When I first started learning how to cook, I was a slave to recipes. This was because I lacked the self-confidence to realize when something was done cooking or when a new flavor needed to be added or how much seasoning to use.
But as I have learned how to cook and become more comfortable with different techniques, I find myself going off the recipe more and more. A recipe is a great starting point. It can inspire me or help me get started. But once I start cooking a dish, I feel more creative and get greater enjoyment out of the process if I ignore the recipe.
How do you start to cook off-recipe? This is my process, which might provide some guidance. But every cook is different, as is every dish; that’s what makes cooking such a fun and rewarding activity. So I encourage you to follow your own intuition in the kitchen, and develop a process that works for you.
Usually, I do start with a recipe so I’m not working from a blank slate. I read the recipe through once or twice. I preheat the oven, if needed. I assemble my ingredients, or mise en place, and make sure that everything is peeled, washed and chopped (although I have to admit that I don’t pay a lot of attention to the amounts of ingredients called for in the recipe).
But before I start to cook, I simply close the cookbook, so I don’t have the recipe readily available to refer to anymore. I know the general process; the rest I leave to instinct. By not relying on the recipe, I have to use my five senses instead, which I think results in a better tasting dish. After all, the recipe writer doesn’t know how hot my stove gets or how much pepper I like.
My sense of sound tells me when the oil is hot or when the soup is boiling too ferociously. My sense of sight tells me when the vegetables have browned enough or the meat needs to be flipped. My sense of smell tells me when the food is nearly done cooking, and my sense of touch lets me know when the meat is cooked through. Finally, it’s important to taste, taste, taste while cooking. This lets me know when additional seasoning is needed, or when I need to ramp up a particular ingredient, or when something is just missing from the dish.
While I cook, I let everything around me inspire me. Perhaps there is a stray vegetable or two languishing in the crisper that I could throw into the dish. A sprig of fresh herbs from the garden sitting in a glass of water on the counter suggests a garnish. While reaching for the salt, I spy another seasoning that I think will augment the flavor profile. Even a glass of wine that I’m sipping from can add a splash of brightness to a sauce.
This “seat of your pants” cooking can result in failures, of course. But so can recipes. And more often than not, I love the finished dish, because it’s cooked to my tastes, not to the specifications of a cookbook author. I also love it because it has more of me in it, because I connected more with the dish while I was cooking it and gave it focused thought, rather than relying on the recipe to guide me.
If you have never cooked this way, why not try it every now and then? If the dish doesn’t work out, you can learn from your mistakes. And the more you practice this type of cooking, the better you’ll get, and the more your confidence will grow. I think you might even enjoy making dinner more.