When it comes to cooking at home, relying on recipes can provide a real sense of safety and comfort (side note: for this conversation, we’re talking strictly about cooking, not baking).
Home cooks entrust the professional who authored the recipe and their hopefully rigorous testing process, assuming that a recipe will yield success — ie. taste delicious and look like the visual, if followed precisely. That sense of predictability can be soothing for those easing their way into cooking and who may require a step-by-step plan as they work through a new creation. If done correctly, it is also a sure way to impress a romantic love or first-time dinner guests — am I right?
Let’s compare the culinary end product to that sleek IKEA table you assembled using a set of visually clear and simple directions. Following one action at a time tends to yield perfect results: in this case, a functional, aesthetically pleasing chair, along with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
I attribute this to IKEA providing you with the exact set of wooden pieces, screws and tools you may need to assemble their furniture. Almost never do you need to seek a replacement. But in cooking, there are so many variables that are inconsistent among home kitchens. Just to name a few:
- heating equipment like ovens and stoves — so much variation among these appliances (gas vs. electric) and even inside of an oven where the heat is stronger in the back.
- pots and pans — what type of materials are used? cast iron vs. copper vs. aluminum
- measuring cups — how tightly do you pack the ingredients into it, do you use a knife to flatten the dry good or leave it rounded? Even liquid vs. dry cups are distinctive. It’s best to use a scale for ultimate accuracy in either cooking or baking.
- ingredients — size of the vegetables can make a huge difference, especially when roasting. Freshness of produce and spices can also impact flavor with veggies that have been out of the soil longer tasting more muted and bland.
- salt — as a crucial element for flavoring a dish, salt types need to be discussed more often. If you add too much of the wrong type of salt, you’re left with a mess that will need to be fixed (don’t fret!). For example, kosher salt vs. mineral sea salt vs. Maldon finishing salt all impart different levels of saltiness so one teaspoon is not the same all around.
In my kitchen, I prefer to view recipes more casually and to play freely, unbound by possibility. Essentially, I approach recipes as a guide rather than a mandate. I move around in a circular manner and improvise based on comparable flavor profiles, especially when it comes to fresh herbs. I’ll bet you have some sad looking herbs lingering in the fridge because you only needed a tablespoon for that recipe.
Valuing process over results
About a decade ago, while I was regularly teaching home cooking classes, my format was very unusual and some might say even uncomfortable for the students. But after experiencing it firsthand, they continued to flock to my kitchen for a dose of cooking as process, rather than clutching onto a recipe.
“Kristin’s classes are meant to teach you how to craft a dish and become a great cook, not to teach you how to follow a recipe.”
One student, Kelsey, described it this way:
“Kristin sets up cooking lessons in a very different way than others. She provides a list of ingredients but no measurements or steps. To a strict recipe follower, I found this very intimidating. Doing this caused attendees to pay stricter attention to the details of crafting the recipe and learning to taste a dish to understand what is missing. To this day, I remember more of those recipes and have learned how to taste a dish to know what is missing. Kristin’s classes are meant to teach you how to craft a dish and become a great cook, not to teach you how to follow a recipe.”
The day after the class, I would appease my students’ fears and send them an updated version of the recipes, this time including the directions which, ironically, is the hardest part of the process for me!
In the end, my students had already worked through the recipe on so many levels (through listening and watching my demo and then partaking in it themselves) that this semblance of a “recipe” was literally just a safety net. Witnessing Kelsey and other students build trust in themselves and in the process is what kept me going and continues to this day.
It’s ok to question a recipe
You will arrive at your own version of the end product however it flows best for you. And it will be just perfect, whether it looks and tastes like that impeccably styled picture or not. What matters is that you engaged in the process of creation and trusted your intuition.
And by intuition, I mean that you tasted along the way and added salt a little at a time versus all at once. Or you asked yourself whether you could swap out cilantro for parsley? Or assured yourself it was ok to leave out the raw chopped garlic because you don’t care for that element in your cooking (yes, that’s me). Or perhaps you questioned whether you could add that wilted kale to your lentil soup without it being listed on the recipe.
Slowly, this process of trusting yourself and your senses will lead to less reliance on recipes and you may develop a more hybrid style of cooking. You may begin to view recipes as beautiful sources of inspiration rather than strict codes.
It’s YOUR process. Have a little fun and let intuition and magic lead you through the kitchen and maybe even in life, too!
If you’d like to learn a more intuitive style to cooking that helps save you resources like money and time, I’m available for one-on-one coaching.
Originally published at https://www.kristin-cole.com on October 21, 2020.