When a reader asked us "how do you become really good at cooking?" (AKA how to develop "nonna skills"), our team couldn't resist the temptation to each take a crack at the "answer." Here’s the email, and our responses are below.
Subject: how do I develop nonna skills?
Message: This is a question that plagues me regularly, as I get inspired by your newsletter, or Canal House Cooks Lunch, or any of the other amazing resources out there - how do I actually get really good at cooking? I enjoy cooking, and feel quite competent at it, but I find myself cooking in a kind of haphazard way, selecting recipes at random based on what looks good, and putting together bits and bobs from my kitchen when not using a recipe. This method leaves me feeling fairly skilled overall, but always like something is missing, or like there are many intuitive gaps I'm not filling. My mom is an incredible Pakistani home cook, and she just knows how to do it, whereas I still look up the proportions for basmati rice to water every time, and 50% of the time it's not quuuuite right (of course, I was not expected to cook for a family from the age of 19 - thank goodness). So my question is - what's the best way for me to really become an intuitive, natural cook. Should I pick a cuisine and focus on it for a while? Should I work through particular techniques in some kind of systematic way? Pick one cookbook? Help!
How do I get good at cooking? I fear that the four of us may be somewhat repetitive here in our answers, so I’ll add some observations based on nearly fifty years of cooking by myself and with cooks who are both more and less experienced than I am, and on paying attention to others cooking.
But first, the obvious: Keep going and be critical. You will get better no matter what; every time we cook (especially with others, whether we’re “teacher” or “student”) we learn. The people you cook for will mostly commend and compliment your cooking, and that’s a good thing—they’re happy that you’re cooking for them, as they should be, and they want you to do it again. The most critical person at your table is going to be you: You know what mistakes you made, and you know how to learn from them. The next time you cook that meal, it’ll be better. It doesn’t mean you need to be falsely modest: You can accept compliments graciously. But just think about what could improve; there’s always something.
My observations about learning how to cook are these: Some of us learn from cookbooks; others learn from their parents. The second is probably preferable but both lock us into a kind of slavishness at first: We cook recipes the way we’re told to, or the way we learned. Some people never move beyond this; I know cooks who don’t know the difference between good-tasting dishes and those that aren’t: They just keep cooking things the same way they always did, uncritically.
Cooks who grow and mature seek other ways to cook dishes they already know; they look for alternatives to the recipes they learned from cookbooks or their parents. This is real growth, because guess what? The first version of a recipe you learn may always have a special place in your heart, and that’s valuable, but it’s not likely to be the best possible iteration. So that’s kind of stage two: Find alternative versions.
In stage three, you start combining the alternatives and making some version that’s really your own. Maybe you have an “aha” moment at a restaurant, or at a friend’s house. You integrate that into your existing style, which has suddenly grown a little bit.
Finally—and I think you’re probably a good cook already, and at this stage, or nearing it—you start, as you say, “putting together bits and bobs,” “not using a recipe,” being “haphazard.” You don’t need recipes so much for specific steps or quantities but for ideas. You know that you can (for example) put cardamom in that basmati, or start it with onions sautéed in butter—or not. No one needs to tell you that: Many options are in your head and at your fingertips, and you can use them at will.
It doesn’t mean you can’t get better still; we all can. But “getting better” at this stage lies mostly in seeing things you haven’t seen already and trying, if you like, to integrate them into your current cooking. Do that and you will grow for the rest of your life.
I hope this has been helpful.
There’s a famous story in my family. Back in the 50s, my grandma spent the whole day cooking for company that was coming that night. The crown jewel of the dinner was a beautiful cake baked in a springform pan. Right before her guests arrived, she accidentally knocked it off the counter onto the floor, where it completely collapsed but didn’t touch the ground. My grandpa offered to run to the store to buy a cake. “Over my dead body,” she said. So, they scooped the exploded cake into their fanciest coupe glasses, doused it in liqueur, and topped it with chocolate chips and whipped cream. Trying not to burst into laughter, she explained to her delighted guests that this was a mysterious French dessert whose name and recipe she would only divulge if they called next day. They did. “It’s called chantallevous,” she said, a made-up word she and my grandpa had concocted. “Here’s the recipe: First you make a cake, then you drop it on the floor…”
This is the grace, resilience, and confidence (she would’ve called it “chutzpah”) of someone who cooks constantly. And she did. Every day (except for Sunday, when it was grandpa’s job to slice her leftover Friday roast beef and put it on rye bread with pickles). Her cooking wasn’t usually flashy (at least not during the week), but relentless, consistent, comforting. To me, “nonna cooking” is weaving the preparation of food so firmly into the fabric of your daily life that you begin to see (taste, smell, hear) the same things over and over again; you develop muscle memory, instincts borne of repetition, and a tolerance for failure strong enough to roll with the gut-punch of an honest to goodness cake-tastrophe.
So, how do you get there? The short (unsatisfying) “answer” is keep cooking; all the time, or as much as you can. Intuition comes from experience, so load up. Try stocking up on pantry, fridge, and freezer staples and cooking from what you have on hand (shopping periodically for fresh stuff) for a month. No recipes. No plans. See how that feels (there’ll be some surprises, plenty of failures, and you’ll learn a ton). Pick 10 recipes you’re dying to make (ideally featuring different techniques or cooking methods), and cook them until you don’t need the recipes anymore. Then keep cooking them. Change them, experiment, they’re yours now. Cook with other people. You want grandma skills? Find someone else who has them and hang out.
Whatever form it takes, just cook. Like anything else, if it’s an activity that you prioritize in your life, you’ll start to get good at it. Maybe even great. You won’t learn everything, but you’ll master the stuff that’s important to you, your family, whoever you cook for. Sooner or later, your loved ones will be telling stories about that one time in the kitchen when you…
And isn’t that what being a nonna is all about?
My Nonnas couldn’t have been more different. Ma-Ma—the Sicilian grandmother born and raised in New Orleans—weaned me from Play-Doh with meatballs.
With that one recipe, she taught six-year-old me the power of cooking with all five senses. Watch the blobs of beef and pork spit out of the grinder; the meat should be almost as white as it is pink. After adding the cooked aromatics, seasonings, cheese, egg, and bread crumbs, fold gently with your hands; pinch a piece between your fingers every now and then to make sure the mixture holds together without overworking. Taste (yes, it was the 60s) for salt and maybe add some dried parsley. Gently shape the meat into balls and carefully set them in the hot olive oil without burning your fingers. You should hear them sputter and sizzle while they cook. But if they start to smell toasty, you’ve either got to lower the heat a bit or turn them.
Granny cared less about how to cook and more about how to eat. She was college-educated in Chicago, a nurse who fancied fashion shows and art museums. For family gatherings she’d present takeout egg foo young and chop suey on heirloom platters and pass the sauce in a porcelain gravy boat. We frequently picked up Colonel Sanders but never ate from the bucket. Once Granny grabbed her chest and began hyperventilating during dinner. We thought she was having a heart attack. “Who left the milk carton on the table?” Before anyone could answer she jumped up and rummaged in the hutch for a crystal pitcher.
Both grandmothers taught valuable lessons. Next time you cook rice, don’t measure—eyeball. You know the approximate ratios and you know it’s got to boil without overflowing the pot. A few minutes before you think it should be done, taste a kernel and tip the pot to see how much water remains. Depending on the results, you’ll either: add a little more water and keep cooking; turn up the heat to boil off some liquid (or drain the rice like pasta—who cares?); or declare the rice perfect, fluff with a fork, cover the pot, and turn off the heat.
Then set a lovely table—even if it’s just you tonight—and pass the rice in a pretty bowl. You got this, Nonna.
I don’t feel at all worthy within this group. MB, Kerri, and Daniel are all extremely accomplished, talented cooks (and, interestingly, all very different, style-wise). I manage to get dinner on the table 99% of the nights my husband and I are both home, and, admittedly, those dinners are usually tasty, but I wish I could say I cooked outside of recipes more.
Still: Ten or fifteen years ago, cooking made me super nervous. I knew I wanted to do it, though, and that alone kept me going. But I always thought cooking dinner meant you had to actually cook a main and a side or two—a big bowl of salad greens, simply dressed didn’t “count.” (Yes, I know this was stupid.) So timing really freaked me out; it was what hindered me.
Three things played into my improvement over the years. First: I just kept cooking. (And really, that is hands-down the most important thing when it comes to being a better cook: cook!) Second: I realized that, especially on a weeknight, you don’t need to actually make more than one thing—if you start thinking you need to create a whole meal, you’ll be less inclined to cook (and, for me, this is where the timing scare would come in—focusing on too many things at once). Remove that pressure and focus on one dish for the center of the meal (something new, or not). Then, depending on what that thing is, make a simple pot of quinoa and a big salad (or other things along these lines—get a baguette, steam some broccoli and toss it with butter and salt and pepper, etc.), and you’re done. This is how I make it happen most weeknights. It is not scary.
And third: Try things that make you nervous (preferably on a weekend when time is less limited). The worst that happens is it doesn’t work out and you eat takeout or a simple bowl of pasta (my go-to: toss with peanut butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and chili sauce). Don’t get upset; instead, take notes and let them guide you the next time you try. Take the time to read through the recipes that intimidate you and you’ll find that—the majority of the time—they’re not difficult, they’re just time-consuming. And you can handle that.