A rigid recipes follower’s guide to channelling your inner culinary improviser.
We all know home cooks who can cobble together an inspiring meal without following a recipe. I used to be the opposite: a rigid recipe follower. I approached a recipe like I was assembling a piece of IKEA furniture, working my way through the instructions line-by-line and dutifully following each step.
I always aspired to cook well with less structure, however, because I think the real magic of home cooking opens up when it becomes an outlet for creativity. While I still refer to recipes here and there, these are some of the ways I’ve learned to become more comfortable cooking without them (that I hope might help some fellow recipe assemblers tap into their inner culinary improviser).
Cook new meals often
It’s easy for cooking to become a monotonous part of our daily routines, so I always look for new recipes to avoid getting stuck in a culinary rut. Whether I was drawing from a cookbook or a food blog or a Youtube cooking video, frequently cooking new recipes helped me see patterns in the typical ways ingredients are prepared and how flavours are paired together.
Now, when I open my fridge and stare back at the usual mishmash of half-used ingredients, I have a memory bank of different ways I’ve prepared those ingredients in the past that I can use as a basic framework.
Push yourself to cook with what you have
Early in my journey to becoming a better home cook, I frequently bought ingredients to make one particular meal and once that meal was over, move on to the next extravagant dish and let the leftover ingredients from that last meal wither away in my fridge. Bunches of fresh cilantro lingering from taco night, half tubs of ricotta remaining from a lasagna, and other perishables with no secondary purpose would shrivel and sour. Spices and seasonings I bought for one-off recipe experiments collected dust in the deep recesses of my pantry.
Largely to cut down on food waste, I forced myself to consider my existing ingredients when making a new recipe, experimenting with subbing in ingredients I had on hand that I suspected would work just as well as what the recipe suggested.
And then the pandemic hit, thrusting this exact challenge upon many of us. Fewer trips to the grocery store gave many of us no choice but to learn how to cook with what we had. For me, it pushed me to start leaving out ingredients that didn’t seem essential to the recipe to avoid an extra grocery store visit.
The more I’ve become comfortable subbing, tweaking, and eliminating ingredients in recipes, the more a recipe has started to serve as a loose guideline to what I’m cooking rather than a manual.
Don’t be afraid to mess up
Whether it’s due to my perfectionist tendencies or my obsession with food (it’s probably a bit of both), one of the reasons I was reluctant to cook without recipes was because I was genuinely afraid of making a disappointing meal. As long as I follow a recipe, I can count on my meal turning out well. Experimenting in the kitchen, however, puts me at risk of being stuck serving a lacklustre dish (not to mention subjecting myself to days worth of equally ho-hum leftovers).
What I’ve learned, however, is that a bland or slightly overcooked meal isn’t the end of the world — particularly because I know that finding the courage to work without recipes is making me a more skilled and spontaneous home cook in the long-run.
So I’ll proudly throw some hot sauce on my under-seasoned stir fry or throw some pieces of dried-out roast into a stew, because I know I’m paving the way for true culinary confidence.