How to cook...without using recipes

Like millions of us, Michael Booth was seduced by the glossy pages of celebrity cookbooks. But why did his efforts to recreate their masterpieces always leave a bad taste? He asks: Could there be a way to create great food – without recipes?

Wednesday 13 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Want to cook like a pro? Lesson one: don’t listen to TV chefs...

Recipes don't work. We don't need them. There, I've said it. Someone had to. I've been wanting to for years, but never had the courage. I thought it was just me, you see. I thought I had some kind of blind spot when it came to cooking, or had somehow always missed something in the dozens of TV chefs' cookbooks that I had spent years religiously, slavishly cooking my way through. There was obviously a reason my sauces tasted like creosote and my soufflés imploded, and the reason was me. I just assumed that I didn't have the cooking gene.

After all, surely the 10,000 or so people a week currently paying £25 each for Nigella Express to learn how to drizzle honey over cocktail sausages, and other recipes of our time, and the billions who will buy Delia's latest, which features instant mash and ready-made sauces, can't all be wrong, can they? Well, not wrong as such. It's more that we're all suffering from some kind of collective culinary lobotomy.

These days, the media's cooking coverage has polarised into two camps: the megalomaniacal Michelin-starred chefs with their impossible-to-recreate recipes that we admire from afar with fearful awe; and the super-simple, "on the table in seconds" TV cooks with their recipes based – in the case of Delia's latest – on McCain Crispy Bites, instant mash and Sainsbury's cheese sauce (et tu, Delia!).

There has to be a middle way – and there is, although it is a little drastic. A while back, fed up with life as a foodie-by-numbers, addicted to "rip it up and shove it down your gob" recipes (why are all cooking shows aimed at people who want to spend as little time as possible cooking?); annoyed as hell with cooking with one eye on a page; and tired of all the same old recipes for "quick salads with fig, mozzarella and Parma ham", I took all my recipe books, along with the reams of recipes I'd torn from the Sunday supplements and downloaded from the internet, I took all my beloved Jamie Olivers, my precious Delias and Keith Floyds, my Two Fat Ladies, Rick Steins and my Gordon Ramsays, all that glossy, seductive, lavishly photographed food porn, out of the kitchen and into the garden, and burnt the lot.

It was the start of a journey – told in my new book, Sacré Cordon Bleu – What the French Know About Cooking, a rip-roaring roller coaster of emotion, wit and searing culinary insight, since you ask – that took me and my family to live in Paris, where I enrolled at the world- famous Cordon Bleu cookery school. After a year, I graduated top of my class and went on to test my skills in two Michelin-starred restaurants, one of them belonging to Joël Robuchon (which is where things started to go wrong, although that's another story).


At the school, I learnt the myriad, often arcane, but essential ways of classic French cuisine. Above all, what I learnt was that, for all their step-by-step promises, recipes are doomed to failure. In fact, when you stop and think of how many factors militate against their success, it is a wonder that we ever trusted them in the first place.

The first reason they fail is plain old human error: recipes can be badly written, obliquely explained, or not properly tested; mistakes may have been made with measurements, temperatures or the order you do things; or there are simply typos in the text. Then there are the missing ingredients or missing steps – I've experienced them all, and I bet you have, too.

Spend some time on the internet and you'll find a whole army of people who would like a quick word in a dark alley with Nigella and a stiff spatula, about her "freewheeling" approach to recipes. "Can ANYONE cook Nigella's recipes?" asked the Daily Mail recently. Quite. Yet even the most respected food writers get it wrong from time to time. Have you ever tried to follow an Elizabeth David recipe? It's like deciphering the wisdom of an ancient Sufi prophet. My mother has banished Nigel Slater – one of the best food writers of his generation –from her kitchen, on the grounds of a chocolate-brownie recipe that has twice failed her.

There are just too many unpredictable variables involved in preparing food. How can Delia know how ripe your tomatoes are when she advises that, in order to remove their skins, you put them in boiling water for exactly one minute? In my experience, that'll turn most tomatoes to mush. How can Jamie know how thick the base of your frying pan is, and so what level of heat you should use? Or Gary Rhodes know how hot your grill can get, the temperature of your ingredients before you start to cook, or, for that matter, the temperature of your kitchen itself?

They can never know how tough your piece of meat is, or the moisture levels in your fruit; they can never know the depth and width of your pan, to give accurate times for reducing sauces; and one thing no recipe writer can assess is how efficient your oven is. Innumerable are the occasions on which I have held frustrated vigil by my oven door waiting for something to be done beyond the recipe time; or worse, been summoned by the egg timer to find that a cremation has taken place. I suspect most recipe writers are fortunate to have state-of-the-art ovens, but the rest of us make do with whatever was on special offer at John Lewis. (Which is why one of the most important lessons the chefs taught me at school was "Get to know your oven".)

Meanwhile, rubbing your failure in your face are the glossy, art-directed photographs that make up half the pages in food books these days. If they were honest, the first line of most recipes would be: "First, take your food stylist and renowned studio photographer..." And, I don't know about you, but I never have all the right ingredients.

You don't need a licence to write a recipe book. There is no Recipe Monitoring Board, and no legislation to invoke when things go wrong. Where is Antony Worrall Thompson when you are slumped, sobbing over the kitchen table?

But imagine, if we could be free from the tyranny of the TV chef and learn to cook by ourselves without their help. We could skip gaily through our local farmers' market or supermarket, choosing whatever is in season, on special offer or just takes our fancy and, once at home, create our own meals.

I realise that not everyone is able – or stupid enough – to throw their lives up in the air, uproot their families and move to Paris to attend a cookery school, but I do believe that anyone can learn the essentials of cooking, the whys and the hows, the basic techniques, and if they do, their culinary lives will be enriched beyond the dreams of Escoffier.

Imagine the wonders it would do for our kitchen confidence. If we just learnt a few cooking basics, then we could: 1) shop more economically, because we decide what to buy, not the recipe – out go all those costly recipe-book favourites like lobster, foie gras, exotic fruits, smoked salmon and scallops; 2) shop more healthily – again, you control what you cook; if you don't want to eat mascarpone, bacon, cheese, butter or cream, you don't have to (although, you will be utterly miserable, and still probably die); and 3) shop for locally grown produce, instead of wandering up and down the aisles with Pukka Tukka, trying to find tamarind paste.

There would be far less waste because you wouldn't be lumbered with those special ingredients – African tsire powder, miso paste, or whatever – that you bought for a particular recipe and that sit festering in your cupboards for months afterwards. And a proper cook knows how to use every scrap – parsley stalks, for instance, are prized in professional kitchens for adding an aromatic background flavour to stocks and sauces. And if a vegetable doesn't look nice, how – it's not difficult – to turn it into a purée or a soufflé.

And let's not forget: if you learn how to cook for yourself, you need never be worried about those food scare stories that appear in the media daily, which are invariably concerned with processed foods. I call it Common Sense Cooking.


So, where do we begin on our road to empowerment?

Recipes usually only refer to seasoning vaguely, in passing, but it is the single most important part of cooking, and the most difficult. Most TV chefs use Maldon sea-salt flakes indiscriminately, but it is an awfully expensive way to salt water, and there are other salts out there. Sometimes you need a fine salt – if you want to distribute it more evenly over the surface of meat, for instance, or dissolve it in a dressing. Meanwhile, when you add the salt can be as important as how much. Don't add salt to boiling potatoes or dried pulses at the start of cooking, but halfway through – too early and you can toughen their outer layer – but with green vegetables, like broccoli or beans, you want the salt there right from the start to keep them green. If you are braising vegetables like fennel or spinach, hold off the salting until halfway, when the cell structures have collapsed a little and the volume has reduced. That way you'll find it easier to judge how much salt you really need.

You should salt meat as soon as you get it home, even if you aren't going to cook it for a couple of days. I mean it. You may think it will dry it out, but the latest research shows that salting meat early makes it taste better and keeps the moisture in because it changes the cell structure in the meat. It also reduces bacteria on the surface. Just rinse it off and dry the meat before cooking.

I am not advocating that you burn your recipe books. Frankly, I was a bit drunk when I did it and underestimated the enthusiasm of the assembled friends and family. I hoped they'd hold me back in a "Don't do it, Michael, they're not worth it!" kind of way. So my bonfire has to go under the heading, "Stretching a point to make a point". Recipes can be useful (and there are some in my book – if they don't work, don't say I didn't warn you), mainly for inspiration, as a starting point, for you to adapt according to what's in season or in your larder. Or, in the case of the ones you know you can trust, as a useful reminder of ratios and measurements.

But it wouldn't hurt to equip yourself with a little knowledge. Just think, if you could kick your recipe dependence, you'd never again need to listen to an unfathomably rich ad executive's wife, sitting in her fake home in some Chiswick warehouse studio, telling you how to jazz up your cocktail sausages.

Sacré Cordon Bleu– What the French Know About Cooking by Michael Booth is published tomorrow by Jonathan Cape, priced £12.99. To order it at the special price of £11.69 with free postage and packaging, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897 or visit

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Lesson two: how to use a frying pan

Something really simple that I never seemed to get right at home was browning things in a pan – whether it was a steak, pork chop, scallops or noodles. No book I had read had explained the simple principles behind this; they'd all just assumed I knew.

First, you have to ensure that whatever you are frying is totally dry. Pat meat dry with kitchen paper; leave scallops standing on paper for an hour; let noodles drain for the same time. Second, don't try to fry too much at once – crowding the pan cools it ,which means your food will steam, not fry. Third, resist the urge to toss and poke your food in a flamboyant TV-chef manner. Leave it be – again, the food will cool and it won't brown.

Fourth, get rid of your non-stick pan. You want stick! Leave the Teflon for cooking eggs (although, in fact, used properly, a steel pan with a thick bottom will cover all eventualities). And finally, leave the olive oil for dressings. The post-Jamie's Italy home-cooking revolution has brainwashed us into believing olive oil is good, all other oils are bad, but it has a much lower burning point than peanut or sunflower oil, so it is harder to brown things with – and besides, it has too dominant a flavour for most dishes.

This browning is called the Maillard reaction, after the French physician, Louis Camille Maillard, who discovered it. It is not a "sealing" of the meat (as even the usually irreproachable Rowley Leigh still insists on calling it), and anyway, juices don't leak out of meat when you cook it, they retreat to the centre, which is why resting the meat after cooking to let the juices redistribute is so important. Browning can only happen at high temperatures, way above the boiling point of water (if your food is wet, it won't brown). It is the second most important flavour element of cooking, after seasoning.

You can use browning as the basis for a stunning sauce worthy of the greatest restaurant on earth. It is a basic principle you can employ for virtually any meat or poultry. Here's how:

Get the pan hot, add the oil, turn the heat down slightly and add the meat. Leave the meat be for a while so that the surface in contact with the oil has time to build up a good brown crust. When that surface is nicely browned, turn the meat and move it to another part of the pan. You will notice that it will have left brown bits on the surface of the pan. It looks like a washing-up nightmare, but this is manna to a cook. By the time you've browned the meat on all sides, you want the entire surface of the pan to be covered with brown sticky bits. If you don't have enough meat to build up a good crust, throw in some trimmings, bones, or, if it's chicken, some chopped wings.

Next, degrease by tipping the trimmings or bones into a sieve and dabbing excess oil from the pan gently with kitchen paper, being careful not to dislodge the brownings (I always imagine I am restoring an old master). Add a mirepoix of chopped celery, carrot, onion and garlic – around 20 per cent of the volume of meat; fry gently so it softens and browns too; add the trimmings again and deglaze with wine or the alcohol of your choice (perhaps not Baileys), or even just water.

From there, you can make a simple jus by adding just an inch or so of water then reducing it; or add the same amount of stock and reduce as the first stage for dozens of classic sauces. Whichever course you choose (for every day, I just use water, then swirl in a little chilled, cubed butter), you will have a sensational sauce that will politely introduce the flavours of the vegetables to those of the meat to create a wondrously harmonious plate.

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