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What 20 dishes should I know how to make without a recipe?

I love to cook. I would much rather make something new than something I've made before. Which leads to my not being super proficient at any one dish. What dishes would you suggest that I begin making over and over (ala Julia Child while drafting The French Chef) to get it just right in taste, texture, appearance, and also make it foolproof? Roast chicken, obviously. What else? (I'm not talking the obscure or arcane, like sea urchin. Just good old comfort food.)

I look forward to your suggestions.

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  1. I'm a believer that everyone should have a dessert under their belt. Mine is chocolate mousse, because it's so much easier than most people know. But anything will work.

    1. Instead of learning 20 recipes, just truly learn and practice basic techniques of cooking (roast, sautee, fry, poach, grill, and braise) If you master each of these techniques you will go a LONG way into being able to replicate almost any dish you have had without needing a recipe.

      So my suggestion is not to learn recipes but to learn techniques instead!

      9 Replies
      1. re: twyst

        I basically agree with this.

        However, I do think people need to know how to prepare eggs. Learn at least four or five. You'll never starve.

        Learn how to make a vinaigrette and at least one other salad dressing. You'll save a bundle every time you don't buy a bottle of the stuff at the grocer.

        Learn how to make the hot beverage of your choice: coffee, tea or cocoa. You'll always have comfort at hand.

        Learn how to make a simple cake and a basic batch of cookies. You will always have friends.

        Learn to do a homey casserole like mac and cheese or a chicken thing that makes you feel good when you eat it.

        Learn how to cook rice.

        Learn how to braise a cut of meat.

        Learn how to grill a cut of meat.

        1. re: sueatmo

          I agree with twyst and sue - techniques definitely but also the chemistry of how ingredients interact and what heat (or lack) and how it's applied affects the texture of a food, how heat changes the structure of a complex carbohydrate (ie why potatoes change drastically when fried twice yet we generally don't fry carrots, but do braise them). understanding why some flesh is low and slow and why some is high and fast.

          but for a few specifics I'd say being able to wing a few versions of a roux and a white sauce, is the basis of so many things (but back to the chemistry, as a f'rinstance a cream of pickle soup or an avegolemono starts off simple but add the pickle or the lemon juice at the wrong point and it curdles); simple breads and hand-rolled/cut pasta can lead you to pastry dough and cakes later;

          my favorite section of the Joy of Cooking was the one called "Know Your Ingredients"

          1. re: hill food

            Cream of pickle soup??? I've never heard of that but it sounds AWESOME.

            1. re: auds

              a Polish thing (and it was a Polish-French restaurant) it takes a really deft hand and timing. we stumbled in to a small place in SD (gone now sadly) it was the owner's b-day and he was feeling pretty happy so it was all chef's choice that night. for the app the bowls were placed and we were dared to guess what it was. I thought mushroom.I tried to re-create later and have found recipes, but it is tricky, just not the same as his.

          2. re: sueatmo

            Great answer Sueatmo!

            Agree on all of those.

            I would add;

            Learn how to make a really good salad (in addition to your own 'house viniagrette/with variations). Properly cleaning, drying, and combining salad greens, addingh a variety of flavor profiles of complimentary ingredients, and tossing the salad with not-too-much dressing. Serving with probably a texture contrast like toasted nuts, croutons, etc.

            Salad is amazing when you take the time to make it properly!

            Learn a really good red sauce, actually - 2; a quick summer fresh saute one, and a long simmer one, such as ragu or bolognese.

            Learn to cook pasta to al-dente, and finish it in your sauce. Mushy pasta ruins the meal.

            1. re: gingershelley

              Agree totally about the salad. I love salad!

            2. re: sueatmo

              No kidding, I can't even eat bottled salad dressing anymore.

              1. Good advice on techniques, but I think having some basic recipes that you can tweak is also a good idea. Roast chicken is a good one. I'd add:
                Chicken stock--good chicken stock will enhance so many other dishes
                Risotto--much easier than most people think, and adaptable to so many ingredients
                Simple marinara sauce
                Bolognese sauce
                Slow-roasted pork shoulder
                Braised short ribs--another dish you can go so many ways with--French, Asian, Mexican--although I usually use a recipe for these.
                Pasta carbonara
                Pasta w/scampi or clams
                Quesadilla
                A great salad dressing
                Potato-leek soup
                Black bean soup
                Asparagus soup
                Oven- or pan-roasted vegetables
                Roasted potatoes
                Lemon tart
                Tarte tatin

                And you'll get lots of great ideas from others; you'll have lots to work with.

                2 Replies
                1. re: nomadchowwoman

                  I think twyst's advice is spot on, because once you know those techniques, you're golden. I don't think I'm a bad cook, but I've only made half the dishes on your list; but then again I'm Asian and Middle Eastern and prefer to eat those foods, so while I can make kibbeh or pad thai in my sleep, I'd have to look at a recipe to know what potato leek soup even is. On the other hand, having learned how to work with chiles and braise, I made my first pozole this evening that I think was pretty good because I know the techniques (and can eyeball spices from years of working with highly seasoned food). Because I am pretty good with my wok, I think I can make a mean pasta with scampi, even if the flavors will be different. I might need your help, though, to get a lemon tart up to snuff!

                  1. re: JungMann

                    Au contraire, JM, I know you're not a bad cook! My list is purely subjective; I was just trying to respond to the OP and think of things that could be mastered w/out a recipe after a few times and things that you can easily build meals from/around. The reason there's not much Asian (which I love) on my list is b/c I have not mastered Asian cooking myself--and I find I always need a recipe so i couldn't think of anything that fit the OP's query. I still use a lot of recipes, but these are just some of the things I've gotten comfortable with over the years. I wish I could cook with half the spontaneity and expertise that is evident in the meals you post. (And as to the lemon tart, I finally have it down b/c I "mastered" a recipe called "Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart"--the name says it all; it is very easy. Now, a proper fine Tarte au Citron--for that, i need a recipe!)

                2. Read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, and you will be a long way to understanding WHAT is happening when you cook; why things go together, chemical reactions that take place in the mixing bowl, saute pan and roasting pan.

                  A great base of knowledge lets you leave the set recipe behind - it allows you to 'see' beyond the recipe to why it has those items in it, how you might change it, what it might taste like when finished.

                  Techniques, background knowledge, experience. These will lead you to confident cooking actually without recipes if you wish. The proverbial ' open the fridge and see what is there and make dinner. The freedom to save money by reading the weekly store circular and being able to purchase what is on sale and in season and cook meals from that, rather than follow a proscribed 'recipe" that has you run out and buy 10 things you don't really understand, and spend $$, and have a bunch of leftovers in the fridge you don't know what to do with:)

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: gingershelley

                    On Food & Cooking - have not read the book so I am asking a dumb question. Will this book teach me to do all the things you have talked about in your post? That would be wonderful. In the mean time, I will go to Amazon & see what else I glean from this book. Thanks.

                    1. re: cstout

                      Cstout;

                      If I was going to recommend one book for a complete neophyte to start with, it would be "Cooking Basics for Dummies". It is one of the few books that starts with descriptions and definitions of the 12 - 15 basic techniques of cooking.

                      However, I don't think you are a neophyte. Reading about those techniques would still be very helpful for you. But with your experience, I think you could just research the terms on the web. Go to this link http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/techn...
                      and read all the articles on techniques... even better... read them 2 or 3 times until you have got it. You will know anything you need to know to follow any recipe and know by the description what techniques the recipe is talking about.

                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                        Cooking Basics for Dummies....I just fell down on the floor in humiliation!!!!! Hank, I thought you were every body's friend. Just leave me alone for right now, I don't want to go to any link, not now or ever!

                        OK, I pulled myself up & will go to wherever it is that a chowhound wants me to go.

                        I have Ruhlman's Twenty & have learned much from there.....see, I am NOT a dummy!!

                        1. re: cstout

                          Hank did allow "I don't think you are a neophyte"

                          and personally I prefer the basics.

                          1. re: cstout

                            LOL ..

                            A. I didn't recommend it for you. I recommended it for a "complete neophyte" which I said you were not.

                            B. I own "Cooking Basics for Dummies" as well as several other "Dummies" series books and I don't consider myself a dummie (IQ of 138). I find they have a very simple and straight forward approach.

                            I have several very basic cookbooks because I am looking for the best and fastest way to teach neophytes how to cook.

                            C. I don't think everyone considers me to be their friend. I think I have ruffled the feathers of many a snobbish cook on Chowhound.

                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                              A. Truthfully, I have learned quite a bit from the Dummy Series of books, just have not purchased the cookbook one.

                              B. No matter about IQ, the approach to teaching something is very important & these books are great.

                              C. As for the ruffled feathers on some of those folks...they look better that way, with their feathers all sticking up everywhere...sorta like they have been into a little mischief or something!

                              D. (my addition)...no need to ever explain any of your comments..I like to have a little fun with some of you folks...at least the ones with a sense of humor. (like you). I am just here for the food & fun.

                              1. re: cstout

                                well see? there's no room for humor and fun in the world of food. it's a cold, grim and serious place.

                      2. re: gingershelley

                        Gingersheely said it better than I could have. Its better to learn techniques than to try to memorize recipes from repetition. That method will also save your posterior when something goes wrong because if you know what is happening you will also know how to correct for variances in ingredients.

                        I will usually use a recipe the very first time that I make a dish just to get a baseline and after that I tend to customize it for my taste.

                      3. Adding to the previous posts - an omelet, a stew, a roast meat, sautéing a piece of fish or chicken, gravy, pesto, learning how to use wines and vinegars in your cooking and learning how to cook vegetables correctly…