Have you ever asked your grandmother or your mom or another older relative for a recipe to a favorite dish and gotten the answer, “Hmmm. Let me see. I’ll have to see if I remember how I do that…”? Or have they told you, “I can’t possibly explain; you’ll just have to help me make it next time”? If you’ve heard these words or close variations, chances are you were talking to a “recipe-free” cook.
A recipe-free cook is a genius in the kitchen. He or she can assemble a great meal out of the materials at hand and often manages to do it quickly, easily and without seeming to think too hard about what seasonings to use, how much of this or that goes into a dish, or what the exact temperature of the stove or oven should be. Some of us were lucky enough to grow up in the homes of recipe-free cooks, and were constantly amazed at the way they used to recombine the same ingredients again and again, but somehow placed before us a unique and tasty meal that might resemble but was never exactly the same as what we’d eaten before.
The resourcefulness and creativity required to become a recipe-free cook are not as hard to learn as you may think. The ability to improvise successfully in the kitchen can be gained by mastering a distinct set of principles and practices that can be applied to cooking under virtually any circumstance, from a well-equipped modern kitchen to a wood-fire in the wilderness. An understanding of the roles of different ingredients, the taste spectrum of spice groups, and some basic cooking techniques can expand your horizon far beyond the pages of a cookbook, into the realm of culinary adventure. The time you take to learn these basics of recipe-free cooking will be far better spent than the time taken to memorize a recipe and you’ll never be at a loss when the unexpected happens in the kitchen.
Here are the three most important components of recipe-free cooking:
Know your ingredients
Recipe-free cooks understand that there are food “families”; categories of ingredients that can be used interchangeably to achieve similar effects. There are ingredients that provide texture (thinners, thickeners, coarseners and smoothers); ingredients that provide flavor (strong tastes–spices–or unique and specific tastes–for example, duck, oysters, mushrooms); ingredients that provide bulk (anything that adds substance to a dish, from cabbage to rice to chop meat, to flour); ingredients that stimulate the receptors in our taste buds (sweet, sour, salty, bitter); and ingredients that cause specific chemical reactions (baking soda and powder, yeast, gelatine). Many ingredients fall into multiple categories; for example eggs can add bulk (to a quiche or omelette) and be an important part of a chemical reaction (in breads), and be a smoother and thickener (in puddings or sauces).
A recipe-free cook doesn’t need to know the specific qualities of every ingredient — just the ones he or she uses more often. Understanding the properties of the tomato opens a world of possibilities, for it can be turned into sauces, soups, or stews; sliced and served fresh or dressed; or, dried to intensify its flavor. Lightly cooked or raw tomatoes can be pureed to thin a dish, or they can be cooked and reduced to thicken. Diced into chunks they give a dish one texture, and liquified they give a dish another. If you know the potential of an ingredient it can turn one food item into dozens of cooking possibilities.
Know your flavors
Spices are almost as old as humankind, dating back at least 50,000 years. Flavor groups evolved geographically as people explored the properties of locally available plants. New spices were introduced as trade routes developed, populations relocated, and nations colonized and conquered. The spices associated with particular cuisines are the result of history and circumstance. Long before we imagined the modern global economy, spices like cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper circumnavigated the globe with explorers, travelers, and traders, becoming integral parts of cuisines in lands far from the point of origination.
Recipe-free cooks understand that a spice group is like a color palette and learn to combine spices to match the “flavor hues” of their favorite ethnic cuisines. For example, a Mexican spice palette could include achiote, annatto, chiles, cilantro, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic, onion, oregano, and tarragon. Greek food also might feature chiles, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, garlic, onion, and oregano, but diverges at that point, substituting allspice, anise, cardamom, cloves, curry leaf, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, olive and sumac for the rest of the “Mexican” ingredients. All cultures have their spice palettes, and a simple shift of two or three flavors can take our taste buds halfway around the world.
Know your techniques
To become recipe-free, a chef must understand the difference between a variety of different cooking techniques. As with spicing, to single cook must know all the techniques, but all cooks must know several techniques in order to vary the menu and open a myriad of possibilities for their end results. The exact same ingredients grilled, roasted, fried, sauted, boiled or braised will come out very differently. Think of the difference between fried chicken and chicken soup; between roasted potatoes and potatoes boiled and mashed; between grilled vegetables and those pan-sauteed in butter.
Your choice of cooking technique will determine, in large part, the texture of the dish as well as its taste. If you brown onions, garlic and meat before adding them to broth the end result will be very different than if you add them all raw to a stock and boil them together. In the first case the flavors will remain distinct, with a hint of toasting from the browning. In the second case the flavors will blend smoothly. Each is desirable under the correct circumstances. A recipe-free cook knows how to determine which method is right for the occasion.
As an exercise to expand your recipe-free skills, assemble your ten favorite ingredients and five favorite spices. See how many different dishes and combinations you can create. Be adventurous. Experiment! You’ll be amazed and how easy it is to achieve excellent results with improvisation.