Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Dutch Oven Without a Recipe

Cookin' Without a Net

I've rambled on and on here from time to time about food and cooking as art.  Art, in my mind, is basically a vehicle for personal exploration and expression.  So, in order for an activity to qualify as art, it has to come from somewhere inside me and teach me something about myself, and then it has to help me share that discovery with others.

I think I've only achieved that level a few times in my culinary life.  Frankly, I've only done it a few times in song and even fewer in my efforts at visual art.  But nonetheless, it is a challenge for me.  That's one reason I keep trying.

One thing that is for certain: it's very difficult to discover something about yourself, and even more so to express that self-awareness when you're cooking someone else's recipes. 

This morning, as I was catching up on other people's blogs, I came across a posting on "The Back Porch Gourmet" all about cooking without a recipe.  At first, I thought to simply comment on his post, but I ended up thinking too much and so, I posted my own blog entry.

Andy offers some great advice, and I would recommend following it.  Here are my own thoughts as well.

Learn from others first

First of all, being the rebel that I am, I took off on my own way too soon.  Especially in the world of dutch oven cooking.  If I had stuck to cooking other people's recipes for a little longer, I would have learned a lot more a lot quicker.  It might not have been as much fun, though...

Second, watch the right cooking shows.  Find shows that actually teach you techniques and skills, not just celebs that throw a few ingredients together.  Find shows that teach you why these flavors work together and why you need to hold the knife this way. 

And don't waste your time watching competitive cooking.  "Chopped" and "The Iron Chef" and other challenge shows are edited for the drama of the competition, not for learning new skills and getting cool ideas. 

My favorites are PBS's "America's Test Kitchen" and the Food Network's "Good Eats".  Alton Brown is like the Bill Nye of cooking.  He's teaching you about the science and the art of cooking, while being very fun to watch.  Those two are on permanent record on my Tivo!

Start tweaking

Third, learn to hybrid recipes.  When you want to cook a particular dish, look on or or your old family cookbooks and check out several differing recipes for the same dish.  Not only will you learn the different approaches, but you'll pull one idea from one and other ideas from another.  In the end, you'll have your own version of a popular dish.

Research helps

...and (Fourth), while I'm talking about recipe websites, another thing I like about is their ingredient search function.  Sometimes, I'm looking in my pantry and my fridge, wondering what to cook in my black pots that week.  I'll pull up a few ingredients and think, "Can I make something with these?"  I'll jump to their ingredient search function and type in those ingredients.  It pulls up a bunch of recipes using those ingredients.  I read through them, and hybrid them, and come up with something.  This is the process I used, for example, to cook my "Dutch Oven Apple Chicken Curry"

Another way to approach this is with culinary reference books, like "Culinary Artistry".  This book is largely a list of ingredients, arranged alphabetically, and following each one is a list of other ingredients and spices that go well with it.  Pick what you like, use reasonable amounts, and you've got a whole new dish! I used this approach when I cooked up a Salmon and Potatoes mix.

No fear!

Finally, be willing to experiment, and be willing to fail.  Even as recently as last week, I made a pasta sauce for my parents (in the kitchen, not in the dutch ovens), that didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped.  Learn from your mistakes.  Cooking is actually very forgiving.  Many things I've cooked that I've considered to be flops are actually edible, even tasty.  They weren't quite as amazing as I'd wanted, but they were still good.  I've only cooked a few things that I've had to throw away and pronounce inedible.

Share and share alike

Oh!  One other thing!  When you do create something new, share it!  Post it to a recipe site, or make your own blog.  Don't keep it to yourself.  And share more than the recipe.  Tell us what you learned and how you did it.

Let us share in your art!


Mark has discovered a love of Dutch Oven Cooking. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including and his MoBoy blog.

Mark's Other Blog Posts: name post, name post,


  1. Great thoughts, O wise one! I hadn't thought of watching other chefs, because I don't watch too much TV, but I like the Saturday cooking shows. Thanks for the plug, hopefully I can get some traffic over at the back porch.

    As far as another challenge, I'm game if you're game... so bring it on!

    It's your turn to initate the challenge... Modify the original rules if you want- make it harder!

  2. Hey Mark,

    I loved the thoughts that Andy posted about cooking without recipes. And now you have expanded and I love your ideas as well.

    The challenge would be really fun to do as part of the Spring Convention, and we could possibly share our Cullinary delights with the public (and each other) too. Oh ya, I will be there again and would be willing to participate too. Just a thought to consider - guess we should check with the folks putting on the event to see if they would be OK with that before we go too far.

  3. What great thoughts! I totally agree. It is really fun to take elements from 2 different recipes and make it your own. I also takes out some of the guess work.
    And about sharing your flops...mine at dutchovenmadness today was a big one! It took me weeks to get up the guts to share it. But I learned a lot by putting my failure into words, and everyone's kind comments makes me want to try harder. All of us dutch oven cooks stick together and are great to share our successes and laugh along with the disasters!

  4. I just discovered your site and am intrigued. I do a bit of camping with my son and his scout troop, and we do some basic dutch oven cooking. I'm thinkng about possibly suggesting a recipe or two to the scout master. Thanks!

    Scout Mom



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