Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cooking Without a Recipe

As we continue our state of being home-bound and we continue to cook at home more than ever, I thought a Cooking Tip to help you practice Cooking Without A Recipe might be fun. I must admit that I am a recipe lover and normally use recipes as I am always testing different ones for use in future classes. However, when one of you booked a class with me to help her to be able to cook without always relying on a recipe (Thanks, Patty!), I thought it was time to organize my thoughts on this subject. If anyone else is interested in booking a similar class for when we can gather again, just let me know.

I will be breaking this topic up into three separate Cooking Tips. In Part One, I will discuss some basics of cooking/ingredients along with a discussion of cooking grains. Part Two will be cooking proteins and Part Three will be about vinaigrettes and pizza.

To be able to cook without a recipe, you need to have a well-stocked pantry. There are all sorts of lists that you can find online but here is one (Pantry essentials) that I put together that works for me. This list is generic in that it doesn’t contain an abundance of ethnic ingredients. If you tend to eat quite a bit of ethnic cuisine, you are going to want to add those sorts of ingredients to your pantry essentials list. Make it a list that works for you and your pantry. Then, try to keep these ingredients on hand as much as you can.

You also want to taste your dish throughout the cooking process, not just at the end. Because you are not using a recipe where the ingredients and amounts of those ingredients have been thoroughly tested to result in a well-balanced and tasty dish, you need to taste all the time. Only with tasting can you make necessary adjustments to get the flavor you want.

The next question then becomes is how to adjust. Generally, you want to adjust in the following order:

  • Salt
  • Acid
  • Balance sweetness, bitterness, fat & umami
  • Adjust the aromatics to give you the proper bite and texture

As you are tasting your dish and saying, “Hmm, it needs something”, the answer is usually salt. After that, try a little acid such as lemon/lime juice, vinegar, wine, etc. Still not right? Add a little sweetness such as sugar or honey. An ideal result would be a balance of all these flavors. Don’t forget texture. Add something to give it a bit of crunch. Cooking without a recipe gives you an ideal time to play around with these ingredients and flavors to see how they work and interact with each other.

Knowing how to cook multiple kinds of grains is very helpful to getting a meal on the table. Expand your view of grains. It is not only rice but is also farro, barley, quinoa, millet, couscous, wheat berries and more. And, with rice there are many kinds such as white, brown, long grain, medium grain, short grain, jasmine, basmati, arborio. For an earlier Cooking Tip all about rice, see this link.

Cooking all grains is basically the same – cooking them in boiling water until they are tender. The questions that we often have is what is the ratio of water to grain. Believe it or not, you can cook all grains by the pasta method. This is cooking the grain in abundant boiling, salted water until it is tender. Check frequently so you do not over-cook it. Drain, put the lid back on and let the grain steam for a just a few minutes. If you prefer to cook in a more standard way, there are tons of grain-to-water ratio charts online. Here is a link (Water to Grain Ratios) to just one.

You might say that anyone can cook grains, which is true. Learning to cook without a recipe, though, involves turning those grains into your own delicious dish. This can be done in a number of ways – none of which involve an actual recipe.

First, try cooking your grains not just in water but something more flavorful. Depending on what final flavor you want, it might be broth, orange juice, coconut water or jasmine tea. When you first try it, you may want to try part water and part other flavorful liquid. You could also add aromatics such as onion, garlic, bay leaves, citrus zest, etc. to your grain as it is cooking. Gently toasting the grain before adding your liquid is another trick.

Next would be add-ins to give flavor, color and texture to your grain. Fresh herbs are a wonderful idea. Dried fruit or nuts, cooked veggies, pesto, salsa and cheese are all other ideas for add-ins.

Maybe instead of a grain you want a starch such as potatoes. Potatoes on their own are wonderful and they can be baked, roasted or mashed – no recipe required. To make them your own, try adding other veggies such as parsnips, celery root, carrots, squash and so forth. Add-ins as we discussed with grains are another idea to enliven your potato dish.

So, get your pantry in order and let’s be creative. Keep your cookbooks closed. Don’t rely on the internet. See what sort of delightful grain dish you can come up with and let me know. Stay tuned for next week where I will help you cook that protein without a recipe.