My mom and I have very different cooking styles. She combs through food blogs and cooking magazines, bookmarking recipes by the dozen. She’s a skilled cook and a devoted recipe follower who hosts dinner parties nearly every week. Me, I use restaurant meals and food mags as a jumping off point to experiment and explore. Since it’s just my husband and me at our dinner table, I’m more likely to browse local markets to see what looks good and just throw something together.
There’s no wrong way when you’re cooking from scratch for people you love. But I’ve found that getting comfortable with “winging it” in the kitchen has a few extra benefits. One, I can make my favorite dishes on the fly without needing to page through cookbooks to find the recipes. Two, I can alter recipes to fit my taste. And three, I can whip up a tasty dinner with pretty much whatever I have on hand.
Of course, there are times when you should follow a recipe. Baking, from French bread to oatmeal cookies, is a science. Baking recipes are developed to produce uniform results, and varying the ingredients or technique alters the chemistry of the recipe.
Too, the night the boss comes over for dinner or you’re hosting a holiday meal for 12 is not the time to wing it. For special occasions, stick with recipes you know and follow them closely.
If you want to build the confidence to wing it, here are five tips:
1. Start with a handful of recipes you love.
For example, I often make simple pan-sautéed breaded chicken cutlets and serve them over a salad of lightly dressed arugula. The recipe is from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and I’ve made it so many times that I no longer need to refer to the book.
2. Then, mix them up.
Sometimes, I’ll serve different greens with my chicken cutlets, like baby spinach or spring mix. Or I’ll add cherry tomatoes or sliced avocado to the salad. Swapping in different ingredients can take a dish in a totally different direction; for example, you can turn a Greek salad into a Tex-Mex variation by substituting corn and black beans and queso fresco for the cucumber and black olives and feta.
3. Get comfortable with basic techniques.
My chicken cutlet recipe is a good example: The technique—dipping thin cuts of meat in beaten egg, then breadcrumbs, and pan-cooking in a little bit of oil—works equally well with pounded-thin pork or white fish fillets. Here’s a list of essential cooking techniques like sautéeing and roasting—with some practice, you can cook any type of food without looking at a recipe.
4. Keep a well-stocked pantry.
With staple ingredients like dried pasta, rice, canned beans, lemons, Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs on hand, you can toss together a simple meal with whatever you bring home from the grocery. If I’ve forgotten to pick up arugula, no worries: I can serve my chicken cutlets with pasta and garlic or rice pilaf. Here’s a list of pantry essentials and ways to use them.
5. Discover new things at a farmers’ market.
At our local markets, you’ll likely find foods you’ve never tried before: different kinds of kale, for example, or microgreens or green garlic or kohlrabi. Ask the farmer how to prepare it, take it home and give it a try.
Sure, it’s inspiring to page through those gorgeous food magazines. But it’s awfully fun—and empowering—to exercise your own culinary freedom in the kitchen.