Start Here

Coquo, ergo sum

A cook’s first principles

This site will teach you how to cook without recipes.

You won’t have to memorize them. You don’t need to learn “knife skills” or other tasks of manual dexterity. It doesn’t matter that you weren’t raised in a cottage in Tuscany where mamma simmered hand-made tagliatelle in the fresh milk of spring-pasture cows.

Being able to cook perfectly has nothing to do with being a good cook. That’s the first principle.

My grandma was a meat-and-potatoes cook who boiled her vegetables to oblivion and made her pie crusts with flavorless shortening. And yet she could put on a banquet without breaking a sweat. She could manage it all at a leisurely pace while we reveled in good company.

She was a great cook, and she never needed a recipe.

So, to cook without recipes, first become a great cook. You can do it right now: Pour canned soup into a pan, and put it in the oven.

Why an oven? Because the oven’s gentle heat takes the soup off of your mind so that you can get everyone around the table, tucking into a pre-packaged salad mix.

Relax, have a glass of wine. Put the soup on the table when you’re ready. Have it with fresh sandwich bread and some good-quality butter.

Bravo, you just put together a two-course meal. It’s nutritionally balanced and the results perfectly justify your efforts. No recipe required.

The food that you prepare can only be as delicious as the moment that you have to enjoy it. That’s the second principle.

Cooking isn’t a list of skills. It’s a way of thinking, an ability to see that everything you do from the moment you step into the kitchen to the last dish you dry is part of a single, simple process. You realize that the “perfect” way to prepare any dish is whatever happens to work with you and your meal.

Cooking without recipes isn’t a reward for this way of thinking, it’s a necessity. It’s how I put supper on the table nearly every night for my wife and son, the dishes that I prepare being what a lot of us have in mind when we picture what good cooking is all about. I really do serve three-hour braises on weeknights and homemade soups on a regular basis, and lots of seasonal, fresh produce year-around.

I used to waste my weekends on labor-intensive “prep” work that recipe-writers constantly extol. With my chefbooks and some blog posts, I’d take an hour or so to put together a weekly menu, then hit the grocery store and spend an afternoon making fresh stock, deboning chicken legs, and doing whatever else.

I’d be in front of the TV by the end of it, eating tunafish straight out of the can with a fork. My menu would be finished by Wednesday because I never had the stamina to plan more than three days in advance.

And I saw it all as progress, oddly enough.

My favorite foods as a kid were Hamburger Helper and breakfast-for-dinner night. When I grew out of this and began to cook for myself, recipes were my beacon. The best ones provided me with startling moments of clarity, such as the roast chicken recipe in Thomas Keller’s Bouchon—the notion that I could achieve whatever I wanted simply by salting the bird and preserving the oven’s dry heat. For years, it was one of the few great dishes I could do off the cuff.

Even then, I always had to look up the oven temperature that he called for. (It’s 450°, I just looked it up.)

The Chef’s book is a trove of insight and techniques, but it’s all bound up within the milieu of professional restaurant cooking, which is a place with its own priorities and special equipment.

Each of the Chef’s methods presupposes this context, and like a subconscious inclination guiding his own habits and maneuvers, it’s never explicitly stated.

In my own kitchen, outside of this special context, I had no way to distinguish tweak from technique. Discrepancies remained essentially mysterious. If one roast chicken recipe in his book called for 450° and another 475, all I could do was to try to remember which one was which.

The situation became hopeless, however, as I went back and forth among all the other roast chicken recipes from all the other authors on my shelf, all of which offer wildly varying perspectives encompassing every aspect of cooking.

From Alice Waters to Julia Child, Robuchon, Bittman, Ruhlman, The Joy of Cooking, and others, I was at various times boiling my pasta in cream, crushing vitamin C pills into my bread dough, sautéing chicken over medium heat, over high heat, over high heat turned down to low heat, and so on.

No intuition of my own ever emerged. Ten years of cooking went by and I was still lost in the produce aisle without an itemized shopping list.

Recipe-writing on the whole lacks any coherent foundation. It took me years to realize this—that despite the carefully enumerated instructions, the ingredients list with everything meticulously quantified down to the quarter-teaspoon, the pseudo-scientific essay pedantically retracing the author’s path of self-discovery—despite all of this, a recipe is useless as a teaching aid.

Even Cook’s Illustrated, who try to apply the scientific method to a potato chip, manage to publish two recipes for two chicken stews that are practically identical apart from the fact that one tells you to cook the chicken thighs for over an hour while the other one says thirty minutes.

And this is nothing compared to the chaos on a recipe clearing house like Epicurious.

Context is everything in cooking. It matters whether you’re in a hotel kitchen or bending over a campfire.

Context is everything in cooking. It matters whether you’re in a hotel kitchen or bending over a campfire.

Without context, all you possess are ideals of perfection. You’ll follow prescriptions because you can’t decide for yourself what you want to achieve. All you end up with is half of a plate of food and no regard for the meal that takes place around it.

We live in a golden age of food instruction, yet one thing we lack is a concise description of home cooking, the most basic context of all.

So, here it is:

Home is where you cook for friends and family, less so for “guests.” You cook for people who crave nourishment, who care about taste and texture and not so much about “presentation.” And even if cooking isn’t your principle hobby, much less your source of self-identity, you can still produce great meals without wrecking the kitchen and pulling that I-cooked-you-clean routine that makes everyone regret your hospitality.

Food writers unacquainted with this context won’t be able to show anyone how to function within it. Their instructions will be overly general or too specific. They’ll succumb to perfectionism because their standard of success is merely aspirational. They’ll be hoping that you and I can fill in the rest.

And so what we end up with is a whole bunch of arbitrary oven temperatures for every conceivable type of dish. You practically need to draw a line graph, plotting everything along X and Y axes, to see what’s going on.

Well, I did something like that. And so I can say that you only need five oven temperatures.

We won’t get anywhere by pretending that cooking doesn’t involve quantities like weight, volume and temperature. The trend nowadays for recipe writers to simply cut out the ingredients list and call for a “lump” of this or a “spoonful” of that only confuses things further.

They have it backwards. It’s only when you understand how everything relates, that you can eyeball your ingredients like a pro (or like Grandma).

But this is the easy part—cooking is the easy part. The challenge is in learning for yourself how to put it all together on a regular basis in your own kitchen, on your own time, and with great results.

If you asked Monsieur le Chef how to begin, he’d tell you what he tells his own cooks: Commit one recipe to memory by making it as many times as possible over the course of a month. Repeat.

I’ve been down that road. You put all your effort into that one recipe and you’re empty-handed for the rest of the week. A cooking routine never gets off the ground. Meanwhile, you’re ordering takeout every other night and feeling like a failure.

A simple meal-making routine is where it really all begins. I tell you how to set one up in Fail Safes.

Having that in place will give you the time and attention to learn the very basic ways to prepare any fresh ingredient that you see, whether it’s a green bean or a fresh joint of beef.

I call these Fundamentals. They are the real source of a cook’s skill, because even the most complicated dishes are assembled from elementary preparations that you make over and over again.

The fundamentals that I show you are based on a workflow that actually reflects your life and your routines, those of a home cook.

Because the dishes you prepare revolve around you, not the other way around. That’s the third principle, the final one you need to get started.

Enjoying great meals is a cornerstone of happiness in life. It can be an ordinary thing, too. You just have to cook that way.

Let’s go.

Guided by Whim, Not Recipe
This is a new website! Sign up and get the latest, delivered to your inbox.