How to Cook Without a Recipe Part I
You might be here today because you feel you lack the confidence to cook without a recipe. I know how that feels. I was there once too. Know that this step, the act of googling ‘how to cook without a recipe,’ or whatever it was that brought you here today, is enough. You have already been brave by looking for suggestions and tips.
At its heart, cooking without a recipe means relying on your knowledge, your experiences, and your taste buds to make beautifully crafted and tasty meals.
What You Need to Know
Basic cooking techniques
You should feel comfortable with basic cooking techniques like sautéing, searing, steaming, baking, pan frying, and boiling. With these 6 techniques, you can cook just about anything! If you have been cooking with recipes and feel comfortable following a recipe, you have most likely mastered all of these techniques without knowing it.
Try a favourite, simple dish
When you’re beginning to cook without a recipe, it can be easy to tackle some complicated dish once you gain the confidence to try. I’m here to remind you to try a favourite, simple dish that you like. If you have a favourite recipe, try to recreate it without looking at the exact steps. Gather your ingredients and begin!
Some of my favourite dishes are:
- White fish with sliced lemon, rice, roasted brussel sprouts and carrots
- Vegetable soup with a slice of cold bread and butter
- Pasta with a creamy lemon sauce with store-bought garlic bread
- Asian noodle bowl with sprouts, green onions, sautéed carrots and bok choy
Consider your time
If you have limited time, say 30 minutes or less, plan for a dish that can quickly be steamed, sautéed or pan fried like salmon, sole, or tilapia with sautéed asparagus and steamed baby potatoes. If you have time but lack the energy for an involved meal, bake it all in the oven. Here you can try a simple sheet-pan meal with chicken, brussel sprouts, and roasted carrots. The key is to pick vegetables and meat (if you’re using it) with a similar cooking time so nothing burns before the rest finishes cooking.
Elements of a dish
Think about what kind of meal you would like to have and then go through the components needed to create it. Any variation of a meal can be built from a simple grain or starch, protein (whether meat, fish, or legumes), vegetables or fruit, and a sauce.
Do you want a one-bowl type of meal like pasta with a protein and sauce, or a grain dish loaded with vegetables and sauce, or a composed plated meal with protein, starch, vegetables, and a salad to start?
Consider your cravings
If you’re in the mood for a French dish, you’ll necessarily need a good amount of time, fat, and more complicated cooking techniques like braising or poaching. French cuisine typically uses copious amounts of butter or cream, fresh herbs, wine, and meat, along with long cooking times to develop complex layers of flavours.
Indian food relies on heavily spiced dishes with a complex sauce (think of a curry) that uses oil, tomatoes, and yogurt that is eaten with a freshly baked flatbread or a lightly perfumed rice. You’ll need time for marinating meat, cooking sauce, and making rice or a flatbread.
Chinese cuisine can be quicker if you’re opting for a stir-fry with leftover rice, vegetables, and a quick sauce made from soy sauce, ginger, or chili peppers.
German cuisine often features dill, pork, sausage, cabbage (either raw or pickled) and some kind of sauce and bread or potatoes to mop it all up. Provided you aren’t making your own cabbage or sausage, German food is a good quick meal option.
Knowing which region you want to explore in your meals will help you season the dish appropriately and reduce overwhelm when faced with so many choices.
Taste is everything
We’ve talked about the importance of creating a balanced meal that hits all the tastes with the right amount of sweetness and savouriness cut by acidity and spice. When you first start cooking without a recipe, keep it simple. Try to enhance the flavours of each ingredient. What does perfectly cooked salmon with a hint of lemon and salt taste like? How about a rich, creamy butternut squash soup?
Keep it simple
It may seem a bit overwhelming to feel like you also have to learn how to taste better when you just want to cook without a recipe. Take a breath and know that it won’t come at once. Luckily, if you’re like me, you look for excuses to eat which gives you PLENTY of practice. At each meal, close your eyes and stop looking at your phone or the television; it deadens your senses.
Think about a ham sandwich on un-toasted white bread. It’s just thick slices of ham and soft flavourless white bread that sticks to your teeth and forces you to swallow twice for every bite. Not too interesting right?
What about the same ham (thick, slightly salty, and savory) on toasted bread (crunchy, yet soft) with a smattering of sharp dijon mustard (a bit acidic and slightly bitter to cut through the savory ham) and a slice of melted Swiss cheese (more umami yet silky soft)? Each bite of this ham sandwich will activate multiple and different saliva glands, which will help you taste better. With the flavour profile balanced, capacity for taste increases, which increases your enjoyment.
Taste, taste, and taste again
When you start cooking without a recipe, don’t go too crazy with herbs and spices, dried or fresh. Once you have a handle on elevating and enhancing the original flavours of the ingredients, try adding some spices into the mix to create more complex flavours.
Taste for the right amount of salt, fat, and acid first. Once the dish is properly seasoned, then you add more aromatics. A good rule to follow is small pinches of spice first. Instead of just shaking the container of chili or cumin powder over the ingredients, put some in a small bowl and take a pinch out, using your thumb and first two fingers. After sprinkling (up high for maximum coverage), then taste, evaluate, and add more if needed. Keep in mind that the flavours will intensify overnight.
Extra helpful resources
To learn more about how to develop your palate step by step, check out this blog post! In Part 1 of the How to Taste series, you’ll read about the four components of a properly balanced dish (salt, fat, acid, heat) and how to taste whether a dish has enough salt and acidity. In Part 2 of the How to Taste series, you will learn how to fix an over- or under-seasoned dish.
Did you learn something new about how to cook without a recipe? If so, let me know in the comments below! Want to easily come back to post? Save it on Pinterest for later.