Aida Mollenkamp believes food tastes better when it’s prepared by hand and made with whole ingredients. That kind of cooking requires basic skills and techniques, which can be daunting for those who never learned their way around the kitchen.
Mollenkamp, a food editor, recipe developer and Food Network host, aims to change that with her debut cookbook, Keys to the Kitchen: The Essential Reference for Becoming a More Accomplished, Adventurous Cook. This technique-based book is a modern manual to the kitchen with more than 300 original, whole foods-based recipes — as well as tips on navigating the grocery store, organizing the pantry and prepping ingredients.
Keys to the Kitchen is our pick for September’s Cookbook Club, so stores across the country will be holding classes to cook recipes from the book (tastings and book copies included!) We chatted with Mollenkamp all about her new book in the Q&A below — read on to hear what she had to say, and scroll to the bottom of this post to get involved.
Why do you think people cook less today than they did a generation ago?
There are a ton of reasons why people cook less than they once did – frozen conveniences, longer work days, double-income families – but, no matter the reason, it’s so prevalent that we now have a cooking black hole out there.
The awesome thing is that cooking for yourself is a win-win-win. It’s a great way to support your local economy, it’s allows you to control what you buy, and you get to cook whatever you’d like when you’d like.
How did your background at CHOW and on the Food Network prepare you to write this book?
At CHOW, I was the Food Editor which meant I ran the test kitchen and food team. On a daily basis, we determined the proper timing, measurements, and ingredients required to produce the best possible result. Since then, I’ve tested and tasted my way through thousands of recipes.
At Food Network, I was able to have a two way conversation with people through Ask Aida and I learned that a lot of people were asking the same types of questions. On FoodCrafters, I was able to share my love of handcrafted, high-quality artisanal foods, which a lot of viewers saw as inspiration to get in the kitchen.
Which cooking- or kitchen-related questions are you most frequently asked?
Most often my friends and siblings ask about a specific technique – like how to grill eggplant – or something about shopping – such as whether buying organic really matters.
Before I started writing Keys To The Kitchen , I took an informal survey of my friends to figure out what they really wanted to learn in the kitchen. Then I incorporated the answers to the questions in the book.
What are a few basic kitchen skills or techniques people should develop when first learning to cook?
Above all else, you want to learn to use all your senses. Pay attention to the flavors you eat at your favorite restaurants and why you like them and you’ll become that much more aware when you’re cooking.
Then, once you fire up the stove, continue use all your senses because cooking is more successful when it’s multi-sensory. My recipes always include descriptive visual clues because I can tell you it takes about 5 minutes to soften onions but really you need to know that softened onions look translucent to be successful.
What is one item or ingredient every cook should have in his or her kitchen? One item to skip?
As for what to have, it really comes down to the fact that quality equipment and ingredients will make your food that much better. If I had to choose, it’s a tossup between a very sharp knife and a good-quality stainless steel pan. If you have those two items, well, that’s really half the struggle.
Oh, as for what to skip, it’s definitely that pre-ground black pepper that you find at the supermarket. That stuff doesn’t even have the right to be called pepper because it’s really pretty much flavorless. I’m on a mission to get everyone to use a pepper grinder and to grind it fresh because it really makes a ton of difference.
What is the inspiration behind the recipes in the book? How can people adapt and make them their own?
Keys To The Kitchen has four sections that take you from the store to the stove to the tabletop and the recipes are about one half of that. The main recipe section is broken down into chapters organized by food type – eggs, chicken, etc – and then each chapter shows various techniques for that ingredient.
Almost every recipe actually has an easier, foundational recipe within it and it’s labeled as such in the book. Additionally, I included ideas on how to adapt and riff on each recipe because, really, that’s what cooking is all about – getting comfortable enough to make a recipe work with the ingredients you have on hand.
How do you hope people use this book at home?
The recipes in this book are modern and memorable yet approachable and reliable. They’re based on a classic techniques and, once those are mastered, you can riff on them like a . As people build their confidence in the kitchen, I hope they use these pages, as that’s what this book is intended to be: a tireless resource.
How can cooks stay curious and adventurous in the kitchen?
The reality is it’s easy to fall into routine and harder to keep trying new things, but the payoff is having more fun with your food. Staying adventurous can be as simple as adding something new to the shopping cart each trip to the store to cooking a dish you never thought you could.
Love collecting cookbooks? Enjoy trying new recipes? Join us for a monthly Cookbook Club class. Led by our talented culinary experts, these exclusive cooking classes showcase recipes from a different cookbook each month.
- Each 1½ – to 2-hour class features cooking tips and techniques and a three-course tasting menu from the book’s best recipes, prepared while you watch.
- Class fee of $75 includes the cookbook with signed bookplate.
- Participants receive a 10% discount on store purchases the day of the class.
- Available monthly at select stores; class times vary by store location.
- Space is limited and reservations are required. Call a participating store to register.