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Cooking by intuition?

Why type of cook are you?

Do you slavishly follow every single step and detail of a given recipe and would otherwise feel lost without all the measurements, ingredients, and preparation steps laid out before you in a nice, neat piece of paper?


Do you use a recipe merely as a guide, but when it comes time to put oil to pan (as the case may be, or water to flour, etc.) do you let your own intuition and innate culinary compass be your ultimate guide?

I'm more of the latter. The only time I've ever really needed a measuring spoon was for cough syrup ...


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  1. I used to be the former, but now that I've been cooking for about 15 years, I've become more of the latter. I'm much more comfortable substituting ingredients than I used to be, if I'm out of something, I know whether it will make a material difference to the outcome, I usually have a hunch if there is a problem with a recipe etc.

    6 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      I should add, I still do a lot of measuring, but (again depending on the recipe) I don't worry if the onion generates a little more (or a little less) than the called for cup and just put it in. I consider it a breakthrough that I no longer feel the need to measure table spoons of butter and oil!

      1. re: MMRuth

        Exactly. I'm the same as you, Ruth - there are times when I can judge that a certain quantity called for in a recipe is going to over/underwhelm my tastebuds, and I'll adjust accordingly. (What? They are only asking for 1 clove of garlic in a recipe for 8? Yeah, we'll definitely add one or two more.) But whacking off some butter or pouring oil into a pan is done by "eye" now.

        1. re: LindaWhit

          I used also drive myself crazy about "what is a medium onion" or the fact that some garlic cloves are huge and others are tiny - but I've worked my way through that as well! However, I still don't like it when a recipe calls for a cooking vessel that I have a difficult time determining - "medium sized baking dish" for example.

          1. re: MMRuth

            To me, that's a 2 qt. baking dish. 1 qt. is what I'd consider small.

            1. re: LindaWhit

              Thanks! A lot of my cookware doesn't have size markings on it - so I end up measuring with water - I think maybe I need to focus on "loosening up" a bit w/ my cooking!

            2. re: MMRuth

              Yes!! I hate that... medium sized baking dish!! I also hate "small sheet pan" or "large sheet pan"!

      2. Mostly intuitional at this stage of the game. Like MMRuth, if there's an ingredient I don't like (almond extract, cilantro) I can usually figure out if I can substitute something else without any great change in the recipe.

        However, there are certain times where I will continue measuring properly - baking, of course.

        1. I only measure if I am baking. For cooking, I use recipes as more of a guidline- substituting, adding or leaving out ingredients as my taste and/or cupboard dictate.
          As an aside- I have a neice who will not take recipes from me unless I spell everything out down to the 1/4 teaspoon. She gets crazy if I try to give her a list of ingredients and tell her to make them to her taste. Her little sister, OTOH, always wings it in the kitchen- somtimes with good results, and sometimes not. BUT- she is turning into a really good cook. And I must admnit- she will surpass me in baking- she even wings it with baking, and is always tailoring baking recipes.

          1. Intuitive cook here. If I've never tried to cook a particular dish before, especially if it's from an unfamiliar cuisine, I'll follow a recipe carefully. After that first time, I'll tweak it depending on what ingredients I have, what I like or dislike about the recipe, the mood I'm in. It's hard when friends ask me for recipes because I have to think back on what changes I made and why.

            The big exception is baking, as LindaWhit says. I measure carefully and make sure I understand the technique before starting.

            1. I cook by feel, which drives Mrs. ricepad nuts. She won't deviate at all from a printed recipe. I, on the other hand, rarely measure anything, and substitute ingredients freely. To me, cooking is an art...measuring and art just don't belong together.

              Baking, on the other hand, is not an art, but a science...I measure when I bake!

              2 Replies
              1. re: ricepad


                Even when baking I don't measure down to the exact details.

                The ONLY thing I care about when baking is that my oven is properly calibrated so that the temp I set it at is actually the temp inside the oven.

                So much of baking depends on external factors, e.g. outside temp, humidity, etc., that exact measurements can oftentimes be counterproductive.

                1. re: ricepad

                  I am on the extreme end of cooking by intuition. I grew up learning to cook from my Mom in Russia, and haven't seen a recipe till college. I didn't even own a cookbook till the senior year. All the cooking knowledge and recipes were passed to me with words like "some, a little, and a lot"

                  Baking was a nightmare for me for years. As I found out just recently, I've been measureing flour all wrong. I've been cooking since age 7 and teaching cooking classes since I was 24, but I just never saw how flour is measured before. I also had no idea that mixing it an extra minute can make your cakes and muffins tough. Stuff like that just doesn't happen with cooking. Now that I know, I am obsessive with measuring for baking. I don't even trust cups and measure dry ingredients with a scale.

                  Cooking is another story though. I never measure when I cook for myself and can't even make myself follow the recipes exactly as written the first time (I only use them as inspiration). But when I write recipes for my students, I make sure to measure everything carefully.

                  Now that I think about it, my hatred of recipe following prevents me from cooking dishes from unfamiliar cuisines. I mostly cook French, Spanish, Italian, and Eastern European. Those are the countries I've been to and since I know what the final dish should taste like, I can get there by tasting as I go. But cooking a Thai or Vietnamese dish almost feels like baking, and too chemistry labish for me.


                2. I measure out to exact details when trying a recipe for the first time, because I find it's the best way to get a handle on quantities, and whether a cookbook's worth it.

                  After a few tries, though, I improvise.

                  1. Intuition all the way. I tried a new recipe the other night that i diligently printed out from a reputable website. However, after looking it over, I took the essence of the dish and substituted almost everything. It turned out to be unrecognizable from my printed recipe but I was far better suited to my taste.

                    As everyone else mentioned, measuring is required in baking. I have solved that problem by refusing to bake. Works for me!

                    1. I pretty much follow recipes... that's why when people say I'm a good cook or something like that, I say no, I'm a good recipe-follower! I wish I was more the latter, but I think I'm still too young and inexperienced to be that kind of a cook, at least I hope! This also means that I'm a very, very slow cook, because I have to continuously check a measurement and because, well, I'm just slow! :-)

                      Part of the problem too, is that I never really started with the basics, I just skipped those and went right to the difficult recipes... I keep thinking I need to go back and learn how to roast the perfect chicken, learn how to cook the perfect hard-boiled egg, etc., but I just don't really have the patience! Like, I want to take cooking classes but I don't want to take "Knife Skills," I want to take "Indian Flatbreads".

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: Katie Nell

                        Now see - I *want* to take a knife skills class (and plan to do so at Cambridge Culinary Arts School in Cambridge, MA, to which I got two $100 GCs last Christmas I still haven't used!). I've gotten some hints about knife handling from a friend who's worked a few kitchen lines and has taken some serious culinary courses (and I know I prefer Henckel's Professional "S" series for the weight and balance in my hand) but I want to get better at it.

                        Curling my fingers under to avoid chopping off the the tips of my fingers just seems unnatural to me, but when I watch chefs do it, it seems effortless. I know it's probably "practice, practice, practice", but I just can't get it right. So a knife skills class would be enjoyable (I think!) to me.

                        1. re: LindaWhit

                          I've graduated from slicing fingers to slicing fingernails in this department!

                          1. re: LindaWhit

                            Do take that class, LindaWhit... you'll be amazed. For me, it was the "move the food, not the knife" that I had to learn and felt unnatural... but like learning to breathe properly, once you get it you'll never be able to go back to the "old" way again.

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              The "move the food" is what my friend taught me when I'm chopping a lot of food (or mincing something). If I'm chopping one carrot, I tend to fall back to the usual "move the knife".

                              Also, he showed me where to hold the chef's knife (up on the back of the blade and front of the handle - at least that's where he did it, and I've found it more comfortable at times to do the same).

                              I've got to sign up for this class. :-)

                            2. re: LindaWhit

                              I'm pretty much a gut instinct cook. If I see a recipe that intrigues me I'll make it - usually don't measure to much. The rest of the time I just "channel the muse" and let whatever happens happen. I think in former lives I've lived in Italy, Mexico, Spain, and Asia.

                              I'd love to take a knife skills class. I know that mine suck, they're getting better as I try harder - but the curling the fingers under thing just confounds me.

                              1. re: LindaWhit

                                Well since you have gift certificates use 'em, but my advice is buy a huge sack of onions and start practicing. Soon enough you feel confident to not even look down at what you are chopping (not recommended for the inexperienced) but your fingers will will be in correct place where it's almost impossible to nick yourself.

                                basic rules: tuck your tips in, never lift you knife off the board or above your top knuckle, and keep your knife sharp at all times.

                            3. I'm all about the latter. I didn't own a cook book till I was 23 - intuition all the way. I definitely use recipes as guides though.

                              As for baking, I am all about exactness and following the recipe. I agree with the others, it is a science.

                              Mr. gini on the other hand is the complete opposite. Substituting, changing, altering a recipe is a nightmare to him. Of course, he started cooking only last year. His baking, on the other hand, is often fly by the seat of his pants. And it's quite good.

                              I am much more comfortable cooking, while is baking and it shows in our willingness to deviate.

                              1. the only thing I bake is pies because I the crust recipe is interwoven with my DNA. other than that, I cannot stand measuring, or looking at cookbooks while I cook. I will definitely have to admit that this aversion does sometimes limit my repertoire.

                                1. I generally use recepies as a base, and then use my learned kitchen skills to personalize the dish to my taste.

                                  I was a line cook for 10+ years, before I gave it up to go back to working in an office (tired of crappy pay, and working weekends..) working grill, broiler, saute, and prep, so I have plenty of kitchen/recepie knowledge, and fixes for problems or emergency substitutions.

                                  I also agree when baking there is little room for substitutions, so I do not deviate from those recepies.

                                  In my opinion you need 3 things to be a good cook

                                  1) proper technique
                                  2) good product to work with
                                  3) the right equiptment.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: swsidejim

                                    I think you also need patience, when learning to be a good cook.

                                    1. re: MMRuth


                                      yes patience is very important, cooking is an art, and you cant hurry art...

                                  2. I totally go by my gut. But don't get me wrong, I like recipes. They give me good ideas and guides to things. But the best way to sum up my cooking is that SO recently came home from his WW meeting with a cookbook that was something like, "Top 50 100 calorie recipes" I laughed and said, "Not after I get through with them..." ;)


                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Dommy

                                      yes, cookbooks are great for ideas. I had a family member on the on line WW program. He loved it- I would go into the site, and make up recipes- it would give me the points for each meal He was able to eat the things he loved, and I was able to add items to those not on the diet, so we were all able to enjoy dinner. And I had a blast on the site creating recipes.

                                      1. re: macca

                                        Actually we are cooking through a WW cookbook now and have posted about a few of my WW 'experiments' here:



                                        What I found is that most of the recipes just need a finer hand and a bit more spice to amp up the flavors. They don't all necessarily need more 'calorie' dense additions like butter, cheese and oil. So most point adjustments are minor or none at all!


                                    2. I think with age and cooking experience everyone ends up in the latter. However, with baking you should always measure accurately...learned that lesson the hard way with a pie crust.

                                      1. I cook by intuition; I bake by recipe/proportion. When dealing with leavening agents involved in baking you need to pay attention, but with everything else you can just follow your instincts.

                                        1. If i am baking which is a formula instead of a recipe I adhere to the formula. With a true recipe I read it over and pretty much wing it.

                                          1. I'm the way you are... which is why my husband is a better consistent cook but I occasionally come up with fabulous things.

                                            1. I think people don't venture out enough with baking - I think if you know the science - you can play. I've created a few of my own brownie recipes. The other night a girlfriend was teasing me for making a cookie recipe and realizing I was one egg short. She said she would have tried to substitute liquid but my thought was I needed leavening (a bit more baking powder) and protein/fat (oddly, cream cheese). They came out great!

                                              I find great joy in playing with baking recipes. But a first go at something unfamiliar and of course I'll follow the baking recipe to a 'T' (unless I'm out of something).

                                              I alternate between really following a recipe (happens but less frequently) and using it as a basic framework. I'm a great fan of combining several different recipes (or different versions) of the same kind of dish.

                                              1. I cook according to pickiness. If I know I want to make a certain dish, I will read three versions of the recipe (I always start with the 70's edition of Joy, then either Julia Childs or Jacques Pepin, and maybe one or two on foodtv.com but only if I like the author) and take what I like, or rather what I and the husband don't like, and make it my own. After reading a few versions of the same thing, and picturing going through the motions mentally three times, I am able to remember what comes when and how done this needs to be before you do that and so on.

                                                I, too, am a lousy chemist and therefore a terrible baker.

                                                1. I'm a recipe follower because that's how I started, though I wish I had learned techniques first. In fact it seems most cookbooks don't teach technique -- I found I had to read between the lines to figure out there's a technique behind it. Now I'm at the point where I'll read a few recipes and combine. I'm trying to read more instruction books to learn technique so I'll be freer and more confident in the kitchen to cook with what I have, particularly from my CSA. I'm taking a cooking class this weekend at the CIA -- roasting and grilling -- so that's a start.

                                                  1. For me, cookbooks and recipes are like porn - bedtime reading to incite the appetites...at which point I go and cook something off the top of my head.

                                                    This idea of really precise cookbooks is pretty recent anyway. Cookbooks in the past tended to give a vague list of ingredients, quantities rarely specified, assuming that if you were in the kitchen at all you probably knew what you were doing and just needed some guidelines. I used one such recipe from a 19th century hotel manual and made the best goddamned crab gumbo I've ever tasted from an unquantified list of ingredients and two sentences of instruction. It's a little more fun that way... but then you only have yourself to blame when it goes wrong :)

                                                    1. I found this forum after Google-ing around, I will add that me and a group of students at the University of Michigan are designing some software for a class this semester to teach users how to cook by intuition, thoughts, hints, etc welcome. The idea is to be able to achieve a particular taste within a particular genre of food. Would any of you actually try it?

                                                      1. Perfect example of a solution in search of a problem!

                                                        1. I am 100% intuitive when cooking and a (sloppy) recipe user when baking. Like a lot of people who've already responded, I tend to use cookbooks as a source of inspiration, or to help figure out what gives a dish a particular flavour, but I never actually use the recipes. In fact, I develop a weird form of ADD or something if I try to follow a recipe to the letter and can't concentrate and screw it all up. I'm much better off if left to my own taste-bud-devices to get the flavour that I want.

                                                          My husband is the opposite. Not only a recipe follower, but also a pre-measurer of ingredients. With only one exception, I've loved everything he's ever made for me. And the sole exception was because he used an ingredient that instantly activates my gag reflex, but he didn't know that at the time.

                                                          As for baking, I started out trying very hard to follow recipes, but as I gain experience I'm becoming more and more intuitive on that front too.

                                                          1. Well, I'd like to be an intuitive cook, and might become one, more or less, but I humbly and happily am now discovering that if I am Organized, if I Read the Recipe, if I Don't Substitute, if I use the right tools and cookware and technique and timeline and order, I'm ALWAYS (well 99%) happy with the dish! Surprise surprise--it all matters, not just expensive exclusive ingredients. Added bonus, for some reason, the kitchen stays at least 50% neater when I pay proper attention to the task. (Not just baking, everything!) I like doing it this way for now.

                                                            1. I am definitely the latter. I doubt that I have more than 10 recipes for any savory dish. It's very difficult when friends and family and co-workers ask for a recipe, and I have to sit down and try to write something out.
                                                              I have started to write out my recipes and processes for my daughter because she is a quite timid in the kitchen and prefers to follow recipes.

                                                              My mother didn't use a recipe and neither did my grandparents and this is the only way I know how to cook. I will use a recipe for the first coupe of times that I make a dish and then I tend to just remember the ingredients and the process.
                                                              I am a self-taught (ugh) pastry chef, and I bake many of my regular cake and pastry recipes from memory, and only measure the ingredients.

                                                              I am very particular when it comes to prep, sanitation and order in my workspace, but I tend to consider recipes overly rigid.

                                                              P.S. Krissywats, I feel the same way. Alton Brown's "Good Eats" is a prefect example of what you can do when you understand food science and chemistry. I know that once I understood the basics I became much more relaxed and imaginative.

                                                              1. John Thorne had a great Paula Wolfert Recipe Nazi diatribe years ago....

                                                                I'll try to follow a recipe from someone I trust (from experience or slavish admiration) as closely as possible the first time through, then deal w/ how it actually tasted.

                                                                The point I'd make is why have a recipe if you don't follow it, even remotely? Smart and talented folks have been thinking about cooking for a millenia. I think we should pay attention to them.

                                                                The notion of not needing a recipe has gotten us things like halibut w/ pineapple/mango salsa, served w/ roasted sweet potato gratin. A dear friend says he just uses "whatever (dried) herbs he 'feels' would work." Blech.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: Spot

                                                                  I agree with you, Spot. After thousands of years, there's a reason why somebody didn't do it before and it's probably because it was a yucky combo!
                                                                  There's a great book - "Culinary Artistry" by Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page - that examines the creative process of culinary composition. It works from seasonal foods and lists methods of cooking, herbs use, sauces, etc.
                                                                  Salsify, for example, is normaly boiled or sauteed, and the book lists the sauces, herbs, spices, cheeses, etc. that would pair well with it. From the list, you can infer that you probably wouldn't add chipotles to this vegetable.
                                                                  The authors include interviews with some of America's top chefs on how they create new dishes and menus.
                                                                  I'm an instinctive cook, using recipes only for guidance on ingredients and rough method, but this book is one of my favorites. Real "food porn." I love Jean-Louis Palladin's restaurant inventory for 1/10/96.
                                                                  The section on top chef's "what 10 items they would want" if stranded on a desert island is a blast to read!

                                                                2. Simplify...
                                                                  Try a recipe exactly the first time. Once you've cooked it, if you liked it, you can start to improvise. What if I added tomatoes? Needs a little lemon juice for acid. Try a shot of schiracha (Thai tabasco type sauce). And go from there.
                                                                  When you've done a lot of cooking, you may start off using a recipe as a guide. I think I'd like to make a bean soup, but I don't have Navy beans so I'll try the ones I have on hand.
                                                                  Baking is more like a science. Measure carefully and, hopefully, get the same result each time. With sourdough, all bets are off, however.
                                                                  Am currently reading "Heat" by Buford about working in Mario Batali's kitchen and then going to Italy to Darius' butcher shop. It contains lots of information that you, ipsedixit, would find useful to answer your question.
                                                                  Let us know how it goes.