Everyday ingredients, like shrimp and asparagus
Photo: Gentl & Hyers
Picture yourself as a happy cook doing what you love best: preparing a great dinner. You are not anxiously scrutinizing your cookbook every few seconds to make sure you're following the instructions to the letter. Nor are you robotically generating dishes you've made so many times you could churn them out in your sleep. Instead, you're engaged in a kind of improvisational dance—smelling, stirring, tasting, adjusting. All your senses are fully engaged.

Get inspired by the recipes we came up with using these techniques

If you aspire to be a more skillful cook, there are thousands of sources you can turn to for recipes and technical advice. But if you want to be a more intuitive cook—the kind who can whip up a delicious dinner from the seemingly incongruous ingredients on hand or know instantly that the soup needs a jolt of lemon—there are ways you can learn to trust your own imagination and taste. Instead of following recipes, you can shrug off your inhibitions.

Start by experimenting. If you're a creature of habit who turns to the same seasonings every time you prepare a particular food—roast chicken, say, or grilled asparagus—try changing one ingredient. Replace rosemary with thyme, or olive oil with hazelnut oil. Your goal is just to begin tasting, smelling, paying attention—and to observe what happens when certain flavors collide.

Okay, but let's say you don't even know where to begin guessing what flavors might work well together. Don't despair. For help and inspiration, we turned to Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of The Flavor Bible, an innovative guide to the many different ways you can combine ingredients without resorting to recipes. They've compiled a list of 600-plus food entries, arranged alphabetically (from achiote seeds to zucchini blossoms). Underneath each food, they've included a list of complementary ingredients, or "flavor affinities," that pair well with it—from herbs and spices to nuts and meats. Page and Dornenburg begin by explaining the basic principles of balancing tastes like salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. But mainly, they encourage you to experiment.

The key is to build on what you already know—and like. If you've roasted pork chops with apples before—a classic combination that marries the richness and slight astringency of the pork with the sweetness of the fruit—you may decide to grill or roast the chops with a different fruit (like peaches), and drizzle some balsamic vinegar on top. You might discover this combination in the book, which lists peaches and balsamic vinegar as flavor affinities for pork chops—or you might eventually come up with it by intuition, or by finding it on a restaurant menu.