On your mark, get set, 'Start Here' with Sohla El-Waylly's cooking basics

Hosted by

If you want to get into candy making, brittle is a great place to start because, as Sohla El-Waylly points out, it's not difficult and you can add just about anything to it. Photo by Laura Murray.

Sometimes you just need to know where to start. You want to make a pavlova but you're nervous about meringue. You want a chicken with crispy skin but don't want to overcook the meat. Sohla El-Waylly has a plan for you. 

These days, she is everywhere. On The Big Brunch on HBO Max. Recreating ancient recipes for the History Channel. On Food 52 and at New York Times Cooking. Before her career in food media, she cut her teeth at some of New York City’s best restaurants. Her debut cookbook shares countless lessons she has learned along the way. It’s called Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook: A Cookbook. If you’re a cook who likes to know the why behind the what, this book is for you. 

Evan Kleiman: Congratulations. What a book! And a baby.

Sohla El-Waylly: Yeah, what a fall. Big fall for me.

The book is incredibly comprehensive. It's like a Cooking 101 lesson that includes recipes we actually want to make. Have you been taking notes throughout your extensive career and they eventually became this book? 

Yes, definitely. I think this book is a culmination of everything I've learned, not just in my professional career but even before that, when I was a child, and I grew up cooking alongside my mom. I actually have a tiny bookshelf filled with countless Moleskines with all these notes and everything I've learned. It's all been put into this giant book.

Wow, that is so impressive and an inspiration to people who start writing diaries or journals then stop. Don't stop. Keep going.

Oh, totally.

Each of your chapters is devoted to a lesson. The first one is taste, which seems like it would be obvious in the kitchen but is probably the thing most people forget to do. 

Yes, as a home cook and a professional cook, I've noticed it's very hard to stop yourself and taste. It's easy to get overwhelmed when you're thinking about all the steps and all the ingredients and measurements. But it is the most important part of cooking. Luckily, it's an easy thing that we can all practice. I first learned how to taste just by tasting my mom's food and tasting really thoughtfully when I went out to eat at a restaurant or at anyone's house. It's also about tasting food made by a lot of different people so you can learn a lot of different culinary perspectives just by eating and tasting. And it's a lot of fun.

"You can take that same technique and do it with carrots or coconut and cabbage or green curry paste and bok choy," Sohla El-Waylly says of her recipe for braised chicken thighs. Photo by Laura Murray.

It's the only way to really develop a sense of what you like because all of us have different preferences.

About what you like yourself and also what's actually good. I think it's really easy to just make something and be so excited that you made something that you can't step back and think critically: Does this actually taste good?

That's so true. I noticed that dips show up a lot in this chapter, both creamy dips and dressings, but also dry spice blends for dipping. Can you pick one of each and share what you like to do with them and how it relates to this overall issue of taste?

One of the first things I ever made as a kid was raita, which is a yogurt dip/condiment. We had it on the table for every meal. At its basic, it's just yogurt that's been salted. But you can really level it up with different spices and different mix-ins. It's a great place to learn how to taste because you really can't mess it up. If it gets a little bit too salty, you can add more yogurt. If it's too bland, you can add more salt. You can really learn how flavors develop because you're manipulating this creamy, acidic thing with salt. As you add a pinch at a time, you can taste how it transforms. That's how seasoning works across any ingredient. You add a little bit at a time and you just keep tasting. There's going to be a moment where it's like whoa, this is delicious, and it's just salt and yogurt. So it's a great place to start. 

Another dip that I like a lot is a riff on Gunpowder Spice. Gunpowder is a dry chutney that you see a lot in India. You see it particularly served with idlis, which are these steamed rice cakes, so it's often called idli podi. It's a mixture of ground spices, toasted lentils and seeds, and you season it with salt. Salt really is the key because without salt, it doesn't taste like much. It's another place where you can really learn the power of salt, how adding the right amount of salt and spice can really bring out the flavor of all the other ingredients. It's another one where you can't mess up. If it's a little bit too salty, you add more ground nuts. If it's a little bit bland, you add more salt. It's a really great way to develop your palate. There's no high stakes. You can't mess it up, you can just learn.

We're entering the colder months, so let's talk about braises and stews. First of all, what is the difference between the two? 

The difference between a braise and a stew is really about the size of the primary ingredient and the amount of liquid. In a stew, we're talking about smaller cuts, like one-inch pieces of meat or you can also stew vegetables, like stewed greens, something that's smaller. It also tends to have a bit more liquid, so you're getting full liquid coverage. With a braise, we're talking bigger hunks, like a whole leg of lamb, or a big pork shoulder or big pieces of short rib, and it's usually less liquid. It's going to be a more concentrated flavor in that liquid, it's going to be more saucy. Because it is a bigger cut, it is also a bit more forgiving but it does take longer.

Can you pick a braise or a stew that you think we should all have in our repertoire? Something that with a little planning you can make for casual dinner with friends or family.

In the braise chapter, I have this recipe for stewed and braised chicken thighs. It's really just about getting the technique down of searing and adding some aromatics and vegetables, understanding how long to cook it, how much liquid to add, then letting it braise. You can really riff on it with whatever you've got. The main recipe, I give you a simple version using zucchini and peppers, and it's fantastic in tacos. The zucchini gets silky and soft and the chicken skin gets rendered and crispy but you end up with juicy meat. You can take that same technique and do it with carrots or coconut and cabbage or green curry paste and bok choy. So it's a great one to get the basic concept of it down. Then you can play around with it with whatever you've got.

That sounds so good. Two techniques I don't instinctively reach for in the kitchen are steaming and poaching when I'm looking for a wallop of flavor. It just doesn't occur to me. You are a recent steaming convert. For those of us who are not yet on Team Steam, can you win us over?

I was not on Team Steam until the pandemic when we were all forced to cook every meal, every day. I became a really big fan of it because it is really quick and clean. You just have to bring a pot of water to boil and throw a steamer on top. You can cook a whole meal in one of those tiered bamboo steamers, especially if you're just two people. You can have your protein, your starch and your veggies all in one thing. You don't get a lot of flavor from the steaming itself, so the key to steaming is knowing how to add a flavorful sauce afterwards.

One of my favorite things is to steam some greens. You can do this with any green — green beans, cabbage, broccoli. Once it's crisp, tender, whatever texture you want, in a little pan, you're going to heat up a little bit of fat. Any kind of fat will work but go for something with big flavor like good olive oil or clarified butter. Then add some spices into that, whole coriander seeds, cumin, chili flake, whatever you're feeling. You can really have fun with this. Then pour it over your steamed veggies. It has so much flavor, so quickly. It's so easy, so healthy, and it's a great way to cook on a weeknight.

"It's easy to get overwhelmed when you're thinking about all the steps, ingredients, and measurements," says Sohla El-Waylly. Photo by Laura Murray.

I live in a house with no stove, kind of famously.

Wait. How? Is that legal?

I have a two-burner camping stove outside. I have a little catering burner I use then I rely on a toaster oven, which is really great for broiling. How do you like to use your boiler?

If you think of a broiler as an upside down grill, you'll have a lot more fun with it. It's this really intense direct heat. I use it to make a lamb kofta inside. Traditionally, lamb kofta is made over the really direct, high heat of an outdoor grill. It's the key to getting a nice char on the outside without the ground meat becoming too dry. You can do the same thing in your boiler and have it any weeknight. The main thing with cooking under a boiler is that it's quite uneven. You've got to get to know your boiler. Mine definitely has some hot spots. In the beginning, you're going to be sitting in front of your oven staring at your boiler. But once you get the hang of it, think of it as a grill. Throw chicken under there, throw veggies under there. You can have a lot of fun.

You also do turkey meatballs this way.

It's a great way to cook a lot of meatballs really fast.

Do you do them first and then drench them in sauce after? Or do you eat them like little round burgers?

You could cook your meatballs all the way through in a broiler. You might have to rotate them a little bit if you have some hot spots. But I like to put them under there just to get some nice char and color. Then I throw them in this fresh tomato puttanesca sauce to finish cooking. It's kind of like the traditional meatballs and marinara but lightened up. It's great for any time of year.

So often in cookbooks, desserts are one chapter at the end of the book but you give savory and sweet equal billing. As we move towards the holiday part of the year, the luxurious textures that puddings give is something special that we might crave. Could you give us an easy method for making pudding for beginners? And then maybe share a thickening method that isn't difficult but might require a little more practice.

I really wanted to make sure pastry got equal billing because there's this idea that you're either a dessert person or a savory person, and I think that anyone can be both. Why not enjoy all sides of food? Pudding is the perfect pastry to start with, if you aren't that familiar with pastry, because it is really forgiving. Cakes, you've got to be pretty precise. You've got measure with a scale. I think it's important to get things down to the gram. But with pudding, it's kind of a cook's dessert. You can play on the fly with it. You can change up your sweeteners. You're not worrying about leavening, so you can really get loose. It's a fun place to start.

I think one of the easiest puddings that anyone can make is a posset. You're just taking heavy cream, and you're gonna thicken it with an acid. It's kind of like how you make yogurt but even easier because you're not worried about these very temperature-sensitive cultures. You're just bringing cream to a boil, adding an acid, (most often and most delicious it's fresh lemon juice or lime juice), then you let it sit in the fridge. It'll fully firm up and set just like a super decadent yogurt or panna cotta. You don't have to worry about blooming gelatin, you're not worried about separating eggs. It's the simplest way to get to dessert.

Speaking about yogurt, what is a mishti doi?

Mishti doi is a traditional yogurt dessert from Bangladesh. The most traditional way to make it is actually pretty difficult. You cook down milk for a long time and that process of cooking down the milk creates a lot of caramelly notes because the milk gets toasty and thick. Then you set it with yogurt cultures and you sweeten it with unrefined sugar. It's my favorite, favorite of all time Bangladeshi dessert but it is really hard. It takes a long time. A lot of people do a quick version with canned evaporated milk. It's not the same. I made my own take on it using yogurt, cream cheese and maple syrup. It kind of gives you those flavors but a lot more simply. I'm calling it baked yogurt, so you can have it for brunch.

I can't wait to try that one. I would love it if we could talk a bit about caramelization. I feel like this particular chapter is tailor-made for anyone who loves holiday baking. Is there one recipe, in particular, that you recommend for folks who like to put together a holiday cookie tin?

Caramelizing is really fun because you take white sugar, add heat and it gets so complex. You develop all these flavors and it's pretty magical. One really simple thing you can make if you want to get into candy making is a simple brittle. Peanut brittle is always delicious but once you understand how to make a brittle, you can really play around with it. Add different nuts, add different mix-ins. I've gotten really wild and done a kitchen sink brittle and added things like Fritos and different nuts and seeds and whatever I've got lying around. Fritos in a brittle is a magical thing, let me tell you. If you pack it really well in a tin with some desiccants... you know when you get crunchy snack foods, there's always a little desiccant in there?

Yeah, that little bag that you have to remember not to eat.

Remember not to eat them and remember to save them for the holidays. Wipe them clean. You can actually put them in a low oven at 200 degrees and it'll suck the moisture out of them, so they're reactivated. Whenever I'm shipping candy or cookies during the holidays, I throw those desiccants in and it keeps everything crisp and fresh.

"Start Here" is a culmination of everything Sohla El-Waylly has learned about cooking, from her mother to her time on the line at high-end restaurants. Photo courtesy of Knopf.