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Cooking without Recipes

  • d

Help me, please. I love to cook. I love food. I love watching others cook. I love reading about cooking, hearing about cooking, talking about cooking (and eating)... You get the point.

I find myself to be talented at the *skills* part of cooking/baking and feel that I understand technique well. However, I seem impossibly uncreative and therefore unable to cook without using recipes for the most part. I definitely have stand-bys that I make a lot during the week for dinner without always using recipes, but I don't just get in the kitchen and cook, I mean REALLY COOK, without a "plan" or recipe first.

How do I start cooking for real?! Do you all have any helfpul tips or suggestions? Part of it is my confidence - I want things to be perfect. Thus, I'm inhibited. But assuming I can get over that - and I can - what should I do to start?! I just feel inept at flavor combinations and other essential abilities to cooking well. I do love to read cookbooks as well, and although that helps, it still doesn't leave me inspired just to get in the kitchen and do my thing.

I want to add, too, that I have recently suffered a huge loss and am just now starting to feel the fire to get back in the kitchen. I think it could be so cathartic, but I feel stuck. Looking for some inspiration!

Thanks for any insight!

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  1. Start by trying to jazz up leftovers.


    1. Well, I would say that improv cooking depends on having well-tuned senses of smell and taste. Inedible memory as to what unadulterated ingredients taste like. This repertoire is only expended by experimentation and practice. After time one develops an ability to juxtapose flavours and textures: finding the appropriate balance is the tricky part. It all comes down to attention and repetition (like learning anything). A love of food and cooking doesn't hurt.

      1. Think of your favorite dishes and recipes that you have made in the past and then take one ingredient or two and make a substitution with them in the recipe. And I agree with the repetition and practice, the more you start coming up with your own combinations of flavors and ingredients the more comfortable you will become with finding the right balance and taste or flavor profile.

        1. First, I always have a "plan", even if it's not a recipe. Sometimes it's an idea, sometimes it's an amagam of recipes that I've picked and chosen the elements I want.

          That said, I think the advent of shows like "Iron Chef" give people the impression that if they use recipes, that they aren't good cooks. Pish posh. Remember too that IC isn't as spontaneous as the show pretends.

          One of the best chefs I know, who was my mentor when I first started real cooking always cooks with recipes- she likes reproducable results. I rarely use recipes as more than guidelines, but will grant you, she's better than I am, but she's a baker- therefore recipes and proportions are important.

          The fact that you feel inept with flavor combinations means that you need to stick with recipes- but branch out and try those with new ingredients and combinations and see how you feel about those. But as I said, I don't think being somewhat recipe-bound means you aren't doing a good job.

          3 Replies
          1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

            Ditto, and don't be afraid if everything doesn't turn out perfectly the first time. Practice makes perfect.

            Last year I decided to work on pies. Now my pie crusts are so much better and more reliable than when I first started. Not perfect, but still good.

            Also read a lot of recipes to see what other people are doing. Back on the pie thing, I've made peach pies with vanilla and peach pies with nutmeg. I prefer the vanilla, but thats just me.

            Most importanly, have fun!

            1. re: adventuresinbaking

              Indeed- you will fail! But you will learn in failure. I had a shocking failure last week- flavorful ingredients and sauces that were great on their own and other preps, but when they shared a plate, eh. No love.

            2. re: caviar_and_chitlins

              I think this is fantastic advice.

              One of the things I learned really early was how to combine spices in a complementary way. Today, you can order them ready mixed from Pensey's ("Tuscan Spice Blend, etc.), but this is a key to cooking well. I learned early about Asian spices when I took a Chinese cooking class as a teenager, and then became comfortable with ginger, garlic, hot peppers, sesame oil and soy sauce. I learned about Italian spices from watching my grandmother (basil, oregano, parsely, garlic, onion) and other spices from observing recipes. I can do the same with Mexican seasonings and Portugese/Spanish seasonings and flavors. French thyme and rosemary were revelations to me, and I think I once put my family through entire periods of those spices.

              Once you are comfortable with combinations, you can cook with a plan versus a recipe, and your food tastes better. Use the recipes as a guide to help you proportion and choose combinations.

              Hey, I am working on my Indian spices now. It never ends!

            3. Don't be afraid to fail. If you watch Top Chef, with professional trained chefs, you see that not all their dishes succeed, even among the better ones. Same with Iron Chef. Taking it further, even ones some of made repeatedly in the past don't always succeed. Start with one of your favorite dishes, look at different recipes and take what you like from all of them. The advantage of cooking over baking is that there's so much more room for play.

              1. I'd say cooking w/o recipes comes with practice. Alot of practice. As Paula Wolfert wrote, the best way to become a good cook is to cook. Cook often. For others, for yourself.
                Julia Child would want you to perfect one dish until you get it right (say, a roast chiciken) and you know what you're doing. You'll be following a recipe until you get the feel of it and gain confidence. Then you can improvise once you know the flavors, including herbs you want to use.

                I think it's unfortunate that most cookbooks don't tell you what you're doing. It was years before I realized I was sauteeing. But I love cookbooks, and feel no shame about using recipes. I'll often read a few versions of a similar dish, figure out the common thread and go in the direction I prefer -- often an amalgam -- based on what I feel like eating/cooking and accompanying dishes.

                I think flashy trendy food magazines and cofee table cookbooks (though I do love Gourmet) make people think they should come up w/ those ideas and techniques on their own. Most home cooks do not, and they can still be excellent cooks and create wonderful meals.

                Relax and enjoy. I find recipes to be great inspiration even if you follow it to a T, you're cooking!

                1. You'll feel like cooking when you feel like eating. Are you there yet?

                  I think that the below points on practice and well-developed senses are both very good ones.

                  A specific, methodical suggestion: Is there something you really love or you've always wanted to know how to cook well? Take a page from "Tyler's Ultimate" or "America's Test Kitchen"--compile a bunch of recipes for the same thing (roast chicken, lamb chops, lasagna...) and try each one separately. Then cobble together the elements of it that you really loved. Repeat with something else.

                  For what it's worth, I think there's a lot of value in cooking from recipes in the quest for learning to cook without them. If you have cooked from a lot of different people's sets of instructions, you get a lot of different perspectives. Recipes teach you technique. The order you do things in can be important to how things turn out. Study recipes to help you figure that out. And look at cookbooks, not just magazines; there are a few recipe developers on a few magazine staffs driving a lot of home cooking and a greater number of cookbook authors. Some cooking shows are good because they tell you *why* they are doing what they're doing.

                  For advice on marrying flavors: same as above. Also, read a book on herbs. They often talk about what goes with what. Read the Penzey's catalog and note what they put in some of their targeted blends. When you go to a restaurant or a friend's house, ask what they put in a dish you particularly like.

                  You probably know enough, already, to start. You just don't know it yet. Good luck!

                  1. Try this.

                    Take a food item you don't like.

                    Then try to make a dish with that food itme that you do like.

                    1. Personally, I don't think you can really start cooking without a plan. I'm not saying that you have to have ingredients/amounts/directions written down, but I think you have to start with some basic steps.

                      When I am looking to make something different from ingredients I already have, I will take a little tour of my refrigerator and cabinets to see what I have and what needs to be cooked. After that step, it is time to pick a main ingredient and figure out what will go with it.

                      Sometimes I take inspiration from an article I have read, a dish I have enjoyed or a cooking show I have seen. Then I start with a search through different recipes to see if there is something that works for me. Sometimes it is just a matter of determining what the technique of a dish is and then building it from there.

                      Good luck and don't be afraid to fail. Some of my favorite dishes have come about after multiple failed attempts.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: NE_Elaine

                        Great response, NE Elaine. I always do a little 'tour' for inspiration, prior to cooking as well. There's almost always an ingredient I know I'll need to use, soon, that I build my dish around. (Tonight, it was mint and good, ripe tomatoes -- which went into a tabouleh -- along with a few more unconventional squeezes of lime and a bit of leftover red sauce that came with my taco cart tacos the other night.) The rest of the mint is going into a basil pesto tomorrow night -- or perhaps mojitos if I have company.

                      2. I think developing your palate will help with your creativity. I have a terrible time looking at a recipe without changing it. I always have to do my own thing to it, because I have these weird texture, temperature etc., things going on. I always want to bring so many elements to the bite, I quit cooking for other people's tastes, and just cooked what suited me, and guess what, they love my cooking. At first there was an adjustment period, but not anymore, they're all on board the flavor train around her now.

                        1. Lots of wonderful encouragement and advice up here.

                          One thing that really helped me get started with recipe-free cooking was going to farmers' markets and picking up new ingredients. Because the things on offer are so fresh and seasonal, you don't need to do much to make them really shine. Pick up one new thing, and ask the farmer/vendor how s/he likes to prepare it, to get a sense of how it cooks, what sort of flavour it has, etc. Then just take it home and play. You can incorporate it into a recipe you already have, or use it as the basis for a super simple side dish, salad, etc.

                          Good luck, and relax. Inevitably, some things will turn out great, and others will disappoint. It's all in good fun, and all of it will help you learn.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: chloe103

                            This was my question too...do you have a farmer's market nearby? I love finding inspiration there. It took me along time before I really started creating my own recipes (well there was that one called "yum" when I was 10 - but good ones). What helped was wanting to make something like chili. That was my practice. I read 10-15 different chili recipes to find out the constants and went from there. Now I find it much easier to grab something at the farmer's market and go with it. The drawback is when i cook for a crowd and everyone wants the recipe after. Then I have to remember what I did.

                          2. Glad you're feeling like cooking.

                            There are a lot of great ideas here. Since you like cookbooks, two that might be good to look at are Simple to Spectacular by Mark Bittman and Jean-Georges V. and Think like a Chef by Tom C. I think both focus on basics you can adapt for other uses. Simple to Spectacular starts with one basic recipe and shows how you can tweak and modify it different ways. Sounds like that might give you some ways to stretch what you already know.

                            The Improvisational Cook by Sally Scheider might be another one to look at. Good luck and enjoy the process.

                            1. You already had a lot of good advice, but would say that cooking without recipes, only will come with time and practice. I begun with simple recipes with few and usual ingredients and also doing the same dish many many times. Every time you repeat a procedure you will understand it better, and knowing and understanding the caracteristics of the ingredients is the key.Take garlic or onion for instance, togheter or separated they are the base for hundreds of diferent dishes, when you fry garlic you can have a color variation from light blond to burned brown with all the variations in between, the same with onions, and you will find recipes that ask for all the tastes that this diferent colors (frying times)can give. And the same is truth for almost all ingredients you can use to cook. The knowledge of the ingredients is of essence to do what you are aiming. So to look in your kitchen and prepare the best possible meal with what you have there besides all what you alredy have read, you will need three things, practice. practice and practice.

                              1. In addition to all the great suggestions already posted. I like the cookbook How to Cook without a Book by Pam Anderson. I often give it to young adults setting up house for the first time, but it is also good for the established cook with suggestions on personalizing the recipes.

                                The cooking show that really helped me move from the "tried and true" dishes, (like the ones my mother taught me) and closely following recipes to improvising on my own was "Ready, Set, Cook". Unfortunately it is not on any more, but the concept was to take 4 or 5 ingredients and challenge the chef to make a meal, with the help of a well stocked pantry. We started doing this at home, often with inspiration from the local farmers market, or a sale at the fish/seafood counter or butcher. Purchase a few key ingredients and then come up with a way to put them together to build a meal. Check online or in cookbooks for the basic how-toos when cooking something totally new to me, but then take it to the next level with your own twists.

                                Another fun way to improve your improv cooking is to try to recreate a recipe that you have had in a restaurant without checking for a specific recipe. Just go with what you think was in there.

                                Growing your own herbs also really helps you to understand their uses and flavor profiles. I have always grown herbs (since high school in the 1970's) and my kids grew up being able to identify most herbs on sight, or by taste/smell. My 19 year old son has become a pretty good cook, likes to play the "ready, set, cook" game with me buying the ingredients and challenging him to come up with a meal. The only problem with this is that his heat tolerance is about 10x mine, so I have to keep reminding him to cut down on the chili peppers.

                                1. I feel the same way, sometimes, particularly when I get in food ruts. You're probably better than you think, however. Whenever I feel this way, I think back to 5 years ago. My cooking has gotten much better and I have learned to improvise somewhat. There's a lot of room for improvement, but it takes time, experience, and more cooking.

                                  1. There is a wonderful Bittman video on his NYT site on preparing artichokes Provencal, in which he states that he made it up from what he saw in his fridge and larder. He sums up the seat of the pants idea well. Just use combinations that you think will taste good together and don't be afraid to try things.

                                    The great thing about cooking without a recipe is that it keeps the pages of the closed books clean.

                                    1. Look at cookbooks that focus on techniques and principles rather than on recipes--James Beard's _Theory and Practice of Good Cooking_, Julia Child's _The Way to Cook_, and the like.

                                      Baking requires more attention to proportions and such, but even then, many baked items are made from basic recipes that are combined into different things--puff pastry, brioche paste, genoise sponge, basic white bread, basic sourdough, shortbread, a simple pie crust, etc. If you can do a half dozen kinds of pastry, there are probably a thousand items you could make without much more effort.

                                      For me the inspiration comes from what looks good in the market. I never make shopping lists, but once I find some ingredient that looks interesting, I can build a dish around it based on what else I can get at the time and what I've got at home.

                                      1. I had another thought for you...

                                        You've gotten some good book recs, but I have a magazine rec.: Fine Cooking. What's good about it is that it does more than just deliver recipes, it also discusses food science, and will take a focus on an ingredient, and discuss options for it's preparation.

                                        1. I love what people are posting back. Such good stuff.

                                          I like having a plan before I set out, but not a recipe. I usually do a kitchen tour and see what needs to used up, and work from there.

                                          I start out by keeping all my panty basics in stock at all times, then my tendency is just buy whatever else looks like fun to cook with, so I end up using shopping time as inspirataion!

                                          I carry a notebook with me most days and make notes about food to try, recipes I want to repeat and reminders of things to get (ingredients, books or tools) and things to try in the future (right now I have a bunch of tomato recipes I am saving for when tomatoes are in seaon!)

                                          Some days I focus on technique, other days I play with flavor pairings, somedays it's simplicity or trying to knock off a dish I had recently.

                                          You said you have stand-bys that you make during the week without using recipes, that sounds like cooking to me! Try working on sauces and go from there! Sauces are a lot of my inspiration.... We have a lot of talk around the table after a meal is presented about what other foods would work well with whatever sauce in on the plate, ect...

                                          Don't be scared of a botched meal, it's a learning experience.

                                          And some of my worst food comes from lack of plan, so knowing methods, techniques and timing to me are imperitive to good cooking on the fly.

                                          1. In addition to all the great suggestions here, I'll add just one thing -- check out the book "Culinary Artistry." A bit of a classic, it will give inspiration by providing some basic guidelines, thoughts on taste pairings, etc...