Stop Using Recipes! Do This Instead...

 
Photo © Tommy Venuti

Photo © Tommy Venuti

 

Whenever I start talking to someone about healthy eating habits, the conversation almost always ends in the same way: “Send me some recipes.”

And I understand the impulse. Modifying your eating habits can be a daunting task. It’s natural to experience a lot of anxiety in the face of such large change, and looking to recipes to relieve some of the pressure is a natural reaction.

It’s just not a helpful one.

The Problem With Recipes

To someone who already cooks or is not also dealing with the stress of making some major lifestyle changes, recipes are just dandy. “Oh, I’ve never tried salmon this way before; I think I’ll try that!” Good stuff.

But if you’re new to cooking, recipes can just as easily overcomplicate things. Lists of ingredients. Measurements. Lengthy and confusing steps. Timing things. Constantly reading and re-reading and referencing back. And all the while, not really understanding what you’re trying to accomplish (other than “get to the final step of the recipe”).

As simple as some recipes can appear (or even be), when combined with everything else you might be facing on the road to peak health, they can easily become just another barrier to entry.

The Solution: Learning How To Cook

At first glance, you might equate this with finding recipes. “Yeah, in order to cook, I need to know what ingredients I need and in what amounts, how long to et cetera et cetera…” But that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is learning how to properly season and apply heat to foods in order to take them from uncooked to cooked. That’s the underlying skill, and that’s what you should learn first before digging into a bunch of recipes. If you can properly season and then heat a piece of food (steak, chicken, ground turkey, asparagus, whatever…), not only will you be able to more confidently approach a new recipe, but you might not need them in the first place.

The OOPS Method

This is the only method of cooking you’ll ever need. It’s not the only one you’ll ever want, but if you’re looking to start making healthy meals at home, give this method a shot. It’s a great stepping stone to more advanced culinary techniques, as well as a super-simple go-to for a quick dinner. I probably cook 80% of my meals this way.

The OOPS Method relies on one simple premise: there really is no savory food that doesn’t taste good when cooked in Olive Oil* with Pepper and Salt (maybe some Garlic Powder, in which case we could call it The G-POOPS Method). That’s it. Don’t worry about getting all fancy or super specific with your measurements: just take this bare-bones approach to learn how to season and heat food.

*Butter often works just as well. I’ve yet to try ghee myself, but I hear good things.

It starts at the grocery store. Buy yourself two things:

  1. A piece of meat (for this example, we’ll use steak)
  2. A vegetable (onions, we’ll say)

In addition to those two things (ingredients, if you will), you’ll need some OOPS on hand. If you don’t have any, grab some. Go for Extra Virgin for the oil—it has a better flavor (finding pure, high quality oil is beyond the scope of this article, but luckily the internet).

Prepping

Place the meat on a cutting board and then pat it down with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture. Why? Because less moisture equals more browning, and more browning equals more deliciousness. Season the steak and then…

 

Remove the outer layer of skin from the onion and then slice and/or dice it. How? It doesn’t really matter at this point! Don’t get caught up in cutting styles: simply use a knife to make one whole onion into dozens of partial onions. Toss ‘em in a bowl. Don’t cut yourself.

Seasoning

A good habit for seasoning is to pour the seasoning into one hand and sprinkle it onto your food with the other. Seasoning is all about control, both in amount and distribution. Using your fingers rather than something with a spout is a good way to monitor both, at least at the beginning.

How much seasoning? Well, that’s up to you, really. The skill lies in understanding a few simple principles:

Principle 1: Taste is totally subjective. Don’t worry about measurements—worry about seasoning the foods to your preference (and the preference of whoever else might be eating it, if you care). Yes, that might take some trial and error.

Principle 2: You are not just seasoning the outside, you are seasoning for the entire thickness of the food. A 1 ½-inch steak will need more seasoning than a ½-inch steak, even if the top and bottom surface areas are the same. That being said...

Principle 3: You can always add seasoning, but you cannot take it away. If you get to the final product and end up needing to add some salt, who cares? Sprinkle some on and eat it. Trust me, it’s much better than ending up with something that’s too salty. Nothing to really be done at that point.

The goal, of course, is to season it perfectly at the beginning, but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter much. Our goal isn’t to make sure Gordon Ramsey wouldn’t send back our risotto; our goal is to learn to cook a quick, easy, and healthy meal.

Once the food is (hopefully) seasoned to your liking, it’s time to apply some heat.

Applying Heat

On slightly-more-than-medium heat (6-7 on a 10-level dial), heat your pan. In this example, we’re using a cast iron skillet for the meat and a non-stick pan for the onions. You can just as easily use the same pan for both, but in this instance I was saving on time. I highly recommend getting yourself some cast iron if you don’t have any. It’s durable, easy to use, and easy to care for.

Aaaaanywho…

Once the pan is nice and hot (which you can tell by either holding your hand a couple inches over it or flicking some droplets of water at it [sputtering and/or skidding about is good - evaporating pretty much instantaneously might be a tad too hot]), add a bit of olive oil to coat—not cover—the bottom (or drizzle it on your food and spread it around). Add your meat and brown it on both sides.

After it’s done browning, meats that need to be cooked through (like chicken and pork) and thicker cuts of beef will likely need to be transferred to the oven to continue cooking through. I add a pat of butter to the top of my steaks, but you don’t have to. But you should.

How long do you cook it? My stock answer to this is usually “Until it’s done.” Though it may sound snarky, that answer actually serves a purpose. When you set a timer, it goes off and you go “Welp, I guess it’s done?” and then you eat it. Who knows if you were actually right or not?

Remember, we’re learning here. Knowing how food looks, smells, feels, and sometimes even sounds while it’s cooking and when it’s done is a very valuable skill to have. Don’t rely on timers when you’re simply sauteing food in a pan (baking and cooking things like rice—totally different story).

Like seasoning, applying heat in a pan also has a few universal principles that you should grasp:

Principle 1: Don’t crowd the pan! Foods do two things when sitting on a hot surface: release moisture; and absorb heat. Releasing moisture is unavoidable, but if there’s too much food releasing too much moisture, nothing will ever get dry enough to brown well. Remember - brown is delicious.

The heat released is constantly being replenished by the heating element, but if you completely fill the pan with food that absorbs too much heat all at once (combined with all the excess moisture mentioned), you will have a very hard time achieving the coveted browned surface.

For large bits of food like pieces of meat, aim to keep at least a little bit of space between all pieces. They can touch here and there, but no two pieces should be pressed together completely.

For smaller bits like chopped onions, aim to keep the entire “batch” down to a layer/layer-and-a-half thick. Start piling foods in and, again, it ain’t never gon’ brown.

Principle 2: Only flip it once! Sauteing in a pan uses a heating method called conduction (remember from high school - conduction, convection, radiation?...), which basically means that the heater and the heatee are touching. To ensure nice, even, quick cooking (which results in, say it with me, “browning!”), you should limit the amount of times that contact is broken. This is especially important when cooking something like a steak that needs a good searing on the outside without cooking the inside too much.

This is not to say “if you flip something and it’s not browned properly, too bad - you lose.” If you misjudge and need to flip a food back over, that’s fine. The point is to avoid flipping the food over and over and over...

Smaller bits will require more flipping to ensure all pieces make some good contact with the pan on both sides.

Is It Done?

Again, we’re not talking times here, we’re talking learning to tell if something’s done. This one can get tricky, but there are a few ways to troubleshoot the process.

You can use a meat thermometer, but unless it’s something large like a turkey, I prefer to just go by how the food looks (both on the inside and outside) and feels. For the sake of cohesion, we’ll call these guidelines principles…

Principle 1: How Does It Look (on the outside)? For meat and veggies alike, this one can be very easy: look at it and ask yourself “Does that look delicious?” It may take a little bit of trial and error.

Principle 2: How Does It Feel? This can vary quite a bit for red meat, so check out this handy guide for a really easy how-to. Chicken and poultry should have some bounce to it but not softness/squishiness. If comparing it to the steak image/chart, I would go for “ring finger” at first (as with seasoning, you can add cook time but you can’t take it away).

Principle 3: How Does It Look (on the inside)? With red meat, I believe that anything above medium-rare is overdone. But that’s just me (and about 10 billion other people). Either way, check out this guide for how the different “donenesses” look.

For poultry, the juices should run clear and, if there’s a bone, the meat should pull fairly cleanly away from it. Don’t get too caught up in the color of the meat itself, as this could be very misleading.

For pork, it should be mostly white, though a pink twinge is ok.

Fish should be opaque, flaky, and juicy.

When meat is done cooking, you should let it rest for about 10 minutes before digging in. The explanation as to why would take too long to lay out here (catch up on your Good Eats – it’s on Netflix!), but the basic idea is that all the juices will flow out and dry out the meat. Letting it rest off the heat allows the juices redistribute and solidify (for lack of a more appetizing word).

So there you have it, folks. Toss your recipe books to the side for now, grab some food, and cook it. Learn some basic kitchen skills, and open yourself up to a whole new world of food possibility. Without the stress.

How about you? Do you have any quick, go-to cooking techniques? Share below!