Background is blue with images of vegetable based dishes along the outer edges. Text overlay: How to Cook Without Relying on Recipes

How to Cook Without Relying on Recipes

Is there anything more annoying than finding a delicious recipe, but you’re missing 1 thing? Or even worse, buying an ingredient for a recipe that you NEVER use again?

Whether you’re trying to build new skills in the kitchen, or you feel like you’re in a cooking rut, these tips are for you.

Let’s dig in!

The best way to learn to cook without recipes is to cook with recipes

If you are looking to up your cooking game, or looking to get out of a rut, recipes can help you get there. But they won’t get you all the way.

Rather than blindly following a recipe, bring your awareness and curiosity to the kitchen. What does each ingredient bring to the dish? What techniques does this recipe use that you have used in other recipes? What patterns do you see between recipes?

As you go through, consider how you might adjust the recipe. Swap one ingredient for another – or cut it altogether. Change the cooking method. Take something from one recipe and apply it to another.

Before you know it, you’ll have people asking you to share your recipes!

Keep a recipe notebook

I love any excuse to use a notebook.1 That said, this is a great use for a notebook. Keep track of recipes you want to try and your own experiments.

There are a few reasons for doing this:

  1. When your recipe turns out perfect, you’ll know exactly what you did
  2. When it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, you can make notes about what you would want to do differently next time.
  3. It is easier to prop up in the kitchen and the screen never shuts off – because it is paper.
  4. It is harder than bookmarking, adding it to Pinterest, or printing the recipe.

Yes, I said you should keep a notebook of recipes you want to try because it is harder than doing it electronically. I don’t know about you, but I have about a zillion recipes saved on Pinterest, bookmarked in the browser and cookbooks on my shelf. And I rarely go back to look at them. Especially not the ones online.

But when I take the time to write a recipe out by hand into my notebook, you bet I’m going to remember the recipe exists. And it is a great filter – If it doesn’t feel worth it to get out the notebook and copy the recipe out, then you can forget about it. Save your mental energy for something more important.

The ultimate recipe hack

The first thing you should do when you come across an ingredient you don’t have is to search the internet for “substitution for _”. Look at 2 or 3 of the results that come up on the first page. You’ll very quickly discover your favourite sources.

Or you can look up a “do it yourself”/DIY version. This works especially well for spice blends like pasta, poultry, taco, Cajun, or Italian seasoning.

How to “season to taste”

This is the instruction that every new or less confident cook hates to see. What does “to taste” even mean? How do you know what something is supposed to taste like when you’ve never made it before?

But this is an important first step towards cooking without any recipes at all. It is making a little change driven by your taste buds, not what someone else wrote down.

Cooking to taste is a very mindful activity. You must take a moment when you taste the dish to fully taste. What flavours do you notice? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Does one taste overwhelm the rest?

If a dish is “unbalanced” here are a few tips to correct it:

If it tastes too | Add
Sweet | Acid, salty, bitter, spicy
Spicey | Acid 
Sour/Acidic | Sweet, savoury
Bitter | Sweet

Another option would be to serve an over-spiced dish with something like fresh vegetables, buns, or plain rice.

The next post on the site will be all about taste – flavour, aroma, and texture. So if you want to make sure you get that as soon as it goes up, sign up for the email list!

Combine many recipes to create the best version

When you want a recipe for a particular dish or spice blend, your best bet is to look at 2-4 different recipes for the same thing. Then you can mix and match the components that you like the most. When I decided to mix a custom taco blend, I did just this – Follow along to try it for yourself!

Table headings for 5 columns. 
Ingredients | Recipe 1 | Recipe 2 | Recipe 3 | Recipe 4
  1. Grab your recipe notebook and a pen or pencil, and draw a table with the above headings
  2. Search “DIY taco seasoning”
  3. Click on the first search result and copy out the ingredients.
  4. Repeat 1-3 more times, filling out your table
  5. Compare the results.
    • What are the ingredients that all the versions of the recipe have?
    • Are there ingredients that are only in one of the versions?
  6. Create a new recipe!
    • Use the ingredients you like, leave out the ones you don’t like
    • If there are ingredients that aren’t available, look up if there are any substitutions

Bonus tip: It is easiest to compare the recipes if they all create the same amount. Adjust the recipes, if needed, so they are the same.

Bottom Line

Cooking can be an mindful experience. A chance to get curious and experiment. You can build your skills and your confidence, or get out of a cooking rut, with 4 basic steps:

  1. Start with a recipe and ask yourself questions about the purpose of each ingredient and direction
  2. Alter a recipe with substitutions, additions, or deletions
  3. Season your meals to taste
  4. Combine recipes to create a new version

Before you know it, you’ll have a notebook filled with your recipes. And you’ll be able to whip up something new with ease.

Until next time, be good.2

You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.

If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.

  1. If you agree, you might just enjoy the How to Journal article :)
  2. I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
    Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
    Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.

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