5 Timeless Cooking Lessons We Learned from an Old-World Kitchen

Re-create some of the magic only found in a grandma's kitchen with these ageless cooking tips.

Split picture with one side with a slice of cake on a plate and the other a black and white photo of a familyPhoto: Taste of Home
Photo: Taste of Home

What can we learn from old-world cooking? Sure, cooks in generations past made more food with fewer conveniences, but for Taste of Home Community Cook Lily Julow, it’s so much more than that. Lily’s grandmother Alta grew up in Belarus and moved to America in 1914. She learned to cook from generations of women who preceded her and then passed on her passion for cooking to Lily’s mother, who, in turn, shared it with Lily, along with many of her amazing recipes (including Walnut Honey Cake). While not everyone is fortunate enough to have someone like Alta in the family, we can all follow these lessons from her kitchen.

1. Taste as you go

Because cooking has so many variables—the sweetness and texture of fresh produce, hot spots in an oven, even the humidity in the air—tasting and adjusting as you go are a must! Alta would taste, adjust and then taste again looking for a perfect balance. When you do take a nibble, don’t think about what the dish is supposed to taste like; instead, consider how you want it to taste. If you love fresh basil, throw more in! If your kids turn up their noses at spicy food, leave out the cayenne (and add it just to your portion at the table).

2. Grow your own food

The idea of eating local is nothing new—the only thing new about it is our perspective. Old-world cooks started with ingredients that were delicious all on their own because they were picked at the peak of freshness right from their gardens. Alta even had a hothouse where she grew vegetables and herbs out of season. That flavor can’t be replicated with produce that’s traveled thousands of miles to a local grocery store. Instead, learn how to grow your own vegetables. Consider container gardening, which takes less time and space than a traditional garden.

3. The secret’s in the salt

Unseasoned cooks (pun intended) might add salt until it makes the food taste salty, but Lily’s grandmother knew better. “Alta said that the purpose of salt is to act as a catalyst to coax flavors from the ingredients,” says Lily. The right amount of seasoning will make flavors taste brighter and more cohesive. Remember, though, you can add more, but you can’t take it out. And if you spill any, be sure to throw some over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck, as a true old-world cook would.

4. Cook. Eat. Repeat.

Before The Food Network, food bloggers and a quick Google search for the top 10 potluck recipes, old-world cooks learned by watching and doing. For Alta, there were no recipes and no cookbooks, Lily says. “You watched your mother or grandmother cook and then you cooked.” Old-world cooks had a repertoire of recipes passed down through families, like Alta’s Chicken Paprikash. Through repetition, the dishes were perfected and became easier to prepare as steps became second nature. In contrast, modern cooks constantly scour the internet looking for new and different recipes without ever gaining the benefits that come from making the same dishes again and again.

5. Share the love of cooking

It was thanks to Alta that Lily’s mother was an amazing cook, Lily says. Lily’s mother, in turn, taught Lily how to cook, and Lily shared that passion with her own daughter and now her grandchildren. For Alta’s generation, working in the kitchen was a way of life. Modern cooks have trouble just getting quick and easy dinners on the table, but old-world cooks did more than that: Beloved recipes were shared between generations, strong relationships were forged and memories were made. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson modern cooks can learn from old-world cooking.

Have a time-honored recipe you’d like to pass along to our community of home cooks? Share it with us, here.

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Peggy Woodward, RDN
Peggy is a Senior Food Editor for Taste of Home. In addition to curating recipes, she writes articles, develops recipes and is our in-house nutrition expert. She studied dietetics at the University of Illinois and completed post-graduate studies at the Medical University of South Carolina to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Peggy has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. She’s a mom, a foodie and enjoys being active in her rural Wisconsin community.