I’m not so much of a recipe follower. It’s not that I don’t own and read cookbooks. I do. I buy them, read them cover to cover, and occasionally pull them out to consult as I attempt to make some food that is similar to but not the same as something I read about at one point. It makes it difficult, because when people ask me for a recipe for something I’ve made, I kind of don’t have one. Still, I’ve become so adept at eyeballing things and knowing about how much I added over the years that I can close my eyes, watch myself make whatever it is I cooked, and create a recipe from that.
Still, it all starts with a recipe; something I see, taste, or read about somewhere and decide, “Y’know, I’d really like to take a crack at that!”
I’ve grown this ability to develop flavors over years of practice, and from reading cookbooks like novels. I store it all in my mind until one day I realize I’ve got a hankering to make something I’ve never tried before. After that, it may take a few more times before I come up with techniques and ingredients that really make it pop, and then the “recipe” becomes part of my repertoire, although it’s never quiet exactly the same way twice because I never can resist tweaking.
Even as a kid I was a recipe tweaker. I followed them a lot more closely back then, just switching out a spice here or extract there to give them my own spin. Things usually tasted pretty darn good, so as I got older, I also got bolder.
That’s not to say that everything I make is a resounding success. There have been a few times when we’ve all taken a bite of something, looked at one another in silent agreement, and headed for the car to grab a bite to eat. I know it’s a total flop when I get home and the dogs didn’t even try to get on the table to eat the dregs. Those times have become rarer, though, as I’ve grown more adept at building flavors and creating things.
Want to tweak recipes yourself but lack the courage? Here are some tips.
- Get some great cookbooks. I am a huge fan of all of Cook’s Illustrated cookbooks (I own several), because they not only provide recipes, but they walk you through the process of making the foods, explaining why one flavor is better than another or providing flavor-building techniques. For me, the meat of the books is in the explanations about the recipes, not the recipes themselves. They really are among the best cooking instruction books I have ever seen.
- Don’t believe what you see on TV. Television shows don’t have enough time to really teach you how to cook. Instead of watching for recipes, watch for tips and techniques you can adapt to your own cooking.
- When you’re baking, follow the recipe. Baking is a little different than other types of cooking, because it relies on specific chemical and physical processes. If you do try to adapt a baking recipe, just change a single ingredient at a time so you can see exactly what happens.
- More is not always better, but sometimes it is. It depends on what you are cooking, but sometimes adding additional spices really jazzes something up. If you want the flavor of the base food to stand out however, then use a light hand with herbs and spices.
- Learn some basic techniques that you can use to build dishes. For example, learn to make a roux, which serves as a great thickener and flavor builder for many sauces, stews, soups, and gravies.
- It needs salt. No, really, it does. It may not need much, but salt enhances flavor, and brings things alive. When cooking meats, I season the proteins before cooking. When making soups, stews, sauces, etc., I taste for seasoning at the end.
- Use unsalted butter. Seems contrary to what I said above, but you want to be able to control the saltiness. When you’re using salted butter, you can’t.
- When in doubt, return to the classics. The basic flavor base of all French savory cooking is the mirepoix, a dice of two parts onion to one parts carrot and celery. You can use this as your flavor base, and then add other vegetables or herbs.
- Explore classic flavor pairings and see how you can utilize them in your cooking.
- Add a little wine or beer. These can add tremendous flavors to foods. Add them early in the process so they cook off most of their alcohol flavoring.
- Try a new herb. Ever had saffron? A few threads can do wonders for rice and other dishes. Ever tried tarragon? It’s one of my favorites!
- Switch out grains. Occasionally, when I make risotto I switch orzo for the aborio rice. I cook it the same way, and the result is different than a traditional risotto but still really good.
- Switch the protein. Got a recipe for boeuf bourguignon but what you really want is coq au vin? Change your protein to chicken, and you’ll come pretty darn close, I promise.
- Bacon makes it better. It adds startling complexity and a lovely smokiness to many dishes. Saute the bacon, add your mirepoix, and then toss in any other ingredients.
- Take a class. Its surprising how much you can learn from cooking by taking a class. With a few basic techniques, you’ll be a cooking superstar.
- Share tips with your friends. What a great way to gather – invite friends over and share your favorite dishes, demonstrating so everyone learns how.
- Learn the best way to cook various proteins. That way, when you have a cut of meat you know whether it will best benefit from braising, sauteing, grilling, or some other cooking method.
- Don’t be afraid to try new techniques. Never poached an egg? Put a little red wine in a pan and give it a whirl.
- If you’re flying solo, don’t be afraid to consult a cookbook for cooking time, temperature or some other piece of information.