OWhenever Katerina Pavlakis invited friends over for dinner, it wasn’t just the food that her guests commented on. It was also the fact that she seemed so calm — “that I was cooking all these things and not even being stressed,” she says. It was only then that Pavlakis realized that not everyone shared his experience in the kitchen – that in fact, even people who loved to cook and were good at it could find it there. a source of frustration.
This made Pavlakis curious: what made cooking so easy for her and so frustrating for others? After talking to friends and customers at the store she runs with her husband in North Wales, she discovered where many were wrong: they were trying – and struggling – to follow the recipes. There she could identify herself.
“I love cookbooks and I have plenty of them,” says Pavlakis. “But I can’t follow a recipe for the life of me.”
Pavlakis’ approach has always been to improvise: add a pinch of this or a pinch of that, sometimes just figuring out what meal she cooks once it’s already underway. But as random as it may seem, “there is a method,” she says.
In the online classes she leads as an intuitive cook, Pavlakis teaches people how to build confidence and skill in the kitchen by throwing in rules, recipes and even ingredient lists.
This may seem counter-intuitive, especially for beginners. But this more improvised approach to cooking has recently gained traction. Last year, The New York Times published a cookbook of “recipes without recipes,” designed for those who don’t have the patience or inclination to follow step-by-step instructions. Celebrity chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku chain, embraced a similar philosophy in his book Cooking at Home, captioned: “How I learned to stop worrying about recipes (and love my microwave) “.
For Pavlakis, it suggests fatigue with the over-complication of the kitchen and the pressure on everyone to produce restaurant-quality meals. The mainstream media describes cooking as a “kind of ambitious hobby”, she says – leaving people feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the number of sources on what and how to eat. Recipes that assume everyone has a mandoline slicer or keeps candied lemons in the fridge can make people feel like they’ve failed before they’ve even started.
Specifically, says Pavlakis, even following a recipe to perfection doesn’t necessarily build confidence or skill. It’s a bit like the difference between following directions on Google Maps and knowing your way around. Taking an “intuitive” approach to cooking, informed by what you have on hand and what you like to eat, can help minimize food waste and make cooking a habit for life – not a source of stress, or just for special occasions. And, adds Pavlakis, it’s not as risky as you might think.
Here are some tips to get you started, from Pavlakis and other intuitive types.
Chase away the fear
People often cling to recipes for fear of making something inedible, says Pavlakis – “you really have to try really hard”. She hears more complaints of bland meals than spoiled ones. The biggest challenge in learning to cook intuitively is overcoming that insecurity, she says, “and daring to do what you want.” Try a small change at your next meal, then a bigger one. “Nine times out of 10,” she says, “it’ll probably go pretty well.”
Work with what you have…
Pavlakis suggests being guided by the contents of your fridge and reverse-engineering a meal from there. This way, you won’t end up with half-used ingredients or junk that gets thrown away. Thinking in terms of “worlds of flavor” – herbs, spices and ingredients that one might consider “typically French”, say, or “typically Thai” – can point you towards a particular dish or complementary pairing. Add some oregano to the tomatoes and you’re probably on your way to Italy; turmeric or cumin might suggest an Indian curry. “It really gives you a completely different experience,” says Pavlakis. Even leftovers can often be repurposed into something entirely new.
Simplify the steps, not the ingredients
Many recipes follow a similar process, Pavlakis says. “If you step back and start looking for the patterns, you can see which stage corresponds to where – then it becomes easier to change them, swap them or leave them behind.”
She tends to follow a three-step method of basic (onion, garlic, other “aromatic” vegetables and spices, cooked in some kind of fat), body (fresh produce and protein, often liquid) and head (herbs and aromas). With adjustments to cooking time, temperature, and quantities, this can lead to a hot pot or a stir-fry, a stew or a soup, a sauce or a stir-fry. Even a traybake combines the base and the body step.
Similarly, in creating flavors, you can think in terms of background, foreground, and accents, with each layer complementing or contrasting the one before it. “If you have those basic blocks, that’s when you can start playing,” says Pavlakis.
Awaken your senses
Many of us have become detached from our sensory experience of food. Pavlakis offers a simple experiment: divide a jar of passata or a can of tomatoes into ramekins, then add to each in turn a little salt, a lot of salt, olive oil, sugar, flakes of chilli, balsamic vinegar, spices or herbs. (Keep one plain, like “control.”) Mix, taste, and gauge your response — you might be surprised at the difference even small amounts make. “It’s so effective because we don’t usually pay much attention to it,” Pavlakis says.
Replace as needed and as desired
Chris Mandle, who writes the Recipeless Scraps newsletter on Substack, suggests swapping shallots for onions if that’s all you have, or green olives for black ones if you like one but don’t. the other. “What is the worst case scenario? Run it and try.
Some swaps may not be neat — kale may be too thick and fibrous to replace spinach, for example — but there’s often more room for flexibility than you might think, Mandle says. “If you don’t have dark chocolate for your chili con carne, Worcestershire sauce will work, or cocoa powder, or even the last coffee lees in your cup.”
It might not taste exactly like the recipe developer, but that doesn’t mean bad. “Chances are that when you cook a recipe twice with the exact same ingredients, it will taste a little different anyway,” Mandle says.
Know the non-negotiables
It is often said of pastry that it is more technical than cooking, a science compared to an art. But even so, there is often room to adjust to taste.
“A lemon creme fraiche cake can very easily become a grapefruit ricotta cake, or a buckwheat and maple syrup cookie could be made with wholemeal flour and honey,” says pastry chef Nicola Lamb, author of the Kitchen Projects recipe development newsletter. Similarly, sugar can often be reduced (up to 25%) and yoghurt or crème fraîche added without consequence – “as long as the cake mix still looks like cake mix”.
Much of baking works with ratios, like with the Victoria Sponge — “the classic recipe without a recipe,” says Lamb. “Everything in equal parts – flour, butter, sugar, eggs – gives you a pretty perfect sponge, with a bit of technique.”
But, adds Lamb, precision is important: “I would never dream of cooking without a scale.”
Working with elements
Pavlakis and Mandle swear by Samin Nosrat’s book (and Netflix show) Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. Mandle says it showed him how to work with those elements — “and not let them rule you.”
For example, in lack of salt, he used half a can of sardines by crumbled them in a pasta sauce in place of the anchovies. “It was too good! Once you know Why you add acid to a dish – like a salad dressing or coleslaw – it’s much easier to replace the champagne vinegar you don’t have with freshly squeezed lemons.
Adding acid, sugar or fat can also help rebalance a dish that seems in danger of drifting away.
Taste and adjust
If the onion or garlic tastes too sharp, it may need to sweat more in the pan. Or if a stew or dal tastes flat, try enhancing it with chili, salt, or a squeeze of lemon or lime. Be intentional in tasting before and after, says Pavlakis. “If you can’t detect any difference, be bolder.”
If an addition backfires, consider it a chance to learn more about your particular tastes – not those of a recipe developer, who is often required to play it safe.
Test your intuition
Nosrat says that “cooking is about using your senses” – especially common sense. “If you think a combination of ingredients would be gross, then it probably is,” says Pavlakis. “Your intuition is telling you something there – similar to how when you flip through a cookbook, one recipe grabs your attention, while five others don’t.”
Be curious about what sounds delicious to you and how you could reuse those items, then give it a try. You can only hone your intuition by trial and error, says Pavlakis — not by reading about cooking or watching others. But the benefits can be felt beyond the kitchen. “There’s a lot of talk about getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, learning to take risks – it’s an extremely safe way to practice this as a life skill.”
Sign up for Intuitive Cook courses at theintuitivecook.co.uk, Chris Mandle’s Scraps newsletter at scrapsfood.substack.com and Nicola Lamb’s kitchen projects at kitchenprojects.substack.com