Liveblog: Cooking without Recipes


Welcome to the BlogHer Food '11 liveblog of the Cooking without Recipes panel.

Sarah Breckenridge, Senior web producer for Fine Cooking Magazine,

SB: The reason I pitched this panel, if I'm cooking with something kind of of these things we're really thorough about is to teach you to cook rather than to teach you to follow a recipe. It's a teach a man to fish philosophy. It turns into a feature called Recipe Maker.

The Principles of Recipe Improv
Concept of master recipes: you start to internalize the steps, the method, how the ingredients interact with each other and feel more comfortable with going off the script.
Examples: salads, omelets, creamy vegetable soup--all are regularly off-recipe creations. There is a formula to follow.

Once you are familiar with these types of recipes, you can start applying your own flavor profile.

The idea of improv is based on chords and chord progressions in music. If your master recipes are your chords then your flavor profile is your chord progression. One type of flavor profile is something that's suited to a specific cuisine.

Master technique + flavor profile = your own recipe

Audience flavor profile suggestions: pear and bleu cheese; salt and scallions with seaweed; goat cheese, beets and walnuts.

You start to see patterns. The more you read the more you start to internalize these tips.

The key to improvising recipes is having a well-stocked pantry.

Correct as you go. Failures are rarely inedible--eat, take note, and learn from them.

Any unexpected success from improvising/substitutions?

Cookies that look bad, but crumbled up and turned into pie crust.

If you do get into the habit of cooking without recipes, it can be really frustrating to try to recreate the recipe.

Pam Anderson, How to Cook without a Book
Sally Schneider, The Imporvisational Cook
Karen Page and Andrew Dorenenburg, The Flavor Bible

These books discuss flavor profiles and are reference books for new flavor profiles and come up with new ideas.

Blogs that show you how to riff on recipes: The Kitchn and Three Many Cooks in Pam Anderson's Kitchen.

The Kitchn does clean-out-your-pantry challenges. Pam Anderson and her daughters take a master recipe and present three takes on the recipe.

Michael Ruhlman's Book and Apps: Ratio breaks down mathmatical formulas on several different types of dishes. There are breads, sausages and all kinds of baked goods improvised.

Baking can be one of the toughest things to improvise with. The App is also called Ratio ($4.99). It's really cool for understanding the science behind baking and how you can make those substitutions. New iphone app: Bread Making Basics.

Cookulus App: the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. It has sliders to adjust the crispiness, thinness, what to do if you change to whole wheat flour.

Fine Cooking: Recipe Maker/Cooking without Recipes. The Thai Curry Recipe is in the Fine Cooking Magazine in the gift bag. It's also featured in Recipe Maker online.

Q: I like the books your recommend for flavor profiles. Do you have any tips for kind of creating ideas/recipes out of thin air? Maybe you have some ingredients in front of you, but you don't have any recipe at all.

SB: If I create a new recipe, it's usually because I have (ingredients) in front of me. It might start with a single ingredient. It might start with knowing what you like. What kind of dish can I apply this to?

Q: I know you suggested some sites, how do you translate that "recipe" on your blog for other people to follow?

SB: Take notes as you go. Really what you're turning into is a little bit of a recipe developer. Once you've finished, writing it all in a recipe format.

Depending on how much of a perfectionist you are, try to cook that recipe one more time based on what you've written down.

Q: Go to and pull up an ingredient search and that sometimes sends me in a direction. It's a really good resource for what can be made.

Robert Danheim, chef specializes in SE Asian cuisine

SB: We're not trying to create an authentic Thai Curry, it's a weeknight thing. I'm going to do it here from start to finish.

If you go to we have this one on our home page.

The idea is there are several components to the recipe. As you go, you choose your ingredients and drag them into the bowl (online) and you get the recipe at the end.

I'm doubling the recipe b/c I wasn't sure how many people we'd have.

You start w/ 2 cans of coconut milk. Stir it and take a cup of it and bring it to a simmer.

This is not a vegetarian recipe (fish sauce)

You start out with a protein. Applausometer=chicken and shrimp.

Veggies, there are a ton here. I didn't bring them all today.

By de facto, this is a Thai flavor profile. So what you're looking for as you choose your proteins and your veggies is a Thai flavor profile. We have hard textures like carrots, we have some soft textured veggies.

Veggie choices: eggplant, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, sugar snap peas

Curry paste: penang, yellow, green and red

Green is the hottest of the four. All are chiles, lemon grass, lime leaves, dried shrimp and various other spices. Green uses very hot green chiles. Red is one of the mildest and sweetest. Yellow has a bitter tumeric note. Panang is similar to red, also has peanuts, and has a fruitier aroma.

Green is traditionally paired with pork and eggplant.

Popular vote: Panang.

Bring the coconut milk to a simmer and reduce it by about half. It might separate, but it doesn't really matter.

Mae Ploy is author's preferred curry brand.

You can also make it yourself, but it's harder to find the ingredients than it is to find the curry paste itself.

Add chile paste, break it up and dissolve it in the coconut milk.

Add the remaining coconut milk (2 cans total).

Add a bit (2 C) of broth (chicken or vegetable).

Q: Suggestion--Edward and Sons "Not Beef" "Not Chicken" bouilion cubes (have at Kroger in health sections)

Now add the aromatics: choose from ginger, galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass, wild (kafir) lime leaves

Using galangal and fresh lemongrass. Trim the lemongrass down to the bottom 6 inches or so and bruise it with the handle of your knife. Then cut it into 3-inch pieces. Infuse the flavor (put in cheesecloth) and pull it out at the end or just throw them in and have your diners eat around them. Once it's simmering, add ingredients. The ingredients all cook at different rates, so this is where the experimentation comes in.

If you're riffing and you discover that one element's really overcooked, that's where it's useful to take notes for next time you want to do something similar.

At this point, it's about timing of the different ingredients. Some simmer for 5, others 3 and others 1 minute. So you time the recipe's ingredient addition for your different ingredients.

Add half the chicken since we're doing half shrimp. Also add the eggplant. The shrimp are already peeled and deveined. Chicken, we're using thighs because they tend to stay moist in the stew. The thighs are a little bit more forgiving.

Add shrimp, asparagus, tomatoes, brown sugar and fish sauce. This is a great recipe for tasting as you go. we'll taste at the end and it's very adjustable. It's a really good dish for experimentation.

The sugar snaps go in, along with the sugar snaps and cook for 1 more minute.

Herbs--cilantro or basil, you can sprinkle on top or stir it in.

Remove the curry from the heat and taste it for seasoning. It's spicy and has the sweetness from the brown sugar. I think it can use a little more fish sauce to bring up the saltiness. This stuff is very strong though, so go slowly on it.

I'm going to check to make sure our chicken is cooked through. I can tell the shrimp is pretty good because it's opaque.

Are there any other final questions or comments? If not, come on up.

[Dishing out portions and offering garnishes.]

Those who have tasted, what do you think of our creation?

Does it work?

Audience: Yeah.

Kristi @
Veggie Converter