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Cooking by Instinct: Hints for Making Your Culinary Endeavors Unique Masterpieces

Updated on May 15, 2012

The science of exact cooking didn't come to be until the late 1800s when Fannie Farmer published her famous cookbook The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book. Before that, home bakers and cooks were given generic measuring terms that left a lot of room for guess work and problems in cooking. Fannie Farmer issued in the era of precision with unified measuring units and exact recipes that would turn out the same every time they were made.

This advance made the life of many a cook much simpler-- never would they have to second guess themselves on whether there was enough oil in the salad dressing or worry that they had over-salted the roast. After all, the recipe had told them how much oil or salt to add, and of course it would be perfect.

The sad part is that along with exact recipes, many cooks killed the best, most enjoyable part of cooking, the creativity. The ability to not see just the words on the page, but the possibilities that weren't written down, and the skill to improvise to make a recipe something special and unique.

Here are a few ways to spice up your cooking and make it your very own, whether it's simply learning to edit a recipe or create something from nothing. With a splash of this or that or a dash or dump of something else you can gain confidence in the kitchen, one step at a time, and before long you'll be a modern day Julia Child.

“One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
Julia Child

Learn to Use Salt

Sodium is one of the most incredible tools to make your cooking spectacular. Learning how to salt by taste can be very useful, because not only is it a flavor of it's own it has the ability to draw out other flavors in the dish.

Obviously one can always add more salt, but it can't be taken out so start conservatively. For things that can't be tasted, like raw meat, so that will simply take getting a general feel for what each portion requires, which isn't difficult at all.

Know the Spices in Your Cupboard

Having a general idea of the flavors of spices and how they work together can be extremely helpful. Here are a few very basic combinations that generally work well together when paired:

  • For Mexican Food: Cilantro, Cumin, Chili, Lime, Garlic, and occasionally Oregano
  • For Italian Food: Basil, Oregano, Thyme, Parsley, and Garlic
  • For French Food: Rosemary, Thyme, Cardamom, Shallots, and Garlic
  • For Indian Food: Curry, Ginger, Cinnamon, Coriander, Nutmeg, and of course, Garlic

Remember that these are just the beginning. The possibilities are endless, and the more you cook with them the more familiar the flavors will become.

Master the Art of Deglazing Your Pan

You know all of that caramel-y brown glaze on the bottom of the pan after you pan-fry something? That packs an incredible flavor punch, and deglazing it can also save you hours of slaving away at the sink over dishes. Alright, perhaps there was a bit of hyperbole in that, but it is a definite bonus, besides being the single best way to make a delicious sauce with the least amount of effort.

Here's how to do it-- After removing your chicken, fish, sausage, beef, or veggies from the pan that you just seared them in. Gaze adoringly for a moment at the wonderful that will come from something as insignificant as the bottom of your pan, and then proceed to make the magic happen. It's simple! Make sure that the pan is still quite hot, as it's the affect of the less-hot liquid that makes the glaze come up. If you want a creamy sauce slowly pour milk, half and half, or cream into the pan, whisking away madly. If it's an oil based sauce that you're after, plop a bit of butter in and again, whirl it around with your whisk.

After that, it's a joyride. I like to add chicken or vegetable stock, seasonings, and then at the end thicken it by whisking in flour or cornstarch to keep lumps out. By the time you get all of this whisking done, you'll have muscles like Burt Lancaster.* Let the sauce simmer for a few minutes so that the flavors can assimilate, and voila! You have created a piece de resistance. Serve your sauce with your meat and over potatoes, pasta, rice, or whatever side of your choice.

*I apologize. That was my inner classic movie nerd coming out.

Perfect Your Saute

The vegetable saute is one of the most practical formulas for making something fabulous. The flavor that the veggies take on from being cooked in the oil makes perfection every time. And really, you don't need somebody to tell you how much oil to put in with the other ingredients. Here's another bit of advice that we can keep a secret, just you and me. Toss a bit of garlic in with the oil while it heats, and give the veggies a quick toss as soon as they get in the pan. One dignified, descriptive word: Yum.

The degree of the sear that you want on the saute is entirely up to you. Own that food! Some people like their onions black, a.k.a. caramelized to the death. Some people let them sizzle for thirty seconds and call it good. Whatever makes you happy is how you should do it.

“You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.”
Julia Child

Make a Mean Marinade

I know all the rules on alliteration. But seriously, a marinade can make your meat. A good rule of thumb to follow is one part oil, one part acidic, and a smaller part sweet to balance it all out. One of my favorite ingredients (it's another secret) is white cooking wine. It helps tenderize the meat.

  • Mexican Marinade: Great for beef or chicken and useful for fajitas, tostadas, or just serving with Spanish rice and salad for a simple meal. Olive oil, lime juice, salt, cumin, chili powder, black pepper and oregano.
  • Generic Marinade: This one is mild and has enough variation of flavor to go with just about anything. One part oil, balsamic vinegar, and white cooking wine with a bit of sugar and any combination of herbs that you choose.

With both of the above, put it on the meat and let it marinade for as long as you can. Twelve hours is the best and will give you incredibly tender meat, but I've done it for only half an hour and still had great results. Roasting in the oven or grilling gives you a great place to start for a simple meal.

“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
Julia Child

Bon Appetit!

I do have two favors to ask of you. First, don't ever, ever tell anyone how simple all of these little tricks are. It will destroy the aura of you and your Julia Childishness! Simply smile and graciously accept the compliments that will come flooding your way with aplomb and ease.

Second, make this your motto in the kitchen: "Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring." So while you may not think something turns out the way you wanted it to, remember that it's only another 'tweak' that you may not have discovered if it weren't for that so-called mistake.

Happy cooking!


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    • collegatariat profile image

      collegatariat 5 years ago

      Oh, I'm so glad you're imbibing Julia, Jane. She can be such an inspiring muse in the kitchen. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 5 years ago from Oregon

      Wonderful advice! I picked up some new ideas and feel a simple confidence, a Julia Childishness, seeping over me. :)