Can you cook without a book?

“Just as we have delegated most of our food decision-making to supermarkets so we have bowed our heads to the recipe. We can’t get through cooking life without them. We’ve come to treat recipes like crutches, to help us limp through the process of cooking a dish, rather (than) relying on our own expertise and judgment.” – Matthew Fort, Word of Mouth Blog, The Guardian.

As a cooking instructor and aspiring food writer, developing recipes is a necessary part of the game. But, I can’t help stopping to think how much easier it would be to just give an idea of what’s in a dish and not constantly measure, time and write notes in a hot kitchen. In theory, if everyone could cook without a book/recipe, I suppose I wouldn’t be needed anymore.

A majority of the culinary questions that I receive at classes, or even from family and friends, center around a recipe that they don’t understand (or had problems with). Or more often, the questions focus on a great deal they found at the butcher or farmers’ market but don’t know what to do with ‘it’ once they got home.

And that’s because, if you haven’t taken a professional level cooking class or immersed yourself in one of those 10-pound cooking tomes published by places like the Culinary Institute of America, you probably don’t know the ins and outs of moist-heat, dry-heat with fat, and dry-heat without fat cooking methods. It’s not just knowing what these methods are; it’s also knowing what type of food benefits from each method. This is something most recipes and cooking show hosts omit. Instead, and I’m guilty of this as well, you get recipe notes about how this was their grandmother’s favorite or how various factors inspired the final dish.

While this is nowhere near being all-inclusive, here’s a quick cooking method primer:

Moist-heat cooking methods include boiling, simmering, poaching, steaming, braising, blanching, deglazing, reducing and using a bain marie.

Dry-heat cooking methods without fat include grilling, barbecuing, broiling, roasting, baking and griddling.

Dry-heat cooking methods with fat include sautéing, sweating, pan-frying and deep-frying.

“But improvisational cooking may not be for everyone. Mark Bittman, author of ‘How to Cook Everything,’ says that for someone who doesn’t have some grounding in basic cooking methods such as roasting a chicken or properly heating a pan before searing a piece of meat, recipe-less cooking will probably be a loss. And baking, which often requires more precise measurements and temperatures, can be difficult to execute off the cuff.” – Pervaiz Shallwani, A Shift to Recipe-less Cooking, Wall Street Journal.

Michael Ruhlman in his latest book, Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, may take that last bit of culinary wisdom to task. Just released in April, Ratio brings readers behind the curtain to reveal the wizardly secrets many chefs take for granted.

In Ratio, Ruhlman presents the theory that if you know a few key ratios you’ll better understand cooking in general and with the focus of his book, baking in particular. Included are ratios for dough and how to vary a few key ingredients to create bread, pasta, pie crust, cookies and choux pastry. Batters are also included providing readers with insight into pound cakes, sponges, angel food cakes, a variety of baked quick breads and batters that are griddled.

Not all chefs are bakers and not all bakers are chefs –something you’ll see pop-up in shows like Top Chef where some poor contestant is ‘stuck’ making a dessert. When reading and putting Ratio to the test, you can feel this unspoken trend in the time spent on the sweet versus savory uses of ratios. While guidance is provided for creating sausages, brines, sauces and stocks, the majority of the ratios provided are for dough, batters and custards.

In regards to using leavening, this is one area where Ratio is a weak – like a lot of other reference/basic cookbooks. Knowing how much yeast, baking soda or baking powder to use is left for home cooks to figure out on their own unless following one of Ruhlman’s recipes. And isn’t the point to move away from recipe dependence? This is an area where a lot of good ideas go wrong as many cooks don’t understand how leaveners work or interact with other ingredients in the mix. In the Sweet Kitchen, The Definitive Baker’s Companion by Regan Daley does cover some of these ins and outs while also doing a good job of explaining how different types of flours and grains will affect the final result.

If you’re like me and have a growing collection of culinary reference books, I would recommend adding Ratio to the shelf. By its ratio-inspired nature, the book is more ingredient driven than method focused which may make it a bit of a challenge for new cooks. Ruhlman, who has an engaging writing and teaching style, has one of the best explanations I’ve read on the importance of measuring by weight versus volume.

“When you know a culinary ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe, it’s instantly knowing a thousand.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking

So don’t let recipes hold you back. As Fort says in his Word of Mouth Blog, recipes are not precise chemical formulas where if you remove an element you could cause an apocalypse. They should be there to nudge you along and to inspire your taste buds. To be quite honest, at the end of a long day, the last thing I want to do is read a recipe. Writing one? Well that’s just part of the gig.

-GE, 4/10/09 Leave a Comment
Gina Edwards is a cooking instructor and editor of

No comments:

Post a Comment