How To Break Free Of Recipe Dependence
10:22 AM EDT on March 18, 2023
Welcome to, uh, I dunno, let's call it Ask A Chefector, the column in which your internet food buddy (me) answers all of your questions about cooking and eating and food and pretty much anything else. Got questions about any of those things? Send me an email.
Say you are someone (me) who cooks pretty well when working off a detailed recipe, but immediately plunges through the ice and drowns when reading an instruction like "dump a big bunch of fiery doom peppers in there"—because if i misgauge the amount of doom peppers, or the specific doominess of the peppers, my family will starve. Or be hospitalized.
How would you guide this someone (me) away from over-reliance on measuring cups and towards a more instinctive approach? Cooking the way your recipes read seems much more satisfying than the way I do it, but also I'm not sure how to mentally get from here to there.
Tell me how to ditch the safety net, is my ask.
So, there's the frustrating and unhelpful answer to this question, and then there's the even more frustrating and even less helpful answer.
The frustrating and unhelpful answer is: Nothing except time and experience will get you to the place where your cooking instincts (they're not instincts, but let's settle on that term) can be trusted—where your intuitive sense of how many fiery doom peppers to add will reliably result in food that is good to eat and does not dissolve the tongue and esophagus of anyone who eats it. The more you cook, the more recipes you follow, the more you are honing your latent background sense of proportion, of timing, of how this or that ingredient or procedure corresponds to this or that result. It's happening! I promise it's happening. Someone who has cooked from recipes 10,000 times is not going to, when stranded without a recipe, suddenly think that the way to roast a chicken is to stuff its body cavity with four cups of cream cheese and sock it into a 700-degree furnace. You know what I mean? That experienced recipe-follower has narrowed things down a little better than that.
Moreover, nobody who is a skilled cook, at home or in a restaurant or anywhere else, ever was that way before they did lots and lots of cooking. You can be born into the cookingest family that ever lived, Michelin-starred chefs up and down both sides, and I promise to you that if you do not do a lot of cooking, you will not be a comfortable and intuitive cook, unless and until you have done a lot of cooking. That's how it happens. For that matter, that's what cooking school is: Doing a lot of the work of cooking, until you understand it. If you are doing a lot of cooking, then it is happening, if it has not already happened.
(I suppose it's possible that, like, a psychopath would be a confident and carefree cook even without any experience at all, because of a pathological inability to conceive of or care about consequences, such as the food being disgusting or inedible or poisonous. But that is hardly a desirable state. I encourage you not to be like a psychopath.)
But honing your instincts is only, at most, half of the solution. What good are trustworthy cooking instincts if you are afraid to trust them? No good at all! This is the even more frustrating and even less helpful answer to your question: You have to turn and face the reality that, even without a recipe to rely on, you are extremely unlikely to make the kind of cooking mistake that will result in your family starving or being hospitalized—or even being legitimately disgusted by what you put in front of them. The grade of mistake you, an experienced recipe-follower, are at realistic risk of making is the kind that, in the big picture, is OK: When you cut into the chicken you see that it isn't quite done yet, so you have to put it back in the oven for a while, and so dinner is a little late and by the time the chicken is done it has dried out a bit and it's sort of embarrassing and disappointing but also OK. You misjudged the amount of hot red pepper to put in the recipe, and out of an overabundance of caution you used too little, and now the sauce is kind of wimpy and the wings aren't very exciting but it's OK.
I don't know what it will take for you to trust yourself! But my hunch is that this is like so many other scary things in life—there is no real how for ditching the safety net. However you try to make it less scary, your efforts will resolve to a scary point where you have to actually just, like, jump or not jump. You simply do it, and then (in all likelihood) you discover that the result is not half as bad as you'd feared, and then it's not so scary anymore. At some point, Smallweed, you simply have to start trying to cook stuff without recipes, if you want not to have to rely on recipes to cook stuff.
It is also fine not to do that! It's fine to just build a library of recipes you like, and rely on them for your cooking needs. That's completely fine.
Oh, LOL, you know, what I also just thought of, haha, is that if you focus on learning specific bedrock cooking techniques—how to sear, how to make an emulsion, how to blanch and shock, that kind of thing—then you will have a much firmer basis for venturing forth without recipes in the future: You can be like Hm, that looks like a tasty type of vegetation. I will blanch and shock it, and then blast it with heat in a stainless steel skillet. You can build meals out of ingredients and techniques, rather than out of recipes. A good guide for that, which I have talked up several times over the years, is The Professional Chef, a cooking textbook by the Culinary Institute of America, which you can find in various places online. I have a big hardcover copy of the eighth edition (there's a ninth, and I will simply have to hope that it doesn't repudiate everything in the eighth). It's great.
I should have thought of that way up at the top. Oh well. This is a forward-looking type of blog.
Overall, I love to cook at home; however, I completely detest one essential part of virtually every recipe—chopping. It's so tedious, and when I finish, I never feel any satisfaction at the heap of diced onions, peppers, fingertips, etc. Sometimes I'll drink a beer while I chop to delude myself into believing that chopping is actually a festive culinary ritual that I should embrace, but invariably, I end up slightly toasty on a still-empty stomach, lunging primitively at a cabbage. As you may guess, my knife skills are fairly rudimentary, especially considering how often I cook. Do you have any recommendations for how to enjoy chopping more, in general, or how to improve my knife skills, specifically?
Chopping is the pits! I'm sorry. It shits butt. It's tedious and time-consuming and it's always at least a little bit dangerous. You spend what seems like forever dicing carrots and then at the end you've moved, like, two inches along the path to a completed vegetable soup. For this reason people have invented very many silly gadgets pretty much entirely for the purpose of finding some way around this part of the work of cooking. The garlic press. The julienne slicer. The food processor. The Slap Chop. And so forth. The reason for people inventing these devices is that chopping stinks. But the reason that there are 10,000 gimmicky devices instead of just one or two is that none of them do a particularly good job of replacing what can be accomplished by chopping. It's like the hope of a magical pill that can give you a spectacular body without having to do exercise: Everybody wants one, and one will never exist.
I am a person with a mud brain and the attention span of an infant. Having been this way, and mired in the consequences of being this way, for my entire life, I am also easily overwhelmed by the prospect of multi-step jobs: I am conditioned to expect that I will probably fuck them up in a way that makes me feel terrible about myself, and that even if I don't, I will be unreasonably exhausted and harrowed at the end and will feel, in place of any sense of accomplishment, as though I accidentally stumbled out of the way of an onrushing freight train right before it aerosolized my body. (And that it's my fault I was on the train tracks in the first place.) It feels very ridiculous to type, but: The work of chopping stuff for cooking on a random Wednesday evening can loom like a mountain, for this reason. Like a thing that it is futile and absurd for me to even imagine I could do, even though I have done it, conservatively, well more than a thousand times in my adult life.
Eventually you have to accommodate the way that you are, instead of trying or pretending to be some other way. And so a silly and small thing I have figured out that makes chopping somewhat less bizarrely punishing for me is to try to be mindful of how I group the steps. So that if there are, say, three broadly-defined steps involved in mincing a clove of garlic (peel it, slice it, pile the slices together and chop them finely), I will feel much less overwhelmed if I do each step to every clove of garlic that I will be chopping, before moving onto the next step, instead of doing all of the steps to one clove of garlic and then starting over with the next. Peel every clove, then slice every clove, then chop all the slices. This way, the number of times that I have to stop what I'm doing and transition to doing a different thing is three, rather than three multiplied by the number of garlic cloves. Probably all of the healthy-brained people in the world already do things this way, but it did not occur to me until I was, no shit, like 40 years old. If you do not do things this way, then I recommend it.
I don't know if that's an answer to your question or worthless commiseration. I do not remotely "enjoy" chopping, so possibly I am not even qualified to try answering it. I appreciate the good that chopping my ingredients into uniform sizes does for the eventual meal, and so I do it, and doing it a lot has caused me to arrive at knife skills that I consider reasonable for the amount and type of cooking I do. I make it less miserable with the above practice, and I make it easier by keeping my knives sharp. To be honest, I have always had a suspicion that the greater part of both having and developing knife skills is simply having the right knife for a given job, and that knife being very sharp. Whatever you're trying to do with a knife, it will be easier if the knife is sharp, and easier tasks are less taxing than difficult ones. This is a profound and priceless insight which no one has had before.
How do you wash lettuce/salad greens? I generally chop up my head of romaine or whatever, dump it in a salad spinner’s inner colander bowl thingy, rinse it under the sink, then drop it into the spinner and go to town. (Until I broke said spinner, and now just use a colander and push the chopped lettuce around a little bit to distribute the “washing.”) A few months ago, however, my mother gave me grief for not hand washing/rinsing each leaf of romaine before cutting it, though since it was twice accompanied by the phrase “like your sister does!” I don’t put too much stock in her opinion.
I know that lettuce and greens need to be washed—I’m as neurotic about food safety as most other thing—but at the end of the day also feel like any version of running lettuce under cold water and expecting it to magically divest itself of all its ills is the modern equivalent of preparing for the bar exam (hello, fellow lawyers!) by checking chicken entrails. How do you wash your lettuce and/or other salad greens?
Here is where I must confess that I am not a particularly vigilant or thorough washer of fruits and vegetables. What I want is not to bite down on any grit or sand granules large enough to make me aware that I am eating tiny rocks, and I do only enough washing to accomplish this. If this means that I have ingested bucketloads of industrial pest repellents in my life, well, uh, I least I can be sure that my gut is safe from the dreaded caterpillars.
For most lettuce-type stuff, the washing I give it amounts to dumping it in a colander and running that colander under a cold tap while I move its contents around with my hand until I feel that it would be rude for a dang salad green to expect more than that amount of washing. Then I either give the washed lettuce a cursory squeeze between two paper towels, or I just shake the colander a few times and move on with life. For stuff that comes in unitary form, like romaine or escarole or whatever, I will hack off the stem first and separate all the leaves so that it's easier for water to run across the parts of them that otherwise would be stuck tightly together. Under no circumstances will I be giving each dang leaf its own custom hand-bath. I am not running a frickin' lettuce spa here. No way, man!
Really the only vegetable (is it a vegetable? Whatever, sure it is) that gets a very thorough washing in my kitchen is the leek. Leeks are very good at hiding gritty dirt inside of them. But you asked about salad greens.
Every now and again you hear about a lettuce crisis, where like every green grocer in an entire region has to chuck all of their romaine or whatever, because a batch from a given industrial mega-farm somehow picked up E. coli bacteria. That's very scary. On the other hand, just on principle, no head of lettuce should get longer and more careful bathing attention from me than I give to myself. I had not before today considered whether I would risk my life on behalf of this principle, but now it occurs to me that I may have done exactly that several hundred times, which makes me a very courageous hero indeed. Who the hell are you, to ask me to compromise my very principles? You can go to hell!
I love to cook. I love to try new things. In fact I try to cook at least one new recipe every weekend. I also have 2 kids under the age of 10 who are picky eaters. I make them at least try what I make every weekend. Recently my oldest has wanted to do all the cooking, so I have started having her do a meal each weekend. This is great! However, she is terrified of everything. She is afraid to use a real knife so we use these nylon knives that suck. She is afraid of burning her hands on the oven, which is somewhat legit as I believe our oven was designed to inflict maximum burning pain. She doesn't want to touch raw meat. The list goes on.
I want to nurture this desire to cook in her, but I am also a control freak and god dammit we don't have all day and who is going to clean up this mess! Do you have any tips to help me fight the urge to take over while she is cooking? Do you have any sweet kitchen gadgets that can help inspire and take some of the fear out of the kitchen?
Eh, I think your daughter's fear is fine and even sort of good. It's rooted in an intuitive (and correct!) sense that many cooking tasks, done the way that adults do them, are in fact kind of dangerous for an under-10 child, with the experience, attention span, and musculoskeletal coordination of an under-10 child, and so in order for her to do these tasks safely they have to be made safer. She doesn't want to hurt herself, and intuitively grasps that she is at greater risk of doing that than her dad is. Smart kid!
You don't need a gadget that will solve this. (Which is good because there isn't one!) This problem will solve itself. Either your daughter's nervousness around dangerous kitchen stuff will surpass whatever reward she gets from cooking food, and she'll decide she doesn't want to do it anymore (this will be fine; I recommend affirming for her that this was her own good judgment telling her she's not ready to cook yet, but can be ready later), or she will gradually grow in confidence as she demonstrates to herself, time and again, that she can cook food without hurting herself, or that if she does hurt herself it won't be as bad as she feared. And then she won't be afraid anymore. She'll just be cautious, the way a grownup is.
None of this is to suggest, at all, that it's wrong or irresponsible to let your under-10 kid do some cooking (so long as it's within their abilities and you're supervising). I think it's great. Truly. It's just, she's still a little kid, with only a little kid's limited experience of handling bad things when they happen, which is not much fortification against the fear of the next bad thing that might happen. It's reasonable for her to want to make the risks a little bit smaller, to shrink them down to a size she can manage.
As for fighting the urge to take over, buddy, I have no idea. I recommend Lamaze breathing.