4 Tips for Cooking Without a Recipe

posted by Andrea | 03/29/2013

cooking without a recipe

As I’m sure you can tell by looking through my recipe box, I am NOT a gourmet chef.

I don’t cook fancy foods, I don’t use hard-to-find or expensive ingredients, I don’t spend all day in the kitchen, and I don’t use complicated recipes.

In fact, I rarely use recipes at all these days! 

You see, a few years ago, I decided I was confident enough in my cooking abilities that I didn’t need to use recipes as much. So I started experimenting with some of our favorite meals to see if I could tweak them a bit, swap out ingredients for a new flavor, and do it all without the “crutch” of my trusty recipe cards and books.

I often wanted to run back to my cookbook or to my computer to look up a recipe or google something — but I held back, forcing myself to use my own instincts and learn first-hand what did and didn’t work.

There were a few times when I totally bombed and chose the WRONG type of substitutions or added way too much of a certain ingredient… but for the most part, my food continued to taste delicious and I began to feel much more confident in my cooking abilities (even if I was cooking simple foods).

I always enjoyed cooking, but after I forced myself to branch out, be more adventuresome, and try something new, I took on a whole new love for food and for cooking (without my nose buried in a recipe).

homemade meatballs

After I started to feel more confident cooking without recipes, I then decided I wanted to learn how to do it without measuring utensils.

I enjoyed watching cooking shows where they would simply sprinkle a little of this and a dash of that. Pour an amount of olive oil in the pan without measuring, scoop a handful of rice into the pan, and eye-ball just the right amount of seasonings.

It all looked so glamorous — and even better, there were less dishes to wash! 

perfect pancakes

I wasn’t quite sure how to go about measuring food without measuring utensils, so I started to pay really close attention to what the food I was measuring looked like after it was measured.

What did 4 c. of water look like in my pans?

What did 2 T. of oil look like? And how long did it take me to pour?

What did 1 t. of cinnamon (or any other spice) look like in the palm of my hand?

How many scoops of sour cream did it take for me to get to 1 c.?

I would accurately measure the ingredients, take note of what that specific amount looked like, and then try to replicate that amount without measuring.

I would dump some cinnamon into my hand and then scoop it out of my hand with a measuring spoon to see how accurate I really was. Or I would pour rice into a bowl and then scoop it back out again with a measuring cup and see if I filled it or not (or overflowed it!)

This was a relatively simple process and only took a few extra minutes when I was preparing the food — however it helped me learn how to more-accurately measure without measuring cups and spoons.

cheesy mashed potato soup

So you might be wondering where this post is going or what the point is… don’t worry, I’m getting there. :)

The point is that I enjoy cooking SOOOOOO much more now that I have a large repertoire of simple recipes I can make at a moment’s notice, without a recipe, without worrying about accurately measuring every single ingredient, and without a special trip to the store (I can usually think of something to substitute if I don’t have all the ingredients in the house.)

Not only does this save me lots of time, stress, energy (and dishes!), it also simplifies my weekly meal planning and gives me so much more freedom and confidence in the kitchen.

stromboli

stromboli

I can make almost all the recipes on my blog without following the recipe, and I frequently tweak them a bit based on the ingredients I have on hand or what’s on sale that week.

If you’d like to be a little more adventuresome in the kitchen and start cooking without a recipe, here are a 4 simple tips that have helped me.

1. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Since you’re still reading this post, my guess is that you are not a gourmet chef! So if that’s the case, I can almost guarantee that you WILL fail with at least one recipe at some time or another.

You’ll make a bad substitution, you’ll cook something too long, you’ll mix weird flavor combinations, or you’ll add way too much of a certain ingredient.

But that’s OK. That’s the only way you’re going to learn this type of a skill — trial and error (and probably more error in the beginning).

Yes, you might waste food and order a $10 pizza for dinner instead, but you’ll learn so much in the process and it will ultimately make you a better, more confident cook.

pizza pasta

2. Just try it.

I can’t tell you how many emails I get on a weekly basis asking me things like:

  • Do you think I could substitute ________ for _______?
  • Do you think this recipe would work with ______ instead of ______?
  • Do you think _______ would taste good with ________?
  • Do you think I could freeze _________?
  • Do you think I could try _______?

These questions often make me chuckle because most of the time, I have no idea so I Google the questions and then respond with my answer! However, I ALWAYS encourage the person to “just try it” and then they’ll know if it works or not.

The absolute worst thing that could happen is a less than stellar outcome. Not the end of the world by any means — plus, now you know not to do _______ next time!

ham and cheese baked sandwiches

3. Learn the basics.

I remember calling my mom over and over again when Dave and I were first married — asking the most basic questions.

  • How long do I need to boil potatoes?
  • How long does broccoli need to steam?
  • How long should the bread rise?
  • How much butter did I need for this recipe?
  • How much chicken should I add to the casserole?

They were all good questions, but by doing some of these simple tasks over and over again, I can now do them all without thinking twice.

It doesn’t even matter if I set the timer for the potatoes or the broccoli or the bread; I know just by looking at it (or piercing it with a knife) if the food is done or not.

cooked carrots with ranch

4. Master a few favorites.

If you are new to cooking without recipes, I’d suggest starting with 3-5 of your most favorite, simple recipes and mastering those first.

Learn how to make substitutions, measure the appropriate amount of ingredients, and tweak those recipes based on your tastes and the ingredients you have on hand.

Once you master those recipes, then add a few more. This way, you’ll always be able to whip something up in a pinch if company comes over or if your plans change at the last minute.

I started with many pasta recipes, breakfast recipes, and Mexican recipes because they are all quite forgiving. Also, roasting meat is relatively simple once you know what you’re doing (especially if you put it in a slow cooker).

I think you’ll find that once you feel comfortable making a few different meals without recipes, it will start to get easier and easier to learn more recipes and try new things.

slow cooker sweet n’ sour pork

I should mention that there is absolutely nothing wrong with using recipes or measuring utensils. In fact, I almost always use measuring utensils when I bake — and I’ll often use a recipe when I’m trying something new for the first time or just to refresh my memory.

I just want to encourage and motivate you to trust yourself and your cooking abilities more. Try something new and don’t worry if it doesn’t turn out exactly like last time. Who knows, it might even taste better!

It takes time (and probably a few burnt, tasteless meals), but cooking without recipes is not a skill reserved for professional chefs. If I can do it, YOU CAN DO IT TOO — and I dare to bet you’ll enjoy your time in the kitchen so much more!

What are your favorite “no recipes needed” foods?

Visit my virtual recipe box for more simple, delicious, family friendly, recipes!

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20 comments

  1. Katy

    03/29/2013

    I’m also to the point that I the only time I use a recipe is for a new dish I find and want to try. The only downside is that when people ask you for the recipe for something, it’s sometimes hard to give them one. Since I live 15 miles from the nearest small grocery store, and 40 miles from a super-grocery store, I have definitely had to learn to make substitutions with what we have on hand. I’ve only had one total flop…and my husband still teases me about it. I tried to make tater tot casserole, replacing the cream soup with tomato sauce. It was not good…but now I wonder if it would have been okay with tomato soup? Another experiment for another day :) Thanks for the great post.

    [Reply]

    Katie Reply:

    Katy,
    I learned just the other day a substitute for cream of chicken.
    I melted butter in the pan
    added some flour
    sprinkled a little chicken bullion in the mix
    finally poured in the milk to get the consistency I was looking for.
    I saw a recipe on pinterest one day and remembered the ingredients it called for. So I gave it a try and my kids ate it. Even my son who is soooo picky.
    I also used this base without the bullion for my biscuits and gravy.

    [Reply]

    Ellen Reply:

    You can make a roux with equal parts of fat & flour… fat = butter, oil, olive oil or bacon drippings. Add in broth or any liquid to get the consistency you want, and/or thicken with cream. That’s my go-to cream-of substitute, without all the salt that’s in bullion. :)

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  2. Carol D.

    03/29/2013

    Love this post!

    [Reply]

  3. Norma

    03/29/2013

    This is a great post, when I first got married I was always calling my mom to ask very basic things as well. I have a set of recipes that I do often and I always try to have those ingredients because I know my family loves them and they are quick (I like to cook, but some times you just need to come up with something quick and that won’t leave the kitchen too messy). But you are right Andrea, it feels great when you just open your fridge and pantry and come up with something that actually tastes good. It took me some time to get to this point, time and watching my mom.
    thanks for a very good post and have a nice Friday everyone!

    [Reply]

  4. Deb

    03/29/2013

    This is so funny because this post is completely opposite of how I am, I measure everything, I have 5 sets of measuring cups and 6 of spoons, I even have ones for the small measurements like dash and pinch. I do bake a lot of bread and that kind of needs to be precise, but I am that way with EVERY recipe, I have substituted ingredients, but I always measure, just my personality! ;)

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    Mama Murrey Reply:

    And I have lots of sets of measuring cups and spoons because I just LIKE them. And I like measuring things.

    I have a small shelf on my kitchen wall with four matching small bowls marked T, t, 1/2 t, and 1/4 t. All my sets of measuring spoons are broken up and placed in the correct bowl. This is my favorite part of my kitchen.

    [Reply]

    Pamela Reply:

    Oh, I would LOVE to see a picture of that! A cute, yet practical, way to decorate!

    [Reply]

  5. Laurel

    03/29/2013

    I love this. I have been cooking for many years and do a pretty good job of it if I say so myself. However, I almost always use recipes. I have never thought of doing what you just outlined here and just assumed I am just a recipe cook. Now I have a whole new plan. Thank you, this may be liberating and exciting! Happy Easter!

    [Reply]

  6. Jo

    03/29/2013

    I love this post – great advice! I get soo impatient with scrolling through my Tablet Recipes while I am in the kitchen making a mess trying to add the perfect amount of an ingredient. Guessing/Estimating is much more fun and creative!!

    [Reply]

  7. Jane

    03/29/2013

    I can’t remember how to boil an egg without reading the recipe first, so it’s probably best that I stick to the recipes cards :)

    [Reply]

  8. Barbara L.

    03/30/2013

    These are the quickest pancakes that are healthy, easy to make, and taste delicious.

    In a blender mix 4 eggs
    2 bananas
    1 T peanut butter (optional, but tastes really good)
    2 t. vanilla

    That’s it! Pour into hot frying pan and you have pancakes! I like to drop chocolate chips into them as they’re cooking. My kids go crazy for them.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Barbara — I actually just made these this morning because they sounded SOOO good. We also added mini chocolate chips and they were fabulous. I may have to use this recipe for a future blog post :)

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  9. Sarah

    03/30/2013

    This post is exactly how I cook! I especially remember watching my mom make bread without any recipe because she made it so much. When you have confidence in your approximations or substitutions and do it many times it comes naturally. I agree that some recipes (esp baking) I wish I had measured more carefully, but that’s the joy of experimentation. It’s never been a total flop, but I am always finding new ways to make a recipe better this way! My favorite way is to research a few similar recipes and then try a combination based on what I have, or what flavors I like. One time my husband asked what I did different and I almost forgot everything I put in, so he started writing it all down as I rambled off how I had made it! For beginners soups are the easiest to get creative!

    [Reply]

    Maria Reply:

    Thanks for the great post! Less time in kitchen+more creativity allows more time to spend with family! What could be better!

    [Reply]

  10. Mary

    03/31/2013

    Love this post! I am so bad for not measuring. I am a throw it in type most of the time so it can be a nightmare for me when I have to actually put the exact amounts for recipes on the blog. I find in baking you really do need to stick to the recipe but in everyday cooking a little bit of this and that does not make too much difference. If you mess up well there is always next time!

    [Reply]

  11. Kalyn Brooke

    04/02/2013

    I can master calzones pretty good without a recipe, but thats because I buy the dough. Lol. :)

    [Reply]

  12. Ellen

    04/05/2013

    Check out the book “Ratio,” maybe at your library. It talks about how different combinations of ingredients make, for example, pie crust vs. dough vs. batter, etc. and a host of other foods. You get a greater understanding of how ingredients work together chemically, which helps as you measure handfuls, rather than cups. Fantastic post!

    [Reply]

  13. Margret

    04/08/2013

    I love that I have enough experience now not to have to follow a recipe exactly. So liberating. I usually find five or six recipes of the same dish on the web and compare them for diffences and similarities and go from there to suit what I have.
    Do you have any tips for what kind of slow cooker to buy, I’ve decided to get one for this winter.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I’d suggest one of the larger 6 or 7qt. oval cookers if you think you’ll be making lots of big meals. I personally have 3 (1 qt. 5 qt. and 7qt) and I use them all for different things, so if you budget allows, you might consider trying a couple different sizes!

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