If you grew up in a Southern household, chances are you know your way around the kitchen.

By Zoe Denenberg
January 31, 2020
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While the South boasts a whole bevy of top-notch restaurants and culinary destinations, it’s no secret that Southern culinary tradition starts in the home kitchen. In Mama’s kitchen, we gained our early culinary educations; standing at her side, we learned how to crimp a pie crust, how to fry chicken to a gorgeous golden-brown, and how to stir the pitcher of sweet tea just the right way. The pantry was always stocked with a few choice ingredients (why were there so many cans of condensed milk?)—but it was Mama’s kitchen, and we played by her rules.

There are some tricks that just come as instinct to a Southern cook; others take a bit of trial and error to master. Pralines and caramel have notoriously given us quite a bit of heartache, but once you get the technique just right, the end result is pretty sweet. A homemade cake is always packed with a little extra love.

While we’ll accept certain shortcuts in a pinch (and know how to dress up boxed cake mix if the time comes), true Southern cooking is made by hand. It’s cornbread batter poured into a hot skillet, or freshly shredded cheese whisked into a steaming pot of grits. The true stamp of Southern cooking is that it’s homemade. (Remember that time Sally tried to pass off her store-bought pimiento cheese as from-scratch? Yeah right, sister, we’d recognize Palmetto’s anywhere.)

The good news is that all those years standing at Mama’s side watching her dredge chicken drumsticks have paid off. There are a few culinary secrets that are simply woven into Southerners’ DNA, tips that Mama passed down along with her treasured Rolodex (or her 20-year collection of Southern Living annual cookbooks). We’ve rounded up some of the most common cooking mistakes you’d never catch a Southerner making.

  1. Over-mixing the pound cake batter. Keep it light and fluffy, y’all.
  2. Using room-temperature butter for biscuits or pie crusts. That butter should be ice cold. ICE COLD.
  3. Using pre-shredded cheese to make pimiento cheese. Take the extra five minutes to grate your own cheddar, y’all.
  4. Putting beans in Texas chili. We won’t hear of beans in our bowl o’ red.
  5. Burning the caramel. Mama would be ashamed.
  6. Not letting meat rest after cooking.
  7. Cleaning a cast iron skillet with dish soap. Meet our little best friend, the cast iron scraper.
  8. Not preheating the skillet before adding cornbread batter. Pouring cornbread batter into a cold skillet is like stepping into an ice-cold shower on a winter day: All-around unpleasant.
  9. Throwing out bacon fat (or worse, pouring it down the drain).
  10. Not browning a roux when making gumbo.
  11. Adding a hot filling to cold pie dough. Let that puppy cool off first.
  12. Forgetting to add cheese to the pot of grits.
  13. Overcrowding the pan when frying chicken. That’ll lower the oil temperature and result in uneven browning; give those beautiful drumsticks and legs space to breathe.
  14. Not straining the gravy. Lumpy gravy is a surefire way to ruin the Thanksgiving meal.
  15. Grabbing the handle of a hot skillet. Are you team dish towel or handle cover?
  16. Cooking in an unseasoned cast iron skillet. If this happens, please alert the authorities.
  17. Using AP flour instead of cake flour when baking a layer cake. “Cake” is literally in the name. Get this one right, folks.
  18. Buying a carton of pre-made sweet tea. Mama just won’t hear of it.
  19. Running out of food. Southerners are always prepared to feed a crowd and then some.
  20. Running out of Crisco.
  21. Not tasting as you go. Quality checks are required at every step!