Using A Recipe May Not Always Be Best

In two of my previous posts – Budgeting a Weekly Grocery List and Whole Foods Doesn’t Have to Mean Whole Paycheck – I have mentioned that saving money at the grocery store starts with a desire to cook. Buying individual ingredients and preparing meals oneself cuts cost at the checkout counter and makes organic, sustainable food a possibility for anyone. However, some important components to this exhortation need to be discussed in greater detail.

When most people think of cooking for themselves, especially novices, they tend to associate preparing evening dinners with following a recipe. Whether this means opening a cookbook or logging-on to one’s favorite website, following a recipe entails clearly defined instructions and a list of precisely measured ingredients. For those trying to save money and time, recipes may not always be the best option when it comes to cooking for oneself.

As I have said before, my wife and I cook nearly all of our own meals, but we seldom use recipes. Here’s why. Recipes are almost always written by trained chefs or professional cooks, and while their instructions and ingredient lists may lead to spectacular and subtle flavors, they don’t meet the real world exigencies facing most home cooks. Namely, recipes typically don’t consider time and cost because they are only concerned with the finished, restaurant-quality product.

But let’s face it, we’re not all restaurant chefs looking to make professional dishes. Instead, the average home cook – myself included – simply wants a tasty, affordable meal. Also, when beginner cooks try to master complex recipes, they can become discouraged and give up cooking altogether. I have seen this happen all too often with family and friends. Better ways than using recipes exist for learning how to cook well, and below are a few rules-of-thumb to follow to help any beginner cook make inexpensive and delicious meals.

Start With The Basics

It may sound cliché, but starting with the basics is always best. For instance, instead of looking up a recipe for pasta, begin by cooking a simple pasta dish for yourself built upon the flavors and ingredients with which you’re familiar. It helps to know what you like, and you can craft a tasty meal from there. Penne, a high-quality store bought pasta sauce, a few Italian sausages – preferably made by the store’s butcher – and some Parmesan cheese can be made into a delicious meal by even the most inexperienced of cooks.

Starting with basic dishes and cooking techniques provides a foundation you can build upon as you grow better at cooking. As time goes on and you expand your collection of spices, maybe you want to swap premade pasta sauce with canned tomatoes that you can cook down and season yourself. Or, perhaps you decide to turn your pasta into a Bolognese and nix the premade sausage in favor of ground beef, some sautéed shallots and garlic and your own spices. You can even expand the recipe to include other vegetables like spinach or artichokes.

If you start with a recipe, you’ll wind up overdoing a dish can easily be made simply, and you’ll likely spend more at the grocery store and spend longer in the kitchen. What’s more, starting with the basics allows you to master foundational skills before moving onto more challenging cooking techniques. Although it may seem simple enough, frying foods at home can be extremely difficult for novice cooks. If you learn the basics of battering and pan-frying first, though, you will be much better prepared to deep-fry chicken than you would be if you tried this seemingly simple dish just starting out.

Know Your Spices

Most recipes, especially those for ethnic cuisines, call for a plethora of spices. My wife and I have a wonderful Middle Eastern cookbook, Balaboosta, for instance, that uses loads of delicious spices for each dish. One spice in particular that shows up time and again is Za’atar seasoning. This multiple-purpose Middle Eastern spice blend primarily uses herbs such as oregano and thyme, but there are countless variations that include everything from sumac to sesame seeds.

If you have the time and the money to invest in an expansive spice rack, then by all means do so and make seasoning blends like this yourself. However, if you want to save money, don’t jump to the other extreme of purchasing a large container of Za’atar seasoning at the grocery store. Instead, turn to the always-a-bargain bulk bin section. At our Cincinnati Whole Foods Market, they have numerous spice blends available – such as Caribbean Jerk, Cajun Blackening Spice and Za’atar – which can all be bought at small quantities perfect for making a single meal.

Another pitfall for the budget-conscious beginner cook comes from expensive single spices, particularly those that go bad quickly. Take cinnamon, for instance. Did you know that ground cinnamon only stays fresh for half a year? If you invest in a jar of high-quality cinnamon, more than likely you’ll end up wasting most of it. However, once again, you can turn to the bulk section to get just what you need without letting any go to waste.

Some spices, though, have high prices regardless of whether you purchase them in bulk or prepackaged. Saffron is one such spice, and it is one of the most expensive items found on grocery store shelves. Recipes for paella and certain risottos – once again written by chefs with professional standards – will unequivocally call for saffron regardless of price. Using turmeric, though, makes a great alternative to paying $20 for a few strands of saffron. While not as strong as saffron, turmeric still provides a deep yellow color and an earthy richness to dishes. With a little research, it’s easy to find similar cost-saving spice substitutes.

Learn From The Best

In order to cook well without using recipes, you have to learn the ins and outs of cooking. Chopping, dicing, sautéing and roasting, among many, many others, are all foundational techniques that cooks must know and master to prepare meals effectively and efficiently.

To an extent, reading and following recipes can help teach many cooking techniques, but they can be hard to follow and less helpful – and take much more time – and other alternatives. Due to this, many people turn to internet videos or photo galleries to learn cooking techniques, attempting to recreate in their own kitchens what they see onscreen. While this certainly marks a great improvement over standard cookbooks, trying to follow a guide – be it on YouTube or a blog – still comes with its share of challenges. Namely, it encourages you to follow along in real time, which for the beginner cook often proves difficult.

I recommend a third way: watch and learn. Much of what I know about the basics of cooking I learned from watching my mother as a child. As I grew older and wanted to expand my culinary horizons, I started watching cooking shows. I’m not talking about reality or competition cooking shows – although Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen are indeed enjoyable to watch. Rather, I mean watching real cooking shows that teach viewers the essentials of preparing meals, knowing flavors and understanding techniques.

Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa is an excellent show to watch for learning basic cooking essentials. Although she usually prepares simply flavored dishes without the kind of exotic spices my wife and I love, her attention to detail and her straightforward explanations of the cooking process make her show an exceptional resource for the novice home cook. Other great programs include Siba’s Table, Kelsey’s Essentials, Extra Virgin and Good Eats, just to name a few. All of these shows focus on making simple dishes, using fewer ingredients and clearly explaining the cooking process.

Beyond the TV screen, you can also step into the kitchen with knowledgeable cooks to learn even more and build your skills. Between my junior and senior years of college, I was fortunate enough to attend a summer study abroad program in Italy and Spain. One of the faculty guides who attended, a Milanese-native Italian professor at John Carroll University, was an avid cook and an expert on Italian cooking (and gelato!). Not only would he explain in detail the preparation for any dish you could name, but he also cooked with some of us periodically. Cooking and discussing food with someone so knowledgeable taught me more about Italian cuisine than I had ever learned before and have ever learned since.

Sometimes Recipes Can Help

I don’t hate recipes – far from it – and I think they have their place in the average home cook’s kitchen. While I don’t recommend always turning to a cookbook, sometimes it is absolutely necessary.

For example, let’s return to Balaboosta, which I mentioned above. Since my wife and I aren’t Middle Eastern and typically don’t cook Middle Eastern food very often – although we eat Moroccan and Greek food regularly– this cookbook serves as a great go-to guide for flavors and techniques of a cuisine we don’t know very well.

Additionally, for complex date night or holiday dishes when you have nothing but time for preparation, using a recipe can help you make the dish perfectly and professionally.

Although I think recipes and cookbooks are an important and useful tool for the beginner home cook, they shouldn’t be the only resource used. Since cooking for oneself or one’s family on a daily basis doesn’t entail making precisely seasoned, professionally crafted dishes, you shouldn’t turn to a chef-written recipe for a guide. Instead, I recommend learning the basics and starting simple to build your cooking skills, vocabulary and knowledge of flavors.

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