Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Cooking Without a Recipe

This may seem a strange subject for a food blog whose archive is full-to-bursting with recipes, yet if you look back through them you will see that in the majority of cases I have often been less than specific with ingredients and timings.  I have not only suggested variations on the basic theme, but also that you should use your own judgement, experience (however limited) and the evidence of your senses to get you a good meal.

I am passionate that everyone who eats should be able to cook: constant themes of the Guerilla Griller are to demystify, to assure, to encourage, to remove the fear.

Even the most nervous beginner cook, the newest kitchen newbie, can tell when something is starting to burn, or is still half-raw.  If they don’t know what cut of meat to buy for their casserole, they can ask the butcher and take their recommendation.  They can very quickly realise that onions and carrots do not come in tidy portions to the ounce or gram.  Few cooks ever follow a recipe exactly, for the simple reason that it is rarely possible to do so.  How big is a chunk?  How much is a pinch?  What exactly is a bite-sized piece?  What is a “medium” onion?  You may set your oven to the specified temperature, but oven thermostats are notoriously inaccurate.

The only real exception is in baking, of any kind.  Here we are dealing with chemical reactions, and need to be as accurate as we can with quantities and temperatures, but even so, it is impossible to eliminate all the variables: the oven temperature as mentioned above, the size and thickness of your baking tin, the general humidity, the “rise” in your particular brand of baking powder.

The simple fact is that most people cook without recipes, most of the time.  Now, this could be because you have “learned” a recipe in the same way as a singer learns a song; you have done it so many times that you can produce it without really thinking about the steps involved.  Nothing will ever taste as good as your Granny’s chicken soup or your Dad’s Sunday roast; all the little touches that they have learned over the years will be automatic, and you, too, will come to have your own specialities, if you don’t already.

But think of this: if you know how to cook one thing, you actually know how to cook many.  If you know how to make a chicken stir fry, you know how to make a beef, fish, mushroom or tofu stir fry.  If you know how to grill a steak, you know how to grill anything.  If you can roast a chicken, you can roast a duck, or a goose, or a turkey.  Yes, you may need guidance from the recipes as to timings, and get great suggestions for accompaniments and flavourings, but all the basic principles are the same.

Try this: shop without a meal in mind.  See what is good today.  Go to the greengrocer or farmer’s market: look, there are some beautiful, fresh, local baby turnips.  Hmm, what would go with those?  I’m not going to tell you, as that’s not the point; maybe you don’t even like turnips, but you get the idea.

Go to the butcher, and there are some lovely, plump, free-range chicken breasts at a good price.  Snap ‘em up.  You could grill, fry or oven-roast them.  You could poach them in some aromatic liquid.  You could cut them into chunks for the above mentioned stir fry, or thread them onto skewers for a kebab or brochette, to be served on rice and salad, or in pockets of pitta bread.  Or rolled in a tortilla with a spicy salsa.  Or make a quick stew or casserole.  Or make a curry.

Build up a store cupboard of the things you like, and then you’re good to go with whatever you’ve found at the shops: tins of tomatoes and various beans, perhaps.  The spices, herbs and condiments that turn you on.  The ever-ready carbs; rice, noodles, couscous, cracked wheat, pasta.  You’ll always have oils, salt, pepper, maybe a good wine or balsamic vinegar, to hand.  Some home-made stock in the freezer (or even an emergency box of the powder or cubes – I won’t tell).  One of these days, I will do a “cooks store cupboard” blog, listing the things that I find essential, but it’s really about what you like.  DON’T fill your cupboards with things that you’ll never use, just because I’ve suggested them.

The other essential, other than some good knives and cooking pots etc, which you can build up over time, is a probe-type cooking thermometer.  They are not expensive, and last for years.  Why one of these?  Well, obviously you don’t want to make yourself and your loved ones ill by food poisoning – it’s very helpful to know that risky foods (pork, chicken etc) have reached the safe internal temperature (75C/170F).  But, almost equally importantly, once you have your thermometer you will no longer overcook your food. There is a vast difference between a juicy morsel of chicken, tender and bursting with flavour, and a dried-out nugget that has been cooked to death “just to be on the safe side”.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to answer the question “is it done yet?”, to be absolutely sure?  Nothing can improve the cooking of the inexperienced more than the answer “yes, it’s just right”.  Get a probe thermometer.

Some things are so obvious that you already know the answer: a great thick piece of something will take longer to cook than a thin piece: so, turn the temperature down and cook it very slowly.  Something that's very lean will need added fat or other liquid to stop it drying out.  If you’re making a quick meal, have everything ready before you start, measured and weighed if necessary, peeled, chopped and prepped.  Pre-heat the oven; don’t start from cold.

To finish this piece, I’m going to give you a recipe for “cooking without a recipe”.  As you’ll see, the instructions are very non-specific, but you can do it.

Pan Fried Chicken Breast; serves two

Two plump free-range chicken breasts, skin on
Salt and pepper
A splash of oil (how much is a splash?  Just enough to lubricate the pan; you don’t want the meat swimming in oil.)

You will also need: a good, heavy based frying pan.  Tongs or an egg flipper to turn and serve the meat.  Whatever else you want to serve with the chicken and complete the meal.


Put the pan on a medium-to-high heat.  Add the splash of oil.  Sprinkle salt and pepper on the chicken, and put into the pan skin side down.  You should hear it sizzle.  Leave it alone – don’t poke or prod it.  After a couple of minutes, carefully lift the chicken, and see that the skin is beginning to turn golden.  Reduce the heat to fairly low – we don’t want that golden brown to become black.  After another five minutes or so, turn the chicken so that it is now skin side up.  Continue to cook on a gentle heat until your temperature probe tells you that it has reached 70C/170F – you may wish to turn the chicken once or twice during the cooking so the temperature evens out.

Once the meat has just reached the safe temperature, let it continue to cook for another two minutes, then remove it to a warm place to rest for at least five minutes while you finish the rest of the meal.  This resting process is very important, as it allows the juices to flow back through the meat.

Tip:  once you’ve browned the skin and turned the meat, and assuming you are cooking in an oven-proof pan, you can pop the whole thing into a medium oven at gas mark 5/190C/375F (pre-heated, of course) and finish the cooking there.

Now, notice that I haven’t given timings.  This is where you come in.  Your ball-park estimate is around 15-18 minutes in total cooking time, but I don’t know how thick are your chicken breasts, how conductive your pan, how efficient and accurate your heat controls.  Use your judgement, and use your thermometer; don’t be afraid to turn everything down if you think that it’s all happening too fast, and you’re worried that the outside will be overcooked before the inside is ready.

Job done: serve and enjoy.

Now, if you can do the above with those nice pieces of chicken, surely you can do it with anything else?  If you can make a Bolognese sauce, you can make an arabiatta.  If you can make a casserole, you can make a curry.  If you can poach a fish and mash some potatoes, you can make a fish pie.  If you…  You get the idea.

Not from the UK? Order your Probe Thermometer from Amazon.com by clicking here

You can cook without a recipe.  By all means, use them for inspiration; I do all the time.  And do follow them for the classics (and then tweak them your way), and for baking, and just generally to get ideas: we all get stuck in a rut sometimes.  But, remember; you already know how to cook.

No comments:

Post a Comment