What is cooking without recipes: a guide to improvisation in the kitchen
Have you ever asked your grandma, mom, or other older relative for a recipe for a favorite dish, only to get the response, “Hmm. Let me see. I’ll have to see if I can remember how to make it…”? Or have you been told, “I can’t explain it; you’ll have to help me do it next time”? If she’s heard these words or close variations, chances are she’s talking to a “non-recipe” cook.
A cook without recipes is a genius in the kitchen. He or she can prepare a great meal with the materials at hand, and often manages to do it quickly, easily, and without seeming to give much thought to what seasonings to use, how much of this or that goes on a plate, or what the exact temperature of the stove or oven should be. Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in households of cooks without recipes, and we were constantly in awe of how they used to recombine the same ingredients over and over again, yet somehow present us with unique, flavorful food that might look like but was never exactly the same as what we’ve eaten before.
The ingenuity and creativity required to become a cook without recipes is not as difficult to learn as you might think. The ability to improvise successfully in the kitchen can be gained by mastering a distinct set of principles and practices that can be applied to cooking in virtually any setting, from a well-equipped modern kitchen to a wood-burning fire in nature. Understanding the functions of different ingredients, the spectrum of flavors of spice groups, and some basic cooking techniques can expand your horizon far beyond the pages of a cookbook, into the realm of culinary adventure. The time you spend learning these basics of cooking without recipes will be much better spent than the time you spend memorizing a recipe, and you’ll never feel lost when something unexpected happens in the kitchen.
These are the three most important components of cooking without recipes:
Know your ingredients
Cooks without recipes understand that there are “families” of foods; categories of ingredients that can be used interchangeably to achieve similar effects. There are ingredients that provide texture (thinners, thickeners, thickeners and softeners); ingredients that provide flavor (strong flavors, spices, or unique and specific flavors, eg, duck, oysters, mushrooms); bulking ingredients (anything that adds substance to a dish, from cabbage to rice, minced meat, flour); ingredients that stimulate the receptors of our taste buds (sweet, sour, salty, bitter); and ingredients that cause specific chemical reactions (powder and baking soda, yeast, gelatin). Many ingredients fall into multiple categories; for example, eggs can add bulk (to a quiche or omelet) and be an important part of a chemical reaction (in breads), and be smoother and thicker (in puddings or sauces).
A cook without recipes doesn’t need to know the specific qualities of each ingredient, just the ones they use most often. Understanding the properties of the tomato opens up a world of possibilities, since it can be turned into sauces, soups or stews; sliced and served fresh or dressed; or, dried to intensify its flavor. Lightly cooked or raw tomatoes can be pureed to thin out a dish, or they can be cooked and reduced to thicken. Diced they give the dish a texture, and blended they give the dish another. If you know the potential of an ingredient, you can turn one food into dozens of cooking possibilities.
know your flavors
Spices are almost as old as humanity, dating back at least 50,000 years. Flavor groups evolved geographically as people explored the properties of locally available plants. New spices were introduced as trade routes developed, populations relocated, and nations were colonized and conquered. The spices associated with particular cuisines are the result of history and circumstance. Long before we imagined the modern global economy, spices like cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper circumnavigated the globe with explorers, travelers, and traders, becoming an integral part of cuisines in lands far from their point of origin.
Non-recipe cooks understand that a group of spices is like a color palette and learn to combine spices to match the “flavor tones” of their favorite ethnic cuisines. For example, a Mexican spice palette might include annatto, annatto, chili peppers, coriander, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic, onion, oregano, and tarragon. Greek food can also include chili peppers, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic, onion, and oregano, but diverges on that point, substituting allspice, anise, cardamom, cloves, curry leaf, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, olive, and sumac for the rest of the “Mexican” ingredients. All cultures have their spice palettes, and a simple swap of two or three flavors can take our taste buds to the other side of the world.
Know your techniques
To be recipe free, a chef must understand the difference between a variety of different culinary techniques. As with seasoning, a single cook must know all the techniques, but every cook must know several techniques in order to vary the menu and open up endless possibilities for the final result. The same ingredients grilled, roasted, fried, sautéed, boiled, or braised will come out very differently. Think about the difference between fried chicken and chicken soup; between baked potatoes and boiled and mashed potatoes; between grilled vegetables and those sautéed in butter.
Your choice of cooking technique will largely determine the texture of the dish, as well as its flavor. If you brown the onions, garlic, and meat before adding them to the broth, the end result will be very different than if you add them raw to a broth and boil them together. In the first case, the flavors will remain clear, with a toasted touch due to the gold. In the second case the flavors will mix smoothly. Each is desirable under the right circumstances. A cook without recipes knows how to determine which method is right for the occasion.
As an exercise to expand your skills without recipes, gather your ten favorite ingredients and your five favorite spices. See how many different dishes and combinations you can create. be adventurous Experiment! You’ll be surprised how easy it is to achieve great results by improvising.