How to Cook Without a Book

Back when I was first married, I came home with a new purchase:  a Pam Anderson cookbook called How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart. My husband was not impressed.  He took one look at the title and deemed it the dumbest cookbook concept he’d ever heard of.  Why buy a book, to learn to cook without….a book?

Well, he was wrong and he admits it: Pam Anderson’s concept is brilliant. (She knows what she’s talking about, too–Pam was the editor at Cooks Illustrated for years.)  There are a million recipes, but only a few cooking techniques.  Master a few basic methods–the sauté, the sear, the chopped salad, the roast chicken–and you can be a much more efficient cook.  You’ll enjoy it more, too.

If you can cook without recipes, you can open the refrigerator and see dinner potential–instead of individual ingredients you don’t know what to do with.  You can save time and money by using what you have on hand.  I personally enjoy cooking the most when I am working in a good groove, and nothing gets me out of that groove faster than having to run peer at my cookbook every other minute.

Knowing the method behind a recipe also frees you to improvise in the kitchen, substitute for allergies, or tweak recipes to suit your tastes better.

Learn to cook without a book

Commit to cooking regularly.  Decide what you like to eat–pick a few staple meals, and make them often.  Stick with a small selection of high-quality recipes (I listed my favorite recipe sources here), because you have to repeat the same techniques over and over in order to truly learn them.

(And of course I would highly recommend Pam’s cookbook as a teaching tool.)

Learn to cook without a book this summer

Summer is a great time to learn to cook without a book, because it’s grilling season.  Many of us already grill without relying on recipes–we shape ground beef into burgers, adding a little salt and pepper; we don’t need a recipe to season steaks and slap them on the grill.  We grill chicken breasts and brats straight out of the package.   Of course, if we had the time or inclination, we could find a recipe for a spice rub or glaze, a marinade or novel presentation.  But if all we want to do is make dinner fast, grilling is a cinch:  no recipe required.

If you know how to grill burgers, then you know how to grill flank steak.  If you can grill chicken breasts, you can grill pork chops.  Once you can handle the basic method (in this case, grilling) you can put that same technique to use in a dozen different ways.

Learn the basic technique for grilled vegetables.  Pin the recipes for cole slaw, baked beans and potato salad to your fridge–you’ll have them mastered by June.  Do chopped salads dressed with oil and vinegar.  Microwave corn on the cob until it’s hot.  Cooking without recipes is easy in the summer!

On that note, here’s my menu plan for the upcoming week. I’ve linked up lots of foundational recipes you can build on so that you can learn to cook without a book! 

Monday: Grilled flank steak, grilled mushrooms, chopped caesar salad

Tuesday: Grilled pork tenderloin with lemon zest-thyme marinade, simple steam-sautéed green beans

Wednesday: Sautéed boneless skinless chicken breasts with orange-dijon pan sauce, roasted cauliflower, mixed green salad with pecans, goat cheese and honey mustard vinaigrette

Thursday: Grilled five-spice chicken thighs with soy-vinegar sauce and cilantro, steamed broccoli, asian coleslaw

Friday: Grilled salad nicoise

(Note:  I have found Pam Anderson recipes to be very reliable.  I’m a choosy cookbook buyer, but I own–and love–several of her books, especially Perfect Recipes for Having People Over and Perfect One-Dish Dinners. Her blog, Three Many Cooks, also has solid recipes and great cooking tips.)


more posts you might enjoy


Leave A Comment
  1. Laura says:

    I agree 100% (although when I first started reading this post I thought, why would anybody buy a cookbook from that flaky blond off of BayWatch?????)
    I can really make a meal “my own” if I already know the basics on how to cook it. There is nothing wrong with improvising – that’s how recipes are born! Right? 🙂
    As always.. great post.


  2. My husband is all about not following recipes. That man can make dinner out of a can of tuna and some spices. And it will blow the mind. I’m still learning, but getting there. Oddly enough, I look at the recipes for a base and then go from there, adding or removing what I want. But I still haven’t gotten to a point of looking in my fridge and “seeing dinner”. Maybe that should be a summer goal.

    • Anne says:

      Tuna and some spices? That does sound like culinary magic!

      I usually cook the same way–recipe as base. Sometimes this is on purpose, sometimes because I’m missing half the ingredients! Either way, it generally works out pretty well. Good look this summer!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.