The No Reci-Pie Man

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Close-up photo of pies

Last Saturday afternoon, I was a proud guest at the marriage of my great friends Eilidh and Carl. In the evening, I fed 160 people at their wedding ceilidh. What’s more, I didn’t cock it up.

Here’s how I did it.

First things first. Why am I bothering to tell you all this, other than for the anatomically improbable purpose of blowing smoke up my own arse? (Actually, a length of hosepipe and a firm shove would probably do the trick, but let’s not go there.)

I’m telling you about it for a few reasons. Firstly, I’d never previously cooked for more than about 30 people. So my story might be of some help to you, if ever you find yourself catering for larger numbers than you’d ever imagined.

Secondly, I don’t always find it straightforward to explain what I mean by “no-recipe cooking”. Many people, understandably, presume I’m advocating a “throw it all in and hope for the best” approach. I’m not. But between that ill-advised method and its ultra-cautious opposite – measuring everything to the gram, millilitre or minute – there’s a vast middle ground. And that’s what I’d like to encourage all cooks to explore, whether they’re cooking for two or 200.

And thirdly, the reason I set up this blog in the first place was to encourage more people to cook the way I do: with imagination, with freedom, with the senses – and without recipes. I’m pretty much evangelistic about this, because I’ve done it, I’ve eaten the results, and I know it works. But if you haven’t, you’ll probably need some convincing. If I can’t do that by cooking for you in person, then this is probably the best example I can give you of the no-recipe method in action.

I hope it’s helpful, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

The background

I’ve never organised a wedding. But I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have. And of all the many stresses associated with the day, the catering has to be one of the greatest. You want every aspect of the day to be happy and memorable, including the food. You want to be able to feed all your guests, whatever their dietary requirements. But you don’t want to spend weeks trailing around potential caterers, shelling out two months’ wages to the only one that turns out to be available, then staring forlornly at a load of uninspiring, unwanted curled-up sandwiches at the end of the night.

Against that background, I can see why Carl and Eilidh turned to me. They’d eaten my food before, and they knew it was pretty good. They knew I wouldn’t charge the earth (in fact, I was more than happy to give my time for free, by way of a wedding present). And they knew, I hope, that I’d do everything in my power not to let them down.

But to look at it another way, they must either have been desperate or stark, staring mad. I’d never done anything approaching professional catering in my life. And while I’d fed them pleasant enough meals in the past, I hadn’t always done so at the appointed time – not always within an hour of the appointed time, in fact. If I couldn’t serve a meal for four at roughly the time I said I would, what chance did I have with 160? They haven’t said as much to me, but as the day approached, they must have woken in a cold sweat more than once at the prospect of the food turning up halfway through Auld Lang Syne.

Still, desperate or otherwise, they asked me, and at once I said yes. From that moment, I was obliged to indulge in a pastime I usually prefer to avoid.

Planning.

The plan

I was fortunate to be given free rein on what food to serve. But at the same time, there were several qualities that the meal had to have.

Most obviously, it had to be tasty. As noted above, it had to be prompt. It had to be varied enough to cater for a range of tastes, appetites and diets. As it would be served from a single buffet table, it had to be portable. It had to be a one-person job – particularly once I’d established that my flatmate and potential co-chef would be away in Portugal at the time of the wedding. Out of consideration for Eilidh and Carl’s budget, it had to be affordable. And taking all those other factors into account – it had to be doable.

All of which appeared to rule out my originally intended centrepiece for the meal: pies, and lots of them. But just as I was about to resign myself to this, I stumbled upon the company that would make the whole thing possible again: the DIY Scotch Pie Company.

The DIY Scotch Pie Company, I discovered, is a small and recently established business in Fife that makes empty Scotch pie shells and sells them by mail order. In other words: my saviour.

A few emails later, I was the proud owner of 240 mini Scotch pie shells. A “doh” moment of realisation after that, I was on a train to Kirkcaldy to pick up some vegetarian pie shells as well. And after some welcome words of advice and support from the company founder, Martin Burns, and a reassuring look at the large Combi oven that would allow me to bake four large trays of pies at a time, I was ready to write the menu.

The menu

I’d never written a menu before. And as those who know me would testify, marketing isn’t exactly my natural calling. But I’m not completely oblivious to the importance of good presentation, both of the menu and the food itself. With this in mind, I took the basic ideas I’d had for soups, stews and pie fillings, and set to work on giving them some extra allure.

For instance, as one of the vegetarian options, I wanted to make a cheese, onion and potato pie. I knew it would taste nice enough; but it didn’t sound particularly appetising. The solution: to take each constituent element and tart it up a bit. Bog-standard “cheese” became “mature cheddar”; onions were replaced by shallots; and as they’d just come into season, I decided my potato of choice would be the Jersey Royal. “Mature cheddar, Jersey Royals and shallots”: yep, that sounded a whole lot better. For a few pence per pie, and with no extra effort, I’d enhanced both the quality of my pies and – almost as importantly – their appeal.

Similar This Morning-style makeovers were applied to other parts of the menu. Broccoli and Stilton soup is cheap and easy to make, and justifiably popular, so I decided early on that it should make an appearance – but it all sounded a little familiar and dull. But if one blue cheese would work, why not another? Scotland produces some spectacular blue cheeses of its own, so I chose to go local. The soup would be not broccoli and Stilton, but broccoli and Dunsyre Blue.

On a more practical note, I planned where possible to work on multiple dishes at once. So the curry pies – one meat, one vegetarian – would come from the same onion and spice base, before being separated for the meat and vegetable additions and finishing touches. And the filling for the beef and ale pies would, with the addition of boiled potatoes, fried mushrooms and a little thyme, become the basis for one of the stews.

The other determining factor of the menu takes me back to my “no recipe” principles. Wherever possible, I like to cook without unnecessary restrictions: so if I can avoid using scales, measuring jugs and timers, I will. Precision cooking is all well and good; but imprecision cooking is so much less stressful.

The most obvious pitfall of this approach is the potential for losing track – especially with four or five giant cooking pots on the go at one time. (How long has that stew been cooking? An hour? Two hours? A week?) But if the pitfall is obvious, so too is the path around it: choose ingredients that will readily forgive a spot of inattention.

Carl and Eilidh's wedding menu

Look through the menu and you’ll see that everything on it is oversight-friendly.

The soups were to be blended, not chunky; so it’d hardly matter if I cooked the vegetables for far too long (which I did). Shin of beef takes a good three hours to become tender, and several hours longer to fall apart. (I’ve no idea how long I ended up simmering it, but the chunks of meat stayed happily intact.) The flesh of a chicken is more delicate; but by using thigh meat instead of breast, and with plenty of chorizo to donate flavour and lubricating fat, even this would stand up to a fair bit of careless cooking.

The shopping

With the menu finalised, it was time to shop.

Actually, when I say “finalised”, that isn’t quite true. Yes, I’d given names to each of the dishes; but I didn’t know exactly what they’d comprise. I hadn’t worked out which vegetables and spices would find their way into the vegetable curry (in the end, I went for sweet potato, peppers and marrow), or how tomato-ey I’d make the chicken stew.

I did toy briefly with the idea of doing a trial run of the meal in advance of the wedding, to give me a better idea of quantities and proportions, but decided against it for a couple of good reasons.

Firstly, producing a small-scale version of the wedding meal wouldn’t have come close to replicating the challenges of the real thing, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment.

Secondly – and far more significantly – I couldn’t be arsed.

Instead, I worked out – very roughly – how much of each meat I’d need, along with the other main (i.e. advertised) ingredients such as cheese and broccoli. That was as far as I intended to dabble in weights and measures. Beyond that, I decided simply to buy a shedload of the flavouring and bulking ingredients that would find their way into several of the dishes (carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes), along with plenty of the extras that would allow me to adjust, boost and balance the flavours at the last minute: not just the obligatory salt and pepper, but sweeteners (sugar, honey, mango chutney) and sharpeners (lemon, vinegar) as well.

And I had no shame at all in buying a selection of “lazy” ingredients: stock cubes (good ones, mind you), curry pastes, minced ginger, tinned beans as opposed to dried. My bad. I promise to do better next time – if you agree to provide me with an army of sous-chefs. Otherwise, I won’t. [Gratuitous plug: for a more extensive take on so-called “cheating” at cooking, beg or borrow a copy of Fire and Knives issue 12 and read my article in that. Gratuitous plug ends.]

In short, I tried to make everything about the meal preparations, from shopping to serving, as “normal” as possible. In my day-to-day life, I don’t make minutely detailed shopping lists, turn my nose up at “cheaty” ingredients, weigh ingredients to the nearest gram or time my cooking to the minute. So why do things differently here? Adopting a load of new habits would only make a tough task tougher.

In retrospect, this was the best single decision I made during my first attempt at mass catering: that I would do it the no-recipe way.

The day before

All of this sounded great in theory. But as a catering novice, I still had no real idea how well it would work in practice. At around 4pm on Friday, on being handed the key to the kitchen, it was time to find out.

As others set to work decorating the hall – stunningly, as it turned out – I plugged in my iPod and speakers and tried to work out where to start.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I already knew where to start: in the logical place. My soups, stews and pie fillings would all take different amounts of time to cook: three hours (ish) for the beef, two for the lamb, barely an hour for the chicken, and even less for the various veggie options. So that, roughly speaking, would be the order of events.

So, having sliced 4 kilos of beef into what Fergus Henderson describes as “pie-sized chunks” – now there’s a man who appreciates that there’s a time for specifics and a time for common sense – I was ready to cook.

I mentioned a little earlier that I saw little point in doing a scaled-down dry run of the meal, and here’s why. Had I been making this stew for three or four people, I’d have done a lot of things differently – and, to be honest, better. I’d have dusted the meat with seasoned flour and seared it in small batches, maybe 200g at a time, so that the browning flavours (and colours) would dissolve into and enhance the sauce. But with 4 kilos of meat, that would have equated to 20 batches. Sod that.

Instead, the browning phase became more of a token effort – three big batches, as I recall – giving the meat a bit of colour, but not much. Where I’d ordinarily have softened the onions slowly to release their sweetness, here they received little more than a cursory shoogle-about in the pan. And while I’d have liked to have made a rich beef stock to enhance the gravy, there just wasn’t the time or space here. So I’d have to look elsewhere for my flavour boosts.

“Elsewhere”, in this case, refers to a few good beef stock cubes, plus a couple of big bones, bought for 50p each from the butcher’s freezer and left to simmer away with the rest of the meat.

So this wasn’t going to be my dream stew, then; but under the circumstances, it would more than do.

Similar short cuts applied to just about everything on the menu. Any spare bones were added to the appropriate pots – I’d bought the lamb and chicken on the bone for this exact purpose – and my powders and pastes were thrown into the curries with something approaching abandon.

While the stews bubbled away, it occurred to me that the whole operation was, so far, proving remarkably serene; and so, for the time being, it continued. A quick sample indicated that the chicken was cooked, so I added the last-minute ingredients (olives from a jar, haricot beans from a tin), adjusted the sweet/sour/salt balance (in this case, with sugar, balsamic vinegar and just a little salt, as the chorizo already contained plenty), then, after a final taste to confirm that all was as it should be, took the stew off the heat. One dish down, seven to go.

The same pattern applied to each dish: check for cooked-ness; add any final ingredients; adjust the seasoning with appropriate sweeteners and sharpeners (redcurrant jelly and red wine vinegar for the beef; mango chutney and white wine vinegar for the curries); and leave to cool. Where the stews needed thickening, I used cornflour dissolved in a little water. Perhaps wheat flour would have been preferable in some cases; but the risk of filling my stews with little gluey lumps was too great for me to take.

As more dishes were completed and more hobs freed up, I caught up with some of the remaining jobs: boiling spuds, wilting spinach, starting out on the soups. I kept half an eye on the clock, but only for selfish reasons: I was determined to make it to the pub in time for last orders. Beyond that, I had little reason to worry about timings at this stage; that was an issue for the following day.

The night before

Whatever job you happen to be doing, it’s important to take time out to unwind. Arguably, I did this to a fault: a quick pint before last orders turned into a trip to an impromptu house gig featuring the wonderful Viking Moses. My state at the end of the evening is summed up by this video (warning – contains strong language and gratuitous close-up beardage).

(Some context might be useful here. Just before I left, I was discussing the following day’s pie plans with the illustrious DJ, video editor and occasional guest star of this blog, Dylan Matthews. Dylan was patiently explaining to me that it didn’t matter how much meat or gravy I put into my pies, as long as I put a lot of love into them. Understandably alarmed, Tom Youll suggested strongly that I should avoid putting any love into them at all – hence the “love pies”/”no love pies” debate.)

The wedding day

Fuzzy-headed as I was, I hadn’t completely lost sight of what remained to be done. And unlike the day before, the success of Saturday – well, my part of it, at least – would all be in the timing.

The ceremony would take place at 1pm. At 5pm, after the first of the post-wedding feeds (this one, mercifully, not my responsibility), I’d be free to return to the kitchen. The ceilidh would begin at 7, and I’d be serving food at 9.

I’d left myself a couple of jobs for the morning – making the broccoli soup and finishing off the veg curry – so I popped into the kitchen to complete these before donning my gladrags and making my way to the wedding, which, as you can see on the Darroch Photography blog, was bloody fantastic.

All of this meant that, come 5pm, I was exactly at the point I’d hoped to be: everything cooked and ready to reheat, with only one job left to complete. One job; but it was a biggie.

Making the pies.

Several pies

This was the point at which, to use a highly technical piece of chef’s terminology, I began to shite it. Every task I’d done up to this point had felt familiar, even if the scale didn’t. But this was new territory, and the doubts began to appear.

How long would it take me to make, roll and cut the pastry for around 200 pie tops? Were the DIY cases as good as the online testimonies suggested, or would I open the boxes to find hundreds of mouldy and/or shattered shells? Would I just end up panicking and running out of the kitchen, jumping on a train to the Highlands and living out the rest of my days in a bothy?

Well, no, I wouldn’t. I’d like to make this bit sound more dramatic than it was, but as soon as I started up my pie production line, I realised it was all going to be OK. With an hour and a half to go until service, I was feeling in control again, and my kitchen looked like this:

The author in the kitchen

And with a bit of welcome assistance in transporting the food to the buffet table, the guests were happily slurping and chomping away by 9pm. (OK then, 9.05pm.)

Not everything went exactly as planned, of course. Without the benefit of properly browned meat, the beef looked rather more like dog food than I’d have liked; though it still tasted bloody good. And I didn’t have time to make quite as many pies as I’d hoped – though 168 isn’t half bad – so I’ve been left with rather a lot of spare shells. But that’s hardly a disaster: it just means I’m going to have to eat an awful lot of pies over the next few weeks. Life’s a bitch, eh?

Importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy the food. At least two people told me that these were the best pies I’d ever eaten – and one of them wasn’t even visibly drunk. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free-ers stopped to thank me for thinking of them while planning the menu: many of them hadn’t expected to find anything they’d be able to eat.

And most of all, Eilidh and Carl loved it: the food, the dancing, the music – everything. So my last words are to them: many, many congratulations, all my very best wishes for the future, and thanks for inviting me to be part of the day.

It was a crazy idea, but somehow it worked.

[All photos by kind permission of Darroch Photography, apart from the blurry and rubbish one, which is my own.]

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How to Boil an Egg

This is an edited extract from the book, The No Recipe Manifesto, to be published in 2014.

It will not tell you how to boil an egg. Sorry.

How long does it take to boil an egg? 3 minutes for soft-boiled, 4 minutes for “normal”? How long for hard-boiled?

The correct but boring answer is that I haven’t given you enough information to answer the question. Whether you’re aiming for soft-boiled, hard-boiled or something in between, the optimum timing will depend on the size, shape and temperature of the egg, the relative size of the yolk (which, of course, the cook has no realistic way of knowing), the starting temperature of the water and so on.

The differences might be relatively small in most cases, but nonetheless, the “perfect” timing will vary by a few seconds from egg to egg. The reason we’ve settled on round numbers for the task is that they provide a decent approximation of the time required for a cooking task that otherwise offers no useful information about how it’s progressing.

This is why I’ve always found it curious that boiling an egg is widely perceived as one of the most basic cooking skills, to the point that Delia was roundly and famously mocked for devoting an entire half-hour programme to the subject. I suppose it’s an important skill – especially if you like eating boiled eggsbut I certainly wouldn’t call it basic. How can it be, when there are multiple variables to consider, when no two cooks can agree on the best method, and when you can only judge the success of the operation by cracking the egg open? If that’s a basic skill, it’s little wonder so many people give up on cooking altogether.

When you cook, you normally have several sources of information on things are progressing. The clock is among them, but so are your eyes, ears, nose and fingers. However doubtful you are about your own cooking skills, you’ll be used to using at least some of these. If you see a saucepan about to boil over, that prompts you to turn it down. The sound and smell of a frying burger helps you to judge when to flip it over. And a jab with the tip of a knife will let you know whether boiled potatoes have softened enough to eat.

The boiling egg offers no such evidence. It will turn from underdone to overdone in the space of a minute or two; but all the information about its progress is hidden within the shell. (Unless you accidentally break it, in which case it’s ruined anyway.)

The only comparable ingredients I know are the lobster and the crab: each has that same combination of delicate contents concealed by an exoskeleton. Yet not many people would include boiling lobsters on their lists of cooking “basics”.

Fortunately, most foods are rather less secretive than eggs and crustacea, and offer plenty of clues to the cook, as well as a good deal of flexibility. The need for egg timers or their modern equivalents is much reduced, because your senses will inform you how the cooking process is going. This in turn allows you to vary the heat you apply in order to achieve the desired effects. And unlike boiling an egg, you don’t have to await the grand unveiling to establish whether you’ve overseen a triumph or a disaster.

Of course, if you’re going to remain in control of the cooking process, you’ll need a reasonably clear idea of what you’re looking to achieve. In most cases, one of your main aims will be to bring the food to eating temperature – normally around 70-75°C. If you manage to do that, you can at least be reasonably confident that you won’t poison yourself.

But bringing your ingredients up to temperature may only be part of the story. If you fry a slice of pork fillet over a high heat, it will be ready to eat by the time it‘s hot through to the centre. But a piece of shoulder meat from the same animal, given identical treatment, will still be unpalatably tough, and will need additional time to break down its tough sinews.

And if you’re cooking dried grains or pulses, getting them to eating temperature won’t be your focus; you need them to absorb sufficient liquid to be tender and palatable.

Alternatively, you might be looking for a more dramatic effect in your quest for “doneness”. If you’re frying a steak, you’ll want a certain amount of searing or burning at the surface of the meat. And roast potatoes aren’t really worthy of the name until they’ve crisped up on the outside.

So there’s a huge difference between bringing your ingredients gradually to eating temperature and ushering them there at a gallop. It’s a difference that you can see, hear and smell as the food cooks, and it’ll be just as apparent when you sample the finished dish.

If you’re not convinced, consider how a sliced carrot, boiled quickly to serve as a side vegetable, will be ready in a few minutes and horribly soggy in a few more; yet the same slices in a beef casserole will still be good to eat after two or three hours’ gentle simmering.

All of which begs the obvious question: how do you decide which approach to take?

As ever, the genuinely inquisitive question (“what do I want to happen here?”) is much preferable to the subservient one (“how long should I cook this for?”).

If you want to transform the food at its surface, as in the steak or roast potato examples, or when boiling pasta, then you’ll need to apply plenty of heat. If you want the ingredients to retain their shape and structure as far as possible, you’ll need to take things far more gently, allowing your ingredients to transform gradually, as if from the inside out.

And if you’re not sure what you want, go for a medium heat throughout – and prepare to be punished for your indecision.

Cutting out the middle man

The advantage of thinking in polarised terms is that it makes your chosen subject much easier to comprehend. Once you’ve determined that “x is good, y is bad”, it becomes straightforward to evaluate almost anything: all you have to do is decide whether it’s an x or a y. Right or wrong, City or United, Republican or Democrat: whatever the subject might be, if you can reduce it to a 50/50 choice, it becomes a whole lot simpler.

The disadvantage of this binary thinking, of course, is that it’s usually nonsense. Think about your topic for a little longer, and you soon realise that the options aren’t twofold, or even threefold, but infinite. At this point, you might feel reassured that you’ve developed a more realistic perspective on the subject, but you’re left with the knottier problem of working out what on earth to think.

In practice, what we often end up doing is using binary thinking at first, in order to get our heads round a topic, then developing our understanding into something less straightforward but altogether more meaningful.

If you’re trying to get to grips with intuitive cooking, this binary-first approach turns out to be a particularly useful one. When you’re deciding how to cook something, don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the apparently huge range of possibilities. Narrow down your options: think “fast” or “slow”.

On reflection, I’m not even sure that this particular piece of binary thinking is all that simplistic. In fact, if I was asked to offer a single sentence of cooking advice that would bring the most benefit to the largest number of people, it would be this:

Cook fast food faster and slow food slower.

As I’ve hinted already, we go wrong most often by feeling our way tentatively towards the middle ground. If we go to check on a stew and see that it’s virtually motionless on the surface, it’s understandable that we should presume there’s not much going on under the surface either. So we turn the heat up – not all the way up, but enough for it to look like it’s actually cooking.

Understandable it may be, but this increase in the boiling rate from “negligible” to “moderate” can be enough to turn a potentially superb stew into a disappointing one.

Remember that your target temperature is eating temperature, usually around the 70-75°C mark. Even the gentlest, trembling simmer will be close to 100°C; so even if the contents of the pan are looking worryingly inactive, they’re still heading in the right direction.

It’s difficult to resist the instinct to turn up the heat and accelerate the process. Difficult it may be, but it’s also vital. Subjected to even a slightly more aggressive boil, both the meat and the vegetables in the stew will be broken down much more rapidly. After a couple of hours of this, the vegetables are likely to end up pale and soggy, and the chunks of meat will initially toughen, then eventually disintegrate into thousands of wispy strings.

The search for moderation can be equally damaging when we perceive that something is cooking too fast. Alarmed by the intensity of the sizzle when steaks first meet frying pan, our natural instinct is to turn the heat down. But the pan will also be cooled down significantly by the cold steaks themselves. This double cooling effect can end up halting the caramelising process almost entirely; the steaks take longer to lose the appearance of rawness and appear “ready”, and we end up with well-done but scarcely browned steaks.

To my mind at least, that represents the worst of both worlds.

Eschewing the elusive and largely meaningless “medium” heat actually gives you far more control over what you’re doing, because it increases the range of effects that you are able to create.

For instance, if you buy a whole chicken for roasting, the instructions on the packaging might direct you to roast it at 180°C for 90 minutes. This will certainly cook the chicken through, but the delicate breast meat is likely to end up horribly dry. But if you roast it at a high heat (say 210°C) for the first 20 minutes, then at a much gentler one (around 140°C) for the remaining cooking time, you’ll reach a much happier conclusion. The initial blast of heat will deliver the golden, crispy skin you’re after; then, by lowering the oven temperature significantly, you slow down the rate at which moisture is driven from the meat. The outcome is a chicken that is crisp on the outside but moist within, all thanks to a single twist of the temperature dial.

How fast is fast?

Or for that matter, how slow is slow?

Clearly, some basic parameters are needed here, and The No Recipe Manifesto has been designed to help you define and understand these.

For starters, though, you’ll need to consider the characteristics of the individual ingredients, as well as their sizes and shapes. After all, you don’t want to cook your “fast” food so rapidly that the outside burns to a bitter, blackened crisp before the centre is cooked to your liking. And an oven set to 80°C will bring its contents up to that temperature eventually, but it’ll probably take all day.

That said, if you happen to have the whole day to spare, it’s not necessarily something to rule out – but that, I think, is a topic for another time.

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