One of my cooking goals this year has been to cook more without using recipes. I do love cookbooks. I browse through them frequently and use them to come up with new ideas. I also enjoy challenging myself with difficult or new recipes when I have the time, usually on the weekends.
But during the week, when time is at a premium and energy is often at a low, I find it’s easier to cook without consulting a cookbook. I started seriously teaching myself how to cook about three years ago, and now I’ve reached the stage where I feel very comfortable winging it. Here are the keys to success that I have learned along the way.
The first is to learn some basic cooking techniques. While books on techniques are readily available, I’ve found that cookbooks that contain a lot of simple recipes are the best teachers. I highly recommend Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything and Cooks’ Illustrated The New Basic Recipe, especially for learning basic methods of cooking meats and vegetables.
But don’t try to memorize every possible cooking technique. Sure, there are 101 one ways to cook chicken, but you don’t have to know them all. Instead, after sampling a few different ways of cooking a particular ingredient, pick one or two that you like best for the ingredients you cook most frequently. For instance, I like asparagus pan-roasted. I’m probably not going to bother steaming it, although that’s a fine way to cook it. For ingredients like chicken, I have 3 or 4 techniques in my repertoire, depending on whether I’m cooking bone-in pieces, boneless breasts or cutlets.
I keep a cooking notebook, where I list all the ingredients I usually buy, plus notes I’ve collected about them — including my favorite techniques for cooking that ingredient. This is also a good place to record notes on storage, freezing and any special prep required for that ingredient.
Next, develop a repertoire of key recipes, what I call master recipes. These should be recipes that you really like, which cook quickly and can adapt to whatever you have on hand. In my repertoire are a few soups, a handful of pasta recipes, an easy fish dish, and some one-dish meals like a stew, risotto, burritos and frittata. Although I prefer simply cooked vegetables or one-pot entrees, I also have a few side dishes in my roster, including some basic salads, a couple of potato dishes and a vegetable gratin.
Even though these recipes are easy to memorize, I record them in my recipe notebook in case I need to review the details. I rotate through them depending on what I have on hand to cook with, but I always make sure I have the foundations for my master recipes in my pantry.
The third key is to understand what flavors go together, especially when seasoning the dish. The Flavor Bible is a terrific reference. It lists pretty much every possible ingredient and the foods, herbs and seasonings that go best with it. You can pick and choose based on what you have and what you like.
Cooking this way makes grocery shopping a lot easier. I no longer make a list composed of what’s called for in the recipe, regardless of whether it’s in season or way too expensive. Instead, I look for produce that’s high-quality, in season and therefore usually cheaper. And I know that I need to replenish any foundation foods, dairy, eggs and meat when we’re running low and stock up when they’re on sale. I also treat myself to one or two cheeses — usually on sale — that will go well in salads or for snacking.
On the weekends, I spend some time making foods that will make it easier to cook during the week. For instance, I prep produce: washing, peeling, slicing. I also make a batch of chicken stock, a bottle of salad dressing and a loaf of bread or some pizza dough. I may make a sauce or pesto if I need to use up some surplus. This helps me avoid buying the packaged versions of these foods.
So I may not be posting as many recipes on this blog, since I am not cooking as many recipes anymore. Please share your tips for cooking without a book in the comments.