Wispa it quietly – it’s all about the texture

I was going to write a piece on texture for the blog, then I remembered I’d already written one and published it to my personal blog a few weeks back.

In the likely event you missed it, I’ve reproduced it here. Hope you enjoy.

 

Originally published on 1 October 2013

AUTHOR’S NOTE: On the Guardian website today is a piece by Amy Fleming on the changing shape of the Dairy Milk bar. I admit that this particular furore had passed me by; but as it happened, I’d just finished a piece on a connected subject, but with the emphasis on what the shape and texture of our chocolate can teach us about cooking creatively. Here it is.

A couple of connected questions for you.

Firstly, how many dishes do you know how to cook? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? Enough to keep you and yours from staring sadly at your plates while thinking “oh, not spag bol again”?

Secondly, what’s your favourite chocolate bar?

The link between the two questions may not be immediately obvious, but bear with me. If you’re able to answer the first question with an exact figure, you might do well to spend some time thinking about the second.

Same old, same old

Recently, a report by Morrisons indicated that the average Briton remains stuck in a “repeat meal rut”, maintaining a rotation of as few as five different meals. And apparently, more than half of us are still eating exactly the same meals we were ten years ago.

These results aren’t exactly surprising. What is even less surprising is the fact that the supermarket is using the findings to promote its range of pre-prepared meals. The message is unambiguous: if you don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again, look no further than the ever-expanding ready meals section.

Well, here’s an alternative idea. If you’re about to cook the same meal for the 521st week running, don’t just admit defeat and reach for the convenience food. Instead, borrow a little trick from the chocolate-makers: take those familiar old ingredients, and look for a new way to put them together.

And if you doubt whether that will make any significant difference to your meal, may I refer you back to the chocolate question.

Wispa campaign

Do you remember the outcry when Cadbury withdrew the Wispa from sale in 2003? Attempts to rebrand it as a variant on Dairy Milk were unsuccessful, and the bar was finally restored permanently to our shelves in 2008, following a coordinated protest on social media – a Wispa campaign, if you will.

I can certainly recall being one of the outraged many when the Wispa disappeared; but why? Why didn’t I just shrug my shoulders and buy a Flake, a Twirl, a Spira – itself discontinued in 2005, prompting a Facebook campaign of its own – or any of the other milk chocolate bars made from exactly the same ingredients?

The answer, of course, is in the texture. The ingredients might be the same, but the eating experience is quite different in each case, solely as a result of the relative distribution of chocolate and air.

Whether we realise it or not, we have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the power of texture, at least as far as confectionery is concerned. As a nation of eaters, we know our Twirls from our Wispas. But when we cook, it tends to be the forgotten factor. We’re forever looking for new and exciting flavour combinations; but we’re oblivious to the textural possibilities of the ingredients we buy every week.

Where flavour meets texture

Writing in the Scotsman, Tom Kitchin discusses the years he spent as a trainee chef, learning different ways to chop and prepare ingredients to produce a range of effects. And he makes the crucial point that “cooking isn’t just about recipes. It’s about taking ingredients and making them taste as good as you possibly can.”

This is a sentiment I’d wholeheartedly endorse – to the extent that I’ve just written an entire book about the benefits of cooking without recipes – but I have a slight problem with the terminology. To return briefly to matters chocolatey, is there actually any difference in taste between a Dairy Milk and a Flake? I’d argue not; but their contrasting textures lead us to perceive them differently.

So why wouldn’t the same apply to savoury ingredients? Our eating experience is determined by the combination of flavour and texture. The two factors might not quite be equally weighted – in that no amount of textural magnificence can rescue a meal that tastes repulsive – but they are as fundamental as they are inseparable. A gelatinous, mouth-coating, lip-smacking sauce is a world away from a watery broth, even if they “taste” about the same. And the coleslaw in your sandwich would be an altogether cruder – and, let’s face it, weirder – experience, if the vegetables were roughly chopped rather than finely grated.

Safe experimentation

When I’m encouraging people to get creative with their home cooking, I invite them to think of their kitchens as their own personal research and development departments. The potential problem with this, of course, is that few of us can afford the time or expense of a failed experiment when we’ve got a family to feed.

But this is exactly where textural innovation comes into its own. Experimenting with flavour can be a fraught business. Attempt to pair lamb with banana, and you might just create something wonderful, but there’s every chance that it’ll be disgusting to the point of inedible. Focus on the texture, however, and you run none of the same risks. The ingredients are all familiar, you already know you like them, and you know they work well together. So you can get as creative as you like, secure in the knowledge that there’s not an awful lot that can go wrong.

So when you’re next faced with the ingredients for that over-familiar spag bol, why not try putting them together in a different way? Roll the minced beef into balls – you won’t need any additional binding agent, as the tackiness of the meat will be enough on its own – rather than using loose mince. Try putting the garlic in the meatball mix rather than the sauce, so that each morsel carries a distinct garlicky hit. If you’re in the habit of leaving the vegetables as chunky dice, try chopping them as finely as you can, then frying them gently so that they melt away into the sauce. Experiment with solid cuts of meat instead of mince, and with how finely you chop them.

Alternatively, why not play around with how the constituent parts (pasta and sauce) are divided? Leave the bacon out of the Bolognese and the Parmesan off the table, and instead, toss the spaghetti with Parmesan and fried pancetta before serving alongside the sauce. And feel free to take your pick from the dozens of shapes of pasta on the supermarket shelves, knowing that each will produce a slightly different effect.

It’s true that several of these examples would fail to meet any accepted definition of spaghetti Bolognese. But to put it bluntly: so what? If it turns out that I prefer it, then give me “bucatini al Tom” any day.

The fallacy of authenticity

Here’s one final question. If it’s so straightforward, why aren’t we all in the habit of experimenting with texture every time we cook?

In my view, there are two reasons. I’ve mentioned the first already: we tend to underestimate the significance of texture in our meals. The solution to this is straightforward: think back to the chocolate bar question, and remind yourself that the same principles apply to everything you cook and eat.

It’s not just that we underestimate the significance of texture when we cook (though most of us undoubtedly do). It’s also that we’re all too bloody obedient for our own good. We follow recipes dutifully, rarely bothering to ask why. And we have an unhealthy obsession with authenticity, as if there were some omniscient spaghetti God watching our every move, ready to strike us down at the first sign of non-compliance.

Well, I’ll risk an eternity of pasta damnation by saying to you now: there isn’t.

Food, like language, evolves constantly. Moreover, there are only two characteristics shared by all of the world’s most celebrated dishes, from paella to haggis. The first is they were invented not by design, but by happy quirks of necessity and circumstance. And the second is that no two cooks can agree on the “right” ways to make them. So our quest for authenticity is doomed to failure, because the holy grail we seek simply doesn’t exist.

So, with all that in mind, might I nudge you gently in the direction of a little textural experimentation? Take the meals you know only too well and reassemble them in a way you don’t. You never know: you might just stumble upon your own savoury equivalent of the Wispa bar.

And best of all, the next time anyone asks how many dishes you know how to cook, you’ll be able to answer honestly and with pride: “I have absolutely no idea.”

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The Art of Stopping

As this blog develops, I’ll do my best to balance my fondness for theorising and pontificating with some more practical thoughts around the many aspects of cooking that recipes can never adequately cover.

And where better to start than with the question of when to stop?

OK, perhaps there are more logical places to start. But stick with me, because this one’s pretty fundamental – especially if you’ve ever found yourself in a panic in the kitchen, feeling that you’re losing all control of the meal you’re cooking.

(If you’ve never experienced a kitchen panic of this kind, congratulations. It probably means that everything I’m about to say will seem ludicrously obvious. It also means that you’re weird, and that normal, fallible people are very likely to hate you.)

One of the most fundamental but rarely discussed skills of cooking is knowing when to stop. I mean that in a couple of closely connected senses: firstly, the ability to recognise when food is optimally cooked and to halt the process at that point; and secondly, the capacity to calm down, take a deep breath and, if necessary, re-plan.

Neither of those abilities is straightforward to develop. Both come with experience, and with familiarity with particular ingredients and processes. So it’s hardly surprising that I’ve rarely seen a recipe that offers much help with either.

But on both counts, a simple change of method, allied to an associated change of psychology, can make an enormous difference; not only to the quality of the meals you produce, but also to the amount of nervous energy you expend while making them.

For some reason, we have a tendency to view cooking – and in particular, so-called “fast” cooking, such as stir-frying – as a continuous, unarrestable process. Heat the pan, start adding ingredients, and keep adding, cooking and stirring until everything’s ready.

With a stir-fry, our perception is that this all has to happen very quickly. This is why any chef will tell you how important it is to have your mise en place set up in advance. (A non-chef might instead talk of the importance of getting all the meat and veg chopped before you start cooking. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing.)

The thinking behind this is entirely sound. If you have to turn away from a sizzling wok to slice a pepper, there’s every chance of something unfortunate happening during the minute or so that your attention is elsewhere. Get the preparatory tasks out of the way, and you can focus completely on the cooking.

But while the advice might be perfectly correct, it only perpetuates the notion that the cooking absolutely has to be done in a tremendous rush. Heat the oil, then it’s all systems go. Add the meat, stir, add the veg, stir some more, add your sauces, powders and unctions, stir again, serve. But whatever you do, don’t stop. You’re Magnus Magnusson: you’ve started so you’ll finish.

Most of us approach our stir-fries with this mentality, and that’s none too surprising. It’s the only way we’ve ever seen it done; either on the telly, or in the open kitchen of a noodle bar.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious once again: these are professionals, working with excellent equipment in well-appointed kitchens. When we’re armed instead with clapped-out electric cookers, a flimsy frying pans and far less experience and confidence – and when we’re subject to all the interruptions and distractions of domestic life – it’s little wonder that our own attempts often turn out rather differently.

For instance, what do you do if you misjudge the heat of the pan, so that the chicken takes forever to cook, and steadfastly refuses to brown on the outside as intended? What if you’re a little heavy-handed with the soy sauce, leaving your stir-fry sloppy and wet, instead of the prescribed “glossy”? What if your best-laid plans are sabotaged at a crucial moment by an external source: a ringing phone, or a crying baby?

If your answer in each case is “plough on and hope for the best”, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what most of us do, most of the time. But it rarely produces a happy outcome – and more to the point, it isn’t necessary.

Keep frying the chicken pieces in the under-heated pan until they finally turn vaguely brown, and they’ll end up dry and overcooked. Leave the vegetables in the pan while you wait for the excess liquid to boil down, and they’ll become soggy and miserable. Let the whole thing continue cooking for as long as it takes you to placate a screaming child, and God only knows what will happen.

But in each case – and as with so many things in life – the best solution is also the simplest.

Stop.

If the chicken isn’t browning as it should, lift it into a bowl while you get the pan back up to temperature, then try again (perhaps in two or more batches, if you’re struggling to maintain a high enough heat).

And if the meat and veg are cooked but you need to reduce the liquid, put them to one side while you do. What harm could they possibly come to as a result of spending a few minutes away from the heat? Far less, certainly, than if they were left in the pan to overcook horribly.

Extend these principles, and a potentially stressful method of cooking becomes far easier to control, and to carry out successfully.

Yes, it’s worth getting all your chopping (or mise en place, if you will) done first; but if you’ve already started cooking and suddenly realise you’ve forgotten the onions, don’t fret: just stop.

And if you regularly struggle to get the various elements of the meal ready at the same time, try a change of approach: do them one by one. Put a large bowl next to the cooker, and get started.

Fry the chicken, in as many batches as seems appropriate to the size of the pan, and put the pieces in the bowl when they’re done. Do the same with the veg, halting the cooking process while they still retain the desired amount of crunch. Then get the sauce – whether bought, concocted or some combination of the two – to a taste and texture you’re happy with, before returning everything to the pan for a final amalgamation.

Written down, this might seem a long and convoluted process. But in practice, it barely takes any longer than trying to do the whole lot in a frenzied oner.

In a suitably hot pan, and with plenty of room to move around, the chicken should be nicely browned all over in a couple of minutes. Even if you have to cook it in three batches, that’s still only six minutes in all.

But if you try to cram all the chicken into the pan at once – which, given that you’re filling it with fridge-temperature meat, is bound to cool the pan down significantly – and it’ll take at least six minutes to cook through, and probably more. And you’ll be lucky to achieve any surface browning at all.

The same applies to the veg, and in particular to the sauce. On its own in a hot pan, the liquid will reduce rapidly, and should reach a desirable consistency in moments. Force it to share the space with all the other ingredients, and you slow this process dramatically. It might take several minutes to reduce sufficiently; during which time, the meat turns to shoe leather, and the vegetables to mush.

When you break the process down into distinct, manageable stages – and in so doing, come to realise that even stir-frying, for all its associations of frenzied pace, affords you plenty of opportunities to pause, breathe and reassess – you regain control over what you’re doing. So if the phone rings, that’s OK: just turn off the heat, take the call, realise it’s another sodding recorded message about PPI, hang up and start cooking again.

Best of all, you can take the same principles and apply them to almost any style of cooking.

If the beef in your stew is cooked but the sauce is too runny, you don’t have to chuck in a load of flavour-deadening flour, or carry on cooking and risk ruining the meat. Stop; lift out the solid ingredients (or, if it seems easier, use a colander to drain off the liquid into a clean pan), and reduce the sauce, pretty much as fast as you like. A few minutes off the heat won’t do the meat or vegetables any harm; and stirred gently back into the newly reduced, thickened sauce, they’ll soon come back up to temperature.

Or if you’re making a fry-up for several people, and you’re struggling to keep track of multiple pans at once, don’t bother to try. If the sausages are ready but you haven’t started on the bacon yet, don’t worry. Just keep a dish in a very low oven (around serving temperature, 70°C or so), transfer the cooked items into it when they’re done, and forget about them until you’re ready to serve. Even toast will cope with a lengthy stint in this “holding chamber” without losing its crunch.

So you can stop worrying about getting everything ready at once, and just let things take their own time. That way, you can leave the one task that’s really time-critical – cooking the eggs – until everything else is done. Your friends might get ravenously impatient after a while; but the quality of the finished product will more than make up for the brief wait.

Almost any cooking task is rendered so much easier if you give yourself the chance to stop, think and relax. And it’s no coincidence that the few that don’t really allow you to do that – deep-frying in batter, for instance – are the same tasks that I’ll rarely bother to take on at home. Instead, I’ll try to keep my cravings for such foods in check until I find myself somewhere that’s better set up for cooking them. The chippy, for instance.

So when you next find yourself in a kitchen panic, remember that just about the worst thing you could do is to “keep calm and carry on”. Firstly, you can’t keep calm, because you’re already not calm. And secondly, it’s rarely a good idea – for your meal or your sanity – to carry on doing something that patently isn’t working.

On that basis, perhaps we could all throw away all those stupid bloody “Keep Calm” T-shirts, tea towels and mugs, and agree to a more appropriate mantra.

“Become calm…and stop.”

What do you mean, no recipes?

picture022

I launched this blog in something of a hurry, and with something of a rant.

It occurs to me that I should probably explain a little more of what the blog is about, why I’m writing it, and who I’m writing it for.

So, in the “first things second” spirit in which I seem to have approached this blog, here’s the closest I’m likely to come to a mission statement.

First of all, when I say “no recipes”, I’m not denying that recipes can be useful, or that I never refer to them when I cook at home.

There’s a whole category of cooking that depends on weights, measures, precision timing and often dramatic chemical reactions. You’d struggle to make decent soufflés, pastry or bread, particularly the first few times, without the assistance of a recipe. To varying degrees, the same applies to pâtés and terrines, jams and jellies, and all sorts of other foods.

But for the vast majority of the meals I cook, I have neither the need nor the inclination to follow a recipe. If I can do without the kitchen scales, the measuring spoons and the timer on my phone, and instead rely on my senses and imagination, I will. It’s less hassle and much more fun.

Nonetheless, the majority – the huge majority – of food writing is in the form of recipes. I often enjoy reading (as distinct from following) them, and I’m always interested to see a combination of ingredients, or a way of cooking a particular foodstuff, that I’ve never considered before.

But actually following them from start to finish? Not so much.

I don’t think cooking should feel like a chore. But when I cook from recipes, it does. The prospect of noting down the required ingredients, trudging round the shops to buy them, measuring them out meticulously, then following the chef’s instructions to the letter, seems a thoroughly miserable way to spend my time.

And if for some reason I do decide to do all this, and the finished dish turns out to be an unqualified triumph, it still leaves me feeling hollow somehow. Because what have I really achieved, other than demonstrating that (1) somebody I don’t know has devised a nice recipe, and (2) I am capable of following basic instructions? As my eight year old self might have put it: “big wow”.

I seem to be in a minority, though, because as a society we’re consuming more and more food writing, almost all of it in the form of recipes. Sales of recipe books continue to grow; and of course, there’s the small matter of the Internet, through which we can obtain any number of recipes, instantly and for free, for any dish it might occur to us to cook.

That cookbooks continue to sell in their millions in the Internet age is little short of extraordinary, when their reasons for existing have, on the face of it, disappeared. The equivalent recipes, by the same authors and thousands of others, are a Google search away; and the more technical elements – how to fillet a flatfish, say – are demonstrated more clearly and informatively on YouTube than through the static diagrams and photos in a cookbook.

This paradox is explored by Claire Strickett in her brilliant piece, The Tyranny of the Recipe. She argues that “the same kind of behaviour that drives millions to buy gym memberships they’ll barely use drives people to buy cookbooks. The act of purchasing itself feels like a commitment – an achievement, even. Googling a recipe can’t give you that comforting illusion.”

I don’t mean to tell you how to live; but if you have the slightest interest in cooking, and you don’t read Strickett’s article, you’re making a colossal error. It’s the best deconstruction I’ve ever read of the essential pointlessness, and indeed unhelpfulness, of the “recipe first” approach, and of how the ubiquity of the recipe is making us worse, not better, cooks.

Her conclusion is as compelling as it is inescapable, and also does me the helpful service of capturing exactly what this blog is for:

“Freedom from lists and instructions should be the end goal of the home cook – it is more satisfying, much easier, and less time-consuming. A lot more liberating, too. We need to put cooking back in a wider context, not just of other directly food-related issues but questions of economy, health and the environment, for it is always connected to those broader issues, whether we think about it or not.”

Quite so. And in fairness, several of our more celebrated food writers have been trying to do exactly that – in amongst the obligatory recipes, obviously. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall merits particular recognition on that front: whether or not you agree with his point of view (and I usually do), you couldn’t accuse him of ignoring the wider context. And more than most, he encourages readers to think, improvise and invent for themselves.

But if he were to leave the recipes out of his weekly Guardian piece, there’d be uproar. Where we see food writing, we’re conditioned to expect recipes. And if we don’t find them, we tend to presume it’s some sort of ultra-highbrow piece, relevant only to the cooking-obsessed few.

Have a search around the web for “no recipe cooking”, or similar, and the Internet cupboard is unusually bare. There are a handful of books available on the subject – Glynn Christian’s How to Cook Without Recipes and Philip Dundas’s Cooking Without Recipes are both worth exploring – and there are a few discussion threads on specialist food websites and forums. But by comparison with the volume of recipes available online, there’s very little to be found.

Most tellingly – and amusingly, to me at least – there’s a very successful (and very good) US website called norecipes.com. Have a look at the homepage, and one thing is likely to strike you before anything else: there are hundreds and hundreds of recipes on there.

To give due credit to site author Marc Matsumoto, he does acknowledge this point in the site FAQs:

“I can see how this might be confusing, but to clear it up, I make almost everything I post without a recipe. I think cooking is most fun and innovative when you just wing it. I do recognize that not everyone is as adventurous as me, so I post the ingredients and method to give you a starting point. It’s my hope that by telling the backstory of a dish and teaching you basic techniques, I’ll arm you with the know-how and give you the inspiration and confidence to come up with your own dishes sans recipe.”

Fair enough, I suppose. And Matsumoto’s recipes are much fuller and more informative than most, offering plenty of contextual information and explanation among the directions.

But something still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Are we so completely inured to working from recipes that even a site called “no recipes” is chock-bloody-full of them?

Perhaps we are. And if so, it’s possible that I’m wasting my time and yours. But I’d like to think there’s a bit of room in this recipe-stuffed world for a different kind of food writing.

I’m talking about words intended to be read at leisure, between meals; not in the kitchen, next to a dangerously hot frying pan, while desperately trying to remember whether you’re supposed to add the mushrooms or the onions first.

I’m talking about ideas and principles that encourage you to approach your cooking in a different, more liberated and creative way; and that, once you’ve read and absorbed them, will leave you feeling a little more confident and capable next time you set foot in the kitchen, and every time after that.

I’m talking about advice that enables you to cook with a degree of flexibility that a recipe never will, so you can adjust your approach to suit your circumstances, and those of your fellow eaters: ingredients, time, equipment, finances, numbers, preferences, allergies and so on.

And I’m talking about writing that will help you to discover, if you haven’t already, that cooking needn’t just be another domestic task, to be fitted around the washing, ironing and hoovering, but a genuine source of pleasure and fulfilment.

Is that too much to ask?

Well, we’ll soon find out, won’t we?

The Waste Land

This, on the face of it, has been a historic day.

For the first time, one of the major UK supermarkets – Tesco – has published independently verified statistics on food waste generated from its stores, at each stage of what it calls the “value chain” (producer, retailer and consumer).

Much of the news coverage has centred around the headline figure: 28,500 tonnes of produce was thrown away by Tesco over the first six months of this year. Isn’t that just shocking?

Well, yes it is. I’m amazed that the figure is so low. It’s equivalent to just 0.87% of the total produce sold by the company over the same period; and when viewed in the context of the 14.8 million tonnes of food discarded in the UK each year, the figure is so small as to be statistically almost insignificant.

So, well done Tesco, eh? Not entirely.

Certainly, Tesco deserves credit for publishing these statistics. It makes it highly likely that other supermarkets will follow their lead – it’s an unwise organisation indeed that doesn’t take note of what the UK’s largest retailer is doing – and it’s to be hoped that future reports will provide a more comprehensive breakdown of waste generation.

And, while it may be couched in retail jargon, it’s absolutely appropriate that the report should cover all three stages of the process, from production through to consumption (or not). By doing so, it draws attention to a far more relevant and troubling figure: a total of 32% of the food in Tesco’s “value chain” ends up being wasted. Leaving aside the negligible losses from stores, this wastage is divided equally between producers and consumers.

On reflection, it’s hardly surprising that an organisation as vast and sophisticated as Tesco should have become pretty good at stock control. After all, it’s the one stage of the process at which the retailer stands to lose. Throw away a loaf of bread instead of selling it, and that’s a quid the shareholders will never see. Granted, they may not much care either; but throw away million upon million of loaves, and they probably will.

But just because they’re not the ones physically chucking the food away, that doesn’t mean the supermarkets can avoid their share of responsibility for wastage elsewhere in the chain.

Producers discard perfectly good food when it doesn’t meet the aesthetic standards set by the retail giants (although the initiative to sell some of the “uglier” fruit and veg through their budget ranges is a limited but welcome one).

And the pricing policies of many supermarkets – dubious “discounts”, multi-buy offers, and/or disproportionate mark-ups for smaller quantities – can make it seem almost nonsensical to buy in anything other than bulk.

At the time of writing, for instance, a 250g pack of Tesco minced beef will cost you £1.75. Throw in another 25p – and really, what’s 25p? – and you get double the quantity. If you’re feeding a family of four, this is excellent news. But if you’re only cooking for yourself, you’re going to end up eating, freezing or throwing away an awful lot of beef. And most of the time, we take the third option, leading to the average UK family discarding £680 worth of food each year.

In fairness to Tesco, its report includes some acknowledgement of its own role in the process, along with a few positive policy changes to address the worst of the waste. Having established that 68% of its bagged salad is wasted – more than half of this by consumers – it’s announced an end to multi-buy offers on larger packs, and the introduction of resealable packs across its range. All this is positive news.

But in the context of Tesco’s wider operation, it’s pretty small beer. The end of multi-buy deals, while a laudable move in isolation, applies only to bagged salads; not to bread, fruit or any of the other waste culprits identified in the report.

And there’s no meaningful indication that the retailer’s broader approach is likely to change. Like its competitors, it will continue to entice customers through the illusion of value: buy lots, pay (relatively) little. Whether we actually use the food we buy will continue to be a secondary consideration, because the supermarkets take on neither the direct responsibility nor the financial impact.

A limited choice

So what can we, as the consumers at the tail end of the “value chain”, do about this?

In the short term, there are a number of things we could do. For a start, we could change where – and how – we shop. Take a trip back in time, to a period before 3 for 2 offers, and buy only what we need, weighed to our specifications.

If you’re very lucky, you might still have ready access to good independent butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers and bakers. Failing that, Morrisons sell a greater range of loose, fresh produce than most supermarkets – in their larger branches, at least – under their Market Street brand.

But not all of us are so well served for food shops that we can choose freely and equally between them. For those without cars, proximity will continue to be the overriding factor. And the miniature urban offshoots of the big supermarkets – in which you’ll struggle to find much, if any, unpackaged produce – are rapidly taking over our high streets, driving more and more independent retailers to the wall. Increasingly, we find ourselves buying pre-packaged food, for want of a realistic alternative, in quantities determined not by the consumer but by the retailer.

And in any case, it’s not a straightforward equation of “unpackaged food = less waste”. Fresh meat sold from butchers’ counters will spoil much more quickly than its modern packaged equivalent. In other words, it’s far from guaranteed that buying food loose will lead to less food waste – as distinct from packaging waste –for either retailers or consumers.

Alternatively, we could keep buying in bulk from the supermarket, but make better use of our freezers. Take advantage of the bigger packs and the multi-buy offers, cook what we need and freeze the rest for future use. But that depends on us having sufficient freezer space at our disposal. In my rented flat, equipped with only a small fridge/freezer, it wouldn’t be a realistic option – even if I ever got round to defrosting the freezer compartment.

A variation on that theme is to get into the habit of buying and cooking in larger quantities, then freezing the leftovers as home-made ready meals. This, though, relies on us having the time and inclination to prepare and cook the larger quantities in the first place; and of course, it too is dependent on a freezer that’s up to the task.

A longer-term option, advocated today by Friends of the Earth, is to lobby our politicians, as well as our retailers, to put a stop to the 3 for 2 offers and suchlike. But in practice, I suspect this would be somewhere between pointless and self-defeating. For those who currently benefit from the incentives to buy big – those with large families and/or even larger freezers – the change would be entirely unwelcome. And for the rest of us, it would be largely ineffectual.

No supermarket CEO would be overly perturbed to be told that certain discounts or multi-purchase offers were to be outlawed. He – for it is almost certain to be a “he” – would simply instruct his company to look for ways to circumvent the legislation, ensuring that it had no meaningful impact on our over-purchasing habits.

And in case you don’t believe me, I have precedent on my side. In Scotland, it’s now illegal to offer multi-buy deals on alcoholic drinks. But go into any Scottish supermarket and compare the unit price of a single can of Tennent’s to that of a 20-pack, and you’ll soon see how much effect the legislation is having. The politicians know this too, which is why they’ve looked instead to minimum unit pricing – which the retail and drinks industries have been fighting all the way. Of course they have: because unlike the law on bulk-buying, there’d be no wriggling around it.

Hate waste, hate recipes

So if we’re not about to change the way we shop and cook, and the retailers aren’t going to alter their pricing policies significantly, what are we left with – other than a dustbin full of wasted food?

In the search for a solution, the Love Food, Hate Waste website is a pretty good place to start. It contains useful advice, statistics and videos on various aspects of food waste and how to reduce it at home through better storage practice, effective portion planning and so on.

It also contains recipes. An awful lot of recipes, accessed from a prominent link on the homepage. Some are good; some less so (the broccoli in this stock will make it smell and taste a bit, well, farty); and a few commit the classic recipe faux pas of omitting key ingredients from the list, such as the curry paste in this curry.

In fairness, there are quite a few recipes specifically for using up leftovers (including the curry-less curry I’ve just mentioned). But there’s still something of a logical problem here. If your first step towards reducing waste is to reach for a recipe, there’s a very good chance you’ll end up wasting more food, not less.

Even using the built-in search filters, you’ll be scrolling through an awful lot of recipes before you find one for which you already have all the ingredients. In other words, as long as you take an entirely recipe-led approach to cooking, you’re going to have to buy more food in order to use up the stuff you already have.

The site proposes a solution to this: make a shopping list, so that you only buy what you need. “Shopping for specific ingredients with meals in mind and taking a list helps ensure we use what we buy.”

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Well, if you’re doing your food shopping using the old-style weights and measures approach, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. If the meal you have in mind requires 250g of minced beef, two carrots, and so on, that’s exactly what you ask for. And if you need twice as much, you’ll pay twice as much. It’ll make for a pretty dull stint of recipe-reading, list-making and list-reading-out; but if that’s how you choose to shop and cook, fair enough.

But if you’re among the pre-packaged, supermarket-shopping majority, the situation isn’t so straightforward. You might only need 250g of mince; but when you find that you can get twice as much for virtually the same price, do you stick to your guns and buy the smaller, marked-up pack? Almost certainly not. And if you do, the only beneficiary is the supermarket.

Not only that, but you’re effectively ruling out the prospect of finding an alternative bargain on the day. You might arrive at the supermarket to find that there’s no attractively-priced mince on sale at all, but the free range chickens are half price. There’s little doubt which is the better deal; but if you’re sticking determinedly to your predetermined shopping list, you’ll have little choice but to stick to your original, now disappointingly expensive plan.

And most significantly of all, it’s highly unlikely that your various ingredients will all be packaged up in the precise quantities you require. You might find the 250g of mince you need – expensively or otherwise – but be forced to buy a bag of a dozen carrots when the recipe only requires two. Without that vital but much underrated cooking skill – flexibility – you’re still going to be faced with leftover ingredients, and potential waste.

It’s notable, incidentally, that most of the big supermarkets are listed as partners of Love Food Hate Waste. This is none too surprising; after all, if you’re a major player in the food industry, it’s good PR to say you’re anti-waste, however accurate or otherwise that description might be.

But let’s be realistic here. For the supermarkets, all that really matters is being seen to hate waste; they don’t actually have to hate it. Tesco might have announced a few small changes this week, aimed at reducing consumer waste on a few headline products; but ultimately, it barely matters to them whether we buy a little food with a large profit margin, or a lot of food with a smaller margin. If the unused food ends up in a domestic dustbin, it’s hardly their fault, is it? We’re the ones who left it to rot, not them.

I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe that the supermarkets exert a direct and malign influence on campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste. What I would contend, though, is that many of their stocking and pricing policies are fundamentally incompatible with the “only buy what you need” mantra. As consumers, we’re faced with a choice: either we pay a substantial premium to buy what we need, or we pick up an apparent bargain in buying what we don’t. In reality, that’s no choice at all.

An alternative (and a plug)

There is one further option, however: abandon the recipe and the shopping list, and make the supermarkets’ pricing policies work for you.

For starters, get your cupboard and fridge stocked up with versatile, non-perishable (or at least slow-to-perish) foods: rice and pasta; tins of tomatoes and pulses; longer-life vegetables (onions, garlic, squashes); salted meats (pancetta, chorizo); salt, sugar and spices; oils and vinegars.

When you find these ingredients on bulk-buy deals, fill your boots (or, more accurately, your trolley). Unlike the multi-buy salad offers, these are to your advantage as much as the supermarket’s. You know they’ll get used before they go off; so if there are economies of scale to be had, you’d be daft not to make the most of them. Moreover, it’ll leave you with enough food to make a broad range of meals from scratch, so you won’t find yourself trudging to Tesco Metro on a grim February evening when you don’t want or need to.

But when you do come to shop for fresh food, my strong advice would be to take a good look at the shopping list advice on the Love Food Hate Waste website, and do the opposite. Don’t plan your meals before you go: instead, walk into the shop (supermarket or otherwise) with an open mind, work out what you like the look of, and see where the value is.

You’ll need a rough idea of how much food to buy in total, of course; but, just as importantly, you’ll also need the skills and confidence to turn a few core ingredients, Ready Steady Cook-style, into a coherent and tasty meal. (Or – if you’ve been obliged to buy in larger quantities than you’d have liked – several coherent and tasty meals.)

Of course, if you’re a lifelong list-maker and recipe-follower, this is going to mean reversing your perspective. Instead of thinking “what do I need to make this meal?”, you’ll need to think “what can I make with these ingredients?” And the potential problem with this is that you might feel you don’t know how to.

If I can, I’d like to help.

I’ve written a book, The No Recipe Manifesto, all about how, why and when to cook without recipes. It sets out to reconnect the reader with some of the lost skills of cooking – resourcefulness, flexibility and creativity – while also bringing out the sheer pleasure of making things up as you go along: a pleasure that is enhanced further by the knowledge that you’ve just made good use of ingredients that might otherwise have ended up in the bin.

The book will be coming out next year – I’ll let you know exactly where, when and in what format(s) as soon as I’m able – but in the meantime, I’ll be posting here on all aspects of non-recipe cooking, aimed in particular at the inexperienced or nervous cook.

Will it address all the iniquities of our supermarket-dominated food industry? Of course not. But it will offer plenty of ideas on how to spend less, waste less, eat better and have more fun – even if, through obligation or choice, you end up doing most of your food shopping among the pre-packaged, multi-buy temptations of your nearest supermarket.