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I have started trying to cook for about two years.

I'm familiar with most ingredients, spices, and tools, but I still can't do anything good without a recipe. It takes me a long time to make things. Sometimes things spoil in the fridge.

Am I lacking volume? I tried focusing on only one cuisine and built up a pantry, but I can't realistically spend hours a day cooking breakfast and dinner.

I can't necessarily see what I'm doing wrong as a beginner because I'm like a fish in water. Any advice?

Neither of my parents can cook well. Perhaps my standards are high as well?

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    Welcome to the site! Although your question is interesting I'm voting to close this as it's opinion based, any answer will be subjective. Like so many other things it's a mixture between natural skill and practice. Don't overthink it, just cook, try new things and intuition will come with time.
    – GdD
    May 19 at 9:31
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    You might like the cookbook ‘How to Cook Without a Book’, which explains general techniques that you can then modify based on your tastes and what ingredients are available, without being so obsessed about recipes: amazon.com/Cook-Without-Completely-Updated-Revised/dp/…
    – Joe
    May 19 at 15:33
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    Something I've been trying to go toward is to see the higher level patterns rather than the base ingredients. In recipes ingredients are given as a single list, but later on the recipe a lot of them are added at the same time.
    – wkw
    May 19 at 20:05
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    Watch Good Eats. It's not perfect but you'll have a much better handle on cooking after watching the first couple seasons because it doesn't focus on recipes, it focuses on how food works.
    – eps
    May 20 at 2:12
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    You are "like a fish OUT of water," by the way. May 20 at 19:14

6 Answers 6

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If your goal is to cook more intuitively (i.e. to make food without always following a recipe, and to be comfortable adapting a known recipe to suit your ingredients/preferences), then you will need to practice doing that – if all your cooking processes at the moment involve closely following a recipe then you are not practicing the skills of making decisions about ingredients, quantities, cooking methods and so on (although you certainly are practicing your technique and gaining general kitchen experience of course).

If you are used to working closely to a recipe then moving 'off-road' can be intimidating; a few suggestions to ease the transition:

  • Cook together with someone who cooks intuitively, and ask them to explain their thinking as they go along. Not everyone is good at cooking together with others but hopefully you have a friend or family member whom you can learn from.
  • Look for recipes that include flexibility: a very popular book recently in the UK is Rukmini Iyer's The Roasting Tin which includes lots of suggestions for building up a dish from principles like 'grain + protein + vegetables' and substitutions in the recipes.
  • Try to combine different recipes; for example, use the main ingredients from one thing you like and the sauce from something else you like, and see how they work together.
  • When you haven't got the specific ingredient for a recipe, look at what ingredients you do have and think about how you could use that instead.
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    While this is a great answer, I think it should also be emphasized being "good" at cooking without a recipe takes a lot of experience. OP sounds like they are still newer to cooking, and there is nothing wrong with following recipes closely until OP is comfortable enough to experiment on their own. Even basics, like grilled cheeseburgers can be enhanced by going "off recipe". Get comfortable cooking first, then experiment. Those weekly meals in a box services will expose OP to a wide selection of ideas and recipes in short order.
    – SnakeDoc
    May 19 at 22:42
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    I'd like to emphasize giving importance to recipes with flexibility. For example burgers or burritos are very easy to mix up or change the base recipe (salad, tomatoes, onions, sauce, corn, etc can be added or removed at will). I personally learned cooking through risottos and changing the base ingredients around, then little by little applying those types of decisions to other recipes.
    – everyone
    May 20 at 9:47
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I believe you have answered your own question in the second sentence, "I can't do anything good without a recipe". While a proportion of cooking is about technique, the best "Natural" chefs don't follow a recipe as they understand the basic principles of what tastes good, and how to get there. Having a recipe more often than not can get in the way, as you spend so much time focusing on it you lose sight of the goal.

Part of the problem is subjectivity, what person A considers delicious, person B might consider disgusting. So the first question you need to ask yourself is "Who am I really cooking for"? If it is just you, it will be a lot simpler, as you know what you like and you will no doubt be your own worse critic. If it is for family and friends, you will need to hone your skills a bit further, as people will not always be honest not wanting to offend and will say "I enjoyed that" purely out of politeness, which will not help you improve.

I believe everyone is capable of cooking to a high standard and it is just a matter of grasping the three S's - Safety, Sensation and Satisfaction. First of all, is the food well cooked and not pose a health risk? Secondly, does it taste good? Finally, is there sufficient ingredients to turn a hungry diner into a fulfilled one? If you have sufficient interest and passion, these skills are not difficult to achieve.

Certainly, understanding all of these factors well will take time and experience. Depending on how passionate you are about cooking, how adventurous you want to be, these factors will all dictate the pace. So this is what I would recommend:

  1. Forget about recipes, as a beginner, you need to grasp the basic techniques, and YouTube is an excellent resource for this. Find a cuisine you like, find a chef whose style you like, and watch 20-30 of their videos. While you are watching, ask yourself one question - "Why"? If they don't explain as part of the video, this forum will give you the answers, or better still, find a chef who explains the reasoning behind their technique. Personally, I'd recommend Chef John at Food Wishes, but he may not cover the specific genre you want to cook. Another good chef to learn from is Jamie Oliver.

  2. Don't run before you can walk. Learn the most basic dishes, omelette, cooked chicken breast, rice etc. Many professional chefs judge a cook by how well these simple dishes are cooked, as it is easy to get them so wrong. A good lesson is learning how to cook a pale French omelette, pale on the outside but perfectly cooked on the inside. This will teach you about the importance of controlling heat during cooking, and also how food continues to cook with residual heat.

  3. Ensure you have the basic tools to make your job easier. I'd recommend a food thermometer, as it will take the guesswork out of food safety when it comes to cooked meat etc. As far as food storage is concerned, read up on the guidelines, the 2 hour rule etc. Personally, I won't keep leftovers more than 48 hours in the fridge, but everyone is different. Plan ahead, any leftovers should be rapidly chilled and/or frozen. Try to ensure you use all perishable ingredients across different meals, e.g. if you cook a whole chicken use the remainder in a salad or use it in a pie.

  4. Realise you will make mistakes, but at the same time cooking is very much down to confidence. Provided your dish is safe to eat, the worse outcome is that it won't taste that good. Try and work out why, and learn from your mistakes.

  5. Once you can cook a basic meal well and confidently (say chicken omelette, chips and veg) then start reading up and following recipes, starting with the most straightforward and as your confidence builds, move on.

  6. If really feel you must have the recipe to guide you, get yourself an entry level cookbook, Delia Smith would be a good start. If her cuisine doesn't appeal, think of a dish a friend has cooked you enjoy, and ask them for the recipe and also offer to help them next time they cook provided they show you how. Not only will they appreciate the help, they will be happy to share their wisdom. Don't forget to ask "Why".

  7. To get where you want to be will take time, there are no short-cuts or easy routes. Part of the start of your success will be achieved by taking the pressure off yourself, not everyone is a natural whizz in the kitchen and it is part learned, part intuitive. If you are passionate and are willing to put the time in away from the stove, I'm sure you will achieve it.

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One way I found of getting an "idea" of how things are made without following a recipe exactly is when I want to make some dish, I find 3-5 different recipes for it, read them all, see how they are similar and different, and then follow some combination of them. That way, instead of just following a recipe, I get to learn how this kind of food is made, and a few different techniques for making it.

Additionally, I found that reading a lot of recipe books, specifically ones that explain what they are doing and why, even if I didn't specifically want to cook that specific recipe, helped me get an intuitive understanding of what flavors and ingredients go together, as well as different cooking techniques and what they do.

As far as getting more efficient and skilled at cooking (working faster and more efficiently), that definitely comes from practice. Just keep cooking, and if you are having trouble with executing some specific skill properly, ask someone who seems to do it better, or ask here!

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Just like most things in life, if you want something to become intuitive for you, you will have to do it for a really long time.

If you read recipes, practice them and widen your horizon by exploring different cuisines, you will start to naturally put things together without ever realising that you do.

Do that long enough and before you notice, you will have cooked up a elaborate meal without having needed to consult a recipe book.

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  • I absolutely concur. When you're "just throwing things together", I think you're really pulling combinations & techniques from lots of recipes you've used before without thinking. Sure, if you sit down and say: "Oooh, this needs something tangy, what about Sudachi", I think only then are you actually inventing something new.
    – Kingsley
    May 19 at 22:36
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As a counterpoint to Greybeard's answer: if you do feel the need for recipes - I agree to pick some well-written books that start with the basics. This is a tricky topic in its own right - decent books are far better than the majority of online recipes, but there are also poor books and good websites. Then:

  • Don't just pick one cuisine, unless that's all you'll enjoy eating - sampling a variety will demonstrate how simple base ingredients work to make very different dishes.
  • Learn some classic, not-too-complex dishes, as they form a reference point (I don't mean memorise - it's fine to look up the proportions each time). From a European point of view, this could include things like omelettes, roux-based sauces, and some simple tomato-based sauces for pasta.
  • Concentrate on cooking when you have time. Rather than rushing through a recipe every evening, cook enough to freeze (or chill for a few days) leftovers when you're making something appropriate. Then when you do cook you can do so patiently. You can taste more often, and think about what's going on.
  • The key is to experiment. Adapt recipes to use different flavours, different veg, different meats (if you eat meat). You might want to start with small changes.
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It's not just you. I've used online recipes since before the Internet was publicly available, through very old mailing lists and BBSses back in the fog of time, and my experience was always like yours - I would cook those (or obv. from old-fashioned books) and it was almost hit & miss. Even if I did everything just perfectly fine, many recipes just weren't that great. I assume that's because cooking just is a very varying thing. Your ingredients will be of varying taste and quality; measurements are usually relatively vague (especially if you're working by volume, not weight), and so on.

Presumably, even if a recipe works great for the person creating it, or for a percentage of people following it, it's either random chance, or because they correct for those variables intuitively.

For me, I can trace my intuitive cooking back to a few very specific basic "discoveries", or very basic recipes:

  • Buying a wok was awesome, as it lets you experiment very easily. A very basic method is this: ** Pick some easy meat, i.e. chicken, cut into bite-size pieceses. Start with that, and roast it in the wok until brown on the outside, and white on the inside. Then push it up the wok to stay warm.
  • Throw in some amount of rice that seems about right, and cook that a little bit in the residual oil from the meat, until it smells nutty.
  • Throw in water (twice the amount of the rice, by volume), and add spices (salt and whatever else you want), maybe some squirts of tomato concentrate (as spice, not as main ingredient), maybe a pinch of sugar, a few drops of lime juice. The spices I mentioned can go into a surprisingly large amount of foods, certainly in most soup/rice-like ones.
  • Push the meat into the mess, and let all of it cook until the water has been taken up by the rice and/or evaporated, and everything seems to have good mouth texture.

A recipe like this is vague enough to force you to understand what the individual bits & pieces are doing, and to give you enough freedom to experiment. Do that! Just look at your kitchen and throw in whatever is not obviously wrong. Experiment with sharp, sour, sweet tasting condiments.

A second great avenue are salads. A very very basic recipe is this:

  • A head of green salad, cut into small ribbons per taste.
  • Tomatoes, sliced&diced, as much as you want.
  • Olives (I love black olives), cut 2-3 times per olive, as much as you want.
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Balsamic Vinegar (look for the label "Modena" if that's available for you)
  • Olive Oil

Just throw all of that in a big bowl in this order (no need to mix up the spices/fluids before) and mix it very well.

Then cook any kind of meat you like (i.e., a big rump steak, a few chicken legs, or whatever else you are comfortable with). If it's not finger food anyways (i.e. chicken legs), dice the meat and throw it onto the salad. Enjoy.

The third is soups:

  • Throw some diced bacon into a big pot and brown it on all sides. It is fine if it leaves a dark residue on the floor.
  • Slice an onion and cook it until it's brown/glassy (reduce heat to avoid burning it; this can take 10 minutes).
  • Slice & dice whatever veggies you like (cauliflower is great for me; but also peppers or leek; I also love having really a lot of onion in the first step), and throw all of those in one after the other, get a bit of heat into all of them. No specific timing required.
  • Add salt, pepper, optionally something hot, optionally garlic powder (or actual garlic), and/or all other kinds of spices you can imagine. A pinch of sugar, few drops of lime juice, any and all mediterranean spices, any and all Mexican spices... knock yourself out!
  • Add a good amount of heavy cream and maybe a bit of water to achieve a consistency you like, to just cover the whole amount of veggies.
  • Add a good amount of cheese (Gouda etc.) that dissolves easily.
  • Let all of it stew for 20-30 minutes with lid on and very low heat (very slight bubbling, no all-out boiling).

Again, this is a base recipe which is intentionally vague, but each step means something; i.e. you're layering tastes and ingredients. It invites you to vary. You can for example use tomato juice instead or on top of the heavy cream. Nothing in it should be hard or even possible to mess up.

While cooking, try to imagine how the tastes and smells react to each other. Obviously for these recipes there are some ingredients that do not fit well (don't throw in any Nutella :) ). By starting with easy, not critical recipes, you get confidence, and by varying everything (ingredients, heat, time, etc.) you get experience.

Eventually, you can just throw stuff together seemingly at random, and it always tastes acceptable at least, if not great!

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