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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Atlas

Freestyle Cooking Rule #1: Carbs, Meat & Sauce.

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Cooking without a recipe can be pretty daunting at first. You may have thoughts like, "How do I know when the meat is cooked? ", "How much spice should I add?", and "What should I put on the side?" These thoughts can build up and become very overwhelming, so overwhelming in fact that you decide "screw it" and order another takeout or whack Rustlers burger in the microwave. In this series of articles, I hope to teach you all the tips & tricks that I've learned over the past 10 years to be able to freestyle a delicious meal, every time.

IMPORTANT: Each component of this article will have a quick summary at the start so you don't have to sift through all the explanations to get to the important information. This summary will be listed as tldr or (too long, didn't read).


What Will Be Covered?

This particular article will cover one of my Rules of Three. This rule is what I use to construct any meal to perfection. This will be the most basic level of learning when it comes to freestyle cooking, allowing you to leave after reading this and immediately be able to make a delicious meal, on the fly. Every freestyle article afterward will teach you how to level up your cooking making your life in the kitchen easier.

If you want the answer without the knowledge.

How to construct a meal with no recipe:
  1. Pick a carb as a base.

  2. Get any form of meat, season & sear.

  3. Add a sauce to bring it together.

  4. (Optionally) Reduce the carbs and add veg if you want a more rounded dish.


Carbs, Meat, Sauce:

Tldr; all good dishes are made with 3 components. A carb as the base of the dish, some form of meat or meat substitute, and a sauce. Take any of your favourite dishes, break it down & you'll see those 3 main components.

In its simple form, a homely meal boils down to three components: meat, carbs & sauce. Think of any of your favourite dishes and you'll see what I mean. Pastas, pizzas, ramen & stir fry, burgers & curries, pasties and pastries... the list goes on, even with vegan food. Yes, I know It says meat, however, you can find some form of protein in every vegan dish which could be substituted for meat. Components like tofu, lentils & legumes I categorise as meats in this context. I'm also categorising fish as meat.

In the photos of me in this article, I'm cooking chicken burgers for my roommates with no recipe. I'm just following the CMS Rule. If we take burgers as an example. You have 3 main components.

Myself Holding A Gochujang Chicken Burger

Carbs - The bun of the burger

Meats - The patty or fillet

Sauce - The cheese & condiments

Yes, I know, I just called cheese a sauce...

In this context it is, let me explain why.


The Sauce:

Tldr; always keep a couple of different sauces in the fridge to add to your meals. This brings more flavours to your dishes and makes the meal feel more complete.

The sauce is by far the most important part of a dish and yet somehow the most forgotten. Most first-time/home cooks rarely use sauces in their meals but it's the thing that brings the dish together. It's the binding agent that makes the meal so comforting and homely. There are very few dishes that are better without sauce. Imagine having a pie but it's just pastry around dry meat, or spaghetti bolognese but it's just ground beef around dry pasta... It just doesn't work.

Carbs, Meat, Sauce - Burger Diagram

A sauce isn't always liquid. If we take the previous example of the burger, I called cheese "the sauce". This is because, when cooking burgers the cheese melts and becomes a sauce-like texture and brings the bun and meats together. The same can be said for caramelised onions. When done right, the onions become jammy and almost sauce-like. Or, just the condiments you put on top, like ketchup and mayo. It's that goey binder that helps pull the dish together that makes it so good. The sauce is also what brings a lot of the flavours.

When you're next trying to freestyle a meal, first think about your meat & carbs, then ask yourself "What kind of sauce would bring this together?". Let's say you're having a simple grilled chicken breast & mashed potato, try adding some gravy. Take that same chicken breast but with rice, this time add a curry sauce to it.

The Sauces Currently In My Pantry

This isn't to say you have to add an extra step to your daily cooks. You don't have to cook an extra component to make your dinner. I keep a jar of passata, pesto & curry in the fridge at all times that I use in almost every meal, whether it be a flatbread pizza, a quick pasta bolognese or even something more creative like a chimichanga or chicken parm. Having sauces in the fridge ready to add to any meal will elevate your freestyle game.


The Carbs:

Tldr; pasta, noodles, potatoes, pastry etc. should be the first thing you consider when coming up for a meal on the fly. It's the bulk of your dish and the thing that carries the meats and sauce. If you're gonna reduce the amount of carbs replace it with some form of veg to bring balance.

A photo of the carbs currently in my pantry
The Carbs Currently In My Pantry

The Carbs should be the bulk of the dish, they're the vessel you carry your meat and sauce on. They're the foundation of every good meal and should be the first thing you think about when freestyling a meal. Bread, pasta, potatoes, pastry, and noodles should be what you should be building your meals off.

The main mistake people make with carbs is not having enough of it. If you're going to lower the amount of carbs you have, you have to bulk up your dish with vegetables. Don't try to add extra sauce or meats it'll throw off the balance of the dish. Think of something like pasta - adding a light sauce like pesto and meat like chicken is great but if you want to reduce the amount of pasta you can't just add more chicken or sauce...

Instead add roasted peppers, onions, courgette, etc. and make a roasted veg pesto pasta salad. This works for sandwiches too. Remove a slice of bread, cube up the other slice into croutons, mix the filler and croutons into leafy greens and boom you have a salad.

Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad

The other thing people struggle with is seasoning your carbs. Pasta, noodles and potatoes are very dense and thus don't take on salt as easily. When boiling those three, a good rule of thumb is to make the boiling water as salty as the sea. This higher concentration of salt will force more salt into the tuff carbs. This rule doesn't apply to rice though. The water you could your rice in should be just slightly saltier than you want the rice to be, as all the water will be absorbed.


The Meat:

Tldr; Seasoning is not a replacement for sauce it is an addition to meat, don't skip out or underseason your meats and always cook your meats on a ripping high heat to get a good sear, the colour is where all the flavour is.

Everyone's favourite part of the dish but often underutilised, the meat is the heart of the dish. There are 2 main mistakes made with meat seasoning and searing.  People often don't season their meat and I'm telling you, you're missing out. You can't just rely on the sauce for flavour. Seasoning your meat is a way of imparting flavours specifically to that section. Take a fajita for example, you season the chicken first, but then add your sauce (salsa). Seasoning shouldn't be treated as an alternative to sauces it is an addition of flavour and should be used to elevate the flavours of the meat specifically.

My Fajita Seasoning Recipe

You don't have to learn how to make your spice mixes, nor do you have to go out and buy a hundred different spices. You can buy excellent 1 meal season packets that completely change your bland dishes to something exploding with flavour. In all my recipes you'll find the name of a spice mix hyperlinked so that if you want to make it yourself the way I would have it then you can, however, you can always just buy a pre-mix from the supermarket. An example of this is my fajita seasoning recipe, as seen on the right.

Secondly, SEAR YOUR MEAT PEOPLE. There is a world of flavour that people are missing out on by not searing their meats. Colour is where the flavour is... think the browsing on a chicken thigh or the blackened grill marks on a good steak. The colour on the meat is the flavour.

Myself Explain The Maillard Reaction To Viewers

If you want the scientific reason as to why it tastes so good then I'd recommend researching The Maillard Reaction. It has to do with proteins & sugars reacting together to create that brown colour. Maillard reactions can produce loads of different flavour compounds depending on the food, temperature, time, and presence of air. These compounds, in turn, often break down to form yet more flavour compounds. Essentially, you're unlocking its full flavour.

So, If you want even tastier food, just crank the heat as high as it will go before putting your meat in the pan and leaving it on one side without moving it for a few minutes to get a proper sear. Then flip it over, leave for a few more minutes to bring colour to the other side, and then lower the heat and put in your veg, sauce, etc.



To recap:

  1. Pick a carb as a base, this is the bulk of your dish.

  2. Get any form of meat, season & sear it to unlock its full flavour.

  3. Add a sauce to bring all the components together.

  4. (Optionally) Reduce the carbs and add veg instead to create a more nutritionally balanced dish.

Now that you understand the three main components that make a meal I urge you to go out tonight and buy a set of ingredients that you think would work together and cook a meal. Whether you go out and buy every spice, and every component to make your very own curry and rice or you buy a pack of premade flatbreads, jarred red pesto, cheese & pre-cooked chicken to make a simple flatbread pizza. You'll still be practicing the fundamental skills that will allow you to each cheaper & healthier.

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