How to Cook without Recipes

How to Cook without Recipes

Professional chefs don’t need recipes to create spectacular dishes. They just know the basics of flavor, texture and temperature.

In the Food Network’s show “Chopped,” four chefs open baskets filled with a range of secret – and seemingly incongruous – ingredients and race against the clock to prepare appetizers, entrees and desserts that will win the heart of the judges.

What makes the show fascinating to watch is how the chef-contestants determine what dish to make. The decision, for the most part, comes down to flavor. Chefs seem to have an innate sensibility, honed by years of experience, about what tastes good. They know how to pair ingredients to achieve optimum flavor.

Do It Yourself with The Flavor Bible

The good news is that home cooks can learn to make those same flavor choices, thanks to The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dannenberg.

The authors have been coaching serious home cooks since 1996, when their book Culinary Artistry was released. That book’s aim was to banish the scripted, traditional recipe from kitchens and to encourage cooks to exercise their won creativity in preparing food. But, as the authors note, “As time passed, it became clear that chefs were thinking of flavors and their combination in new ways, beyond the classics chronicled in Culinary Artistry.”

The pair began to study these new flavor combinations and write the award-winning cookbook What to Drink with What You Eat. Next came The Flavor Bible.

A Kitchen Rosetta Stone

The Flavor Bible, in a sense, is like a Rosetta stone for the kitchen, teaching readers the language of food, the same language in which professional chefs are fluent. Flavor, it turns out, comes down to taste, aroma, the way the ingredient feels in the mouth, and that “x” factor that comes from the heart and soul – i.e. memories connected with the food.

The authors provide an invaluable compendium of culinary ingredients, drawn from cultures around the world. Each ingredient is described by its season, taste, weight, volume and primary function, after which compatible flavors are listed.

Take bacon, for example. Its taste is salty, so home cooks looking to add a salty flavor to their dish (without reaching for the salt shaker) can reach for a slice or two of bacon instead. And, depending on the bacon selected, a smoky flavor can be added as well.)

How to Balance Flavor

Consider that a well-balanced dish will juggle sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. Now, the Fat Duck’s Smoked Bacon and Egg Ice Cream with Pain Perdu and Tea Jelly begins to make sense. There is saltiness from the bacon, sweetness from the ice cream and the bitterness of the team, all combining to make a balanced and unforgettable dessert. Other balance factors include richness (ice cream) versus bitterness (tea); the cool temperature of the ice cream versus the warm pain perdu; and the ice cream’s smoothness versus the bacon’s crunch factor.

Few home cooks will have to face a basket of exotic ingredients – but then again, at the end of the week, refrigerators and pantries can often yield a selection of ingredients that can seem just as strange. The true home cook won’t simply throw up hir or her hands and reach for the stack of take-out menus, however. Instead, they will face the ingredients at hand, like the chefs on “Chopped,” and think of balance, taste and textures, then create something that’s creative and delicious.

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