The secret to intuitive cooking
How do you become an intuitive cook? Can you learn intuitive cooking, even when you didn't grow up to be one? This is a crucial question I need to answer if I am going to be able to help people (like you!) gain more confidence in the kitchen.
So I have been digging around in my brain to pin down what exactly happens there when I cook (here is an actual example). I have tried to identify exactly what goes through my head when I’m ‘throwing together’ a meal, or when looking at recipes I take ideas from. And I think it’s all about spotting the patterns. And it makes sense, as our brains indeed work in patterns – all the time!
Our brain receives a barrage of information every single moment. That information is then compared against the blueprints already stored (i.e. learned). If a pattern can be recognised then we know what to do and action is taken automatically. If not, then active learning needs to take place for us to learn how to process that information (think of a baby learning to walk, or you learning a new language or a new skill - like cooking).
If our brain wasn't selective about how to process all that information we would be permanently overwhelmed. Through recognizing patterns however, we can quickly identify what is familiar and what is new, what is essential and what is optional, and from there, how to adapt and how to improvise. When I cook I can identify two basic patterns I look for: patterns of method, and patterns of flavour.
Patterns of method focus on the 'how to', on the steps taken that result in a certain kind of meal. For example, a stew involves 3 basic steps:
a base, usually involving onions and other aromatics (carrots, celery, garlic, etc.)
a liquid (water, stock, wine, tomato, coconut milk, etc)
veggies and/or meat (as a feature and/or to add bulk)
A stew (the perfect one pot dish) is closely related to soup (more soupy = more liquid) and sauce (more condensed, meant to be eaten over something else cooked separately).
We can add further detail by looking for the 'special' ingredients (which define the 'special' taste or regional character of the dish) and add-ons that serve various purposes (e.g. thickening, adding creaminess, defining or refining the taste, etc.)
And if you look closely, you can actually see how most cooking methods (at least the basic, everyday methods we all use a lot) move on a continuum: By adding more liquid, reducing the heat applied, and increasing the cooking time you move along a continuum, that can transform the result of your cooking, either on the stove top, or in the oven:
Flavour patterns (some call them flavour profiles or flavour families) are similar and different at the same time: Every cuisine or culinary tradition in the world has a few favourite ingredients and flavourings that define its character, and that we usually universally recognise as, say, an Italian, or Mexican or Thai 'taste experience'. Such flavour patterns are not set in stone and naturally vary quite a bit depending on the region and the individual cook. Still, they are very useful to help us simplify our understanding of flavour and to serve as a practical guide when deciding what to throw in that pot.
Take the same basic dish, say a tomato based sauce (onions+aromatics+tomato), and turn it into a different culinary experience just by changing the flavour pattern:
Italian: basil - thyme - fennel - garlic (eat with pasta)
Mexican: paprika - chilli - cumin - oregano (eat with beans and rice as a chilli)
Indian: ginger - coriander - mustard seeds - turmeric (eat with rice as a curry)
Moroccan: cumin - ginger - allspice - cinnamon (eat with couscous)
Putting it all together, I hope you can now easily see how by tweaking just very few things in either the method or the flavourings you can get several quite different meals all from a very similar starting point: No recipes needed - just a bit of playing around with the patterns!