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.
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.
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.)
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.