I think all us have that one friend who’s cooking is so good, they know it, you know it, and they just make it look so easy, but when you ask them for the recipe they reply, almost smirkingly, “Oh I don’t use recipes, good cooks don’t need recipes.” Now you feel awful, you live off recipes, you spend hours looking at recipes, planning your meals and orchestrating your next project. Well, I disagree. While good cooks may not be held hostage by recipes, they certainly do need them.
A good cook doesn’t let a recipe hold them back, and they’re not afraid to improvise, but how do you think cooks learn from each other? It is impossible to be an expert in every kind of cuisine. It is impossible, even after years of experience to have infinite knowledge of all things food. It is a craft that continuously changes, yet stays true to the basic techniques taught by the French masters of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Chefs rely on recipes to establish consistency in their restaurants. Otherwise, the flavor and appearance of the dishes would vary according to the cook. Recipes are essential to transmitting the chef’s vision from raw ingredients to the finished dish served to the guest. The only way the ego-driven line cooks will ever cook something the same way twice is with a recipe. Recipes are also essential to determining food cost of each particular menu item.
All the chefs I know have a massive cookbook collections. Why? They learn new techniques, look to them for inspiration, and of course admiration. What about the home cook? The problem with home cooks is that they sometimes can’t tell a good recipe from a bad one. Most home cooks look online to find their recipes, it’s easy and convenient, and some sites even make a shopping list for you and print the recipes to various sizes. There are a lot of good recipe sites and blogs out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones.
Cooking Without Recipes: The Nitty Gritty
I have an OK cookbook collection. Now, I rely mostly on the public library to check out the books I can’t afford to buy. The one I use the most is The Flavor Bible, which ironically is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. It has no recipes; it is merely a list of ingredients. Below each ingredient is a list of the foods that best complement it, when the ingredient is in season, the cooking techniques that best work for that particular ingredient, and examples of flavor combinations used by renowned chefs. The book gives you the resources necessary to use your knowledge of cooking to develop your own style and creativity, without using somebody else’s recipe. A book you must have is Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio. In it you will learn all the basic formulas or ratios and techniques that will allow you to start cooking without recipes.