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How to Cook without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

How to Cook without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

4.7 9
by Pam Anderson
Pam Anderson grew up watching her parents and grandparents make dinner every night by simply taking the ingredients on hand and cooking them with the techniques they knew.

Times have changed. Today we have an overwhelming array of ingredients and a fraction of the cooking time, but Anderson believes the secret to getting dinner on the table lies in the past. After


Pam Anderson grew up watching her parents and grandparents make dinner every night by simply taking the ingredients on hand and cooking them with the techniques they knew.

Times have changed. Today we have an overwhelming array of ingredients and a fraction of the cooking time, but Anderson believes the secret to getting dinner on the table lies in the past. After a long day, who has the energy to look up a recipe and search for the right ingredients before ever starting to cook? To make dinner night after night, Anderson believes the first two steps--looking for a recipe, then scrambling for the exact ingredients--must be eliminated.  Understanding that most recipes are simply "variations on a theme," she innovatively teaches technique, ultimately eliminating the need for recipes.

Once the technique or formula is mastered, Anderson encourages inexperienced as well as veteran cooks to spread their culinary wings.  For example, after learning to sear a steak, it's understood that the same method works for scallops, tuna, hamburger, swordfish, salmon, pork tenderloin, and more. You never need to look at a recipe again. Vary the look and flavor of these dishes with interchangeable pan sauces, salsas, relishes, and butters.

Best of all, these recipes rise above the mundane Monday-through-Friday fare.  Imagine homemade ravioli and lasagna for weeknight supper, or from-scratch tomato sauce before the pasta water has even boiled.  Last-minute guests? Dress up simple tomato sauce with capers and olives or shrimp and red pepper flakes. Drizzle sautéed chicken breasts with a balsamic vinegar pan sauce. Anderson teaches you how to do it--without a recipe. Don't buy exotic ingredients and follow tedious instructions for making hors d'oeuvres. Forage through the pantry and refrigerator for quick appetizers. The ingredients are all there; the method is in your head. Master four simple potato dishes--a bake, a cake, a mash, and a roast--compatible with many meals. Learn how to make the five-minute dinner salad, easily changing its look and flavor depending on the season and occasion. Tuck a few dessert techniques in your back pocket and effortlessly turn any meal into a special occasion.

There's real rhyme and reason to Pam's method at the beginning of every chapter: To dress greens, "Drizzle salad with oil, salt, and pepper, then toss until just slick. Sprinkle in some vinegar to give it a little kick." To make a frittata, "Cook eggs without stirring until set around the edges. Bake until puffy, then cut it into wedges." Each chapter also contains a helpful at-a-glance chart that highlights the key points of every technique, and a master recipe with enough variations to keep you going until you've learned how to cook without a book.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson:

"How to Cook Without a Book should win a prize for most understated cookbook title. What Pam Anderson really outlines here is a culinary tradition for today's American family; a practical, nourishing, and delicious way to deal with your family's everyday food life without written-in-stone recipes and without fuss or arcane ingredients. You'll love Pam holding your hand while you create the dishes that your children and grandchildren will one day certainly be cooking without a book."
--Arthur Schwartz, author of What to Cook and Naples at Table

"For down-to-earth, 'can-do' cooking that tastes terrific, nobody does it better than Pam Anderson. The book's common sense tips and kitchen wisdom will not only inspire new cooks but inform well-seasoned ones, too."
--Rick Rodgers, author of Thanksgiving 101 and Christmas 101

"[The] book gives you confidence that [the recipes] will work, and you will not be disappointed."
--The New York Times

"Her writing is sensible and easy to understand. Useful and challenging enough for both experienced cooks and novices."
--Philadelphia Inquirer

"My pick for cookbook of the year. . . . It's a book that both novices and experienced cooks will appreciate."
--Times/Post Intelligencer, Seattle, WA

"If you want to produce contemporary perfections in standards like meatloaf, roast turkey, cole slaw, and cobbler, this is the book for you."
--Chattanooga Times

How to Cook Without a Book

I would guess that it was being asked basic cooking questions one time too many that set Pam Anderson on the road to writing How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart. It is certainly a fine follow-up to her very successful The Perfect Recipe, Getting It Right Every Time. With these two books, Pam Anderson is well on her way to becoming the Fannie Farmer or Irma Rombauer of our time. These are no-nonsense, get-to-the-heart-of-it cookbooks that lead the inexperienced home cook on a direct path to learning how to cook simply and well every day.

Anderson tells us that she grew up surrounded by good Southern cooks—cooks who made their meals by sight and feel, without the help of a recipe or any other guidelines. They cooked what they knew, in the way they knew how to cook it. As soon as she was able to help, Anderson was assigned a job, and she learned by doing. Of course, the ingredients and equipment available to her teachers were a fraction of what today's cooks have to choose from. Plus, most of the women were homemakers whose main job was to run their households and manage their children—quite unlike most of today's home cooks. To help a new generation of cooks to cook without a book, Anderson has devised a rhyme for every technique. For pasta, "Heat fat and garlic, cook for two. Add canned tomatoes, simmer for a few." For Salads with Vinaigrette, "Consider single vegetables for salads when you shop. Nothing beats steamed asparagus, for example, with vinaigrette on top." And for the most difficult category, desserts, "There is no one technique for quick dessert, and certainly no one rhyme, but anything is possible with a little money, work, or time." With just a little thought, a beginning cook can memorize the alphabet of basic cooking techniques much as one learns nursery rhymes.

Reading How to Cook Without A Book really is just like having your mother or grandmother in the kitchen with you. It is filled with very simple recipes, many with interesting variations that can be made every day with little effort and little time. In a chapter called "The Right Stuff: Stocking the Refrigerator, Freezer, and Pantry," Anderson lays out the basics of cooking without a book. A well-stocked pantry is where it all starts—in fact, Anderson tells us that "one of the signs of a successful working cook is the number of times she food shops." With the guidelines in this chapter leading the way, there is no reason why you could not cook a well-rounded meal every day (even after working, picking up the kids, throwing in the laundry, walking the dog, and exercising!) To quote the author, "My learning to cook without a book was a slow process, one I'm still learning. Although I think dinner is important, and our family eats very well, I don't spend hours in preparation. Like the rest of the work force, I usually turn my attention to dinner each night at the last moment. I take shortcuts whenever I can, and rarely have much more than thirty minutes for weeknight dinner preparations." Her technique for putting dinner on the table with some amount of ease came about over years of dissatisfaction with eating out or ordering in. "We began to develop our own way of cooking without recipes, internalizing basic cooking techniques and memorizing simple formulas that worked for the way we ate during the week." How marvelous that she learned this well enough to pass it along to other cooks. As so many home cooks struggle with the nightly decision of what to eat for dinner, how to manage breakfast with everyone trying to get out of the house at once, and what to pack in the lunch boxes to eat sensibly at lunchtime, I am sure that How to Cook Without a Book will become the home cook's handbook. With it, we will all be able to join Anderson and her family in saying, "Set the table. We're eating dinner at home tonight."

Judith Choate

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Former executive editor of Cook's magazine and author of The Perfect Recipe, Anderson wants to teach Americans a new way to cook--without relying on recipes. It's somewhat surprising, then, to discover that this book is full of recipes. However, readers may cotton to Anderson's method: each chapter consists of a simple technique, basic recipe, variations, key points and a little mnemonic device used to recall the technique. The techniques are, for the most part, terrific time-savers, such as cutting out the back before roasting a whole chicken or making one giant omelet to serve four people so that everyone can eat together. Variations are good, too, although many are so similar to one another that it seems a little repetitious to include a recipe for each (in turn, many of the recipes refer back to the original, resulting in a lot of page-flipping). A chapter on tomato sauces, for example, includes the basic Simple Tomato Sauce, as well as Tomato Sauce with Dried Porcini, Tomato Sauce with Sweet Onions and Thyme, Tomato Sauce with Shrimp and Red Pepper Flakes and many others. A chapter on pan sauces is a winner, encompassing Red Wine-Dijon Pan Sauce, Port Wine Pan Sauce with Dried Cranberries and Balsamic Pan Sauce with Pine Nuts and Raisins. In the end, this cookbook is a solid collection of simple, quick recipes, but with its sometimes scattered format, it is unlikely to free everyday cooks from the tyranny of recipes. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Amanda Hesser
Selling a book called How to Cook Without a Book seems like the publishing equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot. Yet there couldn't be a better title for Pam Anderson's new book. She attempts heroically to give cooks the clues they need to get a meal on the table without dizzying themselves between book and stove...After a day of cooking, I felt a sense of momentum and empowerment, not just sore feet. What I liked most, though, was acknowledging that cooking is often about getting a meal on the table. And that should involve instinct and improvisation, not directions on a page.
The New York Times

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The Right Stuff

Stocking the Refrigerator, Freezer, and Pantry

Cooking without a book starts with a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry. One of the signs of a successful businessperson is how few times she handles the same piece of mail. To me, one of the signs of a successful working cook is how few times she shops for food.

For want of any meal planning, many cooks end up repeatedly running to the store. Since most American family schedules are erratic and unpredictable, long-term meal planning can be frustrating, but running to the grocery store every day or two also takes time and energy that most people just don't have.

On vacation, I shop every day because I enjoy it. When I work, however, I try to stock up once a week, running back maybe once more if I'm entertaining or I've left something off the list. Every few weeks I go to my gourmet store for olives, cheese, oil, vinegar, and other pantry items. I also stop at a good bakery for French and Italian bread, which I freeze.

I take time to shop because if I find myself with an empty refrigerator at 6:00 on Wednesday night, I'm more likely to grab the family and head for a restaurant. Surrounding yourself with good food is the first step in effortless cooking.

In stocking my freezer, refrigerator, and pantry, I'm neither frugal nor extravagant. Sometimes I get hit with sticker shock at the checkout, but when I think of what I would have spent if our family had gone out for dinner even once during the week, I quickly realize that food shopping is a bargain.

The following pantry, refrigerator, and freezer lists may look long. Although many of the items are necessities (e.g. canned tomatoes, chicken stock, salt, onions, garlic, oil, vinegar), others are not. Simply pick and choose from each list what looks good and makes sense for you. Besides, you probably have many of the ingredients in your kitchen now. And, once you're stocked, it's just a matter of replenishing the supply now and again. As time goes on, you will internalize the list and automatically know what's missing from week to week.

Poultry, Meat, and Fish

Depending on your preferences, keep the following in your refrigerator or freezer. Unless you plan to use it within a day or two of purchase, freeze all meat, poultry, and fish. They can be defrosted in the refrigerator or microwaved to room temperature at the last minute.


* Boneless skinless chicken breasts (or thighs)

* Whole chickens

* Chicken wings

* Turkey cutlets (or boneless skinless turkey breast that can easily be sliced into cutlets)

* Ground turkey

* Turkey or chicken sausages

* Duck breasts


* Boneless New York strip steaks

* Boneless rib-eye steaks

* Filet mignons

* Ground chuck


* Thick-cut boneless pork chops or boneless rib-end pork loin roast for cutting into chops

* Pork tenderloin for cutting into medallions

* Raw and cooked sausage (Italian, chorizo, andouille, or kielbasa)

* Bacon

* A hunk of deli-style baked ham (or turkey).

After letting package after package of sliced-to-order deli meat spoil within a few days of purchase, I've started buying larger pieces of these meats. This way the meat lasts much longer, and I can cut it the way I want--slices for sandwiches, julienne for salads, small dice for omelets, and large dice for soup. If you can't use what you've bought within a week, divide it and freeze one half.

Fish and Shellfish

* Shrimp

* Any fish fillet, such as thick flounder, catfish, snapper, tilapia, grouper, or other thin, white-fleshed fish

* Any fish steak, such as tuna, swordfish, or salmon

* Jumbo dry scallops

* Littleneck, top neck, or small cherrystone clams, eaten within a day or two of purchase

* Mussels, eaten within a day or two of purchase

Food for the Freezer

* Frozen green peas, spinach (two 10-ounce packages of spinach serve four people), and corn. On the nights when the vegetable bin is low or you need an instant vegetable, it's nice to look in the freezer and find something. It's also good to have corn on hand for soups and chowders, and for freshening up quick polenta.

* Good-quality bread. Well-made bread can turn a good meal into a great one. I shop for bread once every couple of weeks. I buy and freeze at least four baguettes, some crusty rolls for soup, and often a loaf of raisin bread or challah for breakfast.

* A quart of premium vanilla ice cream. Having a quart of vanilla ice cream in the freezer is like having a little black dress in the closet. Adorned or not, it's the ultimate quick dessert.

* Two packages of frozen fruit such as strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries. With frozen fruit on hand you can have a cobbler in the oven in ten minutes. They're also handy for baking a batch of muffins on the weekend.

* Frozen puff pastry. This is one of my favorite convenience products. If I've got a sheet of puff pastry, I can whip out turnovers, tarts, and quick cookies with very little effort and no recipe.

Food for the Refrigerator

* Buy fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits that keep well, then store them properly.

* In addition to seasonal fruits and vegetables, I almost always have the following on hand:

Red or yellow peppers
Parsley and other fresh herbs on occasion
Romaine hearts and other lettuces

* Although the following vegetables are not stored in the refrigerator, they are included in this section. For extended life, keep them in a cool, dark place.

Baking potatoes
At least one red onion
Red boiling potatoes
A couple of heads of garlic
A bag of yellow onions

Besides low-fat milk, I keep the following dairy items in the refrigerator:

* Milk

* Eggs

* Butter

* Buttermilk. Since it has a relatively long shelf life, I use it for pancakes, muffins, biscuits, and corn muffins

* Heavy cream. Like buttermilk, heavy cream has a long shelf life and it's great to have around for impromptu entertaining and simple pan sauces

* Three or four cheeses of your choice. A good sharp cheddar, some sort of blue or goat cheese, a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a bar of cream cheese are my favorites.

* Low-fat plain yogurt for making yogurt cheese and desserts. If not used for those purposes, it can always be sweetened and eaten for breakfast.

Food for the Pantry

General Pantry

* Large and small cans of low-sodium chicken broth

* Bottled clam juice

* Cans of crushed and whole tomatoes packed in purée

* Canned tuna

* Canned clams

* Anchovies or anchovy paste

* Evaporated milk

* Peanut butter

* Honey
• jam and/or jelly

* Dried mushrooms

* Oils: olive, sesame, and vegetable

* 1 jar roasted red peppers

* Pastas: spaghetti, macaroni, egg noodles, and couscous

* Grains: long-grain white rice, instant polenta

* Dijon mustard

* Capers

* Vinegars: red and white wine, balsamic, and rice wine

* Ketchup

* Barbecue sauce

* Bottled horseradish

* Soy sauce

* Asian fish sauce

* Marinated artichokes

* Canned beans: black, white, and chickpeas

* Mayonnaise

* Dried breadcrumbs

* Dried fruit: raisins or currants and cranberries

* 1 jar each: piquant black olives such as kalamata and green olives


* All-purpose flour

* Salt

* Cornmeal

* Granulated sugar

* Light or dark brown sugar

* Baking powder

* Baking soda

* Unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate

* Chocolate chips

* Unsweetened cocoa powder

* Vanilla extract

Herbs and Spices

* Basil

* Bay leaves

* Ground black pepper

* Ground cinnamon

* Ground cloves

* Ground cumin

* Curry powder

* Herbes de Provence

* Ground nutmeg or whole nutmeg for grating fresh

* Oregano

* Hot red pepper flakes

* Sage leaves

* Dried thyme leaves

Meet the Author

Pam Anderson is the former executive editor of Cook's Illustrated and author of the bestselling The Perfect Recipe: Getting It Right Every Time--Making Our Favorite Dishes the Absolute Best They Can Be.  She lives with her husband and their two daughters in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and makes dinner (almost) every night.

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4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoy cooking very much, and over the years I have developed a good level of compentency in my kitchen. However, I lacked the confidence to just strike out on my own and attempt meals without recipes to guide me. This wonderful book, well organized and a pleasure to read, teaches basic techniques that will free and inspire you. With her methods in hand, I am more likely to throw something together with what I've got than I am to order in.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the practicality of this cookbook. It taught me basic techniques of cooking that I could then build upon and apply to other recipes. It really helped me to feel more comfortable in the kitchen. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is branching out on their own and needs some solid teaching in the ways of the stovetop and oven, so to speak.
lbr More than 1 year ago
This is a great book to have whether you are a beginning cook or not. It teaches the basics called "method" cooking. It teaches one the fundamentals yet gives you the freedom to create and inspires one to add their own signature to the dishes. I probably have bought over 20 of these cookbooks to give away as bridal shower or weeding presents. I would love to see Pam write a part two.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author focuses on technique, not ingredients. Let's face it, if it's not in your kitchen, you probably don't like it anyway. I gave this book to a family member. When I realized that she had given another copy to a friend, I knew I had a winner. Since then, I've given a copies to other friends. One of the best things that you can give as a gift is something that you've enjoyed yourself. I love going through my pantry or freezer and pulling together a meal, when I haven't had time to plan. This book gives you the knowledge and technique needed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The stuff that's taught in this book is very practical, but still will take some practice before you get it just right. A lot of cooking is understanding the basics and then playing with it, so the recipes in the books will soon become second to your own creativity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up from the library and now I must buy it. Great ideas and even better results using the very easy recipes and techniques. The goat cheese ravoli dish was so yummy. I have recommended this to all my friends. It makes the perfect wedding shower gift.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The title and author sold me on the book. Pam continually tests, refines and perfects her recipes so that they are fool-proof. In this book, I have found that the master recipes, or techniques free me from the dreaded - I don't have the ingredient - fear that usually leads to my going out for dinner. Once you learn her searing technique for steaks and master a pan-sauce or two (they take 10 minutes max.), you can freely compete with any steak house in your town. If you love risotto, but hate the time it takes to constantly tend it (30 minutes) then try the orzo recipes which result a risotto-like dish without the work.