My grandmother was the kind of cook who prepared food without recipes and mostly by intuition. She owned neither measuring spoons nor cups and yet she baked and cooked some of the most incredibly involved dishes. When asked how to make something, her response was always, “Shit-arein” (which is Yiddish for “throw a little of this and a little of that in”).
I often stood on a kitchen chair at the stove watching her throw a little of this and a little of that in the pot. No measuring. No written recipes. Her cooking was by taste, feel, smell and look. She would look into the pot of chicken soup. Was the color right? Did it smell like chicken soup? Was it salty enough? Sweet enough?
When I married 50 years ago, armed with what I learned at my grandmother’s side as well as what I gleaned from watching Julia Child on TV, I went into the kitchen with little fear even though I had never really cooked a meal on my own in my life. I had no intention of attempting coq au vin immediately but I did want to roast a chicken. Wedding gifts included measuring spoons and cups and one delightful cookbook called McCall’s Cookbook, published in 1963, which I still have with all its food-stained pages. It was the perfect beginner’s cookbook. Easy, straightforward recipes for everyday foods. I started on page one and worked my way through it, measuring and following the directions to the letter.
Fast-forward 50 years. I now own probably close to 1,000 cookbooks (maybe more?). Whereas I might have followed a McCall’s recipe to the letter in the early years, cooking with the book open on the counter as I measured and weighed out each ingredient, I now rarely open a cookbook when I’m about to make dinner. Cookbooks are like novels to me now: I read them for pleasure. They give me ideas. But I almost never use the recipes.
I still cook dinner every night (except for Saturday and Sunday and, oh, occasionally Friday). I shop on Saturday and Sunday, buying what looks good and not thinking at all about what goes together or planning a meal. When it comes time to prepare dinner, I open the fridge, stand in front of it (yes, with the door open) thinking. Then I start taking out this and that. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what goes together. I know how much of this and that I might need for two people. And I’ve read enough recipes in my life that I can pretty much duplicate a dish without actually having to look it up. In a pinch, there’s always Google!
OK. I did go to cooking school in France. I did work in a professional kitchen for a while. So maybe I have a tiny bit more experience than most people. But in my old age I have become impatient. Measuring out one teaspoon of cumin or one cup of mayonnaise actually annoys me. For sure, I use recipes when I bake. Baking is a science and unless you know the science of how much leavening to use per cup of flour, you’re going to bake stones, so I don’t take chances when I bake.
What if you’re new to cooking? Or you just don’t have time to leisurely make a shopping list of all the ingredients for that coq au vin and then carefully weigh and measure each ingredient (there are more than 14 ingredients in that recipe). What if you like home-cooked food rather than takeout or frozen dinners but thumbing through recipes to find just the right one doesn’t interest you? Take heart. You, too, can learn to be an intuitive cook just like my grandmother.
To get you started on recipe-free cooking, I asked for advice from some of the best cooks and cooking teachers in town. Here’s what they had to say:
• To cook without a recipe, you need some cooking experience. You should know how to sauté, broil, steam and boil.
• If you don’t have the rudimentary skills, take a cooking class, either hands-on or demonstration. Watch cooking shows and pay attention to tips and tricks. The best part of an in-person cooking class is when everything doesn’t go as planned. Watching a professional fix something is one of the best lessons. And it should make you feel brave to know that even professionals fail sometimes.
• If you’re making something that you’ve made from a recipe before, don’t try to re-create it exactly. Start simply. For instance, replace or switch out ingredients to suit your taste. An example would be turning up or down the potency of a spice or using sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. Before you know it, you’ll be able to go to the farmers’ market, buy what’s in season and whip up a nutritious, delicious meal on the fly.
Chef Michele Redmond, registered dietitian/chef, culinary instructor at The Taste Workshop
• Get comfortable with heat. Know the basics of when and how to roast, braise, sauté or pan-fry. Learn which cooking oils have high or low smoke points for the best cooking and flavor results.
• Trust your taste and use the five taste qualities (salt, sugar, sour, bitter, umami) as tools to guide the type and quantity of ingredients, and almost never skip the salt. Respect how salt reveals inherent flavors in foods and mitigates bitter notes. Most foods benefit from a hint of acid to brighten and highlight, so consider ingredients such as citrus or vinegar.
• Learn to make simple sauces like vinaigrettes and pan sauces to create many recipe-less options.
Eugenia Theodosopoulos, chef/owner at Essence Bakery Café
, cooking school will open in November)
• Be willing to screw up! In other words, be courageous.
• Think about what goes together. Start with something that makes sense to you. What do you like to eat? What sounds good to you?
• So many recipes start out the same way: sauté onions and garlic. You can add mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes and you have a sauce that can go over pasta or rice or even on chicken or fish or polenta or a baked potato. Just don’t forget the salt!
• Did you know you can sauté a leftover salad?
• I always have eggs in the house. When I get home from work after a long day of cooking for others, I’m not much in the mood to start a big dinner. But if I have some onions, garlic, eggs, a little cheese, I can make myself a meal without thinking about it too much.
• Some suggestions about what to keep in the house for impromptu meals: bread, butter, cheese, eggs, dried pasta, potatoes, canned tomatoes, polenta, onions, garlic, olives, mustard, sriracha or other hot sauce, avocados, olive oil, vinegar. Some dried (or fresh) herbs that you like.
• When thinking about what to make, if it sounds good and you’re looking forward to eating it, then it’s probably going to be a tasty meal.
Melanie Albert, intuitive cooking expert, cookbook author, CEO of Experience Nutrition Group
• Kitchen tools: You only need a few tools to get started: a sharp knife, a cutting board, wooden spoons, a sauté pan, a soup pot, a baking sheet, a food processor and a high-speed blender.
• Stock your kitchen with a few basic vegetables to use all the time for quick salads, roasted veggies, steamed veggies, smoothies or juicing: avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, celery, carrots or other root vegetables like beets.
• Always have several types of fruit in the refrigerator, like citrus for salad dressings, berries for smoothies.
• Keep a few fresh herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro on hand. Fresh ginger root also adds lots of flavor to stir-fries and salad dressings.
• Keep onions and fresh garlic in your kitchen to add flavor to cooked and raw foods.
• Stock your pantry with whole grains like brown rice and oats; beans like canned garbanzo beans, lentils and kidney beans; nuts and seeds like almonds and walnuts; extra-virgin olive oil and dried herbs and spices.
• Choose vinegar that you like (balsamic, red wine, white wine, rice vinegar, etc.), mustards and salt.
• Learn first from recipes and then try your hand at cooking intuitively. Think of recipes as guides. You can always substitute ingredients you have on hand.