Some will tell you that the mark of a true chef is being intuitive in the kitchen: It’s about having the foresight and unwritten understanding of how to create perfect balance in your food. Such a skill is not something one can obtain from simply reading recipes over and over again. However, with a little practice and an adventurous spirit, you too can start creating your own recipes outside the constraints of your cookbook collection.
The best way to start cooking from scratch (that is, without the aid of a recipe) is to start modifying something you’re already familiar with. We all have a comfort food dish that we’ve cooked over and over again. Maybe it’s lasagna, broiled barbecue chicken with broccoli, or potato soup; it can be anything! With that dish, take a main component of the recipe, and change it to something somewhat similar but not the same. If you know what a dish should taste like, then you’ll be able to accurately detect any differences in the final product once you’ve finished cooking. You’re essentially training your palate to detect flavor changes and to precisely decipher where these changes are coming from and why.
The reason why this system works is because it’s incrementally making you more confident with your cooking choices. Once you become in tune with what different flavors taste like and where specific flavors are coming from, you can start experimenting with more success. Trust me: I’ve tried many flavors together in the past that simply failed. As in, big-time crash-and-burn fail. But you know what? I just toss it out and start over. Now, I know to never try that combination again. That’s how we get better, and as with any skill in life, we learn more from our failures, steadily increasing our proficiency. Cooking is absolutely no different.
Some simple changes would be to simply swap out main proteins or accompanying sauce. For example, if your recipe is for barbecue pork chops, use chicken thighs instead. Perhaps add some extra spice to the barbecue sauce or extra vinegar, and make it more of a pulled barbecue chicken dish.
Combining recipes is another fun experiment. For example, if you love lasagna but also like fettuccine alfredo, combine them. Make an alfredo lasagna, and even add in fresh vegetables, like steamed broccoli or spinach, roasted zucchini, and eggplant. Instead of the red sauce, use a white sauce, and instead of ground beef, use ground chicken or pork. These changes will have no bearing on the final cook time but will make the dish something completely different.
This theory works with both savory and sweet applications. Now, I’m treading lightly here in including “sweet” dishes as being adjustable. Sweet dishes are certainly customizable but only in flavor, “mix-ins,” or both. When it comes to baking, chemistry is the most important component, so you don’t want to mess with proportions of things like eggs, flour, sugar, fat and leavening agents. However, you can certainly swap out things like almond or lemon extract, different kinds of nuts, candy pieces, white and dark chocolate, or even other dried or fresh fruits. If it’s an apple cobbler recipe you’re reading but you would rather use pears, go for it. Or substitute pecans for walnuts, and even add a little extra vanilla extract if you want to up the vanilla essence. Changes such as these will, again, make you more comfortable in the kitchen.
These are simple steps you can take to start cooking from your brain and not from directions on a page. Obviously, start small, and set a goal to cook something different a few times a week. Slowly but surely, I promise, you’ll start thinking about cooking differently. You’ll start developing the (learned) knowledge that only comes from experience and practice. Do you think Mario Batali woke up one day, and just knew how to make perfect pillows of pork and Swiss chard ravioli? Or that Alton Brown magically just knows the chemical compounds of sugar and the perfect caramel-making technique? No way. They have failed many, many times, and over the years, perfected their craft. They’re masters of their domain, and it’s because they started small and kept practicing their craft.
As your confidence grows, your knowledge builds. As your knowledge builds, your capabilities increase. Before you know it, you’ll only be looking at cookbooks for inspiration. You’ll be developing your own recipes and cooking from the heart in no time. This is how all the great chefs of the world learned. It’s how I learned, and it’s how you’ll do the same. Now, quit reading this, and start experimenting!