How to become a person who can (mostly) cook without a recipe

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Rebecca Mimnall
Cinnamon says COOK!
By: SamahR – CC BY 2.0

Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too: people who are good cooks have a habit of saying something like “oh, you just toss some things together, whatever you have on hand.” I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve become one of those people. It is shocking, perhaps even shameful.

How did I go from a person who needs a recipe to a person who can just make it up as I go?

Here’s what worked for me:

Start with recipes, and get good at a few things

Step one is just to start cooking however you are comfortable. What are you favorite foods? Find some recipes that you like and make them enough that you are comfortable with them. Comfortable enough that you may no longer need to reference the recipe.

Taste often

This may be the most important thing. Start tasting your food between steps. Taste before and after you add seasoning or a critical ingredient. Can you tell a difference? Do you see what that addition gave to the dish? Did you like it better before adding the thing? As you do this, you'll become better at recognizing the way acidity, salt, and seasonings change a dish.

Remember the stakes

They are small. Your end goal is something edible, which truly is a low bar. If you fail at that, it's okay. If you are like Offbeat Home's editor Megan (or me), there is frozen pizza in the freezer and you will not go hungry.

Embrace substitutions

You can follow a recipe even if you don’t have everything. Search for substitutions online, follow your instinct, or just make it without that ingredient. I have successfully made meals “by a recipe” where I used only half of the called for ingredients, and subbed in similar things; they have turned out just fine. (Maybe even better!)

Look for patterns

Certain things, like soups and salad dressings, follow patterns that are easy to replicate with whatever you have available. Any vegetarian soup, for example: simmer onions (or feel fancy and say “aromatics” and toss in celery, leeks, and/or garlic); add vegetables to brown for a bit, then water/broth; bring to a boil, then simmer until vegetables are tender; add seasonings; puree, if pureeing; add cooked beans or grains, if using; add cream, if adding cream. Boom. It’s soup! ( Handy soup reference.)

Cherry pick

When you want to make something, review several different recipes, and take from each recipe the elements that sound the best. In my personal experience, I’ve found that within a reasonable range, oven temperatures and cooking times are not that important. The difference between cooking something at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or 400 degrees for 15 is practically meaningless. So don’t get too hung up on varying cook times or temperature — just pick one and go with it. Oven temperature and time is certainly more important with baking, but there’s variability there, too.

So that’s it. Really, this could all boil down to one thing: cook more. Just go for it. The more often you do it, the easier it gets.

  1. Great list! Most of these were included in my own more-or-less inadvertent process as well, but I'm not a "taster," and that sounds like a really useful way to become more familiar with spices (I'm embarrassingly bad at identifying seasonings in finished recipes.) Cherry-picking is a thing I found unexpectedly useful… thank goodness for recipe websites! I also like browsing cookbooks–public libraries have them–for inspiration, and picking things at restaurants that feature unusual uses of vegetables I like (I can always find substitutions for the expensive ingredients.)

  2. I would definitely recommend checking out "How to Cook Without a Book" by Pam Anderson (not the Baywatch one). It's amazing, and totally made a different cook out of me. The chapters each focus on a basic aspect of cooking (Dressings/Salads, Sides, Meats, Potatoes, Eggs, Sauces, Desserts, etc). Each section starts off with the most basic facts, the what, when, where, and why of how to cook each item. She then goes on to provide a base recipe for that item. The next part of the chapter are variations on that base recipe. Once you get the technique down, you pretty much know how to cook whatever the heck you want whenever the heck you want, and after you try some of the variations, you get a good feel for how to springboard into future fancy combinations. I don't really need the book anymore, but I like having it on hand when I'm having "Chef's Block" and have no idea what to whip together for a last-minute dinner. Invaluable book for my household!

  3. "In my personal experience, I’ve found that within a reasonable range, oven temperatures and cooking times are not that important. The difference between cooking something at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or 400 degrees for 15 is practically meaningless. So don’t get too hung up on varying cook times or temperature — just pick one and go with it."

    THIS. One of the houses I live in as a student had an ancient gas oven with all the temperature markings worn off and a very fine line between barely warm and BURN ALL THE THINGS! There were eight of us in that house running the whole gamut of cooking abilities and in the year we were there no-one got food poisoning and very little got burned beyond edibleness. Now I rarely bother with exact temperatures and timings unless I'm baking something delicate. For things like stews and casseroles it really doesn't matter and I've been known to vary cooking times by an hour or more depending on when we want to eat.

  4. Being comfortable with a few recipes and branching out from there is a great way to learn to cook without a book. I often make this amazing beef stew that is slowly baked in a dark beer broth…but alas, Saturday night came and I didn't have time to pick up a beer! So I used canned tomatoes and red wine in place, creating an amazing hybrid recipe. Figure out some recipes that work WELL…and then tinker with them.

    Another suggestion: spend time with someone who cooks this way. My mother is a master at making "concoctions" (her term), so I often try to picture what she would do when I get stuck with a recipe. Observe. Ask questions. Taste!

    • One of my best friends cooks this way and spending a lot of (really fun) time with her in the kitchen taught me an awful lot about coming this way 🙂

  5. Agree totally. This just sort of happened to me once I started cooking regularly. Although I will say – I am not a taster, and when I am, I generally burn my tongue!

  6. It may sound counter-intuitive to recommend a book on a post about cooking without recipes, but The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg is actually a great resource for this. The Flavor Bible isn't about recipes but about finding good flavor combinations, which makes it excellent for winging it (like when you have an ingredient that needs using up, you could look it up and find other things, sometimes counter-intuitive things, that go well with it).

      • Ooh, thank you for recommending this one, ladies! Someone a while back had recommended the Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, which I intend to check out at some point, as well.

        This article is fantastic! The only thing above that I do differently is that I have learned to largely work off of my sense of smell, rather than needing to continually taste and re-taste as I cook.

        Now, is there an approach that works this way for baking or do I just really need to practice it more to get a feel for appropriate amounts sans recipes? That's really my weak point…

      • Yes! I love how he gives you ideas for variations and supports the "use what you have" mentality.

        Being able to cook without a recipe is nice for going to the farmer's market since you don't know what you will come home with. And it's also nice for going to the grocery store in winter when you have to pick what looks best instead of sticking to your exact ingredients.

        Also, knowing what brings out what kind of flavor is important. Sometimes you need fat to bring out the flavor of vegetables, especially in veggie soup!

      • I am a cherry picker and a patter recognizer (so I just learned) and Bittman's style totally works for me. The formula of recipe+several variations shows me what I can substitute in or out and what flavor profiles would work together.

        For me, learning to cook without a book has been about 2 things:
        1) Growing more confident cooking different proteins in different ways. Broiling, sauteeing, braising, baking. With these techniques more of less down, I feel confident throwing something together.
        2) Learning basic sauces and recipe combos. Mirepois to start a soup (diced carrots, onion, celery). Dressings (3:1 oil to vinegar). Roux (1:1 butter and flour, then if using 1 tbsp each, add 1 cup milk to make bechemel). Marinade (some oil, some acid, some salt, some spice). How to cook eggs (always use more fat than you think you should). Caramelized onions (take freaking ages to do right. Add a little sugar).

      • I was going to say the same thing! I have HtCE Vegetarian (many of the recipes are vegan, and most others are easily veganized), and despite being the least flashy, it's probably the most-used cookbook on my shelf. I've been cooking most of my life, but I still pull it out for advice when I want to expand my repertoire. I love the guides (e.g. legumes, grains, spices), and the suggestions for additions and substitutions. The "simplest bean burger" recipe is one of my staples, and I don't think I've ever made it the same way twice.

  7. "Recipes are an insult to my intelligence." ~Mr. Daisy

    My husband and I take very different approaches to cooking. He can make a (usually) delicious dinner in 20 minutes by just throwing together what we have. His food falls much more in to the category of "concoctions" though. Nothing that is definable as a particular dish. We eat mostly vegan so it also makes this kind of cooking easy and relatively risk free. There is little risk of cross contamination and no ingredients that require precise internal temperatures. So he just throws together a one-pot dish of mostly veggies, a grain, some sort of protein (tempeh, tofu, beans) makes a sauce and calls it done. Occasionally he misses the mark by mixing things that have vastly different ideal cooking times (ever eaten raw potatoes?) or adding too much acid or spice, but his dishes are almost always edible and usually quite good. We can't really replicate them though.

    I get easily stumped. My creative juices are not flowing at 6:30pm when I've worked all day, gone to the gym and WANT TO EAT RIGHT NOW. I also am more likely to want a particular type of food, not just a concoction. I rely more on the tricks Rebecca suggests. I have certain recipes that I have more or less memorized at this point that I return to again and again on days when I don't want to think of anything else. I try new recipes when I have time and if they are good I go back to them. I have learned what spices and flavors are characteristic of particular cuisine so know to add plenty of cumin and oregano if I am cooking latin but to mix curry with that cumin instead if it's indian that I am craving. I can make a dish that is vaguely thai now without actually looking at a recipe. I also cherry pick from multiple recipes to accommodate for ingredients I don't have, etc.

    So if we just want food. now. please. the Mr can whip up something that will get us fed and happy. If I really want to try to make those Vietnamese crepes we had that one time I look up a recipe. He will help talk me off the ledge if I forgot to buy an ingredient or messed up a step and can't improvise well enough. His "throw it together approach" means that he has a better sense of what ingredients compliment each other. I am nearly totally in charge of baking because the "no recipes, evar!" method does not really work when it comes to making a cake. Not that he hasn't tried. (Fennel cookies that are spongy like cake and soggy in the middle? no thanks.)

  8. I can trace back much of my cooking confidence to my mom. She did this wonderful thing where she would let us experiment with baking – we would choose whether we wanted to use milk or butter, so we would end up with either a batter or a dough. Then we could put in however much of whatever else we wanted to try, whether it was flour, leavening, sugar, fruit chunks, etc. etc. and then it would be baked when we decided we were finished. Most of the time they were unremarkable or outright gross, but occasionally they were delicious. We called it gingle-gongle. It was such a great foundation for learning how to bake. And then of course we would help with dinner or baking a treat, and eventually do it ourselves (with many questions for Mom). And now I'm quite good at baking and a respectable no-recipe cook and I'm so grateful to my mom for making it easy for me.

    • I love this! As a nanny and someone who loves to bake, I'm always trying to get the kids into the kitchen. I never even thought about just letting them go at it on their own, and just providing basic knowledge of how each ingredient will change the final product! Your mom is awesome! We will be making gingle-gongle at work this week!!

      • Hooray! I'm glad to have inspired someone else with one of my favorite childhood experiences 🙂 I don't quite remember how much she supervised what we were putting in; I think we could use only up to two eggs, and other limits like that. But I'm sure you'll figure out how to make it work best for you.

  9. Also : easier is better! I used to melt the butter in a pan and melt chocolate in a bain-marie for my chocolate cake. I've discovered that I could melt both butter and chocolate together in a plastic box in the microwave. It is faster and less fussy which means cooking is less of a hassle and I'm more often willing to cook.

    • I like to melt things right in a glass measuring cup, either in the microwave or in a pan of water in a makeshift double-boiler. It's nice because it already has a pour spout, and it tells me how much I actually have once everything is melted!

  10. I cook every 2 days and I've gotten past the point when I really need to follow a recipe to cook what's in my fridge and pantry, due to years of empty fridge and pantry which spurred my creativity a looong way.
    You can learn a couple of recipes you like (how to make mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, plain rice, cornmeal, veggie lasagnas…) and start by changing or adding one element:
    – add some vegetables to your pasta au gratin (mac'n'cheese, lasagna…), and you'll see that you can use virtually any vegetable to spruce up pasta.
    – try spicing up bland food like mashed potatoes and plain cornmeal with curry, chili, soy sauce…
    – love that apple pie from grandma? How about trying a pear pie? Or an apricot pie? What about a maple syrup or pumkin spice apple pie?
    – if love coleslaw, you could try red cabbage coleslaw, or change the dressing, use herbs…
    You get the idea. The more you try, the more delicious combinations you'll find. Then the sky is the limit.

    • Yes, yes, and yes! There have been times that cooking in my kitchen has felt more like a Chopped challenge. (Have a few items I must use from the pantry/fridge ASAP before they go bad and only a half hour to come up with dinner…GO!)

      Also, if you can't think of what to do with a few ingredients that you know you need to use up ASAP, try searching online with them plus the word recipe and see if anything comes up. I have had success with finding inspiration that way.

  11. I have some sort of basic recipes/techniques for things I like to make such as a quiche, salad, soup or stir fry. Then pick ingredients you like (meats, vegetables, cheeses) and experiment with mixing and matching them.

  12. These are great tips! My routine for cooking is make something once following the recipe pretty much exactly, make it a few times while following the recipe but tinkering, & then go off recipe. I think making something from a recipe once is really important, because you don't always know how the flavors play together just from reading the recipe. (That's mostly if it's an entirely new dish & it's the main course. If you are making some sort of veggie or grain side dish & you know how to generally know how to cook the main ingredient to doneness, you can mostly wing that in my experience.) Then after I tinker while referring to the recipe a few times, I've got the important ingredients & proportions down. It's super exciting to realize you are fully capable of going off recipe! I was cooking this really simple pork roast in the crock pot the other day, just a tenderloin, some veggies, some broth & a packet of dry Italian dressing seasoning. I swear I bought the seasoning packet but I could not find it when I went to put everything together. I was momentarily bummed like oh I have to run to the store or figure out something else for dinner! & then I realized wait a minute… I have tons of herbs & spices! I know what this is supposed to taste like! I got this! And it turned out awesome & dinner was saved & I gave myself a mental high five.

  13. I am absolutely a cherry-picker. If you get a basic idea of how a particular cooking process works, it gets easier to make small changes.

    Call me weird, but I also find it much easier to season food when I smell the spices! When I'm cooking something, I'll just pull out some spices and sniff each of them until I select a couple that smell "right." It's the same idea as tasting–use your senses to navigate you through. As long as you don't risk safety (with undercooked meats, for instance) there's no right or wrong, just what tastes good to you.

  14. Ooh! Story time! I would like to cast my vote in favor of "trial by fire:"

    I wasn't terribly well-versed in no-recipe cooking until I studied abroad in Italy one summer in college, and since we couldn't afford to go out to eat most nights, my apartment-mates and I decided we'd cook. Except we had no internet in our apartment, no smartphones, and all instructions on boxed things were entirely in Italian (which none of us spoke very well, as we were there to mostly study painting). The stove required a sparker to light (like a bunsen burner in chemistry class), and the oven dials were entirely unintelligible to us, not to mention a lot of the paint had flaked off. To top it off there really aren't a lot of frozen pizzas in Italy, or at least not at the stores within walking distance. At any rate, we wouldn't have been able to read the directions (also, we were a little terrified of the oven).

    So what did we do? We walked down the street to the little market and picked out a bunch of fresh veggies and other things that didn't come with or require instructions (you can just taste boxed pasta to know when it's done, for example). We bought some fresh herb plants because we couldn't figure out what was what in the bottles of dried herbs in the store, and brought them back to live on our porch so we could cook with them. From there, we improvised. We smelled things to see if we thought they would go together. At first we often ended up with overcooked veggies and undercooked pasta, or things were cold, or a little burnt, but after about a week of trial and error, we had it more or less figured out, no cookbooks or other instruction required! I honestly do not think I would be the adventurous cook I am today without that experience. 🙂

  15. Yay! This list is pretty much how I learned to cook! At first there was a lot of stir fry chicken, broccoli and rice – but I have definitely widened my options over the years. Sometimes by deciding that I want to mimic something I had at a restaurant and sometimes by picking up an ingredient I'd never used before. Also – I smell instead of tasting most of the time because raw meat.

  16. The most important step to being a confident cook is learning that the recipe is not sacred, you can (and should!) tinker with it to reflect your preferences. I learnt to cook at school from the ages of 11 to 14 and the way our lessons were structured was, I think, the perfect way to learn to cook. One week we would watch the teacher make a recipe slowly, demonstrating that week's skill (from chopping an onion to go in a basic tomato sauce to kneading bread). Homework was to write our own version of the recipe, making at least 3 changes to the basic version we had been shown, buy the ingredients and work out the cost per portion. The next week we all cooked, the teacher would wander around and troubleshoot but mostly just leave you to it unless you were doing something terrible. Homework was then to feed the results to your family, ask their opinions and decide what you would do differently next time.

    We all learned basic cooking techniques, substitutions and budgeting (sometimes making substitutions to get the recipe within a certain budget), and were encouraged to think about colours and textures as well as taste. I'm regularly grateful to have learnt to cook in this way, particular when cooking with my husband who can only cook if he has a recipe and follows it exactly, and panics if we don't have either an ingredient or the right utensil. Equipment substitutions are important too!

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