Cooking without a recipe? Take your dishes to new heights

When you cook without using a recipe, you open up a world of possibilities – and failures are a routine part of the growth process.
When you cook without using a recipe, you open up a world of possibilities – and failures are a routine part of the growth process. St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press file

For years, you’ve come to this section to get the latest and greatest recipes. You’ve baked better cookies, won raves for your holiday spreads and followed along as chefs and other expert recipe creators took you to the promised land for main dishes, sides and desserts of all kinds.

Now it’s time to cut you loose (at least until next week!).

Armed with all kinds of knowledge you’ve acquired about how to braise, broil, sauté, roast and reduce, how to make emulsions and various sauces, you’re ready to take your cooking journey down a new path – your own.

Yes, cooking without a recipe – whether opening your fridge and seeing what you have at the ready or roaming through the farmers market to find what’s fresh and in season – could help make your dishes a more accurate representation of who you are as a cook.

“It’s important because it gives you the freedom to look at something and then decide what you want to do with it,” said John Paul Khoury, a former restaurant chef in Sacramento who now works for U.S. Foods as chef/center of the plate specialist. “That comes from understanding technique and understanding ratios.”

“To cook without a recipe, you have to cook by taste and knowledge, and it’s really a slow, gradual process,” said Paulette Bruce, a longtime cooking instructor and founder of Good Eats cooking classes. “You have to practice to be able to trust yourself to cook without a recipe.

“Master those techniques. If you learn how to sear and sauté, roast and grill and steam, you can do anything.”

Many home cooks don’t want to take it that far, and that’s OK. Following recipes from reliable sources not only teaches you how ingredients work together, they pretty much guarantee a pleasing result. Going your own way means you’ve got to be prepared to fail. It can be frustrating before it’s rewarding.

Said Khoury, “I once asked the chef de cuisine of a Michelin three-star restaurant, ‘That particular technique you did right there, that recipe, how many times did you fail before you got it?’ He said about 40.”

With any luck, many of your failures will still be edible. It goes without saying that a first attempt at a new combination of ingredients should not be attempted on the night company is coming over for dinner.

Yes, even acclaimed chefs try and fail as they seek to create something new and exciting. They eat the failures in the kitchen and wait until they approach perfection before putting it on the menu.

Bruce says there are several keys to going recipe-free. For one, your home has to be well-stocked. Your pantry has to have the appropriate herbs and spices, and the basic building blocks for any number of dishes. (See box following.)

“If you don’t pay attention to your failures, you’re not going to learn,” Khoury added.

Cooking classes are a great way to become a better cook. There are also plenty of good books for advancing your skills. One of the best is “Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques.” It’s filled with photos (and only the most basic recipes) of the beloved French master, now 81, doing everything from trussing a chicken and trimming a tenderloin to foaming butter and prepping asparagus.

A less-famous book that will serve you well is “CookWise” by highly regarded food scientist Shriley O. Corriher, who explains in detail how to tell if a recipe is going to work, what the variations are and, by extension, how to go your own way. Another science-focused book is the new “The Food Lab” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who also writes for the website Serious Eats, an excellent resource for foodies in its own right.

Khoury is a fan of the groundbreaking book “Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking” by Michael Ruhlman. The basics of the book are also available as a handy phone app. Understanding ratios of ingredients – pie dough, for instance, is 12 ounces flour, 8 ounces fat and 4 ounces of water – can help wean you from recipes whenever you feel like it. The app is especially useful because it converts the ratios for you based on the amount of one ingredient you input on your phone.

Your pantry needs to have the essentials you can call upon at a moment’s notice. Same with your fridge and freezer. That way, you can come home and start creating a meal instead of thumbing through cookbooks and then going shopping for ingredients.

“You need to understand how herbs work together. When I’m trying to create something new, I always start with what I call my ‘holy trinity’ – onions, garlic and parsley. With that, you can then add different herbs or wine or stock,” Bruce said.

Take salad dressing. Bruce often reminds her students there’s a basic ratio they should never forget: four parts olive oil and one part vinegar. From that foundation, you can go on to create dozens of salad dressings. You can switch up the kind of vinegar – balsamic instead, cider or red wine. You can whisk in some mustard and maybe balance that with honey or maple syrup. If you want a spicy kick, try smoked paprika or a pinch of cayenne pepper.

The best chefs taste constantly as they tweak. It’s your food and your palate, so you need to season and taste and then season some more.

“Really trust yourself,” said Bruce. “Trust your palate by combining foods that you know you like. I think that’s so important.”

That’s how Khoury, who was once the chef de cuisine at Dawson’s Steakhouse at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento, goes about creating new dishes to this day. Asked for a recent example of recipe creation and improvisation, Khoury gave a rundown of a dish using wild boar shanks. For the faint of heart, feel free to substitute something tamer, such as pork tenderloin.

“So here’s a flavor profile that’s a little on the gamey side. It’s got pork overtones because, of course, it’s a pig,” said Khoury. “I pictured Texas and the Southwest. I had some apples. I had some ancho chilies. I had just gone to San Francisco and bought this beautiful tea that was smoked with pine needles. I seared the boar shanks in the pan with onions, apples and ancho chilies. Then I put them in a wok with the tea and smoked them for 15 minutes. Then I put everything in the sous vide bag. Now it’s in the immersion circulator.”

Yes, sous vide (cooking in a bag immersed in temperature-regulated water) was once an esoteric technique that is becoming accessible to home cooks thanks to affordable sous vide appliances from the likes of Anova and Joule.

“I don’t know how it’s going to taste, but I have a pretty good idea,” Khoury said. “You have the smoke, the leathery ancho and the sweetness of the apples. Knowing that the anchos and apples work well with pork, any adjustments I make are either going to be acid, salt or sugar.”

If that made your head spin, don’t worry. Like many chefs who have been at it for decades, Khoury has a built-in trove of flavor ideas. He can basically imagine how something will taste as he thinks through the combinations of ingredients. That only comes from experience.

How do you get there? Bruce said to start with soup, salad or an omelet. All three can be relatively basic when it comes to flavor. Think of them as a blank canvas. Where do you want to take the soup? Will it be a purée? Do you want it spicy? Should it highlight certain vegetables, or would you prefer that one or two ingredients stand out – chicken and noodles or beef and barley? For soup, salting is crucial. Too little, and the whole thing will seem bland and the flavors may lack unity. Too much, and it overwhelms everything.

For the omelet, do you like it simple with butter, salt and pepper? Or do you prefer to fill it with sautéed spinach? Maybe kale? And pull it together with a cheese that’s either mild or briny? How far do you want to take it?

From there, you start tweaking. Some of your combinations might make you pucker or wince. Others could bring instant gratification. Write down what worked and what didn’t. When you’ve experimented enough and jotted down your results, congratulations. You’ve just created your own recipe.

“They’re going to get better with practice and they’ll get more confidence,” Bruce said of home cooks eager to start experimenting. “That’s a lot of what cooking is all about.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Some essentials

From Paulette Bruce

For the pantry:

▪  smoked paprika

▪  bottle of clam juice

▪  dried mushrooms

▪  soy sauce

▪  San Marzano canned tomatoes

▪  quality red wine vinegar (at least 6-7 percent acidity)

▪  extra virgin olive oil

▪  unsweetened cocoa powder

▪  arborio rice

▪  variety of nuts

In the freezer:

▪  homemade turkey or chicken stock

▪  whole chicken

▪  boneless chicken breasts or thighs

▪  pork tenderloin

▪  ground turkey or chicken

▪  box of puffed pastry

In the fridge:

▪  fresh vegetables

▪  lemons

▪  eggs

▪  butter

▪  Dijon mustard

▪  capers