7 Reasons to Learn to Cook Without a Recipe

by Linsey Knerl · 9 comments

cooking without recipes

Cooking is a skill that everyone, on some level, should master. While it is an admirable trait to be able to follow a gourmet recipe, however, I believe it is much more valuable (and affordable) to be able to whip up a tasty meal sans directions, measurements, and cooking temps.

Here are the excuses I use to skip the recipe and the methods behind my madness.

how to cook without a recipe1. It’s fulfilling.

There may be a period of time where you will not feel comfy winging it in the kitchen. That’s understandable, but it shouldn’t hold you back from enjoying your adventure. Nothing is more satisfying than tasting a dish from your kitchen that you created from the depths of your imagination.

2. It’s frugal.

Leaving out expensive ingredients in lieu of scrumptious components from your own herb garden or from the produce you bought on a quick-sale isn’t just daring, it can save you big bucks on your grocery bill. Try to substitute the things you have on hand whenever you are tempted to follow a costly recipe to the “T”. It will not only be strangely rewarding, it will also help you to pay down debt or save for that special something you’ve been wanting to buy.

3. It’s impressive.

What’s more notable than having dinner guests “oooh” and “aaah” at that pasta dish you created from a magazine article?  How about having them gush over that meal you just “threw together”?  Prepare to be flattered.

4. It’s fun.

The experiment of trying “a little of this” and “a little of that” can have tantalizing consequences. Sure, it’s possible to create a kitchen blunder and have a dish NOT turn out. Your odds of pulling of an enticing miracle, however, are rather high, as well. If you’re not that daring in other areas of your life, turn your cooking over to whim, and remember what it felt like to live a little.

5. It’s a form of self-discovery.

Do you know if you like capers?  If you haven’t ever tried them, it’s possible that you might be missing out on a deep passion for a unique flavor. If sticking to a recipe is keeping you from learning what you do and don’t like in the world of unknown ingredients, take the opportunity to test your taste buds. You’ll quickly learn much about a piece of yourself.

6. It’s a catalyst for BETTER.

Yes, that Rachel Ray sure can cook, and Curtis Stone has some amazing flavor combos to share with the world. You have the ability to take any recipe in the world, however, and improve upon it. Even if you never considered yourself to be an Iron Chef, just a tweak here or an extra dash there can take something pretty amazing and turn it into perfection. Straying from a recipe is where excellence begins.

7. It’s essential for self-sufficiency.

You may not always have access to a cookbook, your iPad, or the online edition of the hottest cooking magazines. By being prepared with a comfort for cooking independently, you guarantee that you can prepare something yummy anytime, anywhere.

Getting creative in the kitchen isn’t just rewarding, it’s smart!  Start with a basic dish you know well (like meatballs or pasta), and prepare it without the recipe in front of you. Each time you make it, add a little pizazz that’s all your own. Now you’re cooking!

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • CarolAnnie44 says:

    Not following a recipe isn’t really the issue, so much as not following it exactly. I always use recipes as a guide, but substitute what I have (or what fits our family, since we have lots of allergies).

  • Marianne says:

    I can speak as someone who can’t cook without a recipe. In fact, I can barely cook with a recipe. If you told me to cook something without a recipe I really don’t think I could do it unless it were a dish that I actually know how to make (beef tacos (with a spice mix from the store), lasagna, pizza (store bought dough). My husband does not cook with recipes unless there is something very specific he wants to make and wants to be sure to get it right. The first time he will use a recipe and then he tweaks it from there. He is talented and saw his mother do a lot of cooking. While my mother did a lot of cooking, I wouldn’t say she was an excellent cook and I didn’t really learn anything about cooking from her. I love to bake and I’m excellent at that- but I still definitely need a recipe! I really wish I could cook like my husband can but he seems to be able to predict how things will taste together and I don’t have the slightest clue. The other day I was stumped as to whether taco seasoned beef and caesar dressing would taste good together. I tried them together and still couldn’t tell if I liked it. You all are lucky that you have skills and talent in this area. It is such a struggle for me.

  • Witty Artist says:

    Great article, Linsey! I like to cook, and when I’m in a good mood I even like to improvise. I was just a teenager when I had to make some cakes for the guests coming at ours for my brother’s wedding. I’ve prepared 3 different types of cakes and there were some leftovers from each; so I’ve combined some of them and made up a totally new and different cake which proved to be quite tasty. That felt so rewarding and fulfilling especially since some of the guests asked for the recipes.
    I’ve noticed that after two or three times, I can cook a dish without recipe.
    As to your point no. 5 – It’s a form of self-discovery. – totally agree! How can we widen and develop ourselves if not by trying new things, combining, getting unusual results out of common ingredients, making a tweak to an old dish.

  • guest in ca says:

    The main problem with throwing something together is trying to repeat it when it’s a major success.

    I’m with the others, though, in that I feel free to substitute or tweak when I do use a recipe. Almost all my recipes have my notes on the side about what I did differently or want to try next time.

    You learn pretty quickly that you can use just about any kind of vinegar (white, apple, wine or rice), or sweeteners, or salt, or substitute one veggie for another (not only different veggies, but different forms of the same one – as in frozen/canned/fresh), or one type of meat for another, and adjust the spices or relative quantities of the ingredients depending on your tastes and what’s available.

  • retirebyforty says:

    It takes a lot of practice before a cook is confident enough to work without recipe. If you tell a starter cook to prepare a meal without recipe, they probably resort to eating fast food – ie. college students.

    • KM says:

      I wouldn’t say a lot of practice – as long as you know some basic techniques, you should be ready to experiment. For example, if you know how to cook rice, you can add various spices or vegetables to it. If you know how to bake chicken or fish, experiment with different marinades or toppings or mix in vegetables. Soup is very easy to experiment with if you know what ingredients cook longer (meat, potatoes) and what needs to be added later so it doesn’t overcook (herbs, most vegetables). It doesn’t have to be winging creme brulee on your second attempt at cooking without a recipe – if you are used to recipes, you have to ease into it. I come from a place where recipes are something like “add enough X to get Y effect” – I find that easier than being confined to a specific amount you have to measure. Silly Americans and your measuring cups 🙂

      • Chris says:

        I would have to agree and say practice is not too much of a factor. I’m 18 now and I started cooking without a recipe shortly after I learned to cook. Been cooking without one, for the most part, ever since. But I really think it just has a lot to do with level of creativity and knowing what flavors you like, rather than experience. If you know what you like, you start by combining those things, and that’s where the comfort and confidence to try and produce other combinations and creations comes from. By the way, KM, I resent that last statement. We don’t ALL use measuring cups. Haha

  • marci says:

    What?? We’re supposed to use a recipe??? lol!

  • KM says:

    Love this article. I’ve never followed a recipe exactly (and honestly, unless you have the exact same equipment and ingredients, it’s almost impossible since cooking times are different on different stoves, for example), always either adding something, substituting, removing, or in a different order. Usually what I do is look up a recipe for the basic idea of how to do something or ideas for combinations and just use it as a guideline. It’s a lot less stressful, more fun, and yes, cheaper since I can just use what’s in the fridge and not worry about missing an ingredient and going to the store for it.

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