It is safe to say that I have never been a goddess in the kitchen. In fact, I would normally suggest that if I offer you something I’ve cooked, you’d probably be better off not eating it. I don’t enjoy cooking, and the things I cook rarely resemble anything edible. However, in recent months I’ve discovered a different technique, which is ironically the abandonment of all technique: getting rid of recipes and rules, and cooking by feel alone.
I have what would probably be referred to as an artistic mind. When I am presented with a task or a project, I tend to think of it in terms of what can be created, or how things can be layered to produce new and and exciting combinations. That might sound vague and nebulous to most people, but the other artists out there know what I mean. If you then ruin everything by giving me some arbitrary rules made up by someone else, I no longer feel excited about possibilities, because the only possibilities that exist are the ones within the set of rules.
This is how cooking with recipes always felt to me, as if deviating from the rules was the “wrong” thing to do. This made me anxious about cooking, which resulted both in poor results and hatred of the kitchen. Because the emphasis was on acting out a set of written instructions by rote, I never developed a innate understanding of how different foods worked with each other. I was simply mimicking steps for a particular recipe, which gave me no way to adapt any skills for other applications. And if I accidentally messed up one of the steps in the recipe and everything went horribly wrong as a result, I rarely remembered what I’d done or where I’d gone wrong, which made me even less inclined to try again.
A few months ago I finally got fed up with all the restrictions, and tried my hand at cooking without a safety net, as it were. I didn’t use any recipes; I just turned the fire on and started to add things to the pan as I thought of them, simply based on what I knew I liked the taste of. The first few meals I made were a little bit strange, but they were much more edible than anything I’d ever made from a recipe, and I knew exactly how I’d gotten from point A to point B, which was helpful for next time. On subsequent attempts, I was able to remember and modify the things I’d done before, because they were things that originated in my own mind rather than from a random piece of paper in a book. I was building a set of memories about what worked well for my cooking and what didn’t, without any help from established experts.
I suppose I should have known that cooking by feel was a better option for me, because that is how my mother cooks, as well. I don’t think she has ever used a recipe in her life. She can make the same dish on three consecutive days, and it will come out three completely different ways, depending on her mood. It’s nice, because it means nothing she makes ever gets boring or repetitive. Traditional cooks would probably say that her method is “wrong” because it isn’t consistent, but her food is consistently good, so who could possibly complain about having great food at every meal?
If you’re like me and recipes never seem to work out for you, try putting the instructions away and cooking freestyle. Use your taste buds and your imagination as a compass, and see what sort of interesting combinations you can come up with. Learn from your experiments, and make adjustments accordingly. You’ll develop a more intimate understanding of how different flavors relate to each other, and this can help you create new and exciting dishes that you never dreamed you’d be capable of making. I’m getting brave enough now to cook for other people, and the overwhelming response from friends is that they can’t believe that in such a short time, I’ve gone from a 100% catastrophe rate to being able to make tasty dishes pretty reliably. I still make inedible things occasionally, but I’m getting a lot better, and I feel like the style I’m developing is unique to me, which is the factor that I always felt was missing in the past.