Ree Drummond Talks Her New Cookbook, Life As An Empty Nester, And What's Next - Exclusive Interview

If you're a Ree Drummond fan, you already know that the Pioneer Woman came out with a new cookbook in late October. But even if you're not a stalwart fan of all things Pioneer Woman, you'll still want to give this cookbook a look, especially if you're aiming to put more delicious home-cooked meals on the table this holiday season (and beyond) with less time and effort. "The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinner's Ready!" features more than 100 recipes, all designed especially "for the impatient cook."

Take a quick look through this collection of pasta dishes, full dinners, burgers, and hosting-worthy dishes, though, and you'll see these are not your average 30-minute meals. This is comfort food at its finest, including nostalgia-packed options (like a fun take on SpaghettiOs) and even a few sides you could put on the table for Thanksgiving. In an exclusive interview, we talked to Drummond to learn more about this focus on the fast-and-easy meal, the recent changes in her personal life that have made this focus necessary, and what's next in her career.

Fast without sacrificing flavor

This cookbook focuses on all fast recipes. Why did you feel this was a focus that was needed and would appeal to your fanbase?

I wanted this cookbook to reflect my cooking life right now, and where I am right now is that I still love cooking [and] still love delicious food ... but I don't have the patience I used to have for long prep times and multiple steps. I wanted to give readers a nice pile of delicious recipes that are very doable and won't make them have to stay in the kitchen too long. There's a lot to do in life that doesn't involve the kitchen.

In general, what do you feel is the secret to writing a recipe that's both fast and delicious?

Testing the recipes is so crucial. I make every single recipe in the book, and even when I am making it as we are shooting the recipe, I am scrutinizing the details. For this cookbook, once it was written — but before it went to print — I had two home cooks re-test every [single] recipe so I could get an accurate time. I feel good about the claims of both fast and delicious!

You have an entire section of the book dedicated to "fridge grabs," items and accompaniments that can add big flavor with minimal effort. What's your top must-have ingredient in your kitchen for adding flavor in a pinch?

I love that section of the cookbook, and I use all of those fridge grabs regularly. It's hard for me to pick just one favorite, but the one I use with the most frequency is the recipe for pickled red onions. Not only does it add the perfect pickled onion touch to so many dishes, but the color of the onions is glorious — and as a very visual food person, I love how beautiful it makes everything look. From tacos to grilled cheese sandwiches, from salads to omelets, there's nothing that pickled red onions doesn't go with.

Many of your recipes in this book incorporate store-bought items or shortcuts. Are there any such store-bought items that you always have in your kitchen for when you need them that you think are underrated?

The key to using store-bought items or shortcuts is limiting them to one or two per recipe and letting the whole or from-scratch ingredients lead. The point of a store-bought shortcut is to save time, but you never want to use it at the expense of the flavor of the dish. My favorites are good jarred marinara — it can be a dipping sauce for calzones or incorporated into a rich Bolognese — and frozen bread dough. It makes the most incredible pizza crust, not to mention cinnamon rolls.

Cooking for two

Your family is a huge part of your brand and this book, but as you noted in the book's intro, your family life has changed in recent years as you've become an empty nester, and you've changed some of your approaches to home cooking accordingly. Is there anything you don't make now that the kids aren't at home? Likewise, is there anything you've started making more of now?

I'm definitely making much less food in general. I'm continually stunned by how much longer our groceries last with just the two of us. For years, I was used to moving through things much more quickly.

In terms of specific dishes, I'm making fewer pancakes and waffles. [My husband] Ladd and I don't have the teenage metabolism to partake too often. And for some reason, I'm making fewer nachos. I used to make big sheet pans of beef or chicken nachos, and we'd all dive in and eat them for dinner. I'm ready for the kids to come home so I can make some again.

As for what I'm making more of, that's easy: beef filet steaks. That wasn't something I made regularly when the kids were home, because beef tenderloin is so expensive — not to mention, our teenage boys would eat so much at each meal; they're football players. But now that it's just Ladd and me, we aren't afraid to eat a small filet on a Wednesday night if we feel like it.

For home cooks in similar situations, any advice or tips for adjusting to cooking for two after cooking for a family?

Gosh, I am still adjusting myself! My advice would be not to underestimate how few groceries you will need. I almost wish I had skidded to a near-halt with my grocery lists once the kids were gone and worked my way back up as needed. Instead, I had some mishaps where I had more food than I would have been able to use before it spoiled. I made and froze a lot of soups and casseroles in those days, which is nice to have on hand, to be honest. Make friends with your freezer if you are a sudden empty nester.

Some home cooks find that recipes that say they take a certain number of minutes actually take much longer for the average person. Any tips or tricks for helping them out?

This is such a good point and the main reason I double-tested the recipes. I wanted to provide a true prep and cook time for the dishes, from start to finish.

The best way to achieve the time the recipes list is to gather everything you need before you start prepping. The back-and-forths to the pantry to the drawers to the fridge can really tack on time. Gather the ingredients, grab the knives and bowls and cutting boards — then go for it.

Nostalgia and the holidays

One of your recipes is for One-Pot Homemade O's and Cheesy O's. For those who love the nostalgic original, how would you say this recipe compares or differs?

The recipe is so similar — it truly does taste like SpaghettiOs. Mine has a little bit more of a Parmesan vibe than the original, which I believe had cheddar cheese. For appearance, I sprinkled on some minced parsley. It seemed a little too elevated.

Along these lines, what are some of your similar, favorite nostalgic foods?

Oh, I could go on all day. Cinnamon toast is a big childhood favorite. Macaroni with butter, milk, salt, and pepper — nothing better. I still love Grape Nuts and a few other cereals from the 1970s. I can't even go near Cocoa Puffs. Dangerous!

If someone wants to change up their Thanksgiving side repertoire, what recipe from the book would you recommend?

Speaking of Os, the cheesy version of SpaghettiOs is a truly delicious version of mac and cheese and would be really nice as a Thanksgiving side. The butter bath biscuits are absolutely incredible and very easy. [They] would be a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner roll.

What was your most memorable meal of 2023?

I have had lots of delicious meals. My most recent one was in New York City when I was launching this cookbook last week. My sister, my daughters, and I went for Korean barbecue at Barn Joo. We [wound] up getting small plates of dumplings and other delights instead, and I absolutely loved every bite.

Do you have any go-to food-related gifts — homemade or purchased — to give during the holidays?

My number one food gift is my [and] my mom's homemade cinnamon rolls. My mom and I used to make them when I was growing up and deliver them to friends and neighbors. Years later, when my mom moved to another state, her friends mourned that they no longer got a pan of cinnamon rolls at Christmastime. While I don't make this claim very often, it definitely applies here: They are the best cinnamon rolls in the universe.

What other upcoming projects do you have coming down the pipeline? Anything else new that fans can look out for?

I am really digging in and doing more of what I love doing. I have my restaurant, bakery, and store in our small town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and seven years after we opened, I still love it so much. I enjoy my product business at Walmart, and designing the items is such a creative joy for me. Of course, I'll keep chronicling my cooking with my website, cookbooks, and my Food Network show.

Someday, Ladd and I are going to travel abroad, and I will take pics and share every bite along the way. The only thing we need to do is find the time to go — and decide where to go!

"The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinner's Ready!" is now available wherever books are sold.

This interview has been edited for clarity.