10 things you’ll never learn from a recipe – part 1

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I swore I’d never do one of those “ten things” things. That determination has lasted for all of seven posts.

In the end, it turned out I couldn’t think of a better way to bring together the concepts behind this blog. Taken together, I hope these “ten things” will give a coherent sense of how you might go about moving to a predominantly recipe-free existence, and the benefits of making that shift.

For reasons of digestibility, I’ve broken the article into two. Part 2 will follow before long; but for the time being, here are the first five things you’ll never learn from a recipe. I hope you find it useful.

1. You can cook creatively

Yes, you.

(More to the point, you can invent and cook a near-infinite number of different dishes, but more of that in part 2 of this article.)

How do I know this? Well, firstly, you already know how to cook something, irrespective of how simple or how “cheaty” it is. It might be something you don’t even class as cooking: making a salad or sandwich, or a stir-fry consisting of pre-chopped meat, a pack of prepared veg and a bought sachet of sauce. It doesn’t matter. It’s enough.

Secondly, you know what you like to eat. Not in the sense of “I like sausages”, though you may well do. But whenever you eat something – new or familiar, Michelin-starred dining or a dirty burger – you know whether you enjoy it. And if you do, it’s a short step to work out what you enjoy about it, and to apply those lessons to the things you were planning to cook anyway.

Take an example that’s familiar to most of us: fish and chips. Most of us love it; but why?

For me, it’s all about the contrasts of flavour and texture: the moist flesh of the fish counterbalanced by the brittle crunch of the batter; salt, vinegar and ketchup delivering a sweet-sour-salt balance. Collectively, these contrasts give a welcome lift to a meal that could otherwise tend towards blandness.

If these are roughly the same qualities that appeal to you, the next step is not to attempt to recreate the dish, but to work out how to create equivalent effects in the meals you were planning to cook anyway.

A pinch of sugar and a dash apiece of soy sauce and rice vinegar will bring the sweet-sour-salt contrasts into a stir-fry; a handful of crisp fried breadcrumbs, sprinkled over a bowl of spaghetti, will provide welcome textural variety.

Neither of these adjustments demand any additional skill on your part; just a little imagination, allied to an appreciation of what you enjoy eating and why.

By all means, stick with the styles of cooking you already know and feel comfortable with; but apply a little lateral thought, informed more by your experience as an eater than as a cook, and you’ll instantly elevate your meals to a higher and more creative level.

A good recipe, devised by someone with a keen appreciation of flavour and texture, might well produce similar effects; but if you’re simply following a set of step-by-step instructions, you’re unlikely to have cause to consider where these desirable qualities are coming from. And the next time you go into the kitchen, you’ll have no better understanding of food and cooking than you did the last time, or the time before that.

This seems something of a waste.

2. You can’t rely on a recipe

Recipes, self-evidently, are designed to be followed. You will need 100ml of this, 250g of that and a teaspoon of the other.

The unstated principle underlying this method of cooking is that the writer has gone to great lengths to conceive, fine-tune and test the recipe so you don’t have to.

This may or may not be true. Many a recipe, even from the most esteemed of sources, has been subject to little of this presumed diligence. But even if it has been painstakingly road-tested, the principle remains flawed.

The recipe writer is obliged to work to a standard set of assumptions around the ingredients, equipment, skills and judgements of the person cooking the dish. A casserole that specifies the use of “stewing steak” will vary significantly in outcome, depending on the size, shape, water content and fat distribution of the meat. An instruction to “brown the meat over a high heat” will produce quite different results based on the quality of the hob and cookware involved, as well as the cook’s interpretation of the word “brown”. And crucially, as I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, one person’s gentle simmer is another’s jaunty boil.

These, along with countless other variables, combine to ensure that no two people, following the same recipe from beginning to end, will create quite the same meal.

In other words, a recipe doesn’t bring about reliability or consistency, just a comforting illusion of both.

And if the primary justification for cooking from recipes turns out to be false, surely it must be worth looking for a better way.

3. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings

With the ingredients, quantities & method largely prescribed by the writer, most recipes afford the cook only one opportunity to adjust the flavour of the dish: “Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.”

This is more than a little restrictive. It gives the cook no more creative scope – and often less – than the eaters at the table, who will also be armed with salt and pepper, but perhaps mustard, mayonnaise or cranberry sauce as well.

When you cook a stew to a recipe, and it lacks a certain something – due to the inadequacy of the recipe, natural variations in the ingredients or method (see above), or some combination of the two – you can end up at a loss as to what to do.

Keep adding salt and/or pepper? Well, it might work up to a point, but it won’t make a dull stew interesting; and at some stage it’ll become unpalatably salty, or have its base flavours obliterated by peppery heat.

Instead, think back to those fish and chips, and their sweet, sour and salty seasonings. Add salt in moderation; and a twist or two of pepper if you like; then, with appropriate caution – bearing in mind that it’s far easier to add than to take away – adjust the flavour with sweet and/or sour additions.

What you elect to use will depend on what you’re cooking and what you have in your cupboards. Redcurrant jelly works well with red meats and rich, dark sauces; and it seems logical to enhance a wine or cider-based sauce with its equivalent vinegar. But really, what you use is up to you: as long as it doesn’t seem completely bonkers in principle, it’ll almost certainly work in practice.

Gradually add and balance the sweet, sour and salty seasonings, tasting at every stage, until you’re happy with the overall effect. To reiterate, you don’t want to overdo the sweet and sour additions, and there will be times when only one or the other is needed, or neither; but if you ever find yourself faced with an insipid meal and feeling powerless to do anything about it, you’d do well to remember the sugar bowl and the vinegar bottle.

This doesn’t just apply to stews but to curries, stir-fries, pasta sauces, gravies, salad dressings: pretty much anything, in fact. If you’ve never tried it before, I’m willing to bet that you’ll be pleasantly amazed at the difference it makes. And if you are, you’ll never look back.

There are plenty of other ways to perk up a meal just before serving; and while I won’t cover them in any detail here, one further “rule” to bear in mind is that if something works as a condiment, it’s likely to work just as well as an ingredient. (More on that, as well as the importance of the sweet-sour balance, in this article.)

An enlightened approach to seasoning will be of benefit whether your meal is recipe-based or not. But having established your ability to improve on a recipe by departing from it, why not take things a step further and work towards doing without recipes more generally?

4. Texture is as important as flavour

This statement probably needs to be qualified slightly in that, if something tastes absolutely disgusting, you won’t be able to rescue it by tinkering with the texture

But texture is often the making of a great meal. To return to the fish and chips example, if the batter is soggy or absent, the eating experience is completely altered, and much diminished, even if it doesn’t actually taste any different.

If you think about the foods you like to eat (not necessarily the ones you like to cook), you’ll find examples of textural contrasts wherever you look: the croutons on a bowl of soup, the crispy batter on southern fried chicken, even the crunchy salad on a late night kebab.

And as I’ve discussed before – albeit in the context of chocolate – you can introduce a new element of variation and creativity to your cooking simply by playing around with the shapes, sizes and arrangements of your ingredients.

But when I talk about texture, I’m not just referring to the solid ingredients. The consistency of a liquid can be varied to produce all kinds of effects: a thin but flavourful broth; a comforting, flour-thickened gravy; a syrupy glaze.

There are various ways in which to give your sauces the texture you’re after, none of them complex in themselves, but each deserving of a fuller exploration than I’ve space for here. So these will be the subject of a future article; but in the meantime, my piece on the art of stopping might help take the stress out of one of the most straightforward and useful techniques: reducing a sauce.

As it happens, it also leads me neatly on to the next of the “ten things”, and the last for now.

5. “Slow cooking” isn’t just a figure of speech

For a long time, I took slow cooking simply to mean “things that take a long time to cook”. It isn’t.

Actually, I suppose it sort of is. But it’s far more than that.

What happens to your food while it cooks is as important as how long it cooks. Two casseroles, cooked for the same amount of time at almost exactly the same temperature, will turn out completely differently. One will be a triumph, the other little short of a disaster.

This is why.

When you use boiling liquid to cook solid ingredients, the cooking will take place at 100°C, give or take a degree or two, whether that liquid is bubbling wildly or simmering almost imperceptibly. But in the first case, the solid chunks will be thrown around by the fast-moving liquid, crashing into the surfaces of the pan and each other. It’s hardly surprising that this should break them down, turning the meat into strings and the vegetables into sludge. In fact, it would be bizarre if it didn’t.

A very, very gentle simmer, where only the tiniest bubbles rise to the surface of the liquid, and then only rarely, will impart almost exactly the same amount of heat to the meat and veg. But in their relaxing bath – as opposed to invigorating jacuzzi – they’ll retain their shape and structure even after several hours in the pot.

The sauce may not reduce to your liking using this gentler method, but that’s easily remedied without harming the solid ingredients. On this, may I refer you back to the previous item, and to the Art of Stopping piece.

While the minimal simmer is what you should be aiming for, don’t worry about the occasional moment of inattention; a few minutes of faster boiling, while best avoided, shouldn’t punish you too severely. But if your idea of a simmer is something altogether more lively, I’d urge you to try the ultra-slow approach. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.

Slow-cooking doesn’t have to take place on the hob, of course. Some of the nicest and easiest meals I’ve made have been of the slow-roasted variety: cuts of meat that can be shoved in a low oven and left alone for hours while a magical transformation takes place.

But that, I think, is for another day, and another article.

Continue to part 2

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