Becoming an Intuitive Cook: 5 Easy Steps

published Dec 6, 2010
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When faced with a pile of ingredients, do you go hunting for a recipe to match or do you rely on your own cooking knowledge to make a meal out of it? In the December issue of Food & Wine, former recipe addict Daniel Duane writes about his journey to becoming a more intuitive cook with the help of Thomas Keller, and boils the process down to five very practicable steps.

Duane, who taught himself to cook by working methodically through all 290 recipes in Chez Panisse Vegetables, realized at a certain point that his reliance on cookbooks was looked down upon by his professional-chef friends, but wasn’t quite sure how to break the habit. Then he worked with Thomas Keller, who pointed out his own favorite type of recipe: free of precise measurements, open to experimentation and (to Duane) absolutely terrifying in its lack of explicit directions.

Keller believes this type of recipe allows the cook to make it her own, an idea which Duane finds striking.

As I understood it, he meant that a cook never quite absorbs a hyper-detailed recipe, always having to return to the book and its precise measurements. In that way, a cook never breaks a recipe addiction, never trusts himself to create.

According to Duane, the way to break away from precise recipes is to make them less precise, to create gaps which you fill in yourself. By relying on your own knowledge, you are less likely to need the recipes as reference until finally, after much practice, you don’t need them at all. He distills the process to these 5 steps:

• Start with your all-time favorite recipe from your favorite cookbook. Cook it by the numbers, following every instruction.
• No more than three days later (so you don’t forget too much), take out a piece of paper, write out the simplest version of the recipe that you believe you can work from and cook from that.
• A few days later, write an even less detailed version — a few sentences at most — and cook the dish again.
• Over the next few weeks, cook the dish entirely from memory at least several times, but make a small change each time (swap out a spice, change a vegetable), so that the recipe becomes a rough template, not a fixed set of rules.
• As you repeat the process with other recipes, experiment with skipping Step 1 and then, later still, Step 2.

Have you ever tried anything like this? Do you have any tips for becoming a more intuitive cook?

(Image: Flickr member love janine licensed under Creative Commons)