THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HEALTHY NO-RECIPE COOKING
Read it below now or grab the pdf to read later
THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HEALTHY NO-RECIPE COOKING
Read it below now or grab the pdf to read later
You want to eat right as a lifestyle choice, but...
to eat right you need to cook regularly, and...
to cook regularly you need it to not suck.
This guide knocks the sucky out of cooking.
So if you (or your family) would eat better if you cooked a lot more…. and hated on it a lot less…. this guide is for you.
The core concepts that make cooking a breeze:
Plus you will learn all the key skills:
In one night you can prove to yourself that healthy no-recipe cooking works and that you can do it.
In one month you can completely master healthy no-recipe cooking.
In one season you can make healthy no-recipe cooking your lifestyle for good.
I know this because I’ve taught more than a thousand people how to break free of recipes and enjoy the ease of no-recipe living.
This guide will lead you through the whole process, step-by-step, from White Belt (beginner) to Black Belt (badass).
Who am I?
My name is Casey Moulton, aka The Kitchen Karate Guy.
I'm a father and husband with a full-time office job involving an hour-long commute each way; aka I'm busy as f*ck.
Back in 2008 I was 30lbs overweight, working crazy hours, and couldn’t cook to save my life.
Today I’m still working crazy hours, but I’m fit and can cook like a mofo.
The difference is a super streamlined approach to cooking and meal prep that I developed to keep myself (and now my family) on point in the eating department.
I call it Kitchen Karate. And it enables me to whip up one-off meals without thinking or make 15 meals in 2 hours without breaking a sweat.
Over the better part of a decade I’ve developed, refined, and taught Kitchen Karate to more than a thousand people in Los Angeles.
I've realized that there are a lot of people out there who are just like me. People who simply want to get it done in the kitchen in a routine, reliable way, week in and week out.
People who are not trying to compete on a cooking show or throw dinner parties that get featured in Martha Stewart's magazine.
People who just want to solve the problems of home cooking so they do it consistently enough to replace their patchwork of take-out, frozen food, meal delivery, and meal kits in a box with good old fashioned homemade meals.
Most of those people do not live within driving distance of my class. So I took six months and wrote down my entire system in this Ultimate Guide to Healthy No-recipe Cooking.
My hope is that busy people everywhere will use it to start cooking regularly again and that together we will revitalize home cooking in our lives.
Grab the PDF to read later.
Because this is not a recipe-based system you get to eat exactly the way you want. Knowing how to cook for real allows you to make meals that are perfectly suited to you.That’s the beauty of it!
Absolutely. I make notes throughout to guide you.
I developed this in a small kitchen. It works.
I couldn’t either. I know exactly what’s holding you back. I’m going to teach you the least you need to know to get skilled in a hurry.
Just basic cooking equipment. I put a checklist in the Appendix at the end of this guide.
Nope. Those are some of the things that make cooking suck. I’m here to help you get past all that for good.
1. Bookmark this page or download the PDF
2. Kick back on the coach and give it a full read to get the whole picture (takes about an hour)
3. Follow the instructions in Part 3: Getting Started to do your first guided no-recipe cooking session
4. Revisit Part 4 The 6 Skill Sets often as you practice no-recipe cooking and work your way up from beginner to advanced (takes three months if you practice no-recipe cooking every week)
Grab the PDF to read later.
WHY BOTHER TO MASTER HEALTHY NO-RECIPE COOKING?
NOTE: Want to jump directly into learning the method? Skip this whole intro and bounce to Part One. But if you want to get fired up about healthy no-recipe cooking first, then read on.
If you want to cook more, for whatever reason - to eat a certain way, to create a wholesome household for your kids, to impress your girlfriend - there is only one metric that matters: are you cooking more or not?
Every day you see recipes and meal plans that promise to be “easy”, “quick”, “healthy”, and “delicious”. Those are all great selling points. But they avoid the one thing that matters most: WILL YOU DO IT?
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s important to solve the right problem. Your problem is not that your recipes aren’t healthy enough or quick enough or delicious enough. Your problem is that YOU ARE NOT COOKING OFTEN ENOUGH. Seen through this lens, recipes are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.
Do this, then this, then this... blah blah blah. Recipes reduce cooking to a big fat chore. When you cook without recipes it's a creative and fun experience.
Follow a recipe and the outcome is good, the recipe gets all the credit. If it's bad, you take all the blame. In neither instance do you learn anything but how to follow recipes better.
You collect recipes, cookbooks, and fill your drawers with clippings, you have Pinterest boards and Google is always a keystroke away. But when the time comes to make something you’re in the mood for (and have the will to make) you still have to search and search and search.
Recipes come with shopping lists and shopping lists send you hunting and pecking all over the place, from ping-ponging around the aisles to visiting multiple stores.
While you ping-pong around the store to check off items on your list, you skip all the best, freshest and in-season items simply because they don't conform to your recipe.
Searching for recipes that conform to your diet is limiting to begin with, and a recipe does not consider your particular serving size or the nuances of your palate.
No-recipe cooking cuts out searching for recipes, which alone can take longer than cooking an entire meal without a recipe. Plus it cuts out the process of shopping against a list. It cuts out the need to check in with the recipe repeatedly throughout the cooking process. Knowing your meals will come together quickly gets you to cook more frequently.
No-recipe cooking lets you make it up as you go, which is so much easier than following instructions. Yes, you need confidence, skills and know-how, but once you have those, it’s so much easier to just grab ingredients and make something than it is to force yourself to act like a robot as you execute a recipe.
That feeling of ease makes you want to cook more.
No-recipe cooking is customizable in two important ways:
Recipe-based cooking, in contrast, forces you to prepare for cooking in ways that are maddeningly strict, if not downright impossible. Build your cooking around your life rather than around recipes and you will cook more.
Unlike a recipe-based eating plan that looks great in the beginning but gets worse over time as you try executing all the recipes, no-recipe cooking gets better over time. The more you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, the more you want to do it. It’s a virtuous cycle that gets you cooking more and more.
No-recipe cooking is creative, challenging, rewarding, and very often it’s social. Once you get into the game of turning raw ingredients into delicious meals you start trying to best your last performance, taking on new ingredients, seasonings, and cooking techniques. This gets you cooking more.
No-recipe cooking makes you the hero, not your recipes. The feeling of empowerment that comes from handling your business in the kitchen is both attractive and addicting. It makes you want to cook more.
No-recipe cooking gets rid of all the hassles surrounding cooking and lets you focus entirely on the process, so that your mind and senses are engaged with it. You can easily get in a flow that is the opposite of exhausting; it’s rejuvenating.
You’ll cook more to get that feeling.
No-recipe cooking lets you make the most of the ingredients you have on hand. When your cooking is mostly recipe-based you find yourself stuck with all kinds of ingredients you didn’t get around to using because a) you shopped for a recipe you never got around to doing and/or b) the ingredients you bought for the recipe came in bigger sizes than the recipe called for and you don’t know what to do with the leftover. When you cooking results in food getting eaten rather than going to waste, you are more likely to do it.
Because there is a learning curve involved, and most people aren’t down for that.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who learned to cook at your parent’s hip while growing up you don’t need recipes and are mystified by everyone who clings to them so tightly. You are like those people who are fluent in a second language because they were raised in a bilingual household.
Because you are reading this guide, I suspect you were not one of the lucky one. I suspect you are like the rest of us, the ones who have to learn how to cook without recipes in adulthood.
The good news is that I know exactly where you are coming from. I grew up on microwavable meals and I didn’t teach myself to cook until my mid-thirties. The even better news is that I can show you the shortcut to success.
But I don’t want to mislead you. It’s not an instant get. Learning no-recipe cooking is on par with learning a new sport. You can understand the game pretty quickly but to really enjoy it you need to get your skills up.
That’s why I want you to get your first taste of victory as quickly as possible. So let's dig in!
Grab the PDF to read later.
The following eight principles are at the core of Kitchen Karate. They are what make the routine so speedy and effective. Skip any of them and you are not really doing Kitchen Karate; you’re doing who knows what.
The trick to creating a lasting healthy eating lifestyle is to make a clear distinction between your everyday meals and your special occasion meals. Your everyday meals are those workaday meals that you eat mindlessly and don’t really care about all that much.
These are your food-as-fuel meals, the ones that get you through the day.
Your special occasion meals in contrast are your indulgent meals, your dinners out, and your extravagant home cooked feasts. These are your food-as-fun meals, the ones you make into an activity.
For a healthy lifestyle, your food-as-fuel meals should make up at least 80% of your food intake, while up to 20% can be food-for-fun.
Kitchen Karate - and this guide - is all about optimizing that 80%.
This is a bit of a radical idea, but it is a powerful way to simplify your cooking: If you want to eat healthy most of the time, decide once and for all what is the composition of a healthy meal for you. And then eat that way for all of your everyday meals.
Don’t allow every meal to become a new adventure in appeasing your appetite with what’s available at the moment. Despite all your best intentions, the majority of your meals will be problematic because they:
● Are filled with junk you don’t really want
● Have too much of this
● Have too little of that
● Aren’t tasty enough
● Aren’t fresh enough
● Aren’t low cost enough
You can fix all of that with one simple trick: template that shit.
Distill your eating habits down to one single generic plate of food. This is your template of a well-balanced meal.
I’ll show you how to identify your template and plan your meals using it in PART 4: THE SIX SKILL SETS.
My wife: Hey babe, what are you making for dinner?
Me: I’ll tell you when I serve it.
My wife: (silent stare)
I’m not being a smartass. I just don’t know exactly what I’m making until it’s done. (And truth be told, my wife cooks that way as well. I just know better than to ask her what she’s making.)
Healthy no-recipe cooking means you don’t think about what you’re making until you’re making it. That’s the fun of it.
This guide will teach you all the skills and strategies you need to come out on top.
How do you break free of recipes? By following a routine. This routine:
1. Pick your ingredients
2. Plan your meal
3. Prep your ingredients
4. Season your ingredients
5. Cook your ingredients
6. Serve your meal
Following these steps in this exact order is what streamlines the process of cooking, making it as quick and easy as possible.
We will go over these six steps in detail in Part 2- The One Routine. For now, I just want to emphasize that it’s crucial to finish one step before moving onto the next.
How much of that chicken should you buy? How many tomatoes do you need?
Don’t look at a recipe to find out. Look at your hands.
Your hands are great measuring devices. And you bring them with you everywhere! I’ll show you guidance on how to portion by hand in the SKILLS section, but for now just realize that breaking free of recipes includes learning to portion out the right amounts of food for each meal with your bare hands! Whoa, mind-blown emoji
How much salt should you use? How much of that cumin?
Don’t look at a recipe to find out. Look at what you are seasoning.
It takes some trial and error, but the sooner you start the sooner you’ll master it.
We’ll spend A LOT of time on this in the SKILLS section. When it comes to going no-recipe it’s the lack of this specific skill - seasoning by eye - that holds you back the most. But more on that later. For now, just know that your seasoning game is about to get a whole lot better.
A timer doesn’t tell you when your broccoli is done. Your fork does with a simple poke.
No matter what cooking technique you are using, you have to be able to tell when things are done just by poking and looking at them. Or by sticking a meat thermometer in it. This skill is critical to rising above the use of recipes.
I’ll teach you how in the SKILLS section.
When you are cooking quickly you’ll send food flying, spilling and splashing. Awesome! Embrace that. BUT always clean up after EACH OF THE 6 STEPS.
Done prepping your ingredients? Clean your knife and cutting board and wipe down the counter.
Done seasoning? Put away your seasonings and wipe down the counter.
Done cooking? Clean the pans and put them away.
Done eating? Clear the table and clean the plates. Always Be Cleaning. And you’ll feel like there’s never much to clean up.
Grab the PDF to read later.
There are six steps in the Kitchen Karate routine:
1. Pick. Pick your ingredients
2. Plan. Plan your meal
3. Prep. Prep your ingredients
4. Season. Season your ingredients
5. Cook. Cook your ingredients
6. Serve. Serve your meal
These six steps are the recipe behind the recipes, the secret code hiding in plain sight, the thing that no one ever thought to tell them before.
Now, anyone who learned to cook at their parent’s hip may see these six steps as smack-your-head-duh obvious.
But to recipe-followers they are a revelation. In my classes, when I get to this point, I literally hear an “aha” sweep through the room.
At its heart no-recipe cooking really is as simple as grabbing some ingredients, chopping them up, sprinkling on some seasonings, cooking it down, eating and liking it.
Notice how planning your meal comes after picking your ingredients? This is the key to keeping the whole process easy-breezy as we’ll soon explore.
Let's take a closer look at each step in detail.
Your only task when selecting ingredients for your meal is to fill out your template.
The actions needed to complete this step are simple:
1. Select one specific ingredient to fill each part of your meal template
2. Place them all on your kitchen counter
In the INGREDIENT PICKING SKILLS SECTION of this guide we do a deep dive on:
● the thought process behind which ingredients to pick
● how to size up the right amount of each ingredient needed.
Now it’s time to plan your meal. And the good news is that all the big decisions have already been made! You’ve already picked out specific ingredients to fill your meal template.
You have two decision left to make:
1. Choose your meal format
2. Choose your seasoning strategy
And one action to take:
1. Grab your fresh seasonings
Your two decisions:
Choose your meal format. This is when you decide what kind of meal you are making. Are you going à la carte, making a stir fry, tossing a pasta, blending up a puree, rolling a wrap, or what?
Choose your seasoning strategy. This is the flavor profile of your meal. Are you going Mexican, Italian, Indian, Thai, or just sticking to the basics.
In the MEAL PLANNING SKILLS SECTION of this guide we cover:
● How to choose the right meal format
● How to choose the right seasoning strategy
One action: Grab your fresh seasonings.
Now that you have your ingredients out and have an idea for how you want to season them, you need to grab the fresh seasonings that support your seasoning strategy.
Fresh seasonings are bought each week and generally need to get prepped before you can use them (ie. onion, garlic,citrus, fresh herbs) in contrast to your pantry items that can be stored over time (ie. salt, pepper, spices, vinegars).
In other words, the only things you need to take out of this step are those items that you’ll need to take a knife to during the next step PREP. This will almost always include onion and garlic. But it might include such things as lemon, lime, orange, jalapeno, or fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, mint, dill, oregano, thyme,parsley, etc.
At this point you have your meal plan together with all the fresh ingredients out and on the counter. Now it’s time to put on your prep cook’s hat and execute your plan.
There are several steps to prepping your ingredients:
1. Set up your prep station
2. Preheat oven to 400°f / 205°c (if planning to roast anything)
3. Start cooking grains (if including grains)
4. Rinse ingredients in sink
5. Chop ingredients into bowls and stage for seasoning
6. Consider combining chopped ingredients (if intermediate or advanced)
7. Clean up and put your equipment away
Let’s take a closer look:
Before you start cleaning or cutting anything, set up your prep station.
Ideally you would set up your prep station right next to your sink, but if not, you should have it be just a pivot away.
Your prep station checklist:
● One medium bowl for each main ingredients
● One small bowl for each seasonings
● One large bowl for refuse
● One trash can, lid off
● One recycling bin, lid off
● One chef’s knife
● One cutting board for produce
● One cutting board for meats
Ready to gear up? See the full EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST in the Appendix
If you might want to roast something then get the oven going now so it’s up to temperature by the time you get to cooking. You can always turn it off if you decide later that you don’t want to roast anything. ( You sure can’t go back in time to turn it on )
How do you decide if you want to roast something or not? And why preheat to 400°f / 205°c? We cover that in the COOKING SKILLS SECTION.
Skip this step if grains are not part of your meal.
Because grains take so long to cook, they are an exception to Principle #3 (complete the steps of the routine in order) and you’ll want to start them at the beginning of your prep. That means you’ll be using your stovetop and minding your grains as they cook while completing the rest of the steps for all your other ingredients. Once you get the hang of it, it’s no big deal. But it does make things a bit more difficult. Damn you, grains!
Dump all your veggies in a bath in your sink and pull them out one by one as you chop them. Or run them under the faucet one by one as you go.
Two points to cover here.
1. The order in which to cut things
2. Where to stage the chopped ingredients
In the PREP SKILLS SECTION we cover the HOW of it all:
● How to use your chef’s knife
● What size to cut things
Believe it or not there is an order in which you should cut things:
On a cutting board designated for produce. This is so that you don’t cross contaminate your veggies with meat juices.
Wipe your cutting board between each ingredient. Remember your ABC’s: Always Be Cleaning.
Next, cut your fresh seasonings and put each in its own small bowl and set aside.
Then, clean your produce cutting board and put it away. You are done with it for this cooking event. Clean it. Put it away. Done.
On a cutting board designated for meats (non-porous), portion and cut your meat to the sizes you want and place in a bowl in your staging area.
As you cut your ingredients and get them into bowls, don’t let them crowd up your prep station area. Instead find another part of clear counter space and use that for your staging.
Before you move on to the next step - seasoning - it’s critical that you break down your prep station, clean and put away all your equipment.
The sink should be empty.
The counters should be clear and clean.
It should be like you walked into the kitchen and found that some magical little elf put these nice chopped up ingredients and seasoning out in bowls for you to make a meal with.
Now it’s time to have some fun...
There are three steps to seasoning your ingredients:
1. Set up your seasoning station
2. Season your ingredients by eye, according to your seasoning strategy
3. Put your seasonings away
Pull out all the seasonings you might want to use. Grab them from cupboards, pantry and refrigerator door. Don’t start seasoning anything until you have all your seasonings out and displayed in a sort of semicircle.
Leave room for your mixing bowls.
This is your seasoning station - or what the French call your “mise en place” (pronounced “meez un plass”). Or “meez” for short. It means ‘everything in its place’.
Get this all set up before you start seasoning anything. You’ll see it’s so much faster and easier to season when you have all your options right before you at arm’s reach.
Place the bowls for your meal in front of you at the seasoning station.
Now it’s just a matter of executing your seasoning strategy, which we cover in the SEASONING SKILLS SECTION.
The key is to put all your seasoning on now. This means all of your oil, salt,pepper, onion, garlic, and any vinegar, citrus, sauces, herbs or spices. You’re not going to add any seasonings after this step (until you are very skilled).
● No oiling the pan (you are oiling the ingredients now)
● No tasting and adjusting as you cook (you had your chance!)
● No “blooming” your spices or creating layers of flavor (save that for your special occasion cooking)
This concept of putting all your seasoning on before you start cooking is the biggest departure from recipes in all of Kitchen Karate.
If you are a die-hard recipe follower you will have a lot of trouble sticking to this principle. You have been trained to oil your pans, bloom your spices, caramelize your onions, render your fats, etc.
And you’ve learned that cooking can be a damn tedious process because of all of that.
Sure, your dish might come out tasting a little bit better if you finesse the seasonings as you go. But it won’t be so much better that it was worth wreaking havoc on your kitchen and wasting a bunch of time.
If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to take a recipe you like and eliminate all the seasoning steps. Just take the seasonings listed in the recipe and dump them on the raw ingredients in a bowl, mix it up, and cook it down. You’ll find the meal come together much faster and with less hassle and less mess ...and the meal will taste nearly as good.
Remember, we are trying to make quick everyday meals, not dinner party fare.
All that said, when you get very skilled at no-recipe cooking, then yes, you can start adding some of the finesse back in. Essentially, at that point you will be creating recipes, not following them.
Just as you put away all of your prep equipment and cleaned up before you moved onto the seasoning step, now you need to put away all of your seasonings and wipe down your counters again before you move onto the cooking step.
All that is left out are bowls of seasoned ingredients, sitting there on clean clear counters, just waiting to get cooked up.
Don’t start cooking with a bunch of seasonings taking up counter space. You’ll find yourself fighting with them as you cook, and spreading your mess around. It saps your energy and wastes your time.
Choose sanity. Stick to the ABC’s of cooking: Always Be Cleaning.
Now it’s time to fill your kitchen with the sounds and scents of cooking.
Let’s put some heat on the subject.
Here’s the order of events when putting your food to the flame:
1. Decide how to cook each ingredient and get out the related cooking equipment
2. Put things you want to roast in the oven
3. Cook your stovetop items
4. Take out your serving utensils
5. Mind your ABC’s: Always Be Cleaning
Let’s take a closer look at each step
We do a deep dive on the various cooking methods in the COOKING SKILLS SECTION.
For now, here is when you decide how to cook each item. And as you decide, grab the cooking tool you need.
At the end of this step all your cooking equipment should be out and ready.
Your oven should be preheated to 400°f / 205°c . Adjust the temperature if needed.
Stick your roasting items in and set your timer.
See the COOKING SKILLS SECTION for guidance.
It’s now time to turn your attention to your stovetop items.
Your ingredients are already seasoned and oiled, so dump them in a frying pan and turn on the flame. No, you don’t need to heat the pans first, unless you want to.
Crank the heat all the way up until things get bubbling away, then decide if you want to turn down the heat.
Cook with as many burners and pans as you need to (or can fit) so that everything cooks at the same time.
Stand and stir until things are done cooking.
As that’s happening….
As things get finished cooking you need a place to put them.
● Take out your trivets/heat pads if you are planning to pull things from the oven.
● Take out your plates or serving platters for things you pull from your frying pans.
There are always free moments while you are standing at the stove waiting for things to get cooked. Well don’t just stand there… CLEAN!
Clean the mixing bowls.
Clean the pans as you finish using them.
Wipe down the counters.
By the time you serve the meal, you want as little to clean after eating as possible.
The best step of all!
Finally it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You basically have two options when serving a meal:
1. Plate the meals individually and serve
2. Put out platters and let people serve themselves
Both are good options. Just get the food on the table. Don’t make a big to-do about it.
Eat + Learn
While you are eating, evaluate your work in the previous steps. Here’s the checklist to run through:
● Not enough or too much of anything? Think of how to adjust your ingredient picking skills
● Things not cut up to your liking? Think of how to adjust your prep
● Taste underwhelming or overwhelming? Think of how to adjust your seasoning
● Anything underdone or overdone? Think of how to adjust your cooking.
Grab the PDF to read later.
PART 3. GETTING STARTED
Hopefully at this point you are fired up to get in the kitchen and start dominating at healthy no-recipe cooking. But you may also feel a bit overwhelmed and unsure where to start.
Here’s how to get your first taste of victory:
Don’t make this a big event. Set aside one hour max. I recommend a weeknight like Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Put it in your calendar and hold it firm.
Do this ahead of time so that at the appointed hour you are not scrambling.
I recommend you go shopping a day or two before the appointed hour, rather than right before it. As with printing out the guides ahead of time, you want this all done and well behind you so you can walk into the kitchen fresh and excited.
Show up. Don’t kinda sorta have it on your mind that you might do this. Commit to doing it. And
then do it.
Don’t worry. Even if you have never boiled water before, you can make a complete well-balanced meal that tastes
great in an orderly fashion. All you have to do is follow the steps one after the other.
Your goal is to internalize the process. Don’t turn your brain off and follow the steps blindly. Think it through at
every turn, put it in your own words, make it yours.
Everybody gets stressed when learning something new, and that's especially true when it comes to cooking. Lower the stakes. Focus on the process rather than the results. Assume things won’t go perfectly. Take it slow when you are learning. Play some music. Maybe invite a friend to join you and you can both learn together!
Grab the PDF to read later.
1. Seasoning skills
2. Ingredient Picking skills
3. Meal Planning skills
4. Prepping skills
5. Cooking skills
6. Eating skills (saved the best for last)
The principles and routine of Kitchen Karate you can master early on and they remain mostly the same from beginner to advanced.
It’s through the development of your skills that your cooking will get better and better. Skills are how you stay engaged in the process and keep it fun.
Skills are how you level up to black belt.
Focus on your skills. Care about your skills. Your taste buds will thank you for it.
Let’s take a closer look.
SKILL SET #1: SEASONING
Seasoning is THE defining skill of your healthy no-recipe lifestyle.
You are skilled at seasoning when you can make any ingredient you choose taste delicious in a variety of ways without the use of recipes or measuring devices.
Without this skill, home cooking will never become an enjoyable part of your life. With it, your home cooking lifestyle flourishes and becomes more rewarding with every passing season.
There are three components to cover in the seasoning skill set:
1. Building savoriness
2. Measuring by eye
3. Using seasoning strategies
Let me set it up with a quick story…
Confessions of a Recipe Follower
For all my talk of banishing recipes from your everyday cooking, I must confess that I learned to cook by following recipes. For two years, at least twice a month, I invited six guests to be my guinea pigs as I tried my hand at a new cuisine:
Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Indian, Thai, French, Caribbean, Japanese, Korean, Middle Eastern, German, Moroccan, Cajun, and more.
I would pull recipes off the Internet for the most popular appetizer, entrée and dessert from the cuisine of the week. I would then spend five or more hours following the recipes to the letter as I shopped for and cooked up the dishes. My guests would then scarf it all down in fifteen minutes.
I billed myself as “America’s Top Recipe Follower,” and I had a lot of happy customers. But I noticed two things throughout the course of this culinary adventure. One is that following recipes is beyond time consuming. Two is that every cuisine in the world shares five seasonings. Can you guess what they are?
Behold! The secret to savoriness
The Starting 5
I call them The Starting 5 because they are the foundation of savoriness.
Here’s why they are the superheroes of seasoning:
● Salt. The flavor enhancer. It brings out all the other flavors in your dish.
● Pepper. The spicer upper. It provides that satisfying warmth.
● Cooking Oil. The mixer. Like booze at a party, oil helps all the other seasonings mingle. Plus, as a fat, it brings that deep down goodness of a taste called ‘umami’ (explained shortly).
● Onions & Garlic. The wild cards. Both onion and garlic change as you cook them. They go from spicy/pungent (raw) to sweet (cooked) and
provide some degree of spicy sweetness.
If you take only one thing from this entire guide, let it be The Starting 5. Nothing is more critical to mastering no-recipe cooking than getting skilled at using The Starting 5 to build savoriness.
Think of any ingredient you might cook - any vegetable, meat, fish, grain or beans - and imagine adding salt, pepper, onion, garlic and a cooking oil like olive oil or butter. It’s going to taste pretty good right? And the better you balance those 5 seasonings the better it’s going to taste.
So before you play with anything else, get good at The Starting 5. That’s the main assignment. Everything else is extra credit.
‘But how much should I use?’
This is the #1 question I get from people starting to break free of recipes. And rightly so. Since you are not relying on a recipe, you can’t look to see if it’s a teaspoon of this or a tablespoon of that. Instead, you are going to be seasoning by eye, feel, and smell.
The beauty of seasoning to taste is it gives you ultimate freedom to make things just the way you like. That said, it takes practice. Here’s some guidance:
● When done seasoning you should be able to clearly see, smell, and feel that it is well seasoned.
● It should look coated with seasoning.
● The smell of seasoning should rise from the bowl.
● You should feel a grittiness if you mix it all with your hands.
● If you are wondering if it is seasoned enough, it probably isn’t.
● Err on the side of too much seasoning until you get the hang of it. You will learn more by over-doing something than under-doing it.
● Eat your mistakes! (It’s the best way to learn!) You don’t like it so much? Keep eating it. Really dig into WHY you don't like it. Identify the exact culprit. "Too much of what?"
As a no-recipe beginner, your only seasoning strategy should be creating savory dishes using only The Starting 5: salt, pepper, oil, onion, and garlic.
As you explore their powers, just note:
● Not every ingredient needs all five seasonings.
● Not every ingredient needs the same amount of each of the The Starting 5.
Your mission is to find the right amount of each of The Starting 5 for your go-to ingredients to make them as savory as you like.
With just The Starting 5 you can make anything taste savory. But then, to give the dish that something “special” you can add an extra seasoning or two.
I call this Whatever’s Clever.
This a great interim step to more advanced seasoning strategies because it gets you to experiment outside The Starting 5 without straying too far. By adding only one or two extra seasonings to the mix, you can isolate the taste of them while you’re eating to really learn about how much or little to use.
Remember, with The Starting 5 you are working from a position of strength. You already laid down a foundation of flavor. Now add a zing of this or a twist of that. You are not going to ruin your dish or overwhelm it. Be bold. Grab “whatever” and put some in the mix.
NOTE: You probably have seasonings in your pantry that you haven’t used in months because you bought them for some recipe and never touched them again. Here’s your chance to get them back in the game.
Variety Is the Spice of Life.
On average we eat three meals a day. That’s 21 meals a week, and 1,092 meals a year. If you seasoned everything with The Starting 5 you would get bored… and fast!
This is why every culture has developed its own signature spin on seasoning. Thanks to merchant trading and a few spice wars, we have a world of flavors at our fingertips.
Seasoning your way around the world is easy when you grasp the concept of flavor profiles.
Imagine you start with chicken, peppers and tomatoes. You divide them equally into two meals: meal A and meal B.
You season both meals with The Starting 5: salt, pepper, olive oil, onion, and garlic.
Then to meal A you add jalapeño, lime, and cumin. To meal B you add ginger, rice vinegar, and sesame seeds.
Stir-fry both, and you are going to have two very tasty, very distinctly different meals.
Such is the power of flavor profiles.
If you know how to season to taste and how to harness the power of The Starting 5, then cooking your way around the world is a simple matter of adding 3 to 5 additional seasonings from your flavor profile of choice.
To make it super easy for you I’ve created this one-page guide with the top 10 seasonings for the top 10 world cuisines.
You’ll find The Guide to World Cuisine Domination in the Appendix at the end of this guide. Print and stash in your kitchen (on top of all those recipe clippings you’ve got in a drawer).
Guide to World Cuisine Domination
One of the most common mixed-ingredient meal formats is the salad. Typically you don’t season salads until after you have mixed the ingredients together. Then you pour on a dressing and (hopefully) add some toppings.
Let’s take a look at how that’s done no-recipe style:
No-recipe vinaigrette dressings
There is a simple formula to remember when making vinaigrettes: 3 to 1
Three parts oil to one part acidity.
The most common oil used in dressings is extra virgin olive oil, but you can use any cooking oil.
The most common acidic ingredient is balsamic vinegar, but you can use any cooking vinegar or you can use any citrus like lemon, lime, even orange juice.
You can eye-ball the ratios in any clear container. I recommend putting in the acidic ingredient first, as much as you like. Just note how high it comes up the container, then guesstimate how high three more equal amounts should reach when stacked on top of each other. Pour in your oil to hit that mark.
Or you can simply use a measuring cup. Make a full cup of vinaigrette by pouring a 1/4 cup of vinegar, then filling it up with oil to the cup mark.
To make your vinaigrette extra special try adding some additional seasoning such as salt and pepper, fresh herbs, minced garlic, even sliced hot peppers.
You don’t need toppings the way you need a dressing, but toppings will definitely add to your salad. I keep salad toppings in my desk drawer at work, like a weirdo. But then I eat tasty salads, like a boss, so it evens out.
Great toppings include:
I generally add toppings from 2 - 3 of these categories, but never two from the same category; I pick one type of nut, not two.
Taste vs. Flavor
It might surprise you to learn that the terms “taste” and “flavor” are not synonymous. And the distinction between the two is actually important for anyone trying to develop their palate. Tastes are the big-bucket categories, while flavors are all the little items in those buckets. For instance, sour is a taste while lemon, lime, and vinegar are three different flavors of sour.
Five Tastes and Counting
So far we humans have identified five tastes: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. (If you want to read a great book that takes a deep dive into our taste buds, check out Michael Pollan’s Cooked.)
Umami may be foreign to you. Until recently it was not recognized as a taste. It is best defined as meatiness. It’s strong in things like oysters, beef, mushrooms, butter and tomato paste.
While not technically a taste, I believe a sixth man can be added to the mix because the mouth perceives it. It’s called pungency. Translation: spicy. I consider spicy to be a taste, even though technically. (This is why children don’t enjoy spicy food. Like bitter, spicy is an acquired taste that comes with age.)
Taste Is Primary
Just as a painter has only four primary colors to work with, a chef only has five (or six if you count spicy) tastes to play off. The great chefs, like the great painters, know how to use these limited options to dazzle you.
A bite of food is more enjoyable when more or your taste buds light up. Just as a painting of the blue sky looks better with reliefs of white fluffy clouds and some greenery below, a taste becomes more enjoyable when counter-pointed by other tastes.
How to Fix Any Dish
While it’s true that you want to experience multiple tastes in every bite, the artistry comes with how you balance those tastes.
Knowing how tastes play off each other makes cooking an exciting adventure.
As a chef, when you face off against any ingredient or any set of ingredients, your question is not, “Can I make this taste good?” (Of course you can! Just balance the tastes until you’ve got a winner.) Your question should be, “How good can I make this taste?”
If taste balancing is how to make dishes spectacular, flavor notes are how to make them sublime.
In science, an elegant theory is one that explains a lot with very little. It’s simple and powerful. For instance, Einstein’s most famous equation E=MC2 presents in just five symbols what amounts to a doctorate-level understanding about the relationship between energy and mass.
In cooking, a dish is said to be elegant when it uses as few seasonings as possible to achieve jaw-dropping results.
That’s what you’re going to learn to do right now.
Playing Flavor Notes
For Taste Balancing we used the metaphor of painting with four primary colors to explain how to use the five (or six) tastes to wow your mouth. For Flavor Notes we’ll use music as our metaphor. Unlike the musician who must master twelve notes, the culinary artist, thankfully, needs only three: Low, Mid, High.
These are the flavors that hit you in the back of the mouth. They are your deep, meaty, heavy, smoky, warming flavors. Think winter foods: red meats, root vegetables, bitter greens, cinnamon, nutmeg, and smoked spices like chipotle.
These are flavors that hit you in the middle of the mouth. They are your neutral, bland, filler-type flavors. Think unseasoned grains, chicken, white fish, and tofu.
High notes hit you in the top of the mouth. These are your bright, effervescent, sparkly flavors. Think summer foods: fruits, soft veggies, lettuce, fresh herbs, hot peppers, and citruses.
How to Play Flavor Notes
If it’s low, go high.
If the anchor of your dish is predominantly a low note, counterpoint it with a high note. Think about ground lamb with raisins: A deep and meaty dish with bursts of sweetness. This is like having a great rhythm track and then playing lead guitar over it.
If it’s high, go low.
If your dish is predominantly high, counter it with a low note. For instance, what could you add to a summer salad? Avocados add a dimension that high- or midnote accents could not accomplish, just like pumping up the bass on a track that has a lot of treble.
If it’s mid, go low and high.
If your dish is predominantly mid, hit it with both low and high notes. Chicken, for instance, is better with mushrooms (low) and peppers (high) rather than just mushrooms or just peppers. This is like playing a great bass line and having both drums and guitar kick in.
Creating pan sauces is easier than you might imagine but it is decidedly advanced for a couple reasons:
● It requires an advanced cooking technique (simmering)
● It creates additional steps in the process
How To Make a Pan Sauce
Pan sauces a super easy if you are willing to skip all the finesse like building a roux or blooming your spices.
At heart there are only two steps:
1. Flavor up some liquid
2. Simmer away at least half the volume
1. Flavor up some liquid
The main liquid can be water, vegetable stock, chicken stock, beef stock, water, white wine, or red wine. You can pick any single liquid or pour them together in any combination.
Seasoning the liquid is very much like seasoning in general. Think of The Starting 5 first, and then consider adding other things from the flavor profile you’re going for.
Here are few pleasing combinations to put into your liquid base:
But these suggestions are just to get you started. As always I encourage you to experiment and have fun.
2. Simmer away at least half the volume
Put the flavored liquids in a pan, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Leave uncovered and let it percolate until at least half the volume in the pan has evaporated. This is what concentrates the flavor in the remaining liquid. The fancy cooking term for this is “reduction”. The more you reduce the liquids, the stronger the concentration of flavors.
NOTE: You can do this with or without the main ingredients in the pan with the liquids. If you make your reduction with the ingredients in the pan you need to make sure you are not overcooking your main ingredients in the process. The simplest way to do that is to pull the main ingredients out & aside once they are done, while you finish up the sauce. Then just pour the sauce over the ingredients.
'NOTHER NOTE: A Quick Thickener. If you ever want your sauce to have a stick-to-the spoon thickness, stir in some arrowroot powder or just plain flour until you get the consistency you want. You don’t need a lot. (Do after you’ve achieved the level of reduction you want.)
Tomato-based sauces are the key component to so many composed dishes - pasta sauces, chicken parm, lasagna, pizza, chili, bbq chicken, tomato soup - it deserves to be a seasoning strategy all on it’s own. You’ll definitely want this in your repertoire. And fast!
Tomato sauces are a lot like pan sauces, except:
1. You don’t use liquid as a base but tomatoes, which are filled, with liquid - tomato juice!
2. Use tomato paste to boost the flavor and thicken the sauce.
Here’s a classic tomato sauce:
Tomatoes (roughly chopped is fine as they get turned into a pulp anyways)
Throw all in a pot and put on high heat until the tomatoes soften. Mash the tomatoes into a pulp with a wooden spoon. Set to simmer until the onions are cooked through. Done.
● To thicken, add more tomato paste
● To thin, add water
● To make more complex, add red wine
● To sweeten, add sugar
Here’s how versatile your basic tomato sauce can be:
● Blend if you want it to be more like a puree (great for soup or pizza sauce)
● Add milk or cream if you want it to be creamy
● Add Garam Masala and milk/cream to swing it Indian (think Chicken Tikka Masala)
● Subtract the oregano and basil and add vinegar and honey to make a BBQ sauce (you’ll want to blend it)
● Subtract the tomato paste and chill after cooking to make a Gazpacho
● Subtract basil and add cayenne to make a chili base
There are many more variations and ton of ways to finesse each one of those variations.
You’ll have a lifetime of fun exploring the possibilities, BUT FIRST; learn to whip up a basic tomato sauce without a recipe.
SKILL SET #2: PICKING INGREDIENTS
There are two realms in which you pick ingredients:
1. In your kitchen, you pick ingredients to make a meal.
2. In the market, you pick ingredients to stock your kitchen
1. PICKING INGREDIENTS TO MAKE A MEAL
In no-recipe cooking everything starts with the ingredients. The very concept for your meal comes together as you pick the ingredients. This is what is so exciting - and scary - about it. But it’s also why it’s so fast and fun!
Meal planning from the ingredients up is the opposite of what I call the recipedown approach meal planning.
The recipes-down approach to meal planning
1. You browse recipes by picture and title
2. You look at ingredient lists decide which recipe to pick
3. You compile a shopping list
4. You go all over the place to get those exact ingredients
5. You start following the instructions to make the meal
Ingredients-up approach to meal planning
1. You pick ingredients
2. You start making the meal
With the Ingredients-up approach, you’re already eating before the recipefollower even starts cooking!
But to do this, you need to answer the most fundamental question for yourself...
WHAT IS YOUR MEAL TEMPLATE?
Principle #3 of Kitchen Karate stated that you should distill your eating habits down to one single generic template for all your everyday meals.
Now let’s discuss how you do that.
Your template should have either three parts or four parts, no more, no less.
Less and you’re not getting enough variety in your diet. More and you’re making things too complicated. Save those complicated meals for special occasions.
The ‘parts’ of your template should be things you buy in the store, not things you study in a lab. Diet gurus love throwing non-food language at you - carbohydrate, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, calories. But that’s not what you reach for in the store. The market has a different set of departments:
PRODUCE, MEATS, SEAFOOD, GRAINS, BEANS.
Whatever eating style you’re trying to follow, you should be able to translate it into TYPES OF INGREDIENTS. If you can’t, I recommend you seriously question that diet. It’s probably filled with a lot of non-foods like protein powders and vitamin pills along with a ton of math and measurements - all of which prevent you from embracing a legit home cooking lifestyle.
HEART HEALTHY: Two parts produce, one part meat, one part whole grains/beans
Four-parts meal template
Heart healthy is the most common meal template recommended by health professionals. The USDA recently updated its guidelines from the outdated food pyramid to conform to this template plate, which was pioneered by the American Heart Association as ideal for a healthy heart.
This is what the American Diabetes Association recommends as well. Plus most doctors, nurses, and dietitians.
VEGETARIAN: Two parts produce, two parts grains/beans
Most vegetarians need a higher volume of grains and/or beans to make up for the lack of meat protein. So the meat portion becomes a second grains/beans portion
Three-parts meal template
No-carb (Paleo): Two parts produce, one part meat
This is the easiest format to follow. You don’t have to worry about grains or beans and you can eat both fruits and veggies.
Slow carb: One part veggies, one part meat, one part beans
Popularized by Tim Ferriss, slow carb is also a super simple three-parts meal template. It’s like Paleo except even more restrictive. You eliminate fruits, so your produce choices are reduced to veggies only. And your grain/beans choice is reduced to beans only. However, you can add a second veggie to this template, making it a four-parts meal, which opens up more meal variety.
Note: You’ll notice I do not include DAIRY (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc) or other FATS (oils, nuts, seed, etc) in my main groupings because I consider these to be more like seasonings & extras rather than main meal components. But you could disagree and make DAIRY one of your meal parts. CHEESE LOVERS UNITE!
Here’s why it works so well to have a template:
● Worry-free. You don’t have to question if you are eating a well-balanced meal anymore. That question is answered once and for all. And the
answer is yes.
● Money saving, time saving, value improving. You get to shop against a list of numbers instead of list of ingredients (I’ll show you how this works shortly), which saves a ton of time and money, and increases the quality of your ingredients.
● Easy. You get to plan your meals with paint-by-numbers ease.
● Inspiring. Sticking to a template takes your mind off the lame part of meal planning and focuses it on the good stuff: expanding your repertoire of ingredients, seasonings, and cooking techniques.
But isn’t sticking to one template too restrictive? NO!
At first blush, reducing your diet down to a single template can seem overly restrictive, but once you get into it you’ll find it’s actually quite liberating. Kind of like marriage!
Think of it this way: There are at least 20 common vegetables, 5 common meats, 5 common whole grains, and 5 common beans. Add to that the fact that you’ve got 100+ seasoning options. A quick calculation reveals the number of possible variations to be exactly… afuckinglot.
The variety in your meals comes not from mixing up your template but from sticking to your template and playing around with these four things:
● Ingredient mix - grab a variety of different ingredients at the store to
ensure you have a variety of ingredients in your meals.
● Seasoning mix - use different flavor profiles to create wildly different
eating experiences even when the ingredients are similar.
● Cooking style - cook the same ingredient in different ways to create
different tastes and textures.
● Meal format - bring your ingredients together as a finished dishes in
different ways from salads to sandwiches to soups to stir-fries.
The more people in your household who share the same template, the easier your life will be. Have the conversation. Find the consensus.
PRO TIP: Once you get skilled at using your template to simplify your everyday cooking (and eating), you can start to experiment with having more than one template. For instance in my house we do a three-parts Paleo template for breakfast and dinner, but a four-parts heart healthy template for lunch. We do this because overall we like the light feeling we get from the three-parts Paleo meals, but we need those added grains/beans at lunch to help us get through the mid-afternoon without needing a snack
Once you pick a template for your everyday meals, suddenly meal planning becomes as easy as grabbing ingredients to fill in your template.
Here’s how it works:
Imagine for a moment that your refrigerator is filled with all of your favorite veggies and meats (we’ll get to how that comes to be in a moment).
It’s time to build a meal.
But which ingredients should you pick?
Take it one ingredient at a time.
1. The first ingredient you pick should be the thing you most want to eat at that moment. This will become your anchor ingredient.
2. The second ingredient you pick should be something you want to eat along with that first ingredient.
3. The third ingredient you pick should complete the picture of your meal.
4. The fourth ingredient (optional) will likely be the grain or bean you want to have with the meal. Deciding this could come earlier. It could even be the anchor ingredient, if you are in the mood for say, a rice dish, wrap, or pasta.
Examples of ‘picked ingredients’ by template with descriptions on how the thought process may have went:
● Standard Healthy: Steak, tomato, broccoli, brown rice - this person wanted a steak, then filled it out with a couple of veggie sides and thought of the grain last
● Vegetarian/Vegan: Brown rice, tofu, tomato, broccoli - this person wanted a rice dish and decided to beef it up with tofu and then round it out with some veggies
● No-carb/Paleo: Steak, broccoli, tomato - this person wanted steak and selected some veggie sides to go with it
● Slow Carb: Cannellini beans, tomato, steak - this person selected the beans first, added the tomatoes to spruce up the beans, and then went with a steak for the meat
Cooks, at different levels of experience, will develop their meal concepts in different ways.
We take a deeper look in SKILL SET #3: PLANNING MEALS
Cool. So now you know how to select ingredients to build your meals. But the question remains. How much of each ingredient are you supposed to use?
To break free of recipes and truly eat the way you want to eat, you need to leave pre-determined measurements behind. But if you don’t have a recipe telling you to get 8oz of this and 2 cups of that, how do you know how much of each ingredient to get?
Look to your hands.
PORTIONING BY HAND
Your hands are these great measuring devices. And you bring them with you everywhere!
Here are basic rules of thumb, err, hands, to finding your correct serving sizes:
Vegetable serving = open handful
Meat serving = palm-sized piece
Grains/bean = fist-sized amount
Oils/fats = thumb
The bigger you are, the bigger your handfuls will be. The smaller you are, the smaller your handfuls. A big burly dude will grab huge handfuls to fill his plate, while a waifish young lass will reach for daintier portions.
But use this as a starting point.
You might prefer bigger or smaller pieces of various ingredients. You’ll figure it out over time.
The point here is to become skilled at identifying your correct serving sizes without having to rely on recipes or looking at labels or counting grams and ounces.
Note to my grains eaters: Notice how LITTLE the amount of grains is. We are talking a fistful. A pasta dish at a restaurant is MOSTLY pasta. When you make pasta at home using the heart-healthy four-parts template, the pasta feels almost like a garnish. When it’s whole grain bread, we are talking about one slice of thin bread, or a wrap, not two slices of thick ass country bread.
What’s a family size portion?
Many people shop for more people than just themselves. And the other people they shop for come in all shapes and sizes. So how do you know how much to get when you are shopping for multiple people? Imagine a "family-sized" hand and measure the same way with that hand in mind.
Again, no need to be exact, just close enough. Do it a few times and you’ll figure it out. Be mindful of how it turned out at mealtime. Was everyone satisfied? Did anything go to waste? That’s all you need to portion correctly for multiple people.
You don’t need to plan specific meals before or during your trip to the market, because you plan your meals later… as you make them!
But still, you need to know what to get at the store, right? And this is where the Kitchen Karate system gets really cool. Instead of shopping against a list of ingredients, you shop against a list of numbers.
When you eat at locavore establishments (places that buy fresh from local markets) you are treated to dishes inspired by ingredients that came in fresh that day.
The executive chefs at these restaurants meet the boats at the dock (figuratively or literally) in order to handpick the freshest ingredients at the best value. THEN they figure out what they are going to do with the ingredients. They make the menu AFTER shopping. They let the ingredients INSPIRE the dishes.
When you break free of recipes, you also break free of shopping lists.
Chain restaurants have standing menus and source ingredients from the cheapest source available. This is why chain restaurants are filled with
I want you to run your kitchen like a craft food establishment, not a chain restaurant.
I want to see you with your head up in the market, zeroing in on the freshest ingredients at the best prices, not ping-ponging around the market, hunting and pecking for ingredients to scratch off your list.
What you lose by shopping with a list:
● Bypass a fresher ingredient than one on your list and you sacrifice quality
● Skip an ingredient that offers a better value than one on your list and you waste money
● Double-back to a grocery aisle you have already passed for an item on your list and
you waste time.
All you need to know is how many meals you are shopping for. The rest, thanks to your template, is just basic arithmetic. You just need to tally up the number of each type of ingredient you need to get.
It’s a four-step process, as follows:
1. Write down the number of meals you want to shop for.
2. Tally the servings of produce you need to for those meals based on your template.
3. Tally the total number of servings of meats / meat substitutes for your meals.
4. Tally the total number of servings of grain / beans.
Then when you go to the store, make a clean sweep through the produce department grabbing a couple servings of this and a couple of servings of that… whatever looks good at the time… until you zero out your numbers.
Then move on to the meat department. Grab a serving of this and a serving of that until you zero out your meats number.
Grains and beans are even easier because you can buy them in bulk and keep them in your pantry to portion out for you meals, as you need them.
Don’t worry, do this process once and you’ll totally get it. Yes, it’s different. But it’s really quite simple. In fact, it will cut the time you spend meal planning and writing your shopping list down to one minute. You can do it in the car, right before you go into the store. A small notepad is all you need to take with you.
When shopping using a number system the key is to prevent yourself from trying to figure out what you are going to make with the ingredients. That will only trip you up, confuse things, and make the whole event take longer than it needs to.
I want to underline this point: Don’t do any meal planning while you shop. Clear your mind of that. Focus on only one thing - getting the right number of ingredients to fill the meals you plan to make.
Trust that you will be able to handle all the meal planning after you’ve picked your ingredients.
And if you stick to your templates and make all the meals you shopped for, your fridge should be nearly empty by the time you go shopping again.
If you need 20 servings of vegetables, should you just grab 20 servings of tomatoes and cross that number of your list?
Then you’d be eating tomatoes all week. Not only would that get super boring, but it would deprive you of all the great nutrients found in other vegetables.
Instead, shop your way across the rainbow of colors in the produce department.
Your basket should be filled with a nice mix of greens, reds, yellows, blues, and whatever else they’ve got on display.
Pro tip #1:
Shop your own kitchen first. After you tally your numbers, see how many servings you can tick off before you even go to the store. Look in your fridge and see what you’ve already got. It’s a rookie move to buy all new fresh ingredients then get home and find you’ve already got good food to use in the fridge.
Pro tip #2:
Consult your calendar. You are a busy person and events are popping up all the time. Before deciding to shop for X number of meals for the week, make sure you are going to be available to eat all of those meals
Pro tip #3:
Shoot for two of each, like Noah and the arc. A good mix of ingredients is key to having a great variety of meals throughout the week.
You can go overboard - and I have - by getting only one serving of any single ingredient. That causes you to spend more time than you need to in the store. Two servings of each ingredient still make for great variety. It makes for a quicker shopping experience. And besides, a lot of ingredients are offered in such a way that they yield two servings. So think twosies.
SKILL SET #3: PLANNING MEALS
There are two parts to meal planning:
1. Pick your meal format
2. Pick your seasoning strategy
1. PICK YOUR MEAL FORMAT
Your meal format is the final shape your meal will take. Think of one of those diner menus that have page and pages with every option under the sun. They do that to cover every type of meal format, so you don’t go elsewhere. In other words, you can’t pin them down as a burger joint or a pizza parlor or a salad place.
Here are the most common meal formats:
À la carte
Meat and sides
Egg and sides
Sandwich/wrap/pita with all raw ingredients
Salads with all raw ingredients
Sandwich/wrap/pita with cooked ingredients
Salad with cooked ingredients
Pasta with homemade sauce
Baked eggs, frittatas, quiche
Here’s how I divide up the approaches by experience level:
Beginner Cooks - Think à la carte
À la carte means each ingredient is treated as its own dish and served separately, like a buffet. This is the simplest way to go about meal planning and it’s perfect for beginners. All you need to decide is what ingredients you want to eat for that meal. You don’t need to know how you are going to season or cook the ingredient as you pick them. Those decisions will be made in the steps that follow.
Intermediate cooks - Think mixed
The idea at the intermediate level of meal planning is to pick ingredients that will taste good when mixed together and seasoned the same way. This is more difficult than picking ingredients to get seasoned individually - as you do with the beginner à la carte method - you need to have a sense of how the ingredients play off each other. Plus you only get one chance to season all the ingredients.
Advanced cooks - Think composed
At the advance level of meal planning you have the vision of a composed finished dish and then pick ingredients to build it. This feels the most like you are working from recipes to design your meal, except that you are making it up in your head.
This is more difficult than planning to throw all your ingredients together and seasoning them all at once because you want the ingredients to come together in a certain way, which could require prepping, seasoning, and cooking each ingredients uniquely to serve your overarching plan of how they will come together in the end.
2. PICK YOUR SEASONING STRATEGY
In the Seasoning Skills section we learned how to use seasoning strategies to make our meals endlessly varied and delicious. But how do you decide which strategy to use when it’s go time?
Here’s how I break it down by experience level:
Beginner cooks - keep it simple
At the beginner level you should stick with the Starting 5 + Whatever’s clever so you can get skilled at using the foundational seasonings, practice eyeballing amounts, and get used to improvising.
Intermediate + Advanced cooks - let your ingredients inspire you
At the intermediate and advanced levels you’ll likely think of your seasoning strategy as you pick your ingredients or decide on your meal format. Something about the ingredient themselves will trigger a meal concept and the meal concept will involve a seasoning strategy.
For instance, you might grab a tomato and that makes you think tomato sauce and that makes you think Italian.
Note: If you get to the point where you have your ingredients picked out and have an idea of your meal format, but are wondering where to take it seasoning-wise, the best strategy is to look through the seasonings you have available and let that inspire you. Work with what you’ve got and improvise.
SKILL SET #4: PREPPING INGREDIENTS
You are skilled at being a prep cook when you can get all your ingredients cleaned, chopped, and grouped into meals in a clean, orderly, timely fashion
There are three things to master for PREP:
1. Handling your chef’s knife
2. Cutting things to the right size
3. Running a tidy station
1. HANDLING YOUR CHEF’S KNIFE
The chef’s knife is big and bold and a lot of people shy away from it because it looks intimidating. For you, that ends today.
A chef’s knife is eight to ten inches long. The blade extends downward from the handle so that you can chop things up without banging your fingers.
Choosing Your Weapon
You probably already have a Chef’s Knife; they come with every knife set. If you don’t, remedy that situation pronto. Your Chef’s Knife does not need to be expensive to get the job done. A piece of steel sharpened into a blade will defeat tomatoes every time.
There is only one knife you need for 100% of your meal prep (and 90% of all your cooking endeavors) and only two skills you need to master!
Your Chef’s Knife should feel good and balanced in your hand.
If you pick it up and feel like “Yeah, I’m about to chop some sh#t up!”; that’s your Chef’s Knife.
Meat eaters need two cutting boards: One for produce, which can be wood or plastic.
And a non-porous plastic or stone cutting board for meats.
There are two –and only two– knife skills you need to know for everyday food prep:
1. Chopping for main ingredients. Think bite-size pieces.
2. Mincing for seasonings. Think sprinkly bits
Your fancy cuts... your chiffonade, your julienne... you do that when you’ve got free time to waste. For your everyday meal, just get things done. Chop and mince.
1. How To Chop
Hold your Chef’s Knife with a good firm grip. I like to choke up on it and literally pinch the blade with my thumb and forefinger.
Put the tip down. Push through. Pull back. Repeat. That’s your chopping motion.
Your other hand forms a claw to hold the items down. Fold your fingertips and press down on the item so that your fingers bend to form a straight line between your middle and first knuckles. This is your knife guard.
Thumb behind the fingertips. ALWAYS.
Bring the two motions together; hold the item with your claw while slicing
through with your chopping motion.
2. How to Mince
Knife tip down. The other hand goes safely on top. Rock it up and down through the item. Work it back and forth in a semi-circle. Keep going until the item is nice and sprinkly.
2. CUTTING THINGS TO THE RIGHT SIZE
How thin you cut an ingredient affects how long it takes to cook. The thicker the cut, the longer it takes. The thinner, the quicker.
Practice making uniform cuts.
Uniform cuts means uniform thickness which means uniform cooking time. This way no little burnt bits get mixed up with uncooked pieces. When it's uniform you only need to poke test one cut piece to tell if they are all done.
That said, don't go all A-Type personality on me and get out your ruler and razor to shave everything down to the exact millimeter. Get it roughly in the ballpark and you'll be fine.
Here are some good rules of thumb, or rather, finger for your cuts.
● The width of one finger is a good size for most bite-size pieces.
● The DENSITY of the item matters. Firm vegetables cut half the width of soft veggies will cook through at roughly the same rate.
● Leafy greens wilt down once cooked so there's no point in giving them anything but a rough chop.
● When cutting meats, portion off the entire serving first, then decide if you want to cut it up further.
The pros of leaving meat in whole portions:
The pros of cutting meat down to bite-size slices before cooking:
Guidance for chopping things by experience level
Beginner - cut veggies to bite-size pieces; portion meats and leave whole
Intermediate - cut veggies and slice meats to cook at same rate as each other
Advanced - cut things to conform to the finished dish you have in mind.
If you rough chop your stuff, cook it up and things don't cook
uniformly, call it RUSTIC and people will think it's gourmet.
3. RUNNING A TIDY STATION
If one of the reasons that you don’t looooove cooking is that it creates a huge mess every time then pay special attention to the following tips:
● Be disciplined about wiping down your cutting board and counter between items
● Make sure every prepped ingredient and seasoning makes its way into a bowl or container
● Make sure your bowls of prepped ingredients have a designated space on your counter
● Clean and put away your produce cutting board before getting out your meat cutting board (and by extension, makes sure all your plant-based ingredients are prepped before turning to the meats)
● Clean and put away your meat cutting board and knife and wiped down the counters before you move onto seasoning or cooking your ingredients. In other words, completely finish all your prep activities while you are in that mode. You should not have to get our your knife and cutting board again.
It takes discipline to implement all of these practices but eventually they will become second nature, then you will find cooking (and cleaning up) becomes a breeze.
Nothing has a bigger impact on reducing the overall drag of cooking than running a tidy prep station. So learn it, love it, live it. Your well-being will thank you.
SKILL SET #5: COOKING SKILLS
Critical to breaking free of recipes is the ability
to utilize a variety of cooking techniques effectively and to know which one to use.
We’ve got three things to cover:
1. Knowing when things are done cooking
2. The three most basic cooking methods
3. Advanced cooking methods
Before we get into dancing around the flames, a quick safety message from your local fire marshal:
Kitchen fires are the number one source of home fires.
OWN AND KNOW HOW TO OPERATE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER.
This is critical. A DRY CHEMICAL fire extinguisher will put out a grease fire. A water-based extinguisher will make the fire worse. Water makes a grease fire SPREAD. Your home will be an inferno before you take your finger off the trigger.
Always keep the area around your stove and your cookware free of grease build up.
SAVE YOUR SKIN. Use silicone oven mitts rather than dishrags to handle hot objects. Silicone withstands heat up to 500. And, importantly, you can get it wet before touching hot objects NOT TRUE WITH A DISHRAG If you get a cloth mitt or dishrag wet and pick up a hot item, the moisture in the cloth will instantly steam and burn your hand.
1. KNOWING WHEN THINGS ARE DONE COOKING
THE POKE TEST
Recipes give you times and temperatures, but recipes don't know the power of your oven or the thickness of your cuts. It's far better to know how to check for doneness by eye.
The Vegetable Poke Test:
Vegetables can be tested with a simple poke of the fork. If the fork goes in easily, they are done. If not, you might want to give them more time in the oven.
Your personal preference is all that matters with vegetables.
The Meat Poke Test:
Unless you are an experienced chef and can check things by eye, I suggest you poke meats with a digital thermometer. Poke the thermometer needle into the CENTER of the meat.
Print this meat temperature chart and post it in your kitchen. It tells you when things are done...
Meal temp chart
Meat by eye:
If you refuse to go the digital thermometer route you can check by eye. Cut through the thickest part to check.
Chicken, turkey (on other birds) should be white all the way through and the juices running clear .
Pork can be slightly pink on the inside but most people prefer it white all the way through.
Fish should be white (not translucent) and should easily break apart with a fork.
Beef can be as red as you like in the middle, but the outside needs to be browned.
Ground meats need to be cooked all the way through.
2. THE THREE MOST BASIC, FUNDAMENTAL, MUST-HAVE COOKING TECHNIQUES
Here we will cover the THREE techniques you must know for everyday cooking:
3. PAN FRY (AKA SAUTÉ)
Each comes with its own implement of doom: earthenware, pan, and pot respectively.
These three cooking techniques are as important to your cooking skills as The Starting 5 is to your seasoning skills section.
You will use one of these three techniques for the vast majority of your cooking endeavors.
As soon as you master these three ways of cooking, you can tell people with confidence that you know how to cook. Before this point, not so much.
So let’s dig in.
How to roast
Put ingredients in an oven-safe container and stick'em in an oven that has been preheated to at least 400°f / 205°c. Pull them out when they are done, usually after about 15 minutes if the ingredients are cut into bite-size pieces.
To get them out of your face! Stick'em in, set a timer, check when it goes off. Roasting applies a consistent overall temperature to your ingredients so you don’t have to worry about parts getting burned while other parts are left raw (as can happen when you pan fry).
Why 400°f / 205°c
This is the minimum temperature for ROASTING (as opposed to BAKING, which is under 400°f / 205°c). 400°f / 205°c is a powerful but forgiving temperature. You can roast at higher temperatures but you have to check in more frequently to prevent things overcooking.
What to roast
Firm and soft vegetables and thick cuts of meat are great candidates for roasting. (Leafy greens and thinly sliced cuts of meat are not, as they will dry out too quickly.)
How to boil
Put water in a pot and turn the heat up to high. When the water is bubbling madly, drop your ingredients in and wait for them to cook through to your liking.
There is no risk of flames burning the food, and you don’t need any oils or other seasonings. Like roasting, you just need to drop the ingredients in and come back when they’re done.
Unlike roasting, however, you season the ingredients after cooking them. So this makes boiling a good choice for ingredients you want to cook first and then flavor up with dressings, sauces, or dips.
What to boil
Boil ingredients that you want to cook before seasoning. Firm and soft vegetables are prime candidates. Also pasta.
Grains are another prime candidate, but grains require another technique - simmering - which we cover below, as well as in the Grains Cooking Guide in the Appendix of this guide.
To test if done, extract an ingredient from the boiling water with tongs or a slotted spoon and then do the poke test with your fork. Don’t do the poke test in the pot or you’ll risk burning your arm from steam rising up.
3. PAN FRY (AKA SAUTÉ)
How to pan fry
Put your ingredients in a pan over a flame (or electric burner) and stir until done. Pan-frying is a must-have skill, even for beginners, even if it's more difficult than roasting or boiling. The reason is that you are applying heat only to one side of your ingredients - the side touching the pan.
In contrast roasting and boiling applies an overall temperature.
When pan-frying, the whole game is to cook the ingredients to your liking without burning what is touching the pan. That’s what’s so fun about it!
How to keep things from burning
There are three things you can do.
1. Stir / flip. This is the #1 thing to do. Stirring or flipping ingredients switches the side that is touching the hot pan.
2. Lower the heat. If you are stirring/flipping frequently but the outsides of the ingredients are getting too crispy before the insides are cooked you need to lower the heat.
3. Add liquids. Adding a little water or stock to your hot pan lowers the heat on your ingredients quickly. And it has a bonus effect of lifting the seasoning off the surface of the pan in a process called “deglazing”.
How high should the heat be?
Medium high is a good starting point for most things.
A general rule of thumb is this: the thicker the cut, the lower the heat. Why? Thicker cuts take longer to cook through to the center, so you don’t want the heat so high that the outside burns before the center cooks. But ultimately it’s up to you, and that’s the whole fun of working your pans! You may have a different preference for every ingredient.
Why pan fry
Cooking ingredients in the pan allows you to see what’s happening and adjust on the fly. You can taste and add seasonings easily. And maybe best of all, you can give your ingredients a nice sear, browning or char, which can be really pleasing.
What to pan fry
Anything! Meats, firm veggies, soft veggies and even leafy greens are all great items to sauté. The more you do it the better you will get.
3. ADVANCED COOKING TECHNIQUES
Once you master the three main cooking techniques it’s time to start playing around with the other techniques using just your oven and stovetop:
Let’s take a look.
How to simmer
After bringing your liquids to a boil, reduce the heat until there are only small bubbles percolating on the top. Let the liquids evaporate (“simmer down”) in this way as long as you like.
The main reason to simmer is to concentrate the flavors that are bubbling away in the liquids. A lot of things happen as your ingredients and seasonings simmer away, but chief among them is that the water evaporates leaving the remaining seasonings less diluted, or in other words, more concentrated.
For this reason, simmering is the primary technique for creating pan sauces.
Another reason to simmer is to let ingredients finish cooking while the liquids evaporate or get absorbed into the ingredients. This is especially true of grains. Think of cooking rice.
What to simmer
Meats and veggies meant to cook in liquids or the liquids themselves to make a pan sauce. Grains require simmering, but not as a flavor enhancer but just as part of the cooking process.
How to steam
Bring a small amount of water in a pot to a boil, then place a steaming basket above the boiling water and put a lid on it to capture the steam.
Steaming is pretty much like boiling but it’s faster because you don’t need to bring a whole pot of water to a boil first. And you don’t need to strain the ingredients after.
Similar to boiling, steaming is done for ingredients you plan to season after steaming.
What to steam
Steam ingredients that you want to cook before seasoning. Firm and soft vegetables are prime candidates.
How to stew
After bringing ingredients to a boil, set to a simmer, and put a lid on it on the pot. Then let everything ‘stew’ until the ingredients are done cooking.
Stewing is different from simmering. The lid trap the liquids in the pot. This means that you are not as interested in concentrating the flavor of the liquids as much as you are looking to cook the ingredients in the liquids over a long period of time.
What to stew
Stewing is for ingredients that take a long time to cook such as tough cuts of meat and root vegetables. Bitter greens are also a good choice.
How to braise
Place the ingredients you want to braise in a roasting container, fill with flavored liquids until the ingredients are almost submerged, cover, and cook at a low temperature (250°f / 120°c) until the meats are shreddable with a fork and the liquids are reduced to near the bottom of the container.
Many people sear their meats before braising them for added flavor.
Braising allows you to turn tough cuts tender while simultaneously creating a delicious sauce to go with it.
What to braise
Tough cuts of meat and root vegetables. Bitter greens are also a good choice.
How to broil
Your broiler is a set of flames (or high heat) at the top of your oven. You place your ingredients on a rack just below this heat to give it a sear, melt, or crust.
To be honest, broiling is usually used as an added touch - bubbling cheese, browning the top of casserole, crisping sugar - which is why I usually use it only for special occasions, not my everyday cooking.
However, there is one great use for broiling in everyday cooking - as a grill replacement! The flames above the ingredients work just like an upside-down grill. The fats can run off the meats into a tray and you can get a char just as you would with a grill.
What to broil
Meats, seafood, and anything you would put on kabob skewers are all great things to broil.
Special Equipment Required
The following cooking techniques are outside the scope of this guide. But they are lot of fun to experiment with after you 1) get the three basic cooking techniques under you belt and 2) know how to tell when things are done by feel.
● Slow cooker
● Pressure cooker
● Sous vide
● Air fry
● And everybody’s favorite… Microwave!
SKILL SET #6: EATING SKILLS
The skill we’ve all been waiting for!
You are skilled at eating when you learn more about cooking with every bite.
Let’s start by talking about getting your food on the table.
Here are my suggestions for plating your meals by experience level:
Beginner - serve each ingredient in its own spot on the plate, à la carte
This allows you to visually see if it adds up to a complete well-balanced meal or not. Also, it allows you to taste each ingredient individually so you can see how each turned out.
Intermediate / Advanced - plate the meals as you envisioned them coming together, either à la carte, mixed, or composed.
If serving a group, you basically have two options:
1. Plate the meals individually and serve
2. Put out platters and let people serve themselves
Both are good options.
If the meal is à la carte, you might be more likely to set out platters. It’s easier to get the food on the table and creates more of a family dining experience. The trade off is that you have more stuff to clean up after the meal.
If the meal is mixed or composed, you might be more inclined to plate it up before serving.
EVALUATE YOUR COOKING WHILE YOU EAT
Hey, you’re going to eat for the rest of your life. Might as well get good at it.
And the way to get good at eating is to develop your vocabulary and critical thinking around meals.
Saying “it’s good” or “it’s ok” is not helpful enough. What’s good? What was just ok? Is a specific flavor to strong or too weak? How is the texture? Is it too mushy, too firm, or just right?
Start to develop a vocabulary to describe what’s working and what’s not working about the meals. This will help you communicate with the people you are cooking for and invite them to give you constructive feedback.
Every time you eat one of your no-recipe creations, review your work on the previous steps:
● Not enough or too much of anything? Think of how you could have picked your ingredients better
● Anything not cut up to your liking? Think of how you could improve your prep work.
● Taste underwhelming or overwhelming? Think of how to adjust your seasoning. Be specific.
● Anything underdone or overdone? Think of how to you could improve your cooking technique
EVALUATE YOUR MEAL TEMPLATE AFTER YOUR EAT
How do you know if your template meal is actually right for you?
Here are the signs you put together a well-balanced meal for yourself:
● You are satisfied but not stuffed when you get up from the table.
● You have a nice clean even energy that carries you through to the next meal.
Here are the signs you did not serve up a well-balanced meal:
● You didn’t finish everything on your plate because you felt too full.
● You finished everything but ended up feeling stuffed and uncomfortable.
● You feel lethargic or in a “food coma” when you get up from eating.
● You get a sugar craving shortly after eating.
● You experience a surge of energy followed by a crash.
● You need a snack to get you through to the next meal.
Whatever your idea of a well-balanced meal, the point is to define it as a template. Own it. Make it your standard template for at least 80% of the meals you consume. Do that and BAM, instant healthy eating habits. It’s that simple.
Healthy no-recipe cooking is an amazing practice to incorporate into your lifestyle. It helps you eat better, reduce stress, save money, and free up time.
And very often it is a joy to do.
But most importantly, the practice of healthy no-recipe cooking gets better over time. This is in contrast to following recipes, diet plans, meal plans and relying on meal delivery services, which get worse over time.
You’ve read this guide. A lot of information and ideas have flown past. It can feel daunting. And you might not know where to start. But rest assured that you don’t need to know everything in the guide to start your healthy no-recipe cooking journey. You just need to take that first step.
You see, the learning is in the doing.
As soon as you try healthy no-recipe cooking for the first time you’ll begin to internalize the information. In a couple of tries the whole routine will snap into place and you won’t need a cheat sheet any longer.
Before long you’ll be reaching for new ways to challenge yourself with your cooking. And soon enough you’ll have your kitchen and equipment all dialed into your personal workflow and lifestyle. You’ll have dishes you love making and ideas for new dishes to try in the back of your mind. You’ll be engaged in the process of home cooking in a whole new way.
Healthy no-recipe cooking will no longer be a thing you are learning, but a thing you are doing.
It will be a solid part of your lifestyle once and for all.
So let’s get you that first taste of victory!
Grab the PDF to read later.