In 2011, the biggest thing in cookbooks (literally and figuratively) was Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine.” The five-volume, 52-pound opus delved into the art and science of molecular gastronomy, with detailed instructions on how to suspend tomato water in spheres of basil oil and otherwise turn your condo kitchen into the chef’s table at El Bulli.
A decade later, however, El Bulli is shuttered and the appetite for the kind of deconstructed food they served has waned. With pandemic lockdowns forcing people to work with whatever is in our pantries, a newer, gentler approach to cooking has emerged. Welcome to the era of the no-recipe recipe.
“If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that a whole bunch more of us are cooking all of the time now,” says Sam Sifton, founding editor of the New York Times Cooking and author of “No-Recipe Recipes,” a new cookbook with an appropriately no-fuss title. “You’ve got people who previously would have gone out on a Friday night for an expensive dinner, who’re staying home and having a roast chicken, a salad and a bottle of wine.”
After more than a year of cooking at home, Sifton says, home cooks are discovering the joys of creating simple meals, without worrying too much about quantities, special ingredients and other mainstays of traditional cookbooks.
In “No-Recipe Recipes,” he offers a wide range of preparations, from peanut butter smoothies to chorizo nachos to soba noodles with tofu and kimchi, all of which promise big flavour and as little or as much complexity as you care to add. What you won’t find are ingredient specifics measured to the millilitre, or the usual, precise step-by-step directives.
“It’s a recipe, just a different kind of recipe,” says Sifton, who compares cooking the no-recipe way to playing music by ear, adding your own riffs and flourishes as desired. “Basically you know it’s going to go A to C to D and back to A, but how you get there, and what you do in between, is up to you.”
The beauty of the no-recipe recipe, Sifton says, is that it has as much to offer beginners as seasoned home cooks. “If novice cooks get a great outcome from a no-recipe recipe, their confidence in the kitchen is going to soar,” he says. “And the expert home cook can take the recipe in a direction that he or she wants with greater ease than following a traditional step-by-step recipe.”
Sifton isn’t the only one embracing this approach to cuisine. Pam Anderson’s bestseller “How to Cook Without a Book” — which was ahead of its time when it was first published, in 2000 — was completely updated and re-released in 2018.
More recently, Momofuku founder David Chang and food writer Priya Krishna teamed up to work on “Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave),” which is due out in October. Chang has also lent his support to Anyday, a dishware startup specializing in bowls with steam-trapping lids that you can use to make meals entirely in the microwave. The alluring premise is that cooking can be so fast, easy and improv-friendly, you can do it with whatever ingredient(s) you have on hand and a few pushes of a button.
“These recipes are crucial right now,” says Maggie Hoffman, digital director at cooking website Epicurious, whose No Recipe Needed series offers riffable versions of favourites like roast chicken thighs, baked pasta and Thai curry. “They’re the ones that are flexible enough that you can work them out on a busy weeknight, even if you haven’t gotten groceries recently. You get the basic gist, and then you do your thing.”
Neither Sifton nor the experts at Epicurious insist that every recipe can or should be a no-recipe recipe; baking, for instance, doesn’t usually lend itself to substitutions and omissions. For most things, however, no-recipe cooking is just a matter of taking what you’ve got and making it the way you like it, adding inspiration and advice from the pros as needed.
It’s far from a novel or revolutionary idea, but it’s one with the potential to inspire and empower a whole new generation of enthusiastic home chefs. “My kids learn to cook by watching TikTok,” Sifton says. “There’s nothing written down. They just watch a bunch of videos about making a Korean soft tofu stew, and then give it a shot.”
Four tips for success in the no-recipe kitchen
Stock your pantry. No-recipe recipes are only as good as what you put in them, and since weeknight dinner prep doesn’t lend itself to last-minute groceries, your success will depend on keeping a supply of trusty staples. “It’s really helpful to have hot sauces, vinegars and oils,” says the New York Times Cooking’s Sam Sifton. “And in my case, plenty of peanut butter, chili garlic sauce, pickles and different starches.”
Substitute as needed. The best thing about no-recipe cooking is its adaptability, so don’t worry if you don’t have Aleppo peppers or shallots; red pepper flakes and yellow onion will do just as well in most cases.
Embrace seasonality. Once you’ve stocked up on the basics, you can get inspired by whatever looks freshest at the grocery store or farmer’s market, and use that as a jumping-off point for your next no-recipe meal.
Use a recipe (at least at first). “For some folks, going off-book can be intimidating,” says Epicurious’s Maggie Hoffman. “So one move is to make a recipe as written first, and see what it tastes like, and how you’d like it to taste, [before you] personalize it the next time.”
Sam Sifton’s Roasted Mushrooms with Buttered Baguette
Simplicity itself and beyond delicious, even if you aren’t able to secure a pound of perfect chanterelles.
Buy a baguette and some very good butter, along with a pound of wild mushrooms, preferably chanterelles.
Clean the mushrooms gently with a damp paper towel, then toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some fresh thyme leaves, if you have them, or a scant scattering of dry if you don’t. (If you don’t have those either, no worries.)
Put the mushrooms on a sheet pan and roast at 375°F for about 15 minutes, or until they’ve released a fair amount of liquid. Remove the pan from the oven and drain off the liquid into a food storage container.
Continue roasting the mushrooms for 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until they’re a little crisp on the outside and soft inside and awesome.
Cut the baguette and slather with butter. Serve with the mushrooms, scattering some chopped parsley over the top of both, if you have some to spare.
Tip: You can use the mushroom liquid to add as a seasoning for soup. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer indefinitely.
Recipe excerpted with permission from “The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes.” Text © 2021 by Sam Sifton and the New York Times Company. Photographs © 2021 by David Malosh. Food styling by Simon Andrews. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. When you make a purchase through the links in this article, we may earn a small commission. Our journalism is independent and not influenced by advertising. Learn more
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