Cook Without Recipes

By Rebecca Wood on Jul 22, 2016

Cooking Secrets

Do you get bogged down searching for a recipe to go with what's in the refrigerator? You can free yourself from slavelishly following someone else's idea of Fried Rice. Here's how to unleash your creativity!

Use recipes when they're useful. For an unfamiliar culinary technique, for an exacting recipe like cakeor pickles, or for inspiration, recipes are indispensable. Otherwise, you needn't be bothered with them.

Learning to cook basic disheswithout a recipe, as did our grandmothers, makes meal preparationless laborious. Because cooking intuitively engages my creativity,it renews rather than drains my energy.

If this sounds intimidating, recall the dishes you make “by feel” versus by the book. Be it scrambled eggs, a pasta salad or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, think about yourvarious “recipe-free” dishes and consider how youcan expand your repertoire. Keeping your pantry and refrigeratorwell organized and stocked supports recipe-free cooking.

Another advantage of improvising is that it enables you touse perishable ingredients in a timely fashion. This means thatrather than moldering in the back of the refrigerator, foodsare used at their prime and so taste better and are more nutritious.

Here's how I prepare most meals. I plan ahead—for example, after doing supper dishes last night, I wondered, “What sounds good for tomorrow?” A jar of barley winked at meand so I put some on to soak. This morning, while making tea, I drained the barley and brought it to a boil with fresh water, a bay leaf, cumin, some garlic and a little salt and chili powder.

Exactly how much chili did I use? Just enough. . . . Remember as a child the first time you splashed on some of your mother's perfume? Be it perfume, salt or spices—very quickly you learn just how much is enough.

Next, I looked in my refrigerator to see what other ingredients clamored for use in today's soup. In no time at all chopped onions,carrots, tofu and celery were quietly simmering on the back burner with the barley.

Cooking without recipes makes it easy to prepare exactly enough for that day's use without having leftovers. I value the psychological ease that comes out of knowing that today my breakfast, lunch and dinner will be of quality and freshly prepared ingredients.

If such meals are not on hand, the outcome is a given. I'll find myself hungry and settle for something quick. Unfortunately, that something quick never really nurtures. So then I find myself nibbling. By planning ahead, I bypass slap dash eating.

So how do you learn to expand your “no-recipe” repertory? Start with a pot of rice or for more flavor and nutrition, quinoa. Make enough for one day. Enjoy the first portion as a breakfast cereal, turn the second into a grain salad for a packed lunch or use it that evening for a stir fry, soup or even a pudding (See One Pot—Two Meals).

Trust your instinct when it comes to combinations and quantities and watch your enjoyment for meal preparation grow. Incorporate quality protein and fresh produce that appealsto you and there you have it. A day's worth of satisfying food. It couldn't be easier.

The accompanying recipe Main Course Salad Formula will give you a framework for your recipe-free cooking.

May you be well nourished,

Rebecca Wood


(Reprinted with the kind permission of Rebecca Wood, from her wonderful website)

Rebecca Wood, who learned gardening and foraging techniques from her grandparents and studied with leading experts in macrobiotics and traditional Oriental medicine, has taught and written about a sustainable diet since 1970.

Her book, The Splendid Grain, won both a James Beard Award and a Julia Child/IACP Award. Her most recent book, The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia, was a One Spirit Book Club (Quality Paperback Book division) main selection. Rebecca has been an educational consultant to numerous organizations in the natural foods industry and currently offers cooking classes for Eden Foods throughout the Western region. She co-founded and directed the East-West Center in Boulder, Colorado, and has established several cooking schools. She currently teaches cooking classes from her home kitchen in Ashland, Oregon.


Rebecca offers a variety of services. To schedule an appointment, check out Rebecca's wonderful website for more information, articles, recipes and books. Each month new recipes and articles are posted.