A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking without Recipes, Part 1

I was talking to a friend the other day who is in awe of the ability to cook, without following a set recipe. She doesn’t feel confident in her ability to cook unless she’s following instructions step by step. If you’re a seasoned non-recipe, experimenting chef, this article is not for you. But if you feel intimidated in the kitchen, step right in, and I’ll see if I can provide a few tips.

First off, cooking is both an art and a science. The key to successful experimentation in the kitchen is knowing when you can be an artist, and when you must be a scientist. For example, baking is much more of a science. There are formulas and rules that you need to follow, or things just won’t work as planned. That’s not to say that you CAN”T experiment when baking, but you need to understand what rules you’re dealing with to minimize the utter failures! Much of cooking does allow for artistic license, however.

Second, you have to practice! There is really no substitute for experience when you’re experimenting with food. The more you do it, the better you get. And you will have failures, or sub par dishes, but you learn just as much from those as the successes. “I sure won’t do THAT again next time!”

“That’s all well and good, Dot”, you say, but I’ve heard that before and that’s not really a concrete tip! OK, so some more concrete ideas?

Phase 1: Basic tips – Losing Your Fear

1.  Start with something you know, and go from there.  You have a few recipes that you feel you can get right, correct?  You follow the recipe and it comes out well.  Well, that’s a good place to begin.  When I first started cooking I followed my mom’s recipe for red bean chili to the letter.  It was always really good, and not hard to make.  But Chili is definitely a dish that you can have all kinds of artistic license with, and it will still come out edible.  So I started experimenting.  Keep the basic building blocks the same, and add some new ingredients.  Or sub out the beef for chicken.  Or replace tomatoes with tomatillos and green chili peppers.  Or change the beans.  Or up the amount of cumin.   All of a sudden, the world of bean soups, in one form or another, opens up.  Check out other recipes for similar dishes and get ideas for things that might make your original dish more interesting.  Like maybe adding chipotle chilis in adobo sauce for a spicy smoky kick.  The more you try things, the more you find out what works and what doesn’t, and incrementally you learn.

2.  Watch “Good Eats“. Seriously, if you’re not a fan of Alton Brown, you’re missing out!  The great thing about Alton is that he explains a lot of the ‘why’ behind doing what is in the recipe, rather than just giving you the recipe.  If you know why things work the way they do in a recipe, you’ll have more confidence in making changes.

3.  Try new recipes (or at least read them!). Don’t be afraid to just try new recipes.  Many times I’ll see a recipe for something that looks tasty, and try it.  I generally will follow the recipe to the letter the first time, depending on how different it is from what I generally cook.  Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t come out as nice as I thought they would.  But I may learn a new technique I didn’t know, or a new flavor combination I wouldn’t normally have tried, and I can add that to my stable of ideas for future experimentation.  I’m so glad to have tried Niki’s overnight pork roast, for example, because I love that technique now.  Sometimes I don’t even have to try a recipe for new ideas… Just reading other recipes can help.  If you’re wondering what herbs are good with roast chicken, or what spices work well together, look at recipes (like here at Foodwhirl, of course!)  for similar dishes for ideas.

Coming soon… phase 2:  What now?

What about you?  What have you done to lose your fear of experimenting in the kitchen?

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