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Jun 9, 2008 12:44 PM

Cooking without Recipes

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.