6 rules for cooking Italian

Italian food is loved the world over and it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s delicious, easy to make and affordable. It’s also somehow both romantic and comforting at the same time. Italian often tops the list when looking for romantic restaurant options, and few foods conjure comfort quite like a warm plate of pasta. Carbs are cozy.

But what exactly does it mean to cook Italian? While there is plenty of room for discussion, I’ve narrowed it down to six ground rules that are fundamental to Italian cooking. This is what you need to understand about the Italian cuisine if you want to learn how to cook in an Italian way.

  1. Use only a few, quality ingredients.
    Many Italian dishes use less than five ingredients. This means that each ingredient is important. Use the best seasonal ingredients that you can find. Food tastes best and is most affordable when it is in season. But don’t let the search for perfect ingredients stop you from cooking either. Use what you’ve got.
  2. Keep it simple.
    If the ingredients are good, you don’t need to hide them. Italian dishes focus on one or two ingredients and do their best to enhance their deliciousness. This also means that the recipes tend to be fairly simple. A few quality ingredients put together in a couple of simple steps is what makes Italian cooking so easy.
  3. Respect fats and carbohydrates.
    There are plenty of fats and carbs in Italian cooking. Pasta is a staple of the Italian cuisine and eating it almost every day is not uncommon (I do!), and olive oil makes its way into everything. But Italians don’t fear these nutrients, they respect them and eat them in sensibly-sized portions. Fats and carbs provide energy and satisfy hunger. I eat them every day for health and for love.
  4. Don’t worry about exact measurements and sizes. Wing it.
    The exact sizes and measurements in a recipe usually don’t matter. They provide an estimate, but it’s the actual taste that matters in the end. I don’t even know where my measuring spoons are and I cook every day. Cooking without exact measurements can be very scary. At first. But once you learn the basics, it can be incredibly liberating. Anyone can easily learn to cook without measuring spoons and recipes.
  5. Keep your eye on the food, not the timer.
    The same goes for timing as for measurements. While a recipe might tell you to reduce a sauce for 20 minutes, it’s just an estimate. It’s better to know what you are trying to do than to know the timing. Fortunately, you can easily learn this, and in the meantime, a rough idea of timing can help guide you. But always watch.
  6. There are no rules for Italian cooking.
    I know, I know, this is a list of rules, but at its most basic level, Italian cooking is about using what you’ve got and being comfortable with improvisation. I once made an American cheesecake for Thanksgiving dinner in Italy and replaced almost every ingredient with what was available. The Italian guests were impressed and complimented me on finally learning to cook like an Italian–and loved the cheesecake too.

Of course, Italians have been food-focused and using what they had for centuries. They also have a lucky location in the Mediterranean where the sun is strong and the winters are mild (the rosemary bush in our yard is the size of our car!). They have many of the best food products in the world to choose from. But lucky for the rest of us, this means that the Italian cuisine gives us a great place to start when learning how to cook and eat delicious food.

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