Unpronounceable synthetic additives, partially hydrogenated fats, pink slime—modern processed foods leave many of us yearning for real food prepared simply. We long for the old-fashioned cooking methods our grandmothers used, when we could only buy ingredients—not packaged meals.
This guide to old-fashioned cooking might inspire you to get back to basics. But this is not a cooking guide. It is a guide to the key principles that underpinned the approach to cooking and meal planning of countless households before the advent of industrial agriculture. Old-fashioned cooking isn’t about fine dining. In profound ways, it isn’t about recipes or presentation, or even about cooking at all. It is about offering food that is in harmony with life as we live it today and as we want to live it tomorrow.
Old-fashioned cooking is simple and deeply flavored. It fills the kitchen with lovely smells, and like all good, honest food, it has the power to bring families and friends together. As you plan your meals, keep in mind the six principles outlined here as a guide to keeping things simple. Embrace basic recipes made with honest ingredients. If you are looking for a cookbook to help you, I recommend the 75th Anniversary Edition of the American classic The Joy of Cooking.
For delicious homemade cinnamon rolls like those pictured above, check out this Cinnamon Rolls recipe.
Old-fashioned cooking is generous, sumptuous and sensual, but it always declares its frugality. The reason pot roast, not prime rib, epitomizes old-fashioned cooking is that pot roast brings out the best in the cheapest cuts of meat. Old-fashioned cooking is produced within the limits of a strict budget, and its strength comes from those limits. You can’t cook just anything for dinner—the budget won’t allow it.
Frugality is the discipline that structures the old-fashioned meal, requiring planning, thoughtful spending and minimizing waste. It can be a means to free up money to put into savings for personal and family dreams.
The old-fashioned cook consciously makes food choices based on a budget that is stringent enough to affect the menu. Saving $5 a day adds up to $1,800 a year; $10 a day to $3,600 a year. Every meal becomes a moment in which the present and the future are mediated through what is on the plate. This brings fundamental balance into life. Start by cutting the food budget by 10 percent, and each month put that money toward achieving a goal.
2. Real Ingredients
Cutting money from the food budget does not mean turning to cheap, processed foods; these weren’t available to the old-fashioned cook. Instead, working from a strict budget means relying on inexpensive whole foods. It naturally directs the cook toward choosing seasonal produce, growing her own herbs, and raising chickens for eggs, for example. It reduces the quantity of expensive ingredients we can eat, but encourages us to savor them more. It requires the use of fattier, more sinewy (and more flavorful) cuts of meat, and using every bit of an animal’s protein. Thus, letting price be the guide has the virtuous consequence of ensuring flavor in meals.
Simplicity is the hallmark of old-fashioned home cooking. In-season vegetables lightly cooked and served with fresh butter (see recipe for Homemade Sweet Cream Butter) or an aromatic olive oil is something to look forward to. Soups, stews and casseroles are typical of old-fashioned cooking both because they are simple to make and because they use inexpensive ingredients such as whole grains, beans and cheaper cuts of meat that benefit from long, slow cooking.
4. Cooking from Scratch
Cooking from scratch is healthier. It is cheaper. And to make cooking from scratch practical you must simplify. When one is used to relying on pancake mix, it can be astonishing to discover that it is just as simple to mix flour, baking powder, milk and eggs. You can even make your own convenience foods by doubling dishes that freeze well and portioning them before freezing.
5. Repeat Successes
To bring back a simpler time, embrace ease. Set aside the weekend or holiday meals as times for innovation and complicated recipes. For the busy workweek, don’t be afraid to establish a menu routine. An expected routine makes grocery shopping and budgeting that much easier. And your family can look forward to “Vegetable Lasagna Monday” and “Taco Tuesday” all week. A structured and repetitious menu can be liberating, allowing you to experiment with small details to great effect.
6. Hunger Is the Best Sauce
It is one of the fundamental truths of human existence that the culinary senses are sharpened when a little hungry. The old-fashioned cook didn’t have a rule about snacking; she didn’t have the luxury of snacking. Just as you might eat lightly before a highly anticipated culinary event (dinner out or a Thanksgiving feast), you can eat a little less, trusting that your family meal will be very satisfying. Snacking with abandon is a habit that can be very difficult to give up. Do. Your food will taste better, your family meals will become more animated, and the money you save could help you make a dream come true.
Old-Fashioned Kitchen Tools
These manually operated hand tools are just as valuable today as they were in your grandmother’s kitchen.
Potato Masher: Make homemade mashed potatoes, baba ganoush, guacamole and more with this ridiculously easy-to-operate tool.
Rotary Beater: Blend ingredients for everything from scrambled eggs to cake batters without ever plugging in.
Sharp Knife: The importance of a good knife cannot be overstated. Surprisingly often, it’s the best choice for a task, even if your kitchen is stocked with fancy electric pulsers, choppers and processors.