A loose definition of the word improvisation is to invent, compose, or perform something extemporaneously. For example if you’ve ever seen a Woody Allen movie, laughed at a sketch on Saturday Night Live or heard Miles Davis play notes of music not bound by this earth, you’ve experienced improvisation in action. As it is in movies, sketch comedy or jazz the joy of improvisational cooking is in the results that spring forth from inspired creation.
How do you use a recipe? Do you follow each step and measure each ingredient with the precision of a chemist? Do you nervously meter out the baking time of your cookies by tapping your foot to the cadence of the timer? We perform this culinary art to please more than our stomachs, the reasons too numerous to mention. Whatever the reason we usually approach it with recipe in hand. Often times a recipe we don’t understand. The essence of Improv Cooking, with it’s somewhat Zen like approach, demands you’re imagination and instinct to help you solve the riddle of the recipe.
The Steps Towards Improv Cooking
Improvisational cooking is not so much reading and following a recipe as it is using skills and techniques to take a recipe to another level or create a recipe out nothing more than a larder full of ingredients. You have to possess a certain amount of skill and understanding before plunging in to any kind of cooking. Improv Cooking is no different. It forces you to trust your instincts as well. Follow these seven simple steps and you’ll soon be free to open the fridge and just start cooking.
#1 Taste As Many Different Styles of Cooking as Possible
This is probably the simplest of all the Improv techniques to learn and master. Just eat as many different cooking styles as you can. The axiom is straightforward. The more you’re exposed to, the more imaginative you’ll become. Fill your headphones with nothing but Britney and it certainly would be difficult to imagine Charlie Parker’s saxophone. Consequently, eat nothing but the same restaurant or home cooked food all the time and your cooking vocabulary will reflect it.
#2 Understand the Basic Fundamental Techniques of Cooking
You can’t pick up a trumpet and expect to sound like Miles Davis without knowing a few things first. I won’t go into all the things that could and will go wrong. I’m sure you get the picture. Well, Improv Cooking follows the same rules. You can’t expect to be able to whip out a perfect Coq Au Vin without knowing the techniques involved to do so. But, the rewards will be greater once you do. The following list is more than just the basic fundamentals though. I’ve listed all the techniques and methods that matter to the experienced cook.
The Oven Group
Roasting – Cooking with dry heat that surrounds the food with as much direct heat as possible.
Pan Roasting – The wary little secret of every professional kitchen. This is a combination of method of starting the food in a hot sauté pan then finishing in a hot oven.
Broiling – A cousin to grilling, this is direct heat cooking with the heat source above the food instead of under it.
Braising – Moist heat cooking usually achieved in a sealed container like a Dutch oven, tagine or stoneware crock.
Baking – A dry heat method of cooking usually referring to breads, pastries etc.
The Wet Group
Boiling – Cooking in a large quantity of liquid, usually water.
Steaming – Cooking in a sealed container with a small amount of liquid (usually water but not especially) with the food suspended over the liquid so that it only comes in contact with the steam vapors.
Poaching – Best known as a method to cook egg, fish and perhaps chicken. This is cooking in a hot still liquid where the liquid never reaches more than a bare simmer.
The Frying Group
Sautéing – Cooking in a hot pan with little or no fat (butter, oil etc.)
Pan Frying – Very similar to sautéing, except done with more fat. Sometimes enough to almost immerse the food.
Stir-Frying – The Asian method of cooking in an extremely hot pan, usually a wok, with very little fat while keeping the food almost in constant motion.
Deep-Frying – Cooking by totally immersing the food in hot fat. The fat does the job of cooking by encircling the food with heat, thereby allowing it to cook faster sealing in natural juices and flavors. If done properly it’s not the health demon most people assume it is.
The Outdoor Group
Grilling – Cooking over direct heat with the food usually supported by a grate of some sort. This method can be performed indoors as well with the right equipment.
Smoking – This is actually two sub groups. Hot smoking is cooking at temperatures that will cook the food at the same time it infuses the food with smoke flavor. Cold smoking is done with the heat source separate from the cooking chamber so the food is enveloped in low temperature smoke that will infuse flavor without cooking.
Rotisserie – Like grilling, this method does not necessarily have to be done outdoors for the lucky few that have the capability in a well-equipped kitchen. Either way this is cooking with the food suspended over or next to direct heat and rotated via by some mechanical means.
The Sauce Group
Here’s where it gets a little dicey and can separate the cooks from the pretenders. Some of these techniques are best learned at the elbow of someone who’s been there before. But don’t let that stop you from digging in and trying on your own. You may come with some pretty awful stuff, but the attempt will teach you a lot.
Stock – A cornerstone of cooking, whether, meat, fish, poultry or vegetable. A low and slow cooking that’s meant to draw the true essence of flavor into a liquid form.
Brown Sauce – Usually made with beef or veal, but can be made with any brown stock made from roasted bones, flavored with aromatic herbs and vegetables.
Demi-Glace – Similar to brown sauce only made without a thickener and reduced to thicken and intensify flavors.
White Sauce – Also known as Béchamel, made with milk and or cream and thickened with a roux (flour and butter paste)
Veloute – Constructed very much like white sauce, except the milk is replaced usually by a light colored stock of either meat or poultry. It is often enhanced with egg yolks and butter at finishing.
The “Aise” Family – This includes Hollandaise and all its progeny like béarnaise, choron etc. and mayonnaise and all its descendants like aioli, remoulade etc. These are all emulsion sauces with egg bases and a body made mostly of oil or butter.
Other Emulsions – This can range from aiolis or butter sauces to vinaigrettes, to pan sauces that are thickened or finished last minute with butter and or cream.
Gravy – A sauce in loose terms only. Gravies are usually made with the juices collected from roasting meats or poultry. The non-thickened varieties are sometimes called “Jus” in modern menu vernacular.
The Soup Group
The Hearty Family – This includes all the varieties you want to serve in meal-sized bowls like beef stew, chicken and dumplings, chili, chowder and minestrone.
Bisque – Usually and intensely flavored soup that’s been thickened with rice, potatoes or a flour paste called panade.
Purees – Similar to bisque in nature but usually made with a single vegetable flavoring and thickened by pureeing the entire mass via some mechanical or manual means. Often times these soups are finished with cream.
Creams – Any soup, thick or thin, where a significant portion of the liquid is either milk or cream.
Broth – Often confused with stock, both are liquids that have been flavored with aromatics. But the basic building block of stock is bones whereas broth is composed from pieces of meat giving it more collagen. This is the lip sticking quality that gives broth its viscous body.
Consommé – A broth that’s been clarified with egg whites
The Miscellaneous Group
This is a hodgepodge of techniques that will give you a little more depth to your creativity.
Papillote, Packages and Pouches – This is where the food is wrapped and sealed in paper, foil or sometimes a natural wrapper like corn husk or banana leaf. The packages can be cooked by baking, steaming, boiling or grilling.
Dumplings – This is a very broad category of foods and methods that includes many varieties that I’m going to break put into two families. The filled dough variety and the nothing but dough variety. The filled dough relatives have names like ravioli, dim sum, kreplach or pierogi. After filling, these succulent siblings can be steamed, boiled, baked or fried. The nothing but dough relations generally just go by the name “dumpling” but sometimes have the main flavoring preceding their surname such as apple or onion. Also on this branch of the tree are hush puppies, zeppoli and matzoth balls.
Croquettes – Usually a fried delicacy, but sometimes baked. A soft filling of any manner of meat, cheese, vegetable or fruit encased in a crisp shell.
Brining – Very popular these days. Besides turkey at Thanksgiving, it’s an essential step in the process of smoking certain foods, like salmon or ham. But will often stand on its own in foods like gravlax or prosciutto.
Paté – A French term to describe a dish made with forcemeat (ground) of innards or any kind of meat. But the technique occurs in other cuisine and has recently been tagged to concoctions of vegetables or fruits as well. Cold meatloaf is technically a pate.
Charcuterie – Pardon my French, but they did have a huge influence on the world of cooking. This term covers all manners of sausage making and preserving of meats.
The Baker’s Group
This group of techniques is where the art of cooking meets the science of food. Precision in measurement, combination of ingredients and technique is of utmost importance. Discipline and a strict adherence to formula must replace the looser attitude you can give to other areas of cooking. But, as in life, there are no absolutes. Once mastered, these techniques will reveal many ways to tweak and stretch a recipe to your will.
Yeast Breads – These can be savory or sweet, loaves, rolls or doughnuts. They can be baked, fried or steamed.
Quick Breads – The “Quick” generally refers to the active leavening that’s achieved with eggs, baking soda, baking powder, and any combination thereof. These can be baked in loaves or cups (then they’re called muffins). Or steamed in molds which will change their name to pudding.
Pies, Tarts and Cobblers – Be they one crust or two, hand held or deep dish, cream filled, fruit filled, custard or meat. The basic construction varies very little.
Cakes and Tortes – The basic building blocks of flour (usually wheat but can be any variation), sweetener (sugar, honey whatever) and leavening (very similar to quick bread) rarely change. The differences all come in the flavoring and final construction.
Icings and Frostings etc. – Really a sub group of cakes and tortes, but for this purpose it stands alone. I’m including in this arena fondant, buttercream, ganache, boiled icing and all the wondrous creations done with pulled sugar.
Soufflés and Mousse- A seemingly daunting hurdle to the novice, but once the simple construction of flavoring base lightened with egg whites in the case of soufflé or whipped cream for mousse is mastered the sky is the limit.
Custards – Learning how to manage both breeds, baked and stir-cooked over heat, opens opportunities for both sweet and savory variations.
Puddings – A difficult process to pin down because of the wide range of foods that can be called puddings.
#3 Learn the Relationships of Aroma, Flavor, Texture and Color
The relationships of aroma, flavor, texture and color are possibly the most important aspect of improv cooking. In order for any dish to be cooked well, the dish must be whole. It must appeal to all the senses completely and with harmony. Webster’s Dictionary describes these elements in the following way;
Aroma – A pleasant characteristic odor
Flavor – the taste experience when a savory condiment is taken into the mouth
Texture – The distinctive physical composition or structure of something, especially with respect to the size, shape, and arrangement of its parts.
Color – That aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of the light reflected or emitted by them.
To make all of this work in harmony is no small task. Whether from recipes or you’re imaginations it’s the crux of all cooking. To neglect or diminish anyone of these elements would result in a dish that’s not complete. And by contrast, to enhance or over emphasize anyone of these elements as well would result in a dish that is off balance and probably not very appealing. So how do you know when you get it right? Is there a formula or system of measuring these elements that can insure all the pieces of the puzzle are in place? No, you just know when it works. Even though the balance of these elements is crucial, the right answer is up to you. Let your self go and become the dish or as was first said in Caddyshack “Be the ball!” Let your senses tell you what’s happening in that pot or pan. Smell, taste, look and even listen to the food as it cooks. It has a great story to tell if you let it.
#4 Learn the Art of Accompaniment
Very few things we cook stand-alone. Even the most well-crafted stew or soup becomes even more complete and interesting by what it is served with. The gamut of choices can range from side dishes to condiments to beverages and even to the choice of lighting or music. In fact there are too many choices to discuss in detail. The best way to approach this dilemma is to first understand the goal. Because there are huge differences in these as well, a simple lunch for two suggests a different set of choices from a large family gathering or an elegant supper. Throw this into the mix along with your own level of ability or comfort with certain techniques and dishes and well I think you get my point. Perhaps the best way to approach this step towards Improv Cooking is to begin with what you know, because just as the right accompaniments can make a meal, the wrong ones can just as easily destroy it.
#5 Cook With Others
“One can acquire everything in solitude except character.”
Stendhal, On Love, 1822
Unlike jazz, comedy or any of the other improvisational arts, where the act of improv is rarely done alone, you rarely think of cooking as something that can and should be done with others. Yet there are the accidental improvisational sessions that happen all the time.
While developing the skills of Improv cooking, you should plan several intentional cooking sessions centered on a specific dish or meal that two or more people can prepare together. Cooking with someone else can magically open a door to your imagination.
#6 Taste Analytically
I started cooking because I wanted to understand the magic behind the food I was eating. Tasting smelling and analyzing ingredients to understand the effects each can have within a dish is an essential improvisational skill. The more you do it the easier it becomes to unlock the magic of a dish. This skill coupled with a solid understanding of technique will enable you to accomplish great things in the kitchen.
#7 Break the Rules.
Without a sense of exploration, which is the ultimate rule breaker, we would have never walked on the moon or experienced Nouvelle Cuisine. The space program produced hundreds of modern conveniences we enjoy today. Yet many food writers and Chefs look upon Nouvelle Cuisine with the same disdain as the embarrassingly wide collars and polyester clothing of the day. Nouvelle Cuisine left us with a legacy of pushing the envelope. Unlike any other period in cooking, Chefs were taking the expected and giving us a whole new way to see it. The foods, techniques and presentations that seemed far out and strange then have today become not only the norm for many Chefs, but a jumping off point to even wilder ways to cook. Breaking the rules is the mantra in many kitchens today. Savory foams, laser printed edible paper, carnival midway snacks served in the palaces of high cuisine are just a few of the ways rules are being broken. If something feels like a rule the next time you’re in the kitchen, then break it. You may create something inedible, but you will learn a valuable lesson. I can’t emphasize enough that once you combine your increased knowledge of techniques, flavors and construction your imagination will be free to see new avenues to explore. Soon the rules will start disappearing.
CHICKEN BREASTS IN MUSTARD PAN SAUCE IMPROV
Chicken Breast, boneless and skinless
Fresh Ground Pepper
Good Grainy French Mustard
Chives for garnish
Butterfly the chicken breasts or pound them to 1/2″ thick. Season each liberally with salt and pepper then set aside. Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat until it foams and begins to brown. Add the just enough chicken to the pan so its not too crowded. Brown the breasts on one side then turn and cook for about 4-5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and lift the chicken breasts to a warm platter. Repeat the process again if you need to cook more chicken. If not, return the pan to the heat and add the veloute sauce. Stir in the mustard and reduce the heat to low. Scrape the pan to lift all the little bits of browned chicken stuck to the pan. Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Add a little of the warm sauce to the yolks to warm them then stir the mix into the warm sauce. Return the pan to the heat, but do not let the sauce boil. Finally, stir in the lemon juice and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the sauce and warm briefly. Serve the chicken topped with a little sauce and garnished with some snipped chives.
Improv Hint: The veloute sauce in this case should be a little on the thin side. The simmering in the pan, the mustard and the egg yolks will have an affect on making it a little thicker. Plan on about one-third cup of sauce per chicken breast.