What Self-Isolation Has Taught Us About Cooking

The dishes never stop. There's no such thing as enough produce. And, seriously, it's okay if your meals aren't perfect.

Vicky Wasik

The Serious Eats team has been working remotely for over a month now, which equates to more breakfasts, lunches, and dinners than any of us are accustomed to producing in our own homes. We've documented countless homemade meals on our blog, developed recipes from pantry staples for our cooking guide, and done our best to provide guidelines about food safety and kitchen cleanliness. Along the way, we've learned plenty of lessons of our own, from how to stock up and plan our meals, to when it's time to cut ourselves some slack. It's also been a sobering time to reflect upon our privilege as job-, food-, and housing-secure; for those in a similar position who'd like to support people who are struggling, we're big fans of the COVID-19 relief work being done by World Central Kitchen.

Now, here's a look at our biggest takeaways; be sure you share yours in the comments.

There's More Than One Way to Meal Plan

Now is a wonderful time to try to cook both old and familiar recipes as well as new ones you've been meaning to try. But if you attempt to lean on recipes for the majority of your meals, you're in for a world of hurt and wasted food. Ingredients, including staples, aren't reliably available right now, throwing a wrench in many of the best-laid recipe plans. And many recipes are designed to feed four, which, depending on your family size, isn't likely to get you very far before you're on to the next recipe and its unique set of ingredients, which encourages food waste (keep in mind, many recipes do not scale up well). And if you do have recipes that scale well, then you're stuck eating the same damned thing day after day. That, or you have to play a game of freezer roulette as you fish for servings of old meals to defrost; there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the only strategy I'd want to rely on right now.

My solution is to take an entirely different approach by purchasing ingredients in bulk and creating components from them that I can use flexibly in a wide variety of meals; it's a way of cooking I've outlined in-depth in this article on meal-planning during self-isolation. It's kept my family well fed, staved off monotonous-meal boredom, and gets more and more exciting by the day as I whip up ever new permutations and combinations. All I see ahead is possibility. Daniel Gritzer, managing culinary director

And Experimenting Is Fun

Kneading dough for parathas

Find a style of cooking that matches your favorite hobby. It's no secret that I have a passion/obsession with making pottery. I love the tactile/meditative quality of it: working wet clay, watching it take form, and seeing it transform from one stage to the next. Working with dough has a lot of the same draw for me. Over the last few weeks, I've made two loaves of bread, scallion pancakes, and pierogi. Mixing the dough, shaping it, rolling it out, and cooking it to watch it turn into a completely different entity is straight-up magic. —Vicky Wasik, visual director

So Find Your Comfort Food

Generally, I enjoy baking because it relies on control and accuracy. These days around 8 p.m. the idea creeps into my mind that I need make to something sugary and warm, and stat. Lately, there's been a lot of flourless chocolate cake and quickbreads. When there’s a lot going on that feels out of my control, I find following a recipe and turning on the oven for some extra coziness to be extremely comforting. Plus, I always thank myself when the afternoon sugar craving hits the next day. —Jina Stanfill, social media editor

Shortages on the grocery store shelf come and go, but it seems you can always get dry beans; you can always get rice. What is more wholesome and comforting than rice and beans? Rice and beans go with everything. You can eat them with chicken. You can eat them with eggs. You can eat them with nopales. You can eat them with whatever veggies you manage to find. The stores ran out of burrito wraps so I’ve started making my own, but even these are just a vehicle for scooping up the main attraction: rice and beans. It feels like a meal fit for a king. —John Mattia, video editor

And Make Enough for Leftovers

Various food items frozen flat in labeled, dated zipper-lock bags, including ground pork, lentil soup, and pea soup

My mom recently reminded me that growing up I’d always complain about being served leftovers and mutter, “Again?” under my breath before reluctantly eating what was put in front of me. Even in adulthood, I’d minimize the amount of leftovers by adjusting recipes down from serving four people to serving two. Now, in the midst of quarantine, I find myself changing gears. I have wholly embraced a life of leftovers. Three times a day, I feed myself, my husband and our voracious toddler, who will search me out and announce loudly “I want to eat!” I’ll serve dinner leftovers for lunch the next day and then freeze any extra for a future meal that I’ll defrost when I’m either tired, feeling uninspired, or just plain lazy. —Kristina Razon, operations manager

Fresh Produce Is Precious

Apparently, my appetite for greens—tender lettuce, yes, but also the hardier varieties, like chicory; escarole; broccoli rabe; even, dear god, kale—is boundless, something I didn't realize when I could shop for fresh produce every day, but which has increasingly become a conundrum given that I am making one trip to the grocery store a week, and I only have so much crisper space. Yes, cooking greens down saves space in the fridge, but when you can eat a bunch of rabe in one sitting and still crave more (maybe I'm iron-deficient? chlorophyll-needy?), having cooked greens around means you'll just devour them 'til they're gone (a little shaved Parm, some good olive oil, ugh I could eat that right now), and then you have no more for the rest of the week.

My only takeaway/lesson is buy greens in variety, buy double of each bundle you think you want to eat in the moment, eat some every night, also anchovies have never met a bitterish or sweetish green they didn't like.

The greens I really miss right now, though, are Chinese greens like yu choy, pea shoot leaves, celtuce, Shanghai bok choy, all good, hardy greens that last a long time in the fridge (if you have room) and are delicious when stir-fried with nothing more than a robust quantity of oil and garlic and salt, but for some reason, Western supermarkets, like the one nearest to me that has wide enough aisles to allow you to pretend you're observing best social-distancing practices, have no interest in stocking them. Sho Spaeth, staff writer and editor

But Preserved Produce Works in a Pinch

Vicky Wasik

My husband and I are both deeply introverted and already work from home (where my job is to literally bake all day), so truth be told our life in Kentucky doesn’t look terribly different these days—aside from the egg-rationing at my local Kroger and a concerted effort to limit my grocery runs.

Being a baker means I was already making my own whole wheat sandwich bread, bagels, and all that jazz (e.g., crusty boules of Kenji’s no-knead bread and Sasha’s trapizzino). But the dozen-eggs-per-grocery-run means I’ve really leaned into a different style of baking, focusing on things like the eggless hamburger buns and English muffins from my book as well as all sorts of naturally egg-free cookies and treats.

The biggest shift these days is in how keenly aware I am of how briefly fresh produce lasts in my house and how often I would normally need to run out and restock. To that end, I’ve started making more extensive use of frozen/dried/canned/pickled goods to supplement my fruit and veggie life, which has actually worked to add a lot of variety to our meals.

Dried blueberries work just as well fresh simmered with my morning oats, and a drained jar of artichoke hearts upgrades what would otherwise be a simple cheese pizza; we’ve been pickling carrots at home to round out our meal when dinner’s just an assortment of bread and cheese, and I’ve come to prefer frozen kale since it’s already washed and wilted, so to speak. Stella Parks, pastry wizard

So Work With What You've Got

I've always been one to follow a recipe to a tee. Sure, when I'm cooking nothing in particular with the odds and ends in my fridge, I'll play around with measurements and flavors. But when I know I want to make a specific recipe, I want to make it the "right way," which to me has always meant the way the recipe developer intended it to be made. But these days, as I attempt to save money and make fewer trips to the grocery store, I've learned to improvise. Cooking up some butter chicken but don't have any cashews? Use almonds instead! Making Sasha's pasta with beans and greens but don't have kale? The bag of spinach in the fridge will do just fine. Contrary to my previous way of thinking, recipes don't have to be followed exactly, especially during times like these, and you don't always need top-tier ingredients to make a delicious, comforting meal. There's joy in taking something that someone else has suggested and finding a way to make it your own. —Yasmine Maggio, social media intern

And Be Smart About Scraps

Quiche made from cheese scraps
Vicky Wasik

As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I've never lived more than a block or two from a supermarket. I often shop for each meal, and I'm used to being able to run out for specialty ingredients or the occasional forgotten item—sometimes even in the middle of making dinner. Now that I'm trying to keep shopping trips to a minimum, I've become much better at basing my meals around what I have in the house. I love the creativity that shift has necessitated, and it's gotten me excited about cooking in new ways. But it's also made me so much more aware of the amount of food I'm accustomed to wasting.

I'm not entirely there yet, but I'm working hard to shift my meal-planning strategy to ensure I use up every last sprig of parsley or stalk of celery before it goes bad. Fruit peels and pits can almost always be turned into a flavorful syrup—perfect for the uptick in cocktails I've been enjoying—and the end bits of cheese make a mighty fine quiche. Grape tomatoes that are getting a little wrinkly get thrown into the oven and roasted (the tomato-eggplant compote in this recipe is a favorite). Scraps that were once destined for the trash instead go into a mirepoix or sofrito for rice and braised meats, or, if I'm really not sure what to do with something, I just toss it into a bag in my freezer until I'm ready to make a batch of chicken or vegetable stock. These are basic, sustainability-oriented habits for many; I'm just really glad that I'm finally getting on board. Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor-in-chief

Time Is a Cook's Best Friend

I can't even tell you why I would always rush when I was cooking, but I did. It certainly didn't improve the finished dish. But not anymore. Now, with the luxury of time, I take my time. The food tastes better, I feel better, and I think my wife would tell you I'm better company. Finally, and it's only taken me more than fifty years, I now understand that cooking can really be therapeutic. Ed Levine, founder and CEO

And Snacks Can Provide Routine

I, like so many others, have absolutely no idea what day it is. I measure time in loads of laundry done, cups of coffee made, television shows watched. But mostly, I measure time in snacks eaten. And more so than any other routine I’ve attempted to jump-start during this absolutely insane time, snacking has injected my days with some sense of normalcy. The snacks change as I inevitably run out of my favorites, but the snacking itself remains. After lunch, a bowl of dates, salty macadamia nuts, and pecans. Raisins, when the dates run out. Almonds, when all the fattier nuts are gone. For a week, after dinner, I ate slivers of candied ginger and dark chocolate with a glass of wine, until the ginger was gone and the chocolate vanished. Then, it was time to find a new snack. Elazar Sontag, associate editor

Even If Doing Dishes Is a Flat Circle

The bottom of a stainless steel skillet after cleaning with Bar Keepers Friend
Vicky Wasik

I've been finding a little joy in using all the kitchen equipment I have that spends most of the year collecting dust, but the amount of dishes we generate cooking and eating three meals a day at home is overwhelming our dishwashers. (It's us—we're the dishwashers!) We do our best to clean as we go and tag team the dishes, but we're stuck in a near-constant loop: cleaning, rinsing, drying. —Paul Cline, president

I haven’t cooked this much at home, ever. When I cooked in restaurants, my home kitchen use was limited to 2 a.m. microwave meals, and the occasional day-off industry-friend potluck. Since moving over to developing recipes in test kitchens, the bulk of my cooking happens at work. Now that I’m doing all my cooking at home, both for work and just to feed myself and my wife, I’m really not feeling the endless amount of dirty dishes that materialize in the kitchen sink at all hours of the day. And because I’m “particular” about kitchen cleanliness and order, I end up doing all of them in order to avoid any unnecessary quarantine squabbling. I usually enjoy doing the dishes, but right now, I’m very much over it. Sasha Marx, senior culinary editor

But Keeping Your Kitchen Clean Is Worth It

If I had to summarize the theme in my home right now, it's "learning how to adult." As I've already mentioned, we've gotten a lot better about food waste (and therefore managing our finances). Now, enter housework. Keeping a super-clean kitchen has never been one of my strong suits, and my husband and I have been known to let towers of dishes stack up in the sink while our kitchen island gradually becomes overwhelmed with a cluttered array of pantry items we were too lazy to put away. One of the biggest changes self-isolation has wrought in our home is that we're now fastidious about keeping the kitchen clean. Cooking the majority of our meals is no longer optional, and we've finally realized that a messy kitchen has long been the main deterrent to cooking more often. —Niki Achitoff-Gray, editor-in-chief

Sometimes You Just Need to Feed Yourself

Not every meal needs to be a big fancy project. Even though it feels like I have lots of time at home to experiment with cooking new ingredients and new recipes, I've learned that some meals just need to be quick and easy. (And you shouldn't put pressure on yourself when you're just not feeling a cooking project.) Last week, after a particularly long day, I made a box of Annie's bunnies macaroni and cheese. I cooked it according to the package, I added frozen peas and some (probably woodchip–filled) American Parmesan, and I devoured it. You know what? It was delicious. Paired with a nice glass of wine, it felt just as satisfying as if I had spent an hour putting something together. Ariel Kanter, director of commerce and content marketing

So It's Okay If Things Aren't Perfect

Tiramisu on a plate with a forkful pulled out
Not every batch of tiramisu can look like this slice of Stella's. Vicky Wasik

Three or four weeks ago, a friend invited me to my first virtual dinner party and set a theme: Italian. She outlined the dishes she’d planned to make for herself and asked us what we were thinking of making. Gamely, naively, and—looking back on it now—hilariously, I wrote back: “I’m thinking of what I can make to keep my hands busy . . . maybe one course of fresh pasta, one of ricotta gnocchi, I’ve always wanted to make focaccia di Recco, and I’ve been craving eggplant Parm . . . plus at least a couple of desserts, like tiramisu, a jam crostata for one, maybe some biscotti full of seeds and nuts, and a mini olive oil cake.”

When the day came, a topsy-turvy week later, I realized I hadn’t prepared for any of it. I ended up making a mushroom ragù based off Daniel’s recipe (only had buttons, and used red wine instead of white), which I served with polenta. I also sautéed some onions and lardons and added a few handfuls of frozen peas, but, sadly, over-salted it in my haste. But the biggest disaster was the tiramisu. I should know by now not to bake when distracted. I added too much sugar to my ladyfingers, and my mascarpone mousse was too soft when I layered it all together. Then, I splashed in too much coffee and rum syrup, which resulted in an accident I named tirami-soup. But you know what? Seeing my friends on Zoom, all of us safe but concerned, gave me a sliver of hope. I fixed the peas, tossed the tiramisu, and decided to forgive my failures. One day at a time. —Daniela Galarza, features editor

Seriously, Cut Yourself Some Slack

Did you, like myself, envision yourself cooking from scratch and being extra productive at home when this all went down last month? Perhaps now, in the second week of April, you are feeling a little guilty because the only thing you’ve completed is a season of Tiger King? I’m here to tell you to not feel bad because I learned and now accept that there isn’t really that much extra time.

I still (thankfully) have my full-time job, and the two hours a day I used to spend commuting have now been absorbed by washing my hands, standing in line at the store, and doing 200% more dishes. If you add caring for kids or a sick family member, that imagined free time could easily fall into the red. It is okay to not be hyperproductive right now. Handling your regular responsibilities while managing stress and money is enough of a challenge. Baking a three-layer cake? Homemade pasta? That’s just extra credit, no matter how tempting food media makes it seem. —Maggie Lee, designer