We asked chefs to share their favorite comfort foods for keeping warm and cozy; their answers will inspire you to hunker down in your own kitchen.
With winter well upon us and the end of the year fast-approaching, the joyful beast of our annual indulgent cravings has been unleashed. The Thanksgiving holiday kicked off festivities of wanting all the carbs, and all the goodness we reserve for those months we need the extra heat to suit up against the cold. While Jan. 1 may mark the start of many diets, it’s still prime time for comfort food.
In my own role as a chef and cooking teacher, this really is my favorite time of year when I teach everyone how to make food filled with love, and cold-weather comforts are where it’s at.
I have several favorites, of course, but for me there is nothing quite like a bowl of ggori gomtang (Korean oxtail soup).
It took me years to realize just how long my parents would boil the oxtail broth in pretty much an all-day affair, and then serve it up to us kids with rice and a sprinkling of scallions. Our fingers would get sticky from the collagen in the oxtail bones after gnawing them and I’d marvel at their shape after they’d been stripped of every bit, but to this day, having it is still a transportive experience. When I might not be able to prepare it these days, I thank goodness that bibigo actually has a great gomtang broth I can buy and have whenever with fresh chopped scallions and a touch of black pepper (it even has Dad’s approval)!
bibigo Korean Beef Bone Broth, 3 for $16.79 on Amazon
Related Reading: The Best Bone Broths to Buy This Winter
As I’ve gotten older and cooked up my own winter comforts, there’s one dish that encompasses both cherished family elements and an overall spirit of indulgence: Kimchi Mac and Cheese. The trick is to chop the spicy Napa cabbage kimchi into bite-size pieces, and then saute in butter for a few minutes to allow the excess liquid to cook out and the flavors to concentrate. Create a roux, then build your mornay sauce with milk and cheese (and plenty of built-in flavor to go around the added seasonings)! A delicious new memory made in my own kitchen.
Many other chefs have their own warm memories tied up in cold weather comfort food. Here are some of their favorites.
Hot Food for the Soul & Spirits to Lift Your Own
When Chef Jacques Pepin says something about a dish, I advise all to take note. After decades as a world-renowned chef, with dozens of cookbooks and honors to his name, and a legacy as a beloved colleague and friend of the late Chef Julia Child, his advisement for all of us when it comes to classic winter comfort is: “Soup, soup, soup! It cleans out the refrigerator, it’s easy to freeze, endlessly varied, and always comforting.” His personal favorite? “[An] Onion Soup Gratinée with a Côte du Rhône.”
Adding to this, his daughter and wine expert, Claudine Pepin, notes one of their shared family favorites, also complemented with a good wine: “Classic Cheese Fondue made with white wine and garlic. No flour, and preferably with a sauvignon blanc. It’s a taste from my childhood and it’s a really fun meal to share. We have it for Christmas Day.”
Chef, food writer, and broadcaster Rachel Khoo has enjoyed many different comfort food traditions while living in places like London and Paris. Currently based in Sweden, she now delights in another new treat. “There’s a tradition of sharing glögg (Swedish mulled wine spiked with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and orange) and gingerbread biscuits. The sweet warming perfume of the spices immediately gives you the cozy, toasty feeling, especially when it’s cold and dark outside. It’s a great drink to wrap your hands around to warm you up from the inside out. You have to drink glögg in a candlelit setting to experience it fully.”
The cold months can undeniably be amped up with a festive drink and a good, hearty dish. Though the canon of comfort foods isn’t necessarily limited to any specific methods or ingredients, there is definitely something to be said for a meal that’s been cooked low and slow to perfection. For Chef Liz Vaknin, her ultimate winter comfort dish depends on a tagine.
“Cooking in a tagine is something my Jewish Moroccan family has done every winter (and even summer) for generations. It is efficient (little prep work), hands off (works like a slow cooker), and always the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. You can add meat, chicken, or fish, or you can create one with tofu and no meat, or just plain veggies and legumes.”
Emile Henry Tagine, $99.95 on Amazon
“It’s your call with whatever you have on hand and most combinations work if you follow some rules: 1) always caramelize the onions, 2) develop a thick sauce with a combination of pastes (like harissa, preserved lemon, etc.) and spices (cumin, coriander, white pepper, paprika, garlic, turmeric, and salt are my go to mix). When added to hot water they form a delicious base for almost any combo of the ingredients. My favorite tagines are boneless short ribs with bitter green olives, with lots of garlic and fresh coriander, chicken with petite pois and lots of caramelized onions, cauliflower florets and chickpeas. They can be served with basmati rice, fluffy couscous, and even really good sourdough, naan, pita, or challah bread.
And if you don’t have a tagine use a heavy and large cast iron pot. It does the trick!”
Related Reading: The Best Things to Do With a Dutch Oven
With the quantity of food that’s a hallmark of the holidays, there are often leftovers to consider. Chef Preeti Mistry finds many possibilities from a holiday turkey. “My fave use for leftover turkey is a great winter dinner idea…I make pot pie filling with leftover turkey meat, and turkey stock from the carcass. Then individually portion it, according to ramekin size, and freeze it. Then all winter long you can make a pot pie for dinner (which I find very comforting).”
“Just defrost filling and top with store bought frozen puff pastry (I like the Dufour brand) brushed with some egg wash, and prick a few holes in it to let out the steam. Bake for about 20-30 minutes, until top is golden brown. Variations on the filling: a Traditional American with mirepoix, rosemary, thyme; South Indian with minced ginger, turmeric, and curry leaves; or North Indian with garam masala, garlic & ginger, cilantro; Italian with sausage, oregano, garlic, chili flakes; or if you want to go healthy, add lots of winter greens, carby & sweet with root veggies, and lots of wild mushrooms.” The trick will also work with a roasted chicken, though your yield will obviously be lower.
Summer gets celebrated as the season of fresh produce, but winter offers its own delights.
Writer, food photographer, and cookbook author Nik Sharma celebrates the cooler months with plenty of seasonal vegetables, and especially making the most use out of his oven and a plethora of good seasonings from his pantry. “My comfort food almost invariably involves ingredients such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, cabbage, and cauliflower. Now, if these can be roasted or stuck into the oven and prepared, it’s even better. The oven becomes a time saver, especially once November kicks in because that’s when all the holiday dinners and parties come and any bit of extra time makes it a blessing. Stock up on good quality condiments that pack an enormous amount of flavor—chili crisp oil, harissa, and chutney—a little bit of these goes a long way and can pair with almost any savory dish be it vegetarian or meat based.”
Related Reading: Why Roasting Veggies Makes Them Sweeter
Food Network’s Chef Sunny Anderson makes sure to take note months ahead of time when all sorts of spring and summer-fresh vegetables are plentiful. “I love a good corn chowder with summer corn I froze in anticipation of cold weather eating. I think my best tip is to freeze summer produce for winter months, but if you didn’t, garnish your soups with fresh herbs like parsley, mint, or cilantro. Even fresh scallions over the top and a squeeze of lemon or lime can really wake up a bowl of soup!”
Also from the Food Network family, chef and food writer Jessica Tom transitions to winter cooking by simply approaching her everyday recipes with a little more heat. “When the temperature dips, I basically heat up my food across the board. Cold overnight oats become warm steel-cut oats. Light salads become cozy grain bowls with just-wilted greens. And for dinner, I’m all about the low and slow braise. I even stay away from cold drinks—hot, warm, and room temp are my ideal beverage temperatures.”
When it comes to upgrading one’s winter dishes with sunnier-weather flavors and ingredients, the key can sometimes very much lay in a main ingredient that can take on each season’s givings. Chef Yong Shin of Insa in Brooklyn, New York, has his favorite which can fashionably stand up to anything offered: “Beans—they get better as they sit and are extremely versatile. I like to buy through Rancho Gordo and try different heirloom varietals. I can have it for breakfast with eggs, add it into fried rice, sear some sausage off and make a quick chili—the use is so versatile and soul warming.”
“For dry beans, soak them overnight with ample amount of water, drain and add three-times the volume of water with a ton of aromatics. I like to make a bouquet garni of rosemary, sage, thyme, and garlic—summer savory when it’s in season. When the beans come to a boil, I skim off as much scum as possible, then cover the pot and let it go on a low simmer until they are tender. I add a ton of olive oil and salt to season at the very end. The broth is where the magic lies.”
A Cure for What Ails You
With cold weather wreaking havoc on our systems and a whole lot of grey weather, winter comforts can soothe both body and soul. Several chefs offer up their takes on how to best care for their physical and emotional well-being in the colder months.
Chef Grace Ramirez maintains her vivacious energy by boosting up her daily routine and making plenty of clean, homemade fish broth. “In the winter, I become obsessed with broths. I go down to my local fish store, and ask him to give me all the fish heads and bones he’s willing to sell me. You can use any kind of fish, but I definitely prefer whitefish or something that’s not too oily. I throw them into the Instant Pot with celery, onions, garlic, just a tablespoon of water to help it steam, and nothing more to it to change its color. Cook it for 20 minutes and it just releases pure collagen! I drink it for breakfast every morning with warm lime juice and coarse sea salt.
It is so easy to get sick from all the travel that I do, so I make sure to take Wedderspoon manuka honey from New Zealand, take my 100 mg of slow-release Vitamin C, and ginger fireballs from Juice Plus. But I gotta tell you, I hardly get sick and I swear by this routine!”
Wedderspoon Raw Premium Manuka Honey, $29.50 on Amazon
Chef Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery + Cafe and Myers & Chang in Boston, Mass., takes note from a classic comfort from her childhood. “Congee—basically very watery and soft rice that you mix all sorts of tasty things into to give it flavor. My mom used to make this for me when I was a kid and sick and now I make it whenever I need to take care of myself or my husband. I usually flavor it with a soy braised chicken and some fried scallions and a little Sriracha.”
In homage to her role as pastry chef, there will also always be a special place for fresh-baked cookies. “I love warm cookies—who doesn’t? I’m lucky that I can bring cookie dough home from work and bake off a few cookies whenever I need some cheering up. The dough is actually better after it rests a bit so you’re making the cookies even better by storing them before baking. You can make cookie dough in advance and store in the freezer and then you always have cookies. The dough lasts for at least a month.”
What also began as something chef and restaurant owner Einat Admony’s mother used to make that she dreaded as a child, eventually became a go-to dish for herself when she is feeling under the weather.
“There is ash (ash reshteh), which is a Persian egg noodle soup with a lot of herbs. My mother used to make like a porridge with mung beans when I was little and I HATED it then. But she’d flavor it with chicken necks and wings, pomegranate syrup and legumes. There are so many different versions of ash. Whether Iranian or Israeli, everyone will always have an argument about the right way to make it because your Mom changed it to be the way you knew it. There is one Persian restaurant I’ve been to that makes their version taste really good. There isn’t much dairy in a lot of Jewish cuisine, but this one has dairy in it since it’s served with goat cheese on top and fried onions…so delicious.”
There’s Something About Chicken and Dumplings
As I had the pleasure of getting to hear many talk about the food that makes them happiest in the cold weather, there was one dish that truly seemed to stand out above the rest and was a common answer across the board: chicken and dumplings.
The dish itself has a very long, historical background and has been globally adapted into many different versions, but its presence is still number one for many.
Chef and restaurant owner Sohui Kim declares it her favorite hibernation food within the midst of soups, stews, braises, and anything smothered during the short days and early dark nights. “It’s one meal in a pot that is hearty, comforting and oh, so yummy! Its rich broth that flavor[s] the dumplings and cooks it all at the same time is my kids’ favorite and it’s a go to dish if some is a bit under the weather. And for a family of four, there seems to be someone coughing and sniffling every week until spring! I never crave this dish in the summer but as soon as the leaves fall and [the] weather gets cold and dreary, it’s the first and last thing I want to eat in a day. Of course, it’s always better with a side of winter wonder-food of homemade kimchi!
I make [chicken and dumplings] the classic way by making the broth/stock with seared chicken legs and thighs. I simmer the chicken in water (double strength if you use stock) for about 30 minutes. Make roux, add vegetables, add back the broth. Make the dumpling batter, shred the chicken and add that to the broth, season, and then drop the dumpling batter in by the big spoonful and cook until they’re floating and fluffy. I only add kimchi juice at the end for my own enjoyment!”
Chef Elle Simone Scott of America’s Test Kitchen and founder of SheChef Inc. remembers well how it became one of her all-time favorite comfort dishes. “It became so because my mother would make Chicken and Noodles when I was a kid,” she says, “Not to be confused with Chicken Noodle Soup. Her variation didn’t require veggies but instead relied on the starch from egg noodles to thicken the ‘broth’.
I love the core technique of this and these dishes and after spending time in the Southern parts of the U.S. and learning about Edna Lewis’s recipe for Chicken & Dumplings, I never looked back. I recommend [you] make your dumpling pastry from scratch. It takes no time and really transforms this recipe. Whether you choose drop biscuits or matzo balls, make it from scratch! Find one good recipe (my fave is ATK’s Chicken & Pastry) and stick with it.”
That should be enough to tide you over until spring—and help you find the joy in your own kitchen no matter how cold it is outside.