8 Cooking Rules All Southerners Live By, According to Nathalie Dupree

A matriarch of modern Southern cooking on the general rules all good cooks follow.

Vintage Woman Cooking
Photo: George Marks / Getty Images

Cooking is a bona fide regional pastime in the South. Its traditions—from crisp fried chicken to blue-ribbon pie crusts, tangy collard greens, and just-right pitchers of sweet tea—are preserved in home kitchens, where they're reverently passed down from one generation to the next. Food is our cultural through line, and we rely on it to mark life's major milestones—births, deaths, weddings, baptisms, graduations, and twelve full months of holidays—as well as lift up everyday occasions like weeknight family meals, and so, our culinary educations begin early. But no matter how deep your knowledge of Southern cooking runs, it always pays to brush up on the basics.

To help return us to our culinary roots, we talked with one of the matriarchs of modern Southern cooking, Nathalie Dupree. The author of more than a dozen award-winning cookbooks on the subject, Dupree, who proudly cooks her grits in the microwave, reminds us that while there are plenty of regional food traditions that are open to individual interpretation, there are a few general rules Southern cooks follow to the letter.

Don't Be Afraid of Leftovers

"Always have more than you need," Dupree says. The cardinal sin of Southern cooking is to run out of food, so always plan ahead and prepare more food than you think the event might warrant. But any Southerner who grew up with Depression-era grandparents will tell you waste is a big no-no, too. Get creative with leftovers, or if you're cooking for a crowd, send guests home with take-away boxes of their favorite dishes.

Avoid Midday Cooking Marathons

Down South, air-conditioners fight an uphill battle all summer long, so unless you just enjoy sweating, don't add a hot oven or lit stove-top to the mix. "If you can, work in the cool of the morning or even last thing at night," Dupree says. "Make a time schedule. Think ahead. You do not want to be rolling out pie crust in the mid-afternoon heat."

Remember, Ingredients Matter

From mayonnaise to hot sauce to grits, ingredients (and food brands) inspire intense debate around the region. For Dupree, flour is a sticking point. "I always use a soft wheat flour. White Lily is my favorite for pie crusts and biscuits. The low gluten and protein content just makes them more tender," she says. "I think you can tell whether a flour is good for biscuits or pie crust by its name, sort of like White Lily. It's soft and delicate. Whereas something like Heckers, which has a harsh sound and is high in protein, is better for bread and sturdy things."

Keep Hot Sauce Handy

There's a reason so many hot sauce brands are based in the South—folks down here just can't get enough of the peppery heat. "I have known friends who always carried those little bottles of Tabasco in their pockets," says Dupree, who advises keeping a few different bottles on the table. "That way people can regulate their own intake."

Stash Go-To Staples in the Freezer

"I always have a quantity of pecans in the freezer because you can add pecans to almost anything and make it taste better," Dupree says. They also serve as an easy pre-dinner snack if you're hosting guests. But choose a few things that you use regularly and keep a fresh supply in the freezer, it'll save you time on busy weeknights and ensure you've always got something to serve if an unexpected houseguest turns up. For Dupree's part, she always keeps Lowcountry white shrimp and Manchester Farms quail on ice.

Invest in Quality Cast Iron

"Everyone [in the South] has an iron skillet or several iron skillets or only iron skillets," Dupree laughs. The trick to cast iron cooking is investing in a few good pieces—we like Lodge as well as smaller Southern companies like Smithey Ironware out of Charleston—and keeping them clean and well oiled. "Don't let you iron skillets get rusty, so they don't taste bad," she says.

But Have a Good Non-Stick Frying Pan, Too

No disrespect to cast iron, but sometimes only a non-stick pan will do. Fried eggs, anyone? "Everyone ought to have a non-stick frying pan," Dupree says. "Just replace it every few years and be done with it. And if anybody asks, just tell them you did it in your iron skillet." Look for brands that are PFOA-free.

Always Respect Another Cook's Kitchen

"I don't go into anyone else's kitchen unless I'm invited in," Dupree says. It's just good manners. Plus, you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen.

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