I Learned To Be A Great Cook By Never Following Recipes, This Is What I Did Instead

I have Dyspraxia which is a disability that impacts several areas of my life but crucially, when it comes to cooking, I struggle to follow a recipe. This is quite common with Dyspraxic people. Following instructions is one of the key difficulties that we face.

I love to cook, though. I love food, I love creating new textures and flavours. A Sunday spent whipping up a storm in the kitchen is a Sunday well-spent in my eyes. It just also means accepting that I’m going to struggle to make foods exactly the way that I’m ‘supposed’ to.

Imagine my joy when I spoke to a cook and kitchen coach that learned how to cook by not following recipes. Not only that, but her approach is actually environmentally friendly and sustainable.

We love to see it.

An introduction to intuitive cooking

HuffPost UK spoke with Katerina Pavlakis, also known as The Intuitive Cook, to learn about her approach to intuitive cooking, and how other people can start doing this, too.

Pavlakis actually started cooking intuitively because she also struggles to follow recipes. She said: “Personally, I think I mostly struggle with recipes because my brain needs to understand why I’m doing something before I do it, I don’t quite trust just ‘being told’ (and recipes rarely explain).

“This didn’t put me off cooking but it made me feel like I was a bad cook totally overlooking the fact that everybody always really liked the meals I cooked (but I was under the impression that ‘proper cooking’ must be about following the recipes).”

It’s true that getting caught up in the recipe when you’re cooking a meal can become a bit of a ‘can’t see the woods for the trees’ situation and make the whole thing a little more stressful than it needs to be.

Pavlakis explained that this isn’t something that’s isolated to her. In fact she said that her customers in her shop and at her workshops have had similar complaints:

“Common recipe struggles are either because the instructions seem confusing, or because the instructions don’t fit real life (it takes too much time, there is always some ingredient missing, or something you (or your family) can’t eat or don’t like to eat.”

So, how do you get started with intuitive cooking?

Pavlakis said: “I believe you can boil down cooking to two principles: building a meal (ie. choosing ingredients) and building flavour (i.e. making them taste good).”

She explained that both of these principles are actually based on a pattern of layers, saying: “If you look closely, the vast majority of recipes are built in such layers (that’s why most recipes start with ‘chop an onion’).

“Once you understand the layers, you can safely simplify/experiment/improvise with ingredients within those layers. You don’t need to know a list of ‘what goes with what’, or understand molecular chemistry, common sense and your taste buds are all you need to guide you.”

Are there any cupboard staples that you need for intuitive cooking?

Pavlakis said: “My pantry has two kinds of staples: ‘basics’ (the obvious ‘shelf stable’ things things like onions, tinned tomato, tinned beans/chickpeas, packets of lentils, rice, pasta, tinned fish, eggs, etc.) and ‘flavour bombs’ (ingredients that pack a punch of flavour, e.g. olives, parmesan, tomato paste, feta cheese, soy sauce, anchovies, herbs & spices, and said pomegranate molasses)”

She explained that if you have a few basics, a few flavour bombs and fresh ingredients, you can make a tasty meal at the drop of a hat.

Ultimately, cooking isn’t supposed to be scary

While it may be scary to throw the recipe books to the side and follow your instincts, Pavlakis assures that it’s easier than you think. She said: “It takes a little practice to ‘unlearn’ the fear of ‘doing it wrong’ and to learn to trust yourself with what you think will taste good, but it works, because we all have an instinct for what’s good to eat.

“As the wonderful food writer Tamar Adler says: ‘You don’t need to know what it’s supposed to taste like: what anything is supposed to taste like, at any point in its cooking, is good.’”

Intuitive cooking is good for the environment 

Pavlakis said: “We often don’t quite realise what a massive drain on resources . household food waste really is.

“A fifth of the world’s food is wasted, in the UK we waste about 70kg per person per year, the highest in Europe.”

Instead, Pavlakis finds joy and inspiration in what she already has. She said: “When you can improvise a tasty and nourishing meal with what you have the implication is both dramatically reduced food waste, and a flexibility to use what’s currently available/local/seasonal/cheapest/sustainably produced.

“If you bought a head of celery for a recipe that asks for 2 sticks, you don’t need to wait for the next recipe to prescribe celery, you just use it up as you go, in your next meal.”

Recipes can have a different purpose

Pavlakis is keen to note, though, that she doesn’t actually hate recipes but just approaches them differently. She said: “I love recipe books and I have loads of them. But I love them for ideas and inspiration: I prefer to read them in bed like novels, not in the kitchen as an instruction manual.

“I would love to see less people depending on recipes and bring more curiosity and playfulness into their kitchen – because it makes cooking so much easier, quicker, cheaper, and indeed more fun.”

I reckon I’m brave enough to try this.