In our quest to feed ourselves, we'll try all sorts of tricks. One of the most common, of course, is letting others cook for us—be that a factory, a restaurant, or a loved one making us a real home-cooked meal. It's easy to say we "can't cook" or that it takes too much time. And certainly, sometimes those are legitimately good reasons. Dinner shouldn't be at eleven pm because it took you that long to prepare and cook after a long day in the office.
Still, we can't escape the fact that cooking is beneficial to our health. It means we're getting less processed foods, we're investing in our own nourishment—which is of great value—and we're hopefully eating with as much consciousness as we made the meal as well.
Recipes are great guidelines for delicious meals. For the novice cook or the stickler for details, they can be meal-savers. But as any experienced cook will tell you, they're also often unnecessary (baking, however, is a totally different story). Want to try cooking without recipes? Here are a few tips:
- Try a variation: So you've pretty much got your grandma's marinara sauce recipe down. Why not mix it up a bit? Maybe add a bit of fresh fennel, a vegan sausage, or some Italian wine to the recipe? Variations are the gateway to unique recipes. Changing or adding (or deleting) a few ingredients at a time can totally transform the recipe with a few simple tweaks.
- Know your spice: They're the secret ingredients to virtually all recipes. And knowing what goes best where will help you create something all on your own. Turmeric goes great in Indian food, but it's probably not a great idea for an Irish meal.
- Start with less: When making a meal from scratch, you can easily ruin it by going overboard with an ingredient. Add seasonings over time. Same goes with liquids. Risotto can go from perfecto to musho with too much liquid. Work in incremental steps. You can always add more, but it's more challenging to undo a mistake.
- Watch your acids: Lemon and vinegar can give a burst of flavor to a number of dishes—from salad dressing to stir-fry to dessert. But too much can mean you'll have to start all over again to neutralize.
- Taste as you go: So you thought maple syrup was good to add to your refried beans. It just might be…but it probably isn't as good as you thought. Still, if you add only a little (trick #3) the damage might actually be reparable, especially if you’re tasting along the way. Once you know the beans are super sweet and mapley, see if a bit more cumin or red pepper flakes can fix that up right.
- Less is more: Sometimes, the best foods are minimally prepared: potatoes roasted in olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Or a simply dressed salad. Beans and rice with a dash of red chili peppers…Finding the flavor in foods without all the fluff makes recipes easier and connects you with food in a very sacred way.
- Have basics on hand: Carrots, celery, potatoes, beans, rice—make sure your kitchen is always stocked with essential ingredients that can quickly be turned into a meal and you're less likely to run into an unpleasant situation.
- Make what you love: If you regularly eat stir-fries (at home or out), try your hand at making it without a recipe. A few veggies in a wok with a bit of soy sauce, fresh ginger, and some hot peppers and you've got yourself a meal—no recipe required.