6 Cooking Tips a Jewish Grandmother Teaches Her Family

Recipe? What recipe?

Wrinkled grandmothers hands putting filling in dough. Close up view.
Photo: photoguns/Getty Images

I wish I'd grown up with my Jewish grandmothers — but I'm thrilled at least my children are getting that chance. I wonder what they'll remember from their time in the kitchen and around the table together with the older generation. What are the cooking tips they'll know from growing up with Jewish grandmothers?

Recently, I posed this question to Jewish friends in my social networks, and the exercise revealed a collection of common themes. I was not at all surprised to find relatively fewer of the tips were actually about preparing food. Instead, far more of grandkids' memories of their bubbies' teachings relate to stretching the value of food (persecution and deprivation will do that), and sharing it abundantly as a love language.

Here, I collected those indelible food memories for this list of tips that will definitely sound familiar if you grew up with a Jewish grandmother, too.

1. Cooking requires neither formal measurements nor formal recipes

Some grandkids cherish their grandmothers' hand-written and detailed recipes, meticulously reproducing them. But Jewish grandkids? Not so much.

"No recipe needed, just go with how it feels!" is the method Lia Picard learned from her grandmother. Similarly, Zlata Faerman recalls this grandmotherly approach: "Measurements? What are measurements?!"

Aly Walansky's grandmother did use recipes, but they weren't exactly… precise. "Oh, my grandmother did recipes, but her own recipes were impossible to follow," she says. "It reads like 'some butter,' 'a little flour.' She may know what that meant, but I sure as heck don't!"

2. When you do use a recipe, use the one you find on the Manischewitz box

Fortunately, many grandmothers' approach to making the perfect matzah ball soup is more easily reproducible. "My grandma told me, 'to make matzo ball soup like I do, just get a box of Manischewitz and follow the directions!'" Maressa Brown recalls. (This is how my mom does it, too — and my kids love it!)

3. When in doubt, turn it into a casserole

This one dovetails with the grandmotherly advice that "it is a sin to waste," as Avril Gros Love learned growing up with bubbies who were also survivors of concentration camps.

If it might go bad, if it might go to waste , just get out a bowl and mix it all together for a casserole to prolong its life. And even if it's not left over? Casserole it.

Walansky explains, "My grandma was very much a fan of the casserole — something that was inexpensive, easy to throw together, and led to a lot of food." Her grandma's teachings are behind Walansky's budget-friendly cooking strategy even now. "I think I learned some of my best [strategies for] stretching the budget and the meal to last longer or for more people from her," she says. "And my freezer can attest to that!"

4. You can always use more oil and salt

If you think you're using enough oil and enough salt, think of your grandma over your shoulder telling you to toss in a bisl more. "You always need more salt than you think you do," is Leeanna Gantt's top takeaway.

Same goes for oil. "The more oil you have when making potato latkes, the better," Stacey Feintuch says. "Meanwhile they would be dripping in grease!"

Indeed, Jewish grandmas as a group don't necessarily make any important connection between oil and health… except the positive kind. One friend described a Jewish grandma in the family who "drowns everything with olive oil because olive oil is healthy."

5. Make gefilte fish from the very freshest fish possible

Gefilte fish is one of those Jewish foods that is universally reviled — or at least met with widespread skepticism, even among members of the tribe. But if you're going to serve it — and you're not going to just buy the canned version — you better make it from the freshest fish possible.

"For gefilte fish, carp must be fresh — kept live in the bathtub — and ground by hand in a meat grinder clamped to the counter," Love says, drawing from unpleasant but indelible memories.

6. Feeding everyone until they positively pop is the surest way to show love

Sure, this approach to cooking and eating is a common trait among grandmothers cross-culturally, and Jewish grandmothers are no exception. Their strategy? Cook a lot, always have a lot of food on hand just in case, and share it liberally whenever the opportunity presents. In my family, the refrain is, "ess, meyn kind (eat, my child)," which comes from my grandparents' generation.

Walansky's grandmother's top tip? "Keep food in the freezer in case people come by."

Rachel Jacoby Zoldan remembers, "My gammy 'cooked delivery' for my brother and I way back when. Literally woulda been a seamless OG!"

Most of all, Jewish grandkids say their grandmothers passed down a memorable strategy of cooking and serving in large quantities… and never taking no for an answer. "No matter what," Bryce Gruber learned, "Keep feeding everyone… whether they're hungry or not."

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