Adam Liaw on how to trust your cooking instincts (and less rely on the recipe)

Adam Liaw on how to trust your cooking instincts (and less rely on the recipe)


There are tons of recipes, but do you really need them for cooking?

Recipes are procedural, time-consuming and hardly a rock-solid guarantee of success. But how do you actually use one? Are measurements set in stone, or can you just keep an eye on them? What about substitutions – some, all or none? How free are you to adapt?

Let’s break it down.

How closely should you follow a prescription?

It’s all in the chemistry: Adam Liaw’s marmalade custard cake separates during baking. Photo: William Meppem

First and foremost, it’s all up to you. But it also has quite a bit to do with the recipe itself and even the person who wrote it.

Going rogue with everything in the firing is fraught with danger. Change a liquid amount or amount of sugar and the chemistry of your cake or bake will be all messed up.

You can generally go more freely for savory dishes. Spices like salt and sugar can be adjusted to your taste without changing the overall chemistry of the dish.

When cooked on the stove, I think the liquid amounts should always be adjusted. The rate of evaporation won’t be the same on every stove and pot, so you’ll need to use your intuition as to how far to reduce something or how much liquid to add in the first place.

Are all recipes written the same?

Recipes are technically written and will follow some basics of structure and timing, but recipe writers differ wildly in their approach to the craft.

I once had a discussion about this with Yotam Ottolenghi. He and his test kitchen write recipes with a high degree of specificity from times to temperatures to millimeter dimensions of pans. The idea is to eliminate as many variables as possible.

I would compare his approach to a sniper rifle; finely calibrated to hit the bullseye.

My own approach is more of a shotgun. Even if you’re quite off, you should still be able to hit the target. I write this way because I think cooking has too many variables to eliminate effectively.

Manual ovens can differ 20 degrees from electric ovens. The heat from gas, electric and induction cookers is very different, and the material, size and shape of pans will change timing again.

And yet you never see a recipe that specifies one approach for an aluminum gas pan and another for a cast iron pan on induction, even though the amounts and timing will be very different from one to the other.

My advice is to find a cook whose recipes usually work for you, and stick to them. Their writing style probably fits well with your cooking style.

Set of colorful measuring spoons on a multicolored background (top view) Generic image for Good Food online.  Image downloaded via Good Food account.  October 2022. Measuring cup set for Adam Liaw cooking column.  Baking utensils, cooking supplies

Should you use or loosen measuring cups? Photo: iStock

I don’t have measuring spoons or cups. Can I just keep an eye on things?

You have to buy measuring spoons and cups. And while you’re at it, a scale would be a good investment. And throw a few thermometers in your basket, too.

In general, we are very bad at eye measurements. Measures in the kitchen are not the kind of thing we encounter every day. An average cutlery spoon has a capacity of about 2.5 ml, about half the volume of a measuring spoon, namely 5 ml.

You could buy all the things I mentioned above for less than the price of one cookbook, and if you don’t have them, the money you spend on cookbooks will be pretty ineffective.

When can I replace ingredients that I don’t like or don’t have?

You don’t have to put anything in your kitchen that you don’t want to eat. You’re the one eating it. But it pays to understand why an ingredient is used.

For example, wine is usually added to dishes to make it savory, not to make things taste like grape, so if you’re not using wine, stock is the best alternative, not grape juice.

My rule is that if an ingredient is relevant to a taste – salty, sweet, sour, bitter or umami – you should look for a substitute. Fish sauce is used for its saltiness and umami, so replace it with something else salty and umami such as soy sauce, a stock cube, nutritional yeast, miso or Vegemite.

If you want to swap white sugar for brown sugar, honey for rice malt, you can. There will be a little difference in taste, but all those ingredients are sweet, so they do the same job.

If something mainly affects smell rather than taste – herbs, spices, etc. – you can omit or replace them or add more if you wish. The recipe will still “work”, it may just have a slightly different taste.

Is it better to cook intuitively?

Well yes and no. Cooking is a learned skill. No one is born and knows how to do it, and there is no physical prowess or certain mental acuity that makes you good at it. Not all good chefs are geniuses, nor do they all have exceptional whisking speed or knife skills.

Good cooks are excellent learners. What we call intuition is something we have learned over a lifetime of observation and experience, if not specific research.

My wife recently told me that the only thing that made her better at stir-frying wasn’t that I taught her, or even saw her do it. It was just the food I made.

Knowing what something should or might taste, or should or might look like fueled her intuition about how to cut something, how long something should be kept in a pan, how something should be seasoned, how wet or dry a dish looks must see and how those visual cues translate into taste.

The best way to cook more intuitively is to eat right. And I think that’s something we can all get behind.

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