Who needs recipes? Why it’s time to trust your senses and cook intuitively | Food

WWhenever Katerina Pavlakis invited her friends over for dinner, her guests didn’t just comment on the food. It was also the fact that she seemed so calm, “that she was cooking all this stuff and she wasn’t even stressed,” she says. Only then did Pavlakis realize that not everyone shared her experience in the kitchen; in fact, even people who liked to cook and were good at it could find it a source of frustration.

That piqued Pavlakis’s curiosity: what made cooking so easy for her and so frustrating for others? After talking to friends and customers at the shop she runs with her husband in North Wales, she found out where many were going wrong: they were trying, and struggling, to follow recipes. There, she could relate.

“I love cookbooks and I have a lot of them,” says Pavlakis. “But I can’t follow a recipe for my life.”

Pavlakis’s approach has always been to improvise: adding a dash of this or a dash of that, sometimes just figuring out what meal he’s making once he’s already underway. But as random as it sounds, “there is a method,” she says.

In the online courses she teaches as an Intuitive Cook, Pavlakis teaches people how to gain confidence and skills in the kitchen by revealing rules, recipes, and even ingredient lists.

It may seem counterintuitive, especially to beginners. But this more improvised approach to cooking has been gaining traction recently. The New York Times last year published a “no-recipe” cookbook designed for those who don’t have the patience or inclination to follow detailed instructions. Celebrity chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku chain, embraced a similar philosophy in his book Cooking at Home, subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (and Love My Microwave).”

For Pavlakis, it suggests fatigue with the over-complication of cooking and the pressure on everyone to produce restaurant-quality meals. Mainstream media portray cooking as an “aspirational kind of hobby,” she says, leaving people intimidated and overwhelmed by the number of sources on what and how to eat. Recipes that assume everyone has a mandoline slicer or keeps canned lemons in the fridge can leave people feeling like they’ve failed before they even start.

More to the point, Pavlakis says, even following a recipe perfectly doesn’t necessarily build confidence or skill. It’s a bit like the difference between following Google Maps directions and knowing your way around. Taking an “intuitive” approach to cooking, informed by what you have on hand and what you like to eat, can help minimize food waste and make cooking a lifelong habit, not a source of stress or just For special occasions. And, Pavlakis adds, it’s not as risky as you might think.

Here are some tips to get you started, from Pavlakis and other insightful types.

Intuition… Katerina Pavlakis becomes inventive in the kitchen. Cinematography: Eleri Griffiths

Throw away the fear

People often cling to recipes for fear of making something inedible, says Pavlakis: “You really have to work really hard.” She hears more complaints about the meals being bland than spoiled. The biggest challenge in learning to cook intuitively is overcoming that insecurity, she says, “and daring to do what you want.” Try a small adjustment at your next meal, then a larger one. “Nine times out of 10,” she says, “it’s probably going to be pretty good.”

Work with what you have…

Pavlakis suggests going by the contents of your fridge and reverse-engineering a meal from there. That way, you won’t end up with half-used ingredients or parts that will be thrown away. Thinking in terms of “flavor worlds” — herbs, spices, and ingredients we might consider “typically French,” for example, or “typically Thai” — can guide you toward a particular dish or complementary pairing. Add oregano to tomatoes and you’ll likely be headed to Italy; turmeric or cumin might suggest an Indian curry. “It really gives you a completely different experience,” says Pavlakis. Even leftovers can often be reused into something completely new.

Simplify the steps, not the ingredients

Build flavors with herbs and vary cooking times.
Build flavors with herbs and vary cooking times. Photograph: Alex Walker/Getty Images

Many recipes follow a similar process, says Pavlakis. “If you take a step back and start looking for the patterns, you can see which step fits where, then it becomes easier to change them, swap them or leave them out.”

It tends to follow a three-step method: base (onion, garlic, other “aromatic” vegetables and spices, cooked in some type of fat), body (fresh produce and protein, often liquid), and top (herbs and aromas). . With adjustments to cook time, temperature, and amounts, this can result in a hot pot or stir fry, stew or soup, sauce or stir fry. Even a traybake combines the base and the body step.

Similarly, when creating flavor, you could think in terms of background, foreground, and accents, with each layer complementing or contrasting the previous one. “If you have those basic building blocks, that’s when you can start playing,” says Pavlakis.

awaken your senses

Many of us have become detached from our sensory experience of food. Pavlakis suggests a simple experiment: Divide a jar of passata or a can of tomatoes between molds, then add a little salt, a lot of salt, olive oil, sugar, chili flakes, balsamic vinegar, spices or herbs to each. (Keep it simple, like “control”.) Shuffle, test, and evaluate your answer; you may be surprised at the difference even small amounts make. “It’s so effective because we normally don’t pay much attention,” says Pavlakis.

Replace as you need and as you want

Chris Mandle, who writes the Scraps Without Recipes newsletter at Substack, suggests swapping shallots for onions if that’s all you have, or green olives for black if you like one but not the other. “What is the worst case? Throw it away and try it.

Some trade-ins may not be as great (for example, kale may be too thick and stringy to replace spinach), but there’s often more room for flexibility than you think, says Mandle. “If you don’t have dark chocolate for your chili con carne, Worcestershire sauce will work, or cocoa powder, or even the last drop of coffee in your cup.”

It may not taste exactly like the recipe developer intended, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. “Odds are when you cook a recipe twice with the exact same ingredients, it will taste a little different anyway,” says Mandle.

Know the non-negotiables

A big part of baking is working with proportions.
A big part of baking is working with proportions. Photograph: Marina Kuttig/Getty Images

Baking is often talked about as more technical than cooking, a science compared to an art. But even so, there is often room to adapt to taste.

“A lemon crème fraîche pound cake could easily become a grapefruit ricotta pound cake, or a maple syrup buckwheat biscuit could be made whole wheat and honey,” says pastry chef Nicola Lamb, author of the recipe development newsletter Kitchen Projects. Likewise, you can often reduce the sugar (up to 25%) and add yogurt or fresh cream without consequence, “as long as the cake mix still looks like cake mix.”

Much of the baking is based on proportions, as with the Victoria sponge: “the classic recipe that isn’t a recipe,” says Lamb. “Equal parts of everything (flour, butter, sugar, eggs) gives you a pretty perfect sponge, with a bit of technique.”

But, adds Lamb, precision is important: “I would never dream of baking without a scale.”

work with elements

Both Pavlakis and Mandle swear by Samin Nosrat’s book (and Netflix show) Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Mandle says she showed him how to work with those items, “and not let them boss you around.”

Samin Nosrat.
Elemental… Samin Nosrat. Photograph: Barry J Holmes/The Observer

For example, when he needed salt, he used half a can of sardines to make into a pasta sauce instead of anchovies. “It was very good! once you know why If you’re adding acid to a dish, like a salad dressing or coleslaw, it’s much easier to swap the champagne vinegar you don’t have for fresh-squeezed lemons.”

The addition of acid, sweetness, or fat can also help rebalance a dish that seems in danger of falling apart.

test and adjust

Think in terms of
Flavor dal with chili. Photograph: Andrei Kravtsov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If the taste of the onion or garlic is too pungent, you may need to sweat more in the pan. Or if a stew or dal tastes bland, try tipping it up with chili, salt, or a squeeze of lemon or lime. Be intentional about testing before and after, says Pavlakis. “If you can’t spot any difference, be bolder.”

If an addition backfires, see it as an opportunity to learn about your particular tastes, not those of a recipe developer, who is often asked to play it safe.

test your intuition

Nosrat says that “cooking is about using your senses,” especially common sense. “If you think any combination of ingredients would be off-putting, it probably is,” says Pavlakis. “Your intuition is telling you something there, in the same way that when you flip through a cookbook, one recipe catches your eye, while five others don’t.”

Be curious about what sounds delicious to you and how you could reuse those items, then give it a try. You can only hone your intuition through trial and error, says Pavlakis, not by reading about cooking or observing other people. But the benefits can be felt beyond the kitchen. “There is a lot of talk about getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, learning to take risks; this is an extremely safe way to practice that as a life skill.”

Sign up for Intuitive Cook courses at theintuitivecook.co.uk, Chris Mandle’s Scraps newsletter at scrapsfood.substack.com and Nicola Lamb’s Kitchen Projects at kitchenprojects.substack.com

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