Following a recipe is easy for most people, but not always practical. Oftentimes what we have in our fridge is a hodgepodge of ingredients that a single recipe can’t cover. So we wing it. When I develop recipes in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, I rely on a few basic principles to get me through the first test and ensure that (hopefully) what I make is tasty. Below are some tips to keep in mind when you’re cooking without a recipe:
Take an inventory – Before I decide to cook without a recipe, I do an inventory of what I have in my fridge. Maybe it’s a chicken breast that inspired me. Or an almost-wilting bunch of kale that I need to use up. Whatever it is, I choose one ingredient as a focal point, then I move on to see what else I have in my fridge or pantry that I could add to it to make it a meal. I pull out whatever I would like to include in my dish and lay it out in front of me on my cutting board. Seeing all the ingredients that way helps me picture how my dish is going to come together.
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Devise a plan – After all my ingredients are laid out, I run through what I would like to do in my head. This is where a little basic knowledge of cooking times comes in handy. For example, I know that carrots take longer to soften than onions. So if I have both carrots and onions, I’ll plan on adding the carrots first. If you’re cooking with meat, it’s helpful to know about how long it takes to cook. If you don’t know, you can refer to a recipe that calls for what you’re using to get an idea. You don’t have to be rigid here, but it helps to run through what you would like to see happen before you get going.
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Add ingredients little by little – When you’re winging it, it’s easier to add an ingredient than take it away. And if you’re trying to cook a healthy meal, being heavy-handed with oil, salt and full-fat dairy can pile on the calories and fat (and sodium!) in a hurry. So add ingredients like salt, oil and full-fat dairy in smaller increments. For example, if you’re going to sauté a chicken breast, start with only a tablespoon of oil. You can add more if you think you need it later. Same with salt. Add just a pinch. You may not need more depending on the other ingredients you’re cooking with.
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Taste Taste Taste! – In my experience, this is the most important principle when you’re cooking without a recipe. Taste your food. Don’t wait until it’s done before you taste it. Taste it in the beginning before you’ve added everything, taste it in the middle and again at the end to make final adjustments. Your palate is your best guide for everything. It can tell you whether your dish is cooked long enough or if you’ve added enough or not enough of an ingredient. Whether you’re following a recipe or not, you want your dish to taste great and the only way to know how good it’s going to be is to try it. The only caveat here is you don’t want to taste a dish where meat might be undercooked. If this is the case, you’ll have to hold your tasting utensils until the meat is done for food-safety reasons.
Write it down! – Not every dish you create from scratch will be a hit, but others surely will. If you love it, or it’s a hit with the family, write it down. You may think you’ll remember, but you’d be amazed how small details fall though the cracks and your beloved creation just might never live up to the original.