Cook Like a Roman

Roman at Dinner

Was it the cooks working for Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus who first prepared a Caesar’s salad?

Neither. It was Caesar Cardini, who invented the recipe on July 4, 1924, in Tijuana, Mexico.

The Romans didn’t invent Caesar’s salad, but both the elite and the common folk did serve salads as part of their meals. While the Roman elite during the Early Empire were renowned for their gourmet dinners of at least three courses, most Roman citizens ate much simpler fare.

With my training as a chemist, I can follow a good recipe with the best of them. When it comes time to improvise…not so good. But I’m sure many of you are kitchen artists instead of solid technicians like me. So here’s a chance for you to share your gift with the rest of us.

Amazingly, a Roman cookbook from the AD 100s, Apicius, has been preserved. I’ll be presenting some of the recipes here. Some need “translation” into a form that a cook today could use. If you’d like to send me your version of any of the recipes, I’d be thrilled to post it for others to try.

Romans cooked with wine, but you don’t have to
The majority of recipes in Apicius use wine in some form. Don’t let that keep you from trying to cook like a Roman! Wine serves a number of purposes in a recipe, and there are nonalcoholic substitutes that will accomplish the same thing.

Wine can add flavor, sugar, color, or acidity to a dish. It might be used to add moisture or tenderize meat. It will also “deglaze” a pan by releasing those yummy little bits of whatever you sauté that stick to the pan and caramelize. The following recommendations come from “The Best Non-Alcoholic Substitutes for Red & White Wine” at

Substitutes for red wine:
Red wine vinegar: This is handy for increasing the acidity of the dish and for deglazing a pan.
Grape, pomegranate, or cranberry juice: These juices add flavor to the dish. They are also slightly acidic, so they will help deglaze the pan. For a stronger effect, add a tablespoon of vinegar per cup of juice as well.
Beef, chicken, or vegetable stock: These will add moisture and flavor. Many Roman recipes call for both wine and stock. Adding a tablespoon of vinegar per cup of stock will boost the flavor.

Substitutes for white wine:
White wine vinegar: This is an excellent substitute because it has many of the same flavor components as white wine. It works well to deglaze the pan, too.
Lemon juice: This produces the tangy flavor that white wine give a dish. Its acidity will deglaze the pan, too. Dilute the lemon juice half and half with water to keep it from being too strong.
White grape juice: This gives both the sweetness that comes from white wine and deglazes the pan. If you want a stronger effect, add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of grape juice.
Chicken or vegetable stock: These add flavor. You can boost the flavor by adding a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of stock.

The longer a dish cooks or the higher the temperature, the more alcohol is evaporated since the boiling point of ethanol (regular drinking alcohol) is 78.4 °C or 173 °F at sea level. (It’s even lower at higher altitudes.) For comparison, water boils at 100 °C and 212 °F at sea level. Table wines that are used for cooking usually have between 8 and 14% alcohol with 10-11% being most common, so very little alcohol remains when cooking is completed.

Caveat: No promise that these recipes will be delicious is stated or implied! Instructions in Apicius assume you are a skilled Roman cook who knows what various terms mean. Exact quantities of the ingredients are usually omitted. (Bad luck for a chemist like me who wants to measure out everything!)

If you try one of the recipes and it turns out well, I’d love to get your version of the recipe to post here for others to try. Please share your user-friendly recipe in the comment box below.

The latest posts in Cook Like a Roman:

Miriam’s Rosemary Honey Whole-Wheat Bread Adapted for Bread Machines
Miriam in The Legacy was a master baker, and her master loved the rosemary aroma when she baked this bread. Of course, it can be made by hand if you have the time and the inclination, but I’ve developed a bread-machine version that will work at high altitudes, above 1200 meters (4000 feet). I live over 2000 meters (6700 feet), and the altitude-adjusted quantities of key ingredients keep the dough from rising too fast against the low air pressure and then collapsing. A low-altitude version is here as well.

Preserving meat the Roman way with salt or honey
Sauces for Boiled Meat (Jus in Elixam)

Jus in elixam omnem (Sauce for all boiled dishes)
Many of the ingredients in this sauce are used in Worcestershire sauce.
Pepper, lovage, origany (oregano), rue, silphium*, dry onion, wine, reduced wine, honey, vinegar, and a small amount of oil are boiled down and strained through a cloth. The sauce is poured under the hot cooked meat.

More sauce recipes are also described in the article.

Let me know if you like a recipe. Even better, send me your variation in the comment box below, and we’ll begin compiling the recipes for others to try.

Other Recipes

Garum or Liquamen (Roman Fish Sauce)

Libum (Pancake, Bun), a flat cheese bread flavored with a bay leaf.

Cucurbitas (Roman Pumpkin or Squash)

Betas (Beets)

Pastinacae (Parsnips)

Caulis (Cabbage Stalks and Leaves)

Fungi Farnei vel Boleti (Mushrooms or Morels)

Perna (Pork Shoulder or Ham)

Cochleas (Snails)

Struthocamelus (Ostrich)

Bulbos (Bulbs)

And if what you eat proves too much for your digestive system, the Romans had a cure for that.

Treating Roman Indigestion: Salts for Many Ills


Apicius, Marcus Gabius. Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.


Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby