Cooking Without a Recipe: Roasting 101
For many of us, it seems more likely that we'll wake up with a sudden flair for brain surgery than learn how to cook without a recipe. And truthfully, it's pretty easy to see why. The sheer volume of different recipes, ingredients, temperatures, times, cooking methods and culinary colloquialisms out there is enough to make neuroscience seem like the ABCs. However, don't ditch the spatula for the scalpel just yet.
Learning to cook on the fly involves shifting your culinary perspective from micro to macro--from measurements and ingredients to techniques and flavors.
Mastering how and when to use a few simple but vital culinary techniques is how chefs cook confidently with nothing more than a few ingredients and their own two hands. Stripping down cooking to the bare bones of the techniques that make it up allows you to use recipes as inspiration or general guidelines without getting tripped up by the minutiae of timing and measurements.
Right now, I have a choice. I could lay some horrifyingly detailed mumbo jumbo about cooking methods, dry heat vs. moist heat, the Maillard reaction, caramelization, blah di blah...until you click right off this page.
I could give you some real advice. Let's do that. So. Roasting.
What is Roasting?
In terms of cooking methods, it's hard to go wrong with roasting as the bulk of the work falls pre-roast while you truss, season, chop, sip wine..you know. Then the oven takes over, cooking your food, hands-free, until the house smells like Grandma's and looks of confusion dart from one family member to the other over your sudden culinary bad-assery.
The term itself refers to the process of cooking food, prepared with seasonings and slicked with some sort of fat, in a pan surrounded by dry, hot air, cooking it evenly on all sides. This sort of indirect heat makes roasting a sensible (and easy) cooking method for tough cuts of meat, (like roasts, duh) , large cuts of poultry, whole fish fillets, starchy root vegetables, and fan favorites like ham or prime rib.
How to Roast
Say I wanted to roast a whole chicken. Since I know that chicken needs to be heated to 165ºF for white meat and 175ºF for dark, I can, in theory, simply pop it into a hot oven and let it go until it's finished. This would be a successful roast. Flavorful? No. But edible nonetheless.
All you need to do to take this chicken from blah to bourgeois is Google and a well-stocked pantry. I'm not sure if I'm committing some sort of inception-y faux pas by telling you to Google something within an article telling you how to do something, but just bear with me.
Let's stay with the chicken example. Although simply throwing it into a hot oven would technically give you a cooked chicken, it may not yield one with crisp, browned skin on the outside and juicy flavorful meat on the inside. If the temperature is too low, you'll end up with an anemic chicken--flabby loose skin and rubbery flesh. If it's too high, you'll end up scorching the outside of the bird before the inside has a chance to cook.
This is where Google comes in. For a chicken, I would Google, "How to Roast X pound chicken", for bone-in pork chops, "How to roast X pound bone-in pork chops", for spaghetti squash, "How to roast spaghetti squash" and click on the result that looks like it'll have the least clip-art. Boom.
How to Roast Anything
Now that I've got the time and temperature down for my dish, all I need to do is give it a little flavor zhuzh. The great thing about roasting is that you can use the same technique for the same piece of meat hundreds of times and come up with a different product each time all because of how you prepared it prior to cooking.
If you want, this is where you can ditch the recipe. Feel free to substitute your own special concoction of spices, flavors, and fats for those mentioned in the recipe. Just make sure to remember that anything with sugar will burn faster, and lighter oils are generally the better choice when roasting at high heat. (There's a reason for this but it's pretty boring.)
Tap into that intuitive, artsy part of your brain, the little area that takes over when you ride a bike, hum a tune, or mindlessly twirl your hair. The best way to cook without a recipe is to not think. Let your senses be your guide when trying out new flavors and don't worry so much about whether it'll be perfect or even good. The more you do it, the more you'll start to understand how to pair different elements for maximum flavor and enjoyment.