Cooking Advice From Mom


Tried and true cooking advice from Elise's mom, a master home cook who raised 6 kids on wholesome scratch cooking.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer and Guy Michelier

Updated from the archives with new photos, first posted in 2008 when Elise’s mom was 73, she’s now 82. Happy Mother’s Day!

Years ago I was asked to write about what I’ve learned from my mother about cooking. Since at the time I was living with my parents and cooking 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. 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 best at 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.

Tried and true cooking advice from Elise's mom, a master home cook who managed to raise 6 kids on wholesome scratch cooking.

Elise and her mom in her mom’s kitchen

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. The people working in the produce department at grocery stores are usually more than happy to help.

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 (and other produce as well). 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). Fry foods with an oil with a high smoke point, such as rice bran oil or grapeseed oil. Olive oil is great for daily cooking needs. Regardless of the latest diet craze, your body needs fat to function well. So don’t be afraid of it.

10. Eat fresh 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 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.

By the way, here is a delightful graphic about my mom’s advice put together by Alicia Souza of Feel free to share on social media!

Tried and true cooking advice from Elise's mom, a master home cook who managed to raise 6 kids on wholesome scratch cooking.

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Elise Bauer

Elise Bauer is the founder of Simply Recipes. Elise launched Simply Recipes in 2003 as a way to keep track of her family's recipes, and along the way grew it into one of the most popular cooking websites in the world. Elise is dedicated to helping home cooks be successful in the kitchen. Elise is a graduate of Stanford University, and lives in Sacramento, California.

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  1. Danika Mininger

    I was so encouraged by this article! You see my mom had five kids, no husband and 2 or 3 jobs at a time. She is a really good cook, but didn’t have the time to do much teaching. I remember her making homemade bread and soups, and she made us a real breakfast nearly every morning after getting off the night shift.
    I am stretched out on the couch at nearly 11pm looking for some good recipes to feed my own kids next week. I was up at 6am and made dinner for 150 people at church tonight. It is important to me that my girls eat well and learn to cook, but sometimes it is very hard in the thick of it as I am now. I’m tired, Elise. My feet and back hurt. Reading your lovely article about your mom and reading all the comments I was encouraged to not give up the fight. Thank you so much!!

  2. Herb

    Like a lot of people, I learned to cook from my Mom.
    As soon as I was old enough to tell time, she was teaching me how to cook. When I grew up, there were no digital clocks. I had to learn the big hand, little hand method.
    Once I could tell time, my Mom would prepare a meal the night before & write me a note with cooking instructions.
    So, about age 7-8, I was actually cooking dinner.
    Baked potatoes & meatloaf were the easiest for me to cook.
    I spent a lot of time learning to shop for groceries and picking out the best produce from my Mom also.
    Mom turned 83 this year & she’s still going strong.
    Today, I am a somewhat accomplished cook thanks to my Mom & her patience in teaching me something she enjoyed.
    Part of her will live on thru my & my kids because I kept the family traditions going all these years.
    If you are lucky enough to still have your Mom, listen to her & get all the family recipes while you still can. Thankfully, I got her prized recipe box while she is still here to see me enjoy making the old family recipes today.

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  3. Virginia Kaser

    Loved the picture of your mom! My mom taught me a few things about cooking, but mostly let me learn on my own, as she had. #1. If something is salty, add a wee bit of sugar; if something is sweet, add a wee bit of salt. #2. If you can’t think of what to cook for dinner, just start sauteing some onions. The aroma will soon inspire you.

  4. anna*

    My dad basically taught my mom to cook so this list for me would be mostly “cooking advice from dad” but similar :)

    I’d add, start teaching your kids young. From PB&J or other sandwiches to pasta and things on the stove to the oven…. I couldn’t believe how many of my friends in college didn’t know how to cook anything besides frozen foods.

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  5. Laura

    What a nice tribute to your mom. My mom basically only cooked things that my dad liked so it wasn’t until I met my boyfriend (now husband) that I even ate/cooked broccoli! One piece of advice I give to everyone now, which isn’t really a cooking tip, but will save much clean-up is if you are pouring something into a cup or container, do it over the sink. This is especially helpful if pouring oil or honey or even confectioners sugar. It’s so easy to clean up a messy sink!

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Alice Bauer in her kitchenCooking Advice From Mom