WIf Katerina Pavlakis ever had friends for dinner, it wasn’t just the food her guests would comment on. It was also the fact that she seemed so impatient — “that I was cooking all these things, and I wasn’t even stressed,” she says. It was only then that Pavlakis realized that not everyone shared her experience in the kitchen – that even people who loved cooking and were good at it could even find a source of frustration.
That made Pavlakis curious: what made cooking so easy for her, and so frustrating for others? After talking to friends and customers at the shop she runs with her husband in North Wales, she learned where many went wrong: they tried – and struggled – to follow recipes. She could talk about that.
“I love recipe books and I have loads of them,” says Pavlakis. “But I can’t follow a recipe for the life of mine.”
Pavlakis’s approach has always been to improvise: add a pinch of this or a dash of that, sometimes not thinking about what meal she’s making until it’s already on the way. But as arbitrary as it may seem, “there is a method,” she says.
In the online courses she runs as the intuitive cookPavlakis teaches people how to gain confidence and skills in the kitchen by throwing out rules, recipes and even ingredient lists.
It may seem counterintuitive, especially for beginners. But this more ready-made approach to cooking has been gaining popularity lately. The New York Times last year published a cookbook of “over-the-counter” recipes designed for those without the patience or inclination to follow detailed instructions. Famed chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku chain, embraced a similar philosophy in his book Cooking at Home, subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (and Love My Microwave )”.
For Pavlakis, it suggests fatigue from the overcomplication of cooking and the pressure on everyone to produce restaurant-quality meals. The mainstream media portrays cooking as a “kind of ambitious hobby,” she says, leaving people intimidated and overwhelmed by the number of resources on what and how to eat. Recipes that assume everyone has a mandolin slicer, or keep preserved lemons in the fridge can make people feel like a failure before they even get started.
More to the point, says Pavlakis, even following a recipe to perfection doesn’t necessarily build confidence or skills. It’s a bit like the difference between following the directions from Google Maps and actually knowing the way. An “intuitive” approach to cooking, based on what you have on hand and what you like to eat, can help minimize food waste and make cooking a lifelong habit – 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 Pavlaki’s and other intuitive types.
Throw 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 that meals are tasteless than ruined. The biggest challenge to intuitively learning to cook is to get over that uncertainty, she says, “and dare to do what you want.” Try a small adjustment in your next meal, then a bigger one. “Nine times out of ten,” she says, “it will probably work out pretty well.”
Work with what you have…
Pavlakis suggests letting yourself be guided by the contents of your fridge and reverse engineering a meal from there. That way you don’t end up with half-used ingredients or knick-knacks that get thrown away. Thinking in terms of “flavor worlds” — herbs, spices, and ingredients we might think of as “typical French,” say, or “typical Thai” — can lead you to a particular dish or complementary combination. Add oregano to tomatoes and you’re probably tied to Italy; turmeric or cumin could suggest an Indian curry. “It really gives you a completely different experience,” says Pavlakis. Even leftovers can often be repurposed into something completely new.
Simplify steps, no ingredients
Many recipes follow a similar process, Pavlakis says. “If you step back and look for the patterns, you can see which step fits where — it becomes easier to change, swap, or omit them.”
She tends to follow a three-step approach of base (onion, garlic, other “aromatic” vegetables and spices, cooked in some type of fat), body (fresh produce and protein, often liquid), and top (seasoning and flavorings) . With adjustments to cooking time, temperature and amounts, it can lead to a hot pot or fry, stew or soup, sauce or stir-fry. Even a traybake combines the basic and body step.
Likewise, when building flavor, you might think in terms of background, foreground, and accents, with each layer complementing or contrasting the previous one. “Once you have those basic blocks, you can start playing,” says Pavlakis.
Awaken your senses
Many of us have become detached from our sensory experience of food. Pavlakis suggests a straightforward experiment: Divide a jar of passata or a can of tomatoes over ramekins, then add a little salt, lots of salt, olive oil, sugar, chili flakes, balsamic vinegar, spices, or herbs to each. (Just keep one, as the “control”.) Mix, taste and rate your reaction – you may be surprised at the difference even small amounts make. “It’s so effective because we don’t normally pay that much attention to it,” says Pavlakis.
Replace as you need and as you want
Chris Mandle, who writes the no-prescription Newsletter scraps on Substack, suggests swapping shallots for onions if that’s all you’ve got, or green olives for black ones if you like one but not the other. “What is the worst-case scenario? Throw it in and try it.”
Some swaps may not be neat — kale can be too thick and stringy 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, or cocoa powder, or even the last bit of coffee from your mug will work.”
It may not taste exactly the way the recipe developer intended, but that doesn’t mean bad. “Chances are that if you cook a recipe twice with the exact same ingredients, it will still taste a little different,” Mandle says.
Know the non-negotiable business
Baking is often seen as more technical than cooking, a science compared to an art. However, there is often room for taste adjustment.
“A creme fraiche lemon cake can very easily become a ricotta grapefruit cake, or a buckwheat maple syrup biscuit can become whole wheat and honey,” says confectioner Nicola Lamb, author of the recipe development newsletter. Kitchen Projects† Likewise, sugar can often be reduced (up to 25%) and yogurt or creme fraiche added without consequence – “as long as the cake mix still looks like cake mix”.
Much of the baking works with proportion, as with the Victoria sponge — “the classic over-the-counter recipe,” Lamb says. “Dividing everything evenly — flour, butter, sugar, eggs — gives you a pretty perfect sponge, with a little bit of technique.”
But, Lamb adds, precision matters: “I would never dream of baking without scales.”
Work with the elements
Both 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 it get you in the head.”
For example, if he needed salt, he would use half a can of sardines by flaking them into pasta sauce instead of anchovies. “It was so good! Once you know it Why you add acid to a dish — like a salad dressing or a coleslaw — it’s much easier to replace the champagne vinegar you don’t own with freshly squeezed lemons.”
The addition of acid, sweetness, or fat can also help rebalance a dish that is in danger of going south.
Try and adjust
If the onion or garlic taste is too pungent, it may need to sweat further in the pan. Or if a stew or dal tastes flat, try envisioning it with chili, salt, or a squeeze of lemon or lime. Be intentional in tasting before and after, says Pavlakis. “If you can’t spot a difference, be bolder.”
If an addition backfires, consider it an opportunity to learn about your particular flavor—not that of a recipe developer, who often has to play it safe.
Test your intuition
Nosrat says, “cooking is all about using your senses” — common sense, above all. “If you think a combination of ingredients would be disgusting, it probably is,” says Pavlakis. “Your intuition tells you something there — the same way you flip through a cookbook, one recipe grabs your attention and five others don’t.”
Be curious about what sounds delicious to you and how you can reuse those elements – then try it out. You can only sharpen your intuition by trial and error, says Pavlakis, not by reading about cooking or watching other people. But the benefits can also be felt outside the kitchen. “There’s a lot of talk about getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new, learning to take risks — this is an extremely safe way to practice that as a life skill.”