In Ina We Trust: Our Q&A with the Queen of Cookbooks

updated Oct 29, 2019
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If Ina Garten has one pet peeve, it’s the phrase season to taste. “If you don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like, how are you supposed to season to taste?” she asks of the way that most recipes are written, with a hint of exasperation in her voice.

When Ina writes a cookbook, she wants you to feel like she’s in the kitchen right there with you. That’s why her latest cookbook, Cook Like a Pro, is sprinkled with tips that she’s picked up from personal experience, or from other culinary legends that she’s befriended along the way. Her goal is to ensure that the final dish tastes more than just good; she wants you to taste her food and say wow. And we do.

Ina’s exacting standards (down to how much salt you should sprinkle on a dish) are how she’s become one of the most trusted recipe developers on the planet. They’re why more than one-and-a-half-million people follow her on Instagram to watch her explain the best method to cut a head of cauliflower or toast croutons. They’re why she’s currently on the road promoting her eleventh cookbook, Cook Like a Pro. And they’re why her food always leaves people wanting seconds (or, in this case, elevenths).

I got a chance to chat with Ina in the midst of all the new cookbook promo to talk about what makes this cookbook different. Read on to find out Jeffrey’s favorite recipe in this cookbook, the recipe that’s eluded her for six years (!), which store-bought ingredients that she considers fine, and why she’ll never run out of cookbook ideas.

All 10 of your previous cookbooks have been huge successes. What makes Cook Like a Pro different?

A lot of people are cooking, but they don’t have anybody to show them the right way to do things. If you know the right way to do things, you cook with more confidence, which encourages you to cook more.

I wanted write this book to answer all of the questions that people ask me, like how to cut a cauliflower without it getting all over your kitchen. There are simple things to know about cooking that nobody ever teaches us. Each recipe in the book is something I love to make and they all include a “pro tip,” something that you may or may not have known about how to prep an ingredient or bring out certain flavors, that really helps you understand the recipe.

Do you have a favorite pro tip from the book?

I love to go to the farm stand and get corn and cut it off the cob, but then it literally ends up all over my kitchen. So I thought, I’ve got to find a way to do this, so I got a sheet pan and a kitchen towel and cut the corn off the cob onto the kitchen towel. Then I picked up the kitchen towel and poured it all into a bowl. It was so much easier.

When you come up with a new recipe, what are all of the checkpoints it must pass to make it into the cookbook?

There are a few things I’m always looking for. The first is, can you go to the grocery store and buy the ingredients? Even if it’s an easy recipe to cook, if it takes you too long to shop for, you won’t want to make it. (Like, do you have to go to India to buy a certain spice?) The second is, does it take less time than you would expect to prep and cook the thing? Then finally when it’s done, is it more than just good? I want it to be like wow, this is delicious. So I’m always looking for ways to bring out flavor at the end, like a splash of vinegar, lime zest, a squeeze of lemon juice on something, Kosher salt. It really makes a difference.

What do you do on days where you feel like you can’t possibly think of another recipe?

That won’t happen! I’ve always had a list of recipes that I’m working on, like 50 recipes that I have ideas for. So what I’ll do each day is go through the list and say, Oh, I really feel like making soup today, and I’ll work on the soup, or It’s the summer I feel like making a salad, so I’ll make a roasted vegetable salad. So there’s always something!

And then in the background, there’s always a recipe that I feel like I’ve been making for six years. Like Boston cream pie — that’s one that’s eluding me. I’ve been working on it for I don’t know how long, but I’ve just never gotten it exactly right. It’s about getting the moistness of the cake, balanced with the flavor of the cream filling, balanced with the chocolate glaze. Layering them perfectly so they all go together is important — I’m not there yet. When I can’t think of anything else I feel like making, I’ll go back to that. It’s such a difficult job! [Laughs.]

What’s your go-to weeknight meal when you don’t feel like cooking?

I don’t make anything! I’m cooking all day so I’ll bring home whatever we’ve been working on, but if it’s a lemon meringue pie, I tend to order out. I love Loaves and Fishes in Bridgehampton, New York. They do a really good orange grilled salmon and vegetables. There’s a wonderful restaurant around the corner called 1770 House and we will call up and order meatloaf and take that out. If I’m cooking all day, the last thing I want to do is decide what’s for dinner, shop, cook, or clean up!

What’s Jeffrey’s favorite recipe in Cook Like a Pro?

The nice thing about Jeffrey is that he likes whatever I made last! Particularly, though, he likes the red wine braised short ribs and blue cheese grits. Those got rave reviews.

If you could only cook with one cheese for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Parmesan! Gruyère is number two, though; I do use a lot of Gruyère!

What are the ingredients that should be in every pro kitchen?

I think you should have good olive oil; California Olive Oil is light and flavorful. Everybody should have pasta, Parmesan cheese, canned tomatoes to make a quick sauce. I have different kinds of mustards — Dijon, whole-grain, honey mustard. And different kinds of chocolates to make chocolate cake or pudding.

You’ve mastered the art of using one ingredient to boost the flavor of another (like adding coffee to your chocolate cakes). What are some other tricks that you swear by?

There’s always an ingredient that makes the main thing taste better but you’re not even aware that it’s there. With lentils, I always put in red wine vinegar. For weeknight Bolognese, I add a splash of red wine. When I cook with plums, I always add a little bit of cassis to bring out the plum-iness of it.

Who are you most inspired by now in food?

I’m always inspired by Danny Meyer‘s restaurants — including Shake Shack! There’s a recipe for his fried chicken sandwich my cookbook. Also Yotam Ottolenghi always has great ideas for vegetables and desserts. I love his Sweets cookbook, which is wonderful, and Ottolenghi Simple. There are so many people. I can’t remember the last time I went to a Jean Georges restaurant and didn’t come home ready to make something inspired by that. Like the salted caramel sundae, which is also in the cookbook.

How do you feel about the meal prep movement?

It’s a great idea! Why not? I get home from work and don’t feel like cooking. If you have to feed everybody, that’s a great way to do it. Actually in Cook Like a Pro, there’s this eggplant and tomato soup recipe that then can become a pasta sauce another day. So you’re not just reheating something — you’re using it in a different way. If you’re making a risotto one day, the next day use it to make sautéed risotto cakes.

What’s the biggest mistake that new cooks make in the kitchen?

Most people make the biggest mistake in seasoning with salt and pepper. They don’t use it enough. Every recipe says season to taste. But you don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like, so how are you supposed to season it to taste? If you have chicken stock that isn’t seasoned well, it tastes like dirty dishwater! So if you add salt to it, you’ll taste the chicken, vegetables, and herbs.

What are some things that are acceptable to not make from scratch?

Every town has a great bakery or a specialty food store that makes great cookies. We just got some lemon meringue tarts from Le Bilboquet, the takeout part. I like to find something extraordinary that you can buy, as is, and serve. My mantra is always Your friends don’t have more fun if you spend a day making lemon meringue tarts, when you can buy delicious ones from a good bakery. Just choose special things. Spend time looking for things in your hometown that you can just buy and serve as is. I’m kind of big on that.

Then there are some shortcuts I love. If you want to serve chocolate cake with crème anglaise, buy a wonderful chocolate cake and take a pint of Haagen Dazs and melt it. In order to make Haagen Dazs ice cream, they have to take crème anglaise and freeze it … so just reverse the process and you’ve got crème anglaise, and end up with a wonderful dessert!

People turn to you as one of the most trusted cookbook authors out there — how does that make you feel?

That’s really nice. I have to say, we work really hard to ensure that every recipe will come out every single time. I do a recipe over and over and over again until I’m absolutely certain that it’s exactly how I want it to be. And then I hand it to Lidey and say I want you to make this exactly how somebody at home would, with no instruction, just the printed page. I want to see if she has questions or hesitations and then I’ll write the answers into the recipe.

After she’s done, and it comes out exactly the way that I want it, I’ll serve it for a dinner party. It’s one thing to have the entire day to make a salad. But it’s another thing to make a salad, vegetable, main course, and dessert. If it’s too much work to serve at a dinner party, it won’t end up in a book. Then someone will test it on an electric oven, because I have a gas oven and it’s a completely different thing. I test it in a lot of different ways. If they’re not standing next to me, I want them to feel like if they have a question, the answer’s right there in the margin.

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What’s next for you?

For now, we are on the Cook Like a Pro book tour. I always tell my publisher, I’m happy to go anywhere that you want me to go, as long as we end up at The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. It’s the treat at the end of it! So I’m looking forward to that. We always go to CUT, Wolfgang Puck’s steak restaurant, at the very end. I don’t know if we will do that this year, but it’s a nice celebration.

After that, though, I’m already well into my twelfth cookbook! The truth is, I love doing it, and I’m really happy that people love the recipes.

Read More About Cook Like a Pro

Interview has been edited for clarity.