74 of the Very Best Lessons We’ve Ever Learned from Ina Garten (in Honor of Her 74th Birthday)

published Feb 2, 2022
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Happy Groundhog Day! Or, as we like to call it, Ina Garten’s Birthday Day! Today marks the Barefoot Contessa’s 74th trip around the sun. So while most of America waits to find out whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, we’re here to shine a light on all the brilliant lessons we’ve learned from Ina over the years. We don’t mean to throw shade at Phil or anything, but Ina can tell us a lot more than just how long winter is gonna last — with a lot more accuracy too.

In honor of Ina’s 74th birthday, here are our 74 favorite lessons we’ve learned from watching her.

  1. Store-bought is fine. This is basically Ina’s unofficial motto. And you know what? She’s right! Don’t have time to make pie crust from scratch? Too busy to make your own breadcrumbs? Need a quick pasta sauce? Store-bought is, indeed, fine.
  2. You need a bigger glass for your cosmo. No, bigger. Back at the start of the pandemic (somehow, almost two years ago), Ina posted a video on Instagram showing viewers how to make a giant cosmo. It was what we all needed and a video we will never forget.
  3. Good olive oil is key. Ina often calls for “good olive oil” in recipes and cooking segments. What’s good olive oil? We’ve seen her use different stuff over the years, but the olive oil on her blog’s shopping list is Olio Santo, a cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from California, which you can find at Williams Sonoma.
  4. Ditto for a good knife. Ina also says that great home cooking starts with a “good knife.” We asked what she meant by that, and she told us! She swears by Wüsthof’s classic chef’s knife and says the brand is worth the investment.
  5. An electric knife sharpener can keep that knife in tip-top condition. If you’re gonna spend $170 on a chef’s knife, then you should also invest in an electric sharpener to keep said knife nice and sharp. We’ve tested out the one Ina likes and, shocker, we absolutely vouch for it.
  6. The best pepper mill probably isn’t what you’re picturing. When you imagine a pepper mill in your mind’s eye, this probably isn’t what you see. But Ina wants to change that. She loves this pepper mill because it’s easy to reload and change the coarseness of the grind. The oversized knob is comfortable to crank and there’s a cap, which corrals errant pieces.
  7. Everyone needs a stack of sheet pans. When Ina made an appearance on the Radio Cherry Bombe podcast, Kerry Diamond asked her to name the one tool she uses the most in her kitchen. “That’s a tough one,” said Ina, before deciding on sheet pans as the answer. “I love a stack of sheet pans because you can cook almost anything on it,” she elaborates. She mentions cooking chicken and roasting vegetables on them, and says she uses them a lot.
  8. Chocolate buttercream benefits from an egg yolk. Ina has a smart spin on classic buttercream frosting. She adds an egg yolk, which adds a richness and creaminess — it also stabilizes the frosting, giving it a professional, polished look.
  9. We should all keep a jar of spoons near the stove. Fairly early on in the pandemic, the New York Times paid a (socially distanced) visit to Ina’s house in the Hamptons. She gave them a tour and one of our big takeaways was that everyone should keep a jar of spoons near the stove. This way, you can taste your creations as you work without having to fumble around in a drawer first. So simple, yet so smart.
  10. Everyone should have a kitchen scale. During that tour with the Times, Ina pulled out this OXO kitchen scale. “I use it all time,” she said. “If something says 5 ounces and you want it to be 5 ounces, it’s really helpful to have a kitchen scale.”
  11. Garlic, oranges, eggs, and lemons belong in bowls on the counter. Ina says she keeps three things on her counter at all times: that jar of spoons, a big cutting board (which we’ll get to), and bowls of things that are better at room temperature. What’s in those bowls? Garlic, oranges, eggs, and lemons.
  12. Boos boards are the best cutting boards. Now, onto her big cutting board. Ina swears by Boos boards (along with Giada and countless other chefs) and she uses them for more than just chopping. Ina also uses her Boos boards as staging areas, serving trays, and general work surfaces.
  13. Serving trays are a must-have for an outdoor party. Speaking of serving trays, you may have noticed that Ina’s always gliding out from her kitchen to the patio carrying food and drinks on a large tray. Instead of making multiple trips, which is inefficient and cuts into your time with guests, it’s way easier to load everything up on a try and bring it out all at once. Plus, it makes for a more elegant presentation. 
  14. Cauliflower belongs on toast. If you haven’t made the cauliflower toast from Ina’s cookbook Cook Like a Pro, put it on your must-make list. It’s a million times better than even the best avocado toast.
  15. Pound cake needs a generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar. While testing popular pound cake recipes, we fell hard for Ina’s darn-near-perfect recipe. It was moist and tender, but the best part was the crackly crust. The secret? A very generous sprinkling of turbinado sugar.
  16. Dijon mustard is a must-have. Ina has quite a few key recipes that call for Dijon mustard — like this panko-crusted Dijon mustard salmon, these chicken thighs with creamy mustard sauce, and this mustard-roasted fish. The two brands that she often recommends: Grey Poupon and Maille.
  17. The best vegetable peeler costs just a few bucks. While Ina’s favorite knife is a bit of a splurge, her favorite vegetable peeler comes in a pack of three for $20! There’s no vegetable peeler that gets the job done better than the simple-yet-effective Kuhn Rikon Straight Peeler.
  18. Hash browns should be cooked in the waffle iron. When it comes to shredded potatoes, Ina uses her waffle iron, which she says makes for the “easiest and most delicious hash browns you’ll ever make.” We tested her method and can confirm that it’s brilliant.
  19. Potato chips (in a nice bowl) are all you need before a dinner party. “I like to find delicious little appetizers that need no cooking at all,” Ina once said on Instagram before sharing her most simple tip of all time. Apparently, she serves store-bought potato chips. “I present them in a really pretty silver bowl so they look special,” Ina explains.
  20. PB&J is so much better when it’s toasted. Ina shared an Instagram post of the world’s most perfect PB&J. She kindly included her favorite brands (Pepperidge Farm bread, Skippy peanut butter, and Eli Zabar’s raspberry preserves), but the real takeaway was the lightly toasted bread.
  21. These controversial canned tomatoes are ridiculously goodSan Marzano tomatoes show up in countless Ina recipes, including her weeknight Bolognese16-bean pasta e fagiolieasy tomato soupMoroccan lamb tagineorecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage, and more. They’re controversial, however, because they’re not real San Marzanos. That said, they still won a top spot in our blind taste test.
  22. Homemade chocolate bark makes for a great hostess gift. Headed to a party? Steal this homemade chocolate bark from Ina. It’s easy to whip up and stunning, thanks to the colorful dried fruit and nuts.
  23. And the best gift gift is a bottle of Sauternes. Need a real gift? Pick up a bottle of Sauternes. It’s what Ina once told us she wanted for the holidays. If it’s good enough for Ina …
  24. Vodka, bread, and ice cream count as freezer staples. Yes, Ina said so. And that’s kinda all you need to know, right?
  25. Lodge makes the best cast iron skillets. Ina loves Lodge skillets — the 10.25– and 12-inch pans are both included on the list of recommended items on her website. The only thing we love more than these skillets? Their budget-friendly price tags.
  26. It’s okay to leave pantry staples in their original packages. Spend even one second on Pinterest and you’ll start to think that all of your pantry items need to be decanted into pretty jars and canisters. But we studied Ina’s pantry and realized that she leaves most ingredients in the containers they came in.
  27. Flour and sugar belong in large canisters. You do need to decant two things, though: your flour and sugar. Ina keeps her baking staples in two-gallon glass canisters and we started doing the same, which means we can confirm that her setup is as handy as it is pretty. The canisters have mouths that are wide enough to allow for easy scooping and refilling.
  28. Our reusable grocery bags could use an upgrade. Ina’s go-to grocery bag is a leather-handled burlap carrier bag. It’s Very Pricey, yes, but it’s much roomier than most standard bags, and can hold up to 100 pounds.
  29. A cushy mat is a must in the kitchen. Ina says that standing on an anti-fatigue gel mat has helped her stay on her feet for hours at a time while she’s cooking — pain-free. 
  30. Deli containers are magical. For sauces, leftovers, and more, Ina likes deli containers: “I just use them over and over again, and they go in the dishwasher.” She also puts them in the freezer, of course. She just labels each container with the recipe name and date.
  31. Vodka sauce should be oven-roasted. Ina’s recipe for classic Italian vodka sauce calls for roasting aromatics, vodka, and crushed tomatoes in a hot oven. We tried and it makes the best bowl of penne alla vodka you’ll ever eat.
  32. You need *TWO* utensil crocks. Crocks are key for organizing your most-used cooking tools. But if your kitchen is anything like ours, that crock is overstuffed with spatulas, whisks, and spoons. Ina has a better way. She separates her kitchen utensils into two crocks: one for metal things and the other for wooden stuff.
  33. Bakers should pick up a bottle of Nielsen-Massey vanilla. It’s what Ina considers to be “good vanilla.”
  34. Rao’s makes the best jarred pasta sauce. Ina has called this stuff “fantastic” and it won in our own blind taste test, too.
  35. Always keep a great finishing salt on hand. In addition to kosher salt for cooking, Ina uses sea salts like Maldon and Le Saunier De Camargue Fleur De Sel for sprinkling on finished dishes.
  36. We should all be buying Texmati rice. While we’re over here in the grocery section of this list, we wanted to call out Ina’s favorite brand of rice. “I like the quality of Texmati rice. I use brown basmati rice, white basmati rice, arborio rice, and couscous. I just find the flavor fantastic,” she told Bon Appetit back in 2018.
  37. Hellmann’s and Duke’s = good mayonnaise. One more. When Ina calls for “good mayo” in a recipe, she means Hellmann’s or Duke’s.
  38. If you’re renovating your kitchen, consider the “work triangle.” What’s a work triangle? It’s a guide for kitchen design and one that Ina believes in: “When I’m designing a kitchen … I think of setting the stove, the sink, and the refrigerator in a triangle so that you can move around really well,” she said on Today.
  39. It’s a good idea to roast (and carve) your holiday turkey in advance. Thanksgiving may be long over, but we’re still thinking about Ina’s top turkey tip: She roasts, carves, and plates the bird in advance of dinner.
  40. Not all roasting pans are created equal. Ina’s favorite roasting pan is not cheap, but it is a total winner. The All-Clad stainless steel roasting pan comes with a roomy rack insert, and it’s made to last. Get your money’s worth by using it to roast veggies, bake extra-large lasagnas, and more.
  41. Cucumber salad doesn’t have to be runny. Cucumber salad is often watery and runny. But Ina’s recipe relies on a clever trick: Straining the yogurt for hours before mixing up the dressing. The result is thick and creamy — like mayonnaise!
  42. Parmesan chicken makes the best weeknight meal. Ina’s roast chicken is a standard go-to, so when she declared her favorite weeknight dinner — second only to that chicken — we were listening. Her pick: Parmesan chicken with a cold lemony salad that takes less than 30 minutes to make.
  43. Everyone should know how to make a vinaigrette. To dress that salad in the chicken dinner above, you’re going to need this Instagram video. Plus, four ingredients and two tools. That’s it.
  44. It’s best to just pick one flower for your table. Ina says the easiest way to create a stylish centerpiece is simply to find one flower you love, get a bunch of them, and put them in water glasses. She describes this centerpiece as “simple and elegant,” and we think that anyone who looks at the table would agree.
  45. Don’t stack things in the freezer until they’re properly frozen. At the start of the pandemic, Ina gave some of her best freezer-stocking tips. She said we shouldn’t stack our containers until they’re all frozen (this helps things freeze faster) and to “defrost food in the fridge overnight rather than on the counter. It’s safer.”
  46. Taylor Swift and Jennifer Garner are awesome. Okay, we already knew this. It’s just that they’re all friends … and we’re super jealous.
  47. Using extra-large eggs — especially when it comes to baking — can make a big difference. If you’re familiar with Ina, then you know she exclusively uses extra-large eggs in all of her recipes. Back in 2018, Ina told Bon Appétit that a friend once endorsed the use of extra-large eggs, stating that their baking “instantly improved.” While it’s not clear why Ina prefers extra-large eggs, for the best results when baking (especially in recipes that call for a lot of eggs), it’s a good idea to use the type called for in the recipe if you can — so if you’re making an Ina recipe, go for those extra-larges, per her instructions! (Learn more about egg sizes.) 
  48. Read a recipe all the way through before cooking. One tip Ina often emphasizes, especially for beginner cooks, is to always read a recipe all the way through before starting anything. This way, as Ina explains in Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, you can avoid running into any unexpected problems or tasks that require more time than you have.
  49. Knowing how to properly measure flour is key. While many professional cooks believe that a kitchen scale is the only way to properly measure ingredients like flour, Ina also tests recipes with flour measured in cups, but she uses a specific method to make sure measurements are correct: This involves aerating the flour by fluffing it (similar to how you would fluff freshly cooked rice), scooping, and leveling with a finger rather than packing it in. “Working in a professional kitchen taught me that if you fluff the flour before dipping in your measuring cup and leveling it off the top,” Ina says in Cook Like a Pro, “you will have exactly the same amount of flour each time.”This can make a considerable difference in whether a recipe is a success, especially in baking when a little too much or too little flour can cause your baked goods to be dry or soggy.
  50. Melted vanilla ice cream is the perfect shortcut dessert topping. It goes without saying that Ina has so many helpful tips and tricks up her sleeve, but one of the easiest is probably her shortcut for a crème anglaise. In her recipe for Vanilla Brioche Bread Pudding (Cook Like a Pro), instead of making traditional crème anglaise from scratch, she melts good-quality vanilla ice cream to use as a simple yet delicious topping.
  51. Grind hard cheeses in the food processor. To save time and for a great texture, Ina suggests skipping the cheese grater and pulling out the food processor instead. No need to mess with the grating attachment — just toss your Parm in the food processor bowl and pulse. Using the food processor not only saves time and energy, but it also produces cheese with a consistent texture. It’s a win-win. 
  52. Don’t make meringues on a rainy day. Beautiful yet delicate foods like meringue are hard to nail the first time around. One tip Ina gives in her book Modern Comfort Food that can help address meringue mishaps is to avoid making them on a rainy day. The moisture in the air can make the meringues sticky and harder to work with.
  53. Coffee and chocolate are BFFs. You’ll often see Ina add some form of coffee to her chocolate recipes, like her incredible chocolate cake that’s a Kitchn staff favorite. There’s a reason this flavor combo is such a huge hit: Coffee helps amp up the flavor of the chocolate, without making your dessert taste like coffee. Magic! (Or science. Or Ina.)
  54. Adding pesto to soup is smart and delicious. There are a lot of different ways to gussy up homemade soup. For Ina, this includes adding simple and accessible ingredients, like a spoonful of store-bought pesto. (Adding puff pastry croutons to soup is a great idea too.)
  55. Salt a small portion of your food before salting the entire dish. When salting large batches (say, a big pot of stew, soup, or beans), Ina recommends transferring a tasting portion into a separate bowl and adding salt there first to get an idea of how much salt to add to the dish. “That way I can add salt slowly and carefully without ruining the whole dish,” Ina says in Cook Like a Pro. And a little side tip from Kitchn: Remember, you can add salt but you can’t take it away.
  56. Individual servings are an instant upgrade. Ina puts a lot of thought into plating and serving. In Cook Like a Pro, she recommends serving recipes like baked pasta in individual gratin dishes or her Campari and Orange Granita in stemmed martini glasses. “Using tricks like these,” Ina says, “you can easily make something homemade look totally impressive and professional.”
  57. Using white dishware is a great way to make food shine. As explained in her tips for expert plating in Cook Like a Pro, Ina says that, on most occasions, serving meals on simple white serving platters and dishes is the best way to make the food the star of the show.
  58. The secret ingredient to better meatballs is prosciutto. In an episode of The Barefoot Contessa, Ina shares a delicious recipe for turkey meatballs with one unexpected-yet-ingenious ingredient. In addition to ground turkey and spicy Italian sausage, Ina adds prosciutto, which adds the perfect salty flavor.
  59. Leave the skin on when cooking chicken. Even if you plan to remove chicken skin before serving, it’s a good idea to leave it on when cooking for super-flavorful meat. For the most part, I always cook chicken with the skin on,” Ina wrote in response to a fan question. “I find that it makes the meat much more tender and moist.” While the question was about chicken breasts, we can confirm this is true for all cuts of chicken — but especially breasts, which are more prone to drying out because they are so lean.
  60. You should be trussing your chicken. For her Perfect Roast Chicken, one of her most popular recipes, Ina emphasizes that trussing a chicken can be the difference between a perfectly prepared bird and one that’s unevenly cooked. Plus, the process doesn’t have to be complicated. You simply need to tie the legs together, as she demonstrates in this video
  61. Be generous with the wine. Ina knows when and where to wield wine in the kitchen. Take her Red-Wine Braised Short Ribs recipe, which calls for an entire bottle. She’s a fan of bold wines, like Côtes du Rhône or Burgundy, which can stand up to long braises.
  62. Mail-order is also fine. While we know Ina loves making things from scratch, ordering her delicious recipes online is definitely an option too! Thanks to Goldbelly, you can bring some of The Barefoot Contessa’s most beloved recipes right to your doorstep. (Outrageous Brownies, we’re looking at you!)
  63. Use butter and oil together for sautéing. In addition to coffee and chocolate, one ingredient combination you’ll likely see Ina using is butter and olive oil. Many recipes call for putting using one or the other when sautéing something like onions. Ina is a fan of the butter-oil combo because she loves the flavor that butter adds to a dish, like her Garlic and Herb Roasted Shrimp, while the high smoke point of oil helps prevent the butter from burning.
  64. Learn 10 base recipes and you have almost endless options. “I am a big believer you really only need 10 recipes,” Ina says in a video for making crab cakes. She explains that if you can get 10 recipes down pat and then just switch up spices, proteins, and herbs, you have the building blocks for making almost endless variations. (For example, with those crab cakes, you can switch up the protein and make salmon cakes, switch up the herbs for different flavor profile, and so on.)
  65. Use your measuring cup as a makeshift mixing bowl. Glass measuring cups are made for measuring wet ingredients, but they also make a great small mixing bowl. Ina often measures wet ingredients together in glass measuring cups and uses a small whisk to bring them together. One fewer dish to clean!
  66. Keeping homemade chicken stock on hand is game-changing. Around March 2020, Ina shared some of her favorite freezer staples on Instagram, one of them being large containers of chicken stock. “I have to include this recipe [for chicken stock] in every book because it’s the basis for so many of my dishes,” Ina says in Cooking for Jeffrey, “Of course you can use canned stock or broth but this is easy to make and the difference it makes in the finished dish is astonishing.” She uses her homemade stock as a base for soups and stews, of course, but she also uses it to add rich flavor to rice, farro, couscous, and more.
  67. Leftovers are not only OK, they’re encouraged. Some people have negative feelings about leftovers, but as far as Ina is concerned, leftovers — or “two-fers” as she calls them — are a great opportunity to make something new that you’ll love just as much as the original dish. Take this recipe for Tomato & Eggplant Soup, for example, which she transforms into a tasty baked pasta dish.
  68. Use a vegetable peeler to fancy up your dessert. Don’t just pull out the veggie peeler when it comes time to prep potatoes and carrots. A vegetable peeler, as Ina explains in Cook Like a Pro, is a great way to make chocolate shavings for elegant, restaurant-style desserts.
  69. Toasted nuts are worth the extra time every time. Ina’s recipes often call for toasting ingredients like pine nuts on the stove or in the oven, rather than just throwing a handful of raw ones into a salad or side dish. They’re roasty, toasty, and extra delicious.
  70. Always make a recipe exactly as written the first time. In several of her books, including Cook Like a Pro and Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Ina says that substitutions for ingredients aren’t out of the question — they just have to be used carefully. To make changes to a recipe, Ina recommends first making a recipe as is and then experimenting with other alternatives to fit your taste.
  71. White truffle butter makes everything better. Well, just about everything. If there’s one ingredient Ina Garten uses frequently — aside from good vanilla and olive oil, of course — it would probably be white truffle butter. Ina uses this special ingredient (specifically from the brand Urbani) in dishes like mac and cheese, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, pasta, and more.
  72. It’s OK to break the rules … every once in a while. When it comes to cooking, many believe there are unwritten rules to making traditional dishes. One good example of breaking these rules is Ina’s Classic Mashed Potatoes, which she makes using a (gasp!) hand mixer.
  73. A roast chicken is a great way to win anyone over. Don’t believe us? Just ask Jeffrey! In her book Cooking for Jeffrey, Ina compiled a list of “Jeffrey’s All-Time Favorite Dinners,” with her recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken taking the top spot. Additionally, when a fan asked Ina how to know that their significant other is “the one,” Ina told them to make a roast chicken to know for sure!
  74. Cooking for someone is one of the best gifts you can give. In a segment with CBS News in 2015, Ina said that cooking for someone is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and we couldn’t agree more. Delicious recipes and invaluable words of wisdom are just a few of the many gifts we’ve received from The Barefoot Contessa herself.

What lessons have you learned from watching Ina over the years? Tell us in the comments below!