

    that was lovely elise. thank you for this post. your mom has a lot of good lessons. :)

  13. Stacia

    Oh, what a lovely post, Elise – thanks! Just a pleasure to read and to see what you and your mom look like. You both look terrific, and those photos are amazing. I’m always so jealous of your camera. Happy Mothers Day to you and your mom!

    Unfortunately I don’t really have any cooking tips from my parents. Dad didn’t cook and mom wasn’t the best cook in the world, nor did she teach me anything about cooking. She did make the best fried catfish I’ve ever had, though, no one can match it. I got interested in cooking because of a co-worker of mine several years ago, and lots of practice and blogs like yours are what got me to where I am now.

  14. sj

    Comment #1 expresses what I wanted to say, but I also wanted to thank you for linking to your flicker page. A lot of love is coming through there. You are very blessed.

  15. Jen Yu

    Elise, your mother is adorable and did I mention she doesn’t look a day over 50? Wonderful post. I love how your family cooks together – very heartwarming and fun.

  16. chigiy

    A wonderful post about your mom. Thank you.
    Your mom gives great cooking tips.
    I miss my mom.
    Cherish every moment you have with your mom.
    Happy Mother’s Day to her.

  17. Margaret Marks

    It is so nice to see faces relating to your continual references to your dear Mum and Dad. It makes your recipe contributions so personal, and I do enjoy seeing so many familiar dishes, with your personal touches.
    I hope your Mum had a wonderful Mother’s Day.The pressure cooker brought back memories of my days in the kitchen with my Mum. She will be 94 this year, so must have fed her family and herself well.

  18. Juanjo

    Great you talk so good about your mom!
    People nowadays need their parents at home but they are not there so much.
    I guess many people will have decided to stay more with their children after having read this great “recipe”!

  19. MariaV

    I love the photo of you and your mother. Lovely.

    My mother rarely cooks and when she does it isn’t usually edible. Sad, but true.

    #7 is new to me. Thank you.

  20. adina

    I don’t remember if I’ve ever left a message in your blog, but I give a look to it almost every day. Today, through your pictures, it was like looking at me! You look like me… or I look like you. Really, with these glasses even more! :-) In my blog there’s a picture of mine here: http://lacucinadiadina.blogspot.com/2008/01/il-meme-della-personalit-novembre.html

  21. Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    I love the tips, but I have to say your Mom looks Amazing!!! Complimenti alla signora :)

  22. Deb

    Your mom has a beautiful face and a beautiful smile, and I wish she lived next door to me!

  23. Saffoula

    The love between your parents radiates from your photos! You are one lucky girl.

  24. Stephen

    Thanks Elise’s Mom! It’s impossible to count all of the things our moms taught us. My mom just turned 84 and she’s slowed down quite a bit in the kitchen. Now, many days, I put her meals on the table and hope they taste half as good to her as hers tasted to me when I was waiting expectantly at the table. We shouldn’t need Mother’s Day to count our blessings but it’s a nice nudge in the rump should we ever forget.

  25. Denise

    Love the pics that you posted of your mom and dad. The love just oozes off the screen. You are a blessed family.

    p.s. Your mom looks fantastic! Not anywhere near 73 – definitely could pass for 60!

    p.p.s. I have not learned anything from my mother on cooking. She is a great cook but has not taken the time to try and help me learn how to cook. I have actually learned more from your blog than from her, so I THANK YOU! ;0

  26. Abby

    Lovely post. I can tell how close you are! I hope Mother’s Day was wonderful for you all.

  27. Lisa (Homesick Texan)

    I have to say number 9 is my mantra–everything is always better with bacon! What a wonderful post, Elise. Thanks for sharing your beautiful mother’s words of culinary wisdom with us.

  28. Hank

    All good advice. I would add these two from my mum: DON’T BOIL THE CHOWDER!!! (She was very urgent on this point), and a good tomato ragu needs to cook all day.

  29. Alicia

    Elise, both you and your mom rock!

    2 bits of wisdom my mother threw out unintentionally that has always stuck with me:

    1. If you add to much milk to the mash potatoes, keep stirring!

    2. No matter how old a man is, he is still a little boy. (My Dad was 70-something and annoyed my mom.)

    I’ve tried 7 recipes from this site and all are now keepers. Keep up the great work and passion for food/cooking!

  30. Sarah

    What a lovely essay, and what a fantastic mom! You are blessed to have her. My mom gave me some advice that has stuck with me through the years – 1. never be afraid to experiment with new ingredients or tastes; 2. treat your cooking like art – enjoy every process and step of creation. When I think of these things, it’s as if mom is back in the kitchen with me. Happy Mother’s Day!

  31. palegreenhorse

    I’ve thought about a pressure cooker, but like a couple of the other posters I am still scared! (Have you seen the myth busters where they launch a hot water heater?!) Though more reminders that they are safe is good. Maybe eventually I’ll believe them.

    I’d love a post on how to use a pressure cooker to make things like baked beans (although can you pressure cook and achieve the same results, my gut says yes) and other inexpensive things that are even cheaper when made from dry goods rather than can.

  32. whb4

    I am blessed to have a mom and mother in law who are phenomenal cooks. One thing that I have learned is don’t be afraid to ask. If someone prepared something that hits the spot, the best compliment that you can give is to ask their secret. Also, my own piece of advice to cooks is to remember for whom you are cooking and then you’ll stir in that one little magical ingredient – love. I have been sharing that special ingredient with my wife for thirteen years now.

    Ain’t that the truth? Love. The most important ingredient of them all. :-) ~Elise

  33. coreyjo

    This is lovely. Although my mama is a good cook, I think I learned all my cooking basics from my daddy. He’s still my first resource when I try something new or can’t remember just how something ought to go. He taught me how to make a roux, how to let things sit to brown, how to carve a chicken, how to roast chiles (although he’s the white side of the family), how to really enjoy cooking (he’d come home from work everyday – excited to cook dinner),and a million other things.

  34. Lisa

    I would NEVER have guessed 73. Never.

  35. Uma

    Wonderful post Elise :) I’ve used a few of your recipes and love your writing.
    Yay, I can actually contribute to the discussion on pressure cookers. I think every household in India probably has one, used for everything including rice, lentils and vegetables. So they aren’t as unsafe as you would think :). I brought mine with me from India so the ones you get here might be slightly different.
    I think the easiest things to remember is when in doubt lower the stove temperature. That way you won’t have the steam build up too quickly though it will slow down the cooking. Mine has a little whistle like a tea kettle that goes off that lets me know. They have good safety valves that are basically circuit breakers that will destroy the valve but not have the cooker blow up.

    My pressure cooker is the kind that sits on the stove, but my mother’s is electric, so you can more precisely manage the heat. Both have their advantages. I had no idea pressure cookers were popular in India, thanks for letting us know. ~Elise

  36. Lisa

    My mom used to make home-made doughnuts every week. The smell of the doughnuts cooking in hot oil would make all the kids in the neighborhood come running to stand under the exhaust fan from the kitchen to the back yard. I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she hit the switch on that fan. All the boys would be standing in the backyard, salivating – “Ms Ouellette’s makin’ doughnuts!, Ms Ouellette’s makin’ doughnuts!”. She’d hand out the cooked scrap dough, shaped oddly from the cut-out circles – we’d imagine them to be dinosaurs or monsters. Then, with one gulp, the still-warm, nutmeg-infused crunchy, doughy clumps would end up in our bellies.

    My sisters and I begged for the recipe. She would say “oh, it’s a handful of flour, a handful of crisco, a little salt, some sugar, and a pinch of nutmeg – cook that in hot oil”. We thought she was being evasive, and accused her of that many times.

    After she passed away, my sisters and I were sorting through her things, and discovered her recipe book – a classic thread-bound composition book – and we pounced on it, shrieking collectively, “doughnuts!”, thinking we’d finally found the secret recipe. In that book, noted simply under “doughnuts” was our treasure… and it read:

    Handful of flour
    Handful of crisco
    some salt
    some baking powder
    Handful of sugar
    pinch nutmeg

    She wasn’t lying and she wasn’t holding back, all those years.

    What a great, great story. Thank you so much for sharing Lisa. ~Elise

  37. Julie

    My parents are both great cooks in their own way. Neither of them makes anything very complicated or gourmet or experimental, but it’s all delicious and balanced.

    We ate at the table together at least 5 nights out of 7. We never had fast food for dinner unless we were traveling. Canned, jarred, and frozen foods (not entrees) helped us assemble dinner quickly, but we used fresh ingredients whenever we had time. And my sister and I always had to help, so by the time we left home we were comfortable making all sorts of things.

    My parents taught me the most important cooking lesson of all, one that many people never get: COOK!

  38. joey

    It’s obvious where you got your lovely face and talent, Elise! A beautiful tribute. These tips could have been from my Mother and though gone for over 33 years, is still my mentor and guide in both the garden and kitchen. You are most fortunate to share this quality time with your parents.

  39. Naomi Jane

    That was beautiful,Indeed…… So happy Mothers Day…….. And here’s to many more

  40. Melly

    Love this post so much. I miss my mom.

    She taught me to wash my hands often while cooking; she taught me to save bacon grease to use while frying eggs or in anything that needs a bit of bacon flavor; she taught me that the greatest way to nurture people is to feed them..and feed them well; she taught me how to garden and how to can; she taught me how to cut up a chicken, butterfly a leg of lamb, and how to make perfect hard-boiled eggs.

    Thanks for the memories Elise.

  41. Angela

    I enjoy your recipes, I check what’s listed every day. I love your article on your Mom, thank you for sharing. She is a beautiful woman, you are lucky to have her. Thank you again.

  42. Anonymous

    That was a great tribute to a mom. Your mom looks great!!!! I hope I look that great at that age. I’m going to follow all her advice.

  43. Sally

    Pressure cookers are wonderful! I’ve used one often for the past 30+ years. Problems with them are generally the user’s fault. I speak from experience. The new versions are user-proof.

    Elise, wonderful tips from your Mom! I’d love to read more of her advice.

  44. Skip Trevithick

    Question — Does anyone have a good recipe for home made doughnuts ? My mom used to make them , maybe with sourdough or buttermilk , I don’t remember. Im jonesing for some !!!! :>)

  45. Ari

    Great, absolutely great post!!

    Quick note on pressure cookers: they are faboulous, I have one and use it at least once a week. Saves lots of time and sometimes it’s the only way meat will come out soft.

    My mom taught me just about everything I know about cooking. Although I didn’t help her a lot while she was cooking, she always made me pay attention. There were some things which were my responsibility to cook, such as white and red rice, coffee (grain), pasta soups (you may know them as sopa de pasta or sopa aguada), and horchata. Everything else, I watched her cook. And now I find myself remembering things I never even knew I had learned… her feeling, I guess. Oh, and precisely the year she died (2000, she’d be 74 now) she gave each one of us (6 children) a copy of a recipe book she gathered for us. It’s so great, and sometimes funny… Things like “keep simmering until it’s ready”, or asking to use an ingredient she hadn’t mentioned before… but I know, I always know. I miss her so much!! I just wish her grandchildren had met her… I was 2 1/2 months pregnant with the first when she passed away. Anyway, Elise, give my best to your mom from me!

  46. Cris

    This was a sweet tribute to your mom. The picture of you two together is so beautiful! My mom had 7 kids, so these two probably would have a lot to talk about if they ever got together, well, we’d need a translator, but a mother’s language seems to be universal, their unconditional love! :-)

  47. Doreen

    I just celebrated my birthday on May 1. My 2 grown daughters gave me the ultimate gift. They collected old photos of my immediate family, including my parents, and me growing up. They constructed a cook book of all of my Mom’s recipes and each page is decorated with our family pictures.
    They ordered this hard back book from Shutterfly.com.
    My Mom passed away last summer….needless to say this book is now one of my most treasured possessions.
    Hug your Mom every day.

  48. Anonymous

    Oh what a beautiful face and soul your Mother has! I enjoyed reading her tips and all of the comments.
    I’m new to this site, but will return again soon to try some of the recipes.

  49. Sommar

    Your mom looks awesome and no where near her seventies!

  50. Jody

    I wanna turn out like your mom someday.
    Thank you for sharing these tidbits of wisdom from your mom. She’s beautiful (and so are you).

    Jody

  51. Elise

    Thank you everyone, for your kind words and for the touching stories you’ve shared with us. I sat down with both my mom and dad in front of the computer so they could read all of your comments. They were both delighted, amused, and moved by your words and stories. It still amazes them, as it does me, that the things we do around here could reach and have an impact on so many people. So, thank you.

  52. frances

    Funny thing is, I hardly ever taste the food while I am cooking. It somehow always turns out fine….
    I do, however, do the same thing your mom does. One might call it old school cooking. I am not impressed by the ready made stuff in the supermarkets.

  53. AAS

    Very nice list. My only comment is regarding the concept of salt. “Don’t be afraid of salt” is not a good policy when cooking. Excess salt contributes to much of America’s obesity and heart disease, and everyone (no matter how healthy) will benefit from a lower-salt diet.

    Sorry if it appears I’m raining on your parade. This list was otherwise helpful and very interesting!

    You can avoid excess salt by avoiding packaged foods. Salt is actually necessary for the body to function. My next door neighbor was hospitalized last year because she was so good at avoiding salt in her diet she overdid it. I’m not kidding. See the Wikipedia on salt or ask your doctor. Salt is necessary for health. The skill is navigating the area between “excess” and “not enough”. ~Elise

  54. Jeanne

    What a wonderful post – and what a wonderful mom! My mom would have been about the same age now, had she been alive. She said many of the same things as your mom – like the sugar in tomatoes thing & everything in moderation. Being a working mom, she also always said that nobody should be embarrassed about taking a shortcut now and then, but to make sure you make it your own. Her favourite was to use gravy granules, but to sautee some onions and garlic to add to the gravy along with a splash of sherry. I really miss her & hope you treasure your time with your mom.

  55. Joan

    Wonderful pictures and great story. How sweet of you to feature your Mom. I am sure she is very proud of you too!

  56. Jennifer

    Elise,

    You’re mom is adorable! Her tips remind me of my granny – I can’t tell you what an inspiration in life and in cooking my granny has been to me.

    Keep the wonderful posts coming my dear!

  57. Jean Marie

    I just returned from a Mother’s Day brunch with my mom at her lovely retirement community. She doesn’t cook much anymore but she was a very good cook and always cooked with seasonal ingredients. I was so lucky to have a mom and a grandmother who not only welcomed me in their kitchens but taught and encouraged me. In their later years, as things go, I became the family cook and it was/is a pleasure.

  58. clevermonkey

    Your mom is gorgeous (and the photos of her and your dad just make me smile and give me hope that my marriage will remain happy and satisfying throughout my life).

    The tips are so simple and logical but a great reminder every day! Thanks.

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