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Jacques Pepin On Cooking Without Recipes

post #1 of 24
Thread Starter 

Hi,

 

I read Jacques Pepin's "The Apprentice" he said something like: "Cooking only becomes a real joy when you no longer need to follow a written recipe" so my question is, as an at home cook how do I get to that point? what needs to be done what do I need to learn? details and being very specific in reply are appreciated. Thanks 

post #2 of 24

It's about understanding flavors, how to build and combine them with good technique paramount.

 

Technique you're learning from recipes and discussion here and videos.

 

Understanding flavor comes from tasting. So you need to think about the food you're eating that you've cooked and that you eat elsewhere. What flavors can you discern? What techniques can identify in the creation of dish?

 

As you're cooking from a recipe, try to tell yourself why you're doing what you're doing. Heat a pan on medium heat. Why? Why that pan, why that size? And so on.

 

Taste your food at different points as you cook it. It helps to start with a simple flavoring and work forward.

 

Take a bit of chicken, cook it unseasoned and eat it.  Now do it with a little salt. then salt and pepper. Compare each difference in your mind. How much salt can you add to the chicken with the flavor improving each time until it becomes too much?  That level varies with how you're cooking the meat, what cut it is and what animal it comes from.

 

Now start adding other flavors to the dish, perhaps some thyme. Try adding thyme at the start, middle and end of cooking. Each will taste different as the flavors have time to combine, mellow or change, or be bright and strong as they remain when added late.  Paul Prudhomme does this technique in many of his dishes. He'll add some of this spice mix at the start, middle and later in the cooking. He wants the accenting flavors to be present in as many forms as it will take on during the cooking of the dish.

 

As a counterpoint, Chinese Cuisine is built around contrasting flavors and textures in the dish so that things don't taste all alike (American Chinese Restaurants  don't particularly exemplify this trait as they smother everything in strong sauces--that's not how they really cook).

So the meat will often be marinated in soy and rice wine, the vegetables hit with aromatics like ginger and garlic and perhaps seasoned with salt, a little sugar, white pepper. And a final glazing sauce built around fermented flavors from bean pastes, oyster sauce, and so on. So rather than blending things to a unified taste in the French/Westernized style, they build dishes and menus to more strongly contrast, achieving balance as a whole rather than in the one.

 

Indian cuisine can be quite baffling to deconstruct as there is such a medley of spices used in their cuisine. More so than any other cuisine IMHO, Indian food is best understood in the cooking of it. Blend your own garam masala and other spices rather than rely on stores and the internet.

 

Learning to taste so you can identify flavors and how they were built gives you the understanding of flavor to begin cooking things to your own taste profile, developing your own dishes as you go.

 

Pepin is certainly relying on an understanding of seasoning, technique and enough experience to have internalized the flavors profiles of particular dishes and how to achieve them.

 

Analyzing your own experience of eating, cooking and the steps along the way is how your build that level of experience and understanding.

post #3 of 24
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the great info phatch. I suppose it's like playing music, learn the basic techniques then get out there and do it. talker.gif

post #4 of 24

I think the best way is to cook a lot, using recipes, and making mistakes (and finding that sometimes these mistakes actually are better, and sometimes worse, and paying attention to what makes a dish better and what worse) and by finding you don;t have some ingredient and substituting, and seeing what it tastes like.  Or even just cooking lots of recipes, of different kinds, and getting a feel for the ingredients and what they seem to do. 

 

I would never dream of going through such a scientific and systematic method as you suggest phatch - i wouldn;t have the time or the motivation.  I'd want to make dishes i enjoy eating while learning to cook. 

 

Of course, the method i recommend is the one i used - i liked to cook and tried many recipes, and then i had to cook for a family, and the every day cooking really teaches you. 

 

I also read lots of cookbooks. They do teach a lot of they;re good ones. 

"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #5 of 24

You can do what I talk about though following a recipe. Just taste it as you cook and observe how the flavor develops. Just be smart about tasting that you're foodsafe about it.  No raw meats and so on.

post #6 of 24

Learned cooking basica from my Grandmother who almost NEVER used a recipe.  Ya kinda get a knack for knowing what ingredients would work together.  Onion, celery, peppers, tomatoes can be a start for almost amy meat.  Onions, celery, chocolate... probably not so much.  Her veggie soup was always a bit of a "dump" recipe.  Started with beef chunks (browned well), bones (if ya have them), onions/carrots/celery, some kinda tomato product and water in a BIG soup pot.  ANY left-over veggies in fridge.  Cabbage... if ya had it on hand... box of frozen brussell sprouts works just fine.

post #7 of 24

One needs to do a lot of cooking. Not necessarily a lot of years, but a lot of cooking. You need to pay attention to your successes and your mistakes and then one day you may find yourself

laying in bed and thinking "I'm going to cook something in a certain manner and use these ingredeants". And then do it and fail or not, but you have made the leap,and have grasped the dish (write things down) and then refine it. It's a passion; a creative passion.

post #8 of 24

I agree with Phatch in that you have to TASTE as you cook (perhaps not raw chicken, but practically everything else) which for me is part of the reason i cook - i love to taste all along the way.  It's such a part of the pleasure in cooking for me i didn;t even think to mention it!  But i know people who never taste.  I have one friend who is always telling me she never tastes while she cooks (and I'm not mean enough to tell her "yeah, i can tell!).

"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
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post #9 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by siduri View Post

I agree with Phatch in that you have to TASTE as you cook (perhaps not raw chicken, but practically everything else) which for me is part of the reason i cook - i love to taste all along the way.  It's such a part of the pleasure in cooking for me i didn;t even think to mention it!  But i know people who never taste.  I have one friend who is always telling me she never tastes while she cooks (and I'm not mean enough to tell her "yeah, i can tell!).


Funny to me because my MIL said the same thing and she is a terrible cook. Also doesn't use salt as salt is bad for you

But to the OP you need think about what ingredients bring to the table. For instance, certain aromatics bring a lot of sweetness to a dish as well as depth of flavor. Taste,Taste,Taste as you build a dish.

I'll look at recipes of a certain dish if I'm not familiar with it or the cuisine to see what are common elements and then from then on go by taste. Add seasonings gradually until you get where you want to go. Over time you will be able to toss them in with confidence and without measuring.

Cooking without recipes allows you to make dishes with what's at hand and allows you to improvise. I usually decide what to make for dinner by looking in the fridge to see what I have to work with. It's fun and I like it but it's not for everybody

BUT if you want extreme consistency then you need a more exacting recipe. This is important in a restaurant where consistency can make or break you

You can't lay on the beach and drink rum all day unless you start in the morning

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You can't lay on the beach and drink rum all day unless you start in the morning

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post #10 of 24

It is about tasting and as you gain flavor memory you'll be able to build, or tweak a dish using that memory.  Balancing flavors comes into the mix as well - hot, sweet, sour & salty - they all work together.  Familiarize yourself with as many flavors as you can it makes for a treasure trove of information. 

 

After that technique is important - learn as many as you can - it comes through the doing of it.  I'm amazed at the wealth of information available through media in this day in age. 

 

Oh one more thing - don't burn the roux.  lol.gif

post #11 of 24

some types of cooking, such as baking, is more science though, yes?

a recipe would be necessary to insure the correct proportioning, unless you have it to memory   

from ...

My kitchen in the middle of the desert

A Hui Hou (until we met), ALOHA!

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from ...

My kitchen in the middle of the desert

A Hui Hou (until we met), ALOHA!

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post #12 of 24

A fair amount can be done with knowledge of ratios of leavening to flour.

post #13 of 24

I don't think of baking as a recipe - it's more like a formula. 

post #14 of 24

For baking I always use a recipe -as it is more complex.. kind of like maths!

 

As for cooking, I have tried numerous times to experiment and sometimes it is fabulous and other times it has been a total disaster! But I try to learn from my mistakes and fiddle with recipes to kind of make them "my own".

post #15 of 24

Baking unlike cooking is not only a formula, but a balanced chemical formula. In many cases if the formula is altered even slightly, it wont come out correctly. Cooking on the other hand can really be tasted to completion if you have all the ingredients

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #16 of 24

I don't think Chef Pepin ever meant that comment to be applied to home cooks... unless they can dedicate to practice, practice, practice, and more practice on each recipe being mastered.  Learning techniques and flavor combinations is very important, and recipes are too.

post #17 of 24

If you read a lot of Pepin, and watch his shows and such, I think it becomes clear that he's talking about the necessity to learn certain basic techniques and internalize them. Once you know how to do something, you don't need that part of a given recipe. At a certain point, many recipes become little more than an idea, which you can think about: why not do X-Y-Z but add a tomato to it? Which doesn't make the recipe useless, but it's not something you need to follow rigidly.

 

Yes, I do think he means that home cooks should cook this way. He's always said that. And in fact, so did Julia Child. Read her Mastering the Art carefully -- not just the recipes as such. Notice what she insists on: she claims that, if you're not an idiot (and in interviews she sometimes did actually put it this way), you should be able to do a really clearly-explained recipe once or twice and then execute it again from memory. So she, like Pepin, tries to explain the underlying principles behind a recipe so that you can internalize it coherently as bits of a larger system. This is the French systematization at work, after all.

 

Of course, everyone seems to talk about Child's work as being a collection of really perfect recipes, but she always resisted (and I think resented) that reading. This is, in my opinion, why she remarked nastily on Julie Powell's blog project to cook everything in Mastering the Art. (In the film, this is a crisis for Powell, if you recall the scene.) Think about it from Child's point of view: what is the point of cooking everything in her book once? Do you really learn to cook that way, or are you just following recipes? Because if you're just following recipes, in Child's view, you're not learning to cook.

post #18 of 24

Very nice, Chris.  You put it very well.  thanks.

"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
"Siduri said, 'Gilgamesh, where are you roaming? You will never find the eternal life that you seek...Savour your food, make each of your days a delight, ... let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.'"
Reply
post #19 of 24

I'm quite in agreement with you Chris.  It seems that there are two kinds of home cooks: those who likecooking and want to perfect their cooking techniques, flavor combinations, and knowledge, and those who don't and need recipes to follow otherwise they'd starve or poison their families.  That's why I put the "except" in the sentence.  I should have more clearly distinguished between the two in my comment.

 

I'm the former, and my wife is the latter... so I understand the difference between the two types.  My wife has no interest in learning but is forced to feed the family or we get really grumpy.  :)

post #20 of 24

mrdecoy, I'm trying to learn the same thing as well. I've only been at it for a short while, but I found the more I cook and read, the more I'm able to do things without a recipe. I've also found the forums here to be one of the best places to learn. I found Mastering the Art of French Cooking to be an incredibly good tool—not just for the recipes, but as ChrisLehr pointed out, as a fantastic culinary textbook as well. 

 

Last night, I was making tortellini with pesto sauce... something my dad made a long time ago but lost the recipe for it. He thought it was just pesto and heavy cream, but as I was making that and tasting it... it wasn't what I wanted. I scrapped the entire thing, made a béchamel sauce, and then whipped the pesto into it. I adjusted with some salt and white pepper, and it was exactly the taste I had remembered. As a late-night snack tonight, I wanted to try making my own version of macaroni & cheese. I had some time to experiment, so I made a béchamel sauce and a velouté sauce and blended some cheese, ground mustard, and Worcestershire sauce into them both, and I ended up liking the velouté version better.

 

In the grand scheme of things, these are certainly not breakthroughs. But for me, it was the first time I had ever just invented a recipe that turned out well. The fact that my family ate—and actually enjoyed—both of these things was somewhat of a personal revolution as well :).

post #21 of 24

with a few edits this thread should deserve it's own "sticky" or rather How-To... or whatever the acronym of the day is.

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"Plus, this method makes you look like a complete lunatic. If you care about that sort of thing".  - Dave Arnold

 

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----

 


"Plus, this method makes you look like a complete lunatic. If you care about that sort of thing".  - Dave Arnold

 

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post #22 of 24

For someone who is interested in cooking regularly at home, it is possible to start off with recipes.  If a recipe is good it will take you through the techniques required of the dish.  But you will find that as you start going through recipes that procedures and techniques start to become part of your language, ingrained!  The things you learn start to transfer themselves.  I for example did not learn through recipes or techniques.  I never cooked when I lived with my parents.  When I got out on my own I would call my Mom and "hey Mom, how do you make that dish, I want to make it."  And she would walk me through the steps.  It never came out very good because she couldn't explain her technique very well and didn't have the language to really explain things like "searing" and used the term "cook" for everything.  So when I was learning how to do a stew for example she'd say "cook the chicken first and then take it out, then cook the onions and put some water in it, then put the chicken back in."  She knew what she was doing but couldn't really explain the steps very well.  So I researched actual techniques and learned it one mistake at a time.

 

After a while you learn how to transfer techniques to other dishes.  For example I've been making and eating greek-style meatballs all my life.  Part of the mixture is made of raw grated onion which I love and have been doing for years.  Then one day I decided to make swedish meatballs, I found a recipe and it called for the onions to be sweated in butter first.  Although the ingredients were different I really liked the texture and flavor of buttery soft onions and have since transferred that technique to my greek-style meatballs.  So learning tricks and transferring them to other recipes is an important part of what I've learned as well. 

 

Now, I can look at a recipe and just read the ingredients.  I don't have to follow the procedure unless it's a technique I've never encountered before.  If making bread I know what each step entails and where each ingredient comes into play, same thing for a roast, a braise, a pasta dish, a casserole and so on. 

"You are what you eat, so don't be fast, cheap, easy, or fake."

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"You are what you eat, so don't be fast, cheap, easy, or fake."

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post #23 of 24
There is so much to learn, no one can say that they know it all or that they have truly mastered all cooking styles and methods. However, u need not be a master to cook without recipes. Much of cooking is about categorizing ingredients as protein, starch and vegetables . Also categorizing cooking techniques such as steaming or sauteing, frying or roasting. You need an understanding of ingredients and cooking techniques to cook without recipes. Of course it helps to know the purpose of the ingredient and that nothing in any cooking method or recipe is there for no reason. If u can read a recipe and explain the purpose of every ingredient.........u are ready.
post #24 of 24

Sweat about a cup of mirepoix in butter

 

If you saw that line in a recipe, what would you do?  Most folks here wouldn't bat an eye, it is an obvious step. You would use the right veggies, and use an appropriate amount of butter.  If you are chained to exact recipes you might not know what 'sweat' means, you might not know what comprises 'mirepoix' you might throw a pound of butter into a pot.
 

Pepin and Julia worked to get home cooks to the point where that line in a recipe would be second nature.

 

I think I'll dig out my copy of her book and make something from it.  I was thinking of chile verde for tomorrow, but it wouldn't hurt to brush up on my classic French technique.

 

mjb.

Food nourishes my body.  Cooking nourishes my soul.
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Food nourishes my body.  Cooking nourishes my soul.
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