Are you trying to cook from scratch more? You probably know it’s a great way to save money, take charge of your health, and enjoy home-cooked meals. But, maybe it feels like it takes forever to figure out what to make! Or, maybe you’re tired of eating the same meals over and over again but don’t feel confident to branch out. The secret is actually to start cooking without recipes.
Yes, without recipes.
Imagine telling someone: “I don’t use recipes.” What does that make you feel? Does it seem impossible? Far fetched? Exciting?
Another way to talk about cooking without recipes is called “freestyle cooking.” It’s like improvisation, figuring out what you want to do in the moment using what you already know.
It’s easier than you’d like to start cooking without recipes! I’m going to share my top 14 tips to help you feel more comfortable and confident winging it every day.
14 Quick Tips to Start Cooking Without Recipes Tonight
1. Shift into learner mode
The very first thing to do here is to switch gears. We need a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset. Instead of thinking, “I can’t cook,” think “I’m learning how to cook.”
If someone is learning how to do something, we cut them some slack! We applaud their victories. We encourage them when we feel defeated. You can do that for yourself.
Holding a rigid standard of perfection and excellence can be cool, but it’s also the recipe for an ugly cry over a pan of lumpy brownies.
It can be a lot more forgiving to have a “let’s see what happens” mentality!
2. Nothing is sacred (except cake)
When I ask people to cook without a recipe, their eyes go wide and they start to tell me why they can’t. They’ll try to rationalize it too, giving me one “good” reason after another.
The reasons don’t matter. The formal rules of food don’t matter.
At the end of the day, WHO CARES if the food you make isn’t authentic Italian or you serve cheese with fish?
It just doesn’t matter. No one’s policing your food. You are not a chef cooking at a Michelin-starred restaurant. No one’s grading you. Just make food that sounds good to you!
The one exception? Baking.
Most recipes are super flexible and you can tweak any ingredient the way you would like.
It’s not like that for baking. Especially with foods that need to set or rise, you need to follow specific proportions. I always start my baking recipes by adapting another recipe simply to make sure I’m using the right amount of leavening agents to dry ingredients and liquid.
3. Make a simple swap
Feeling really hesitant to tear up your recipe cards? Start with a simple swap. Most of the time, you can make simple substitutions without causing a problem.
Found a recipe for blueberry crumble bars but prefer blackberry? Use blackberry!
Swap sweet potatoes for white potatoes.
Switch out ground turkey for ground beef.
Find one or two ingredients and switch them to ones you like more.
Cook from scratch every day!
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4. Start with a recipe (but don’t stay there)
Find a recipe you know really, really well. Even if everything else requires a recipe, you know this one by heart.
What did this one recipe teach you about the process?
If your recipe is for a soup, how could you follow those same steps but make some changes?
If you grew up making chicken noodle soup, you can adapt that soup to make SO many other recipes: lemon chicken orzo soup, chicken and dumplings, chicken and wild rice soup, etc.
Imagine yourself following the steps, but swap out the vegetables, proteins, and spices to suit whatever you’re craving or what you have on hand!
5. Start thinking in categories
The longer I cook, the more I think of food in categories. It’s not beef or pork, it’s a protein. Instead of quinoa or brown rice, think of it as a starch. It’s not spaghetti or ziti, it’s a pasta. If you need an acid in general, you can choose from a variety of vinegars or fresh citrus juices.
Within your category, substitute freely! This is a great way to play around and start seeing how different flavors work together. It won’t always work out perfectly (balsamic vinegar is very different from rice wine), but you’ll learn in the process!
6. Recipes are about proportions
Okay, I’m not about to say that there is no value in cooking technique. There absolutely is. It’s very helpful to know how to cook and I’m literally going to talk about that in the next tip.
But, allow yourself to stop thinking of recipes as this rigid framework for cooking. Recipes are about proportions. They tell you how much meat to vegetables to stock you need in your soup.
They’re telling you how to make sure your dish is balanced enough to be enjoyable and not too runny or bland.
7. Learn a handful of basic skills
When you learn a few basic cooking skills, everything comes easier.
Knife skills are a great place to start as you’ll start to feel more comfortable with prepping your vegetables and you’ll notice more consistency in your cooking times.
The most important cooking technique is probably learning how to build flavors. I recommend people start by learning how to cook a soup or stew because they are SO forgiving. In my 30 Minute Chili recipe, you’ll see a few of the tricks I use to build flavor quickly!
8. Play with your food
In Education, there’s a huge push towards play-based education because we can see that this is a great way for students to hone their skills in a low stakes setting.
Why wouldn’t this work for you?
Look for things that give you a sense of pleasure of joy. Think about your favorite flavors and make something with them!
If it’s not that good, why? Taste it. Notice texture, smell, and flavor. If it is good, celebrate and share with others!
9. Listen for “what if”
When I get excited about something, I start to hear “what if.” It always starts with a moment of hesitation, like I couldn’t possibly do the thing. Then it turns into a desire. Something I wish to do.
Maybe you’ll hear it differently than I do, but look for those moments when you find yourself longing to do something.
“What if I bake dark chocolate brownies with fresh raspberries?”
“What I really want to do is try making a caramel sauce from scratch!”
10. Taste, taste, taste
Unless you’re baking with raw flour and eggs, you need to be tasting all of the time.
If you’re making soup, taste for the level of salt and seasoning.
Taste your gravy to make sure it’s not too salty.
Think through the flops
Notice what tasted weird about those cookies you made. Think about the ingredients you used. Which of those could be the cause? What happened?
11. Ugly is a-okay
I know that Instagram and Pinterest taught us that food should be beautiful, but ugly food can be absolutely delicious!
Ugly food is not a bad thing. Don’t worry about your food turning out ugly at all!
Focus on the flavor. Does it taste good? That’s a win! You can always tweak how you prepare something to try to make it look nicer, but ugly food that tastes good goes down just fine.
12. Find your flavor powerhouses
There are some ingredients that seem to bring everything together. They can hide a world of sins and turn an okay dish into something delicious!
Tomato paste, soy sauce, chicken bouillon paste, and lemon pepper seasoning are 4 of my favorite ingredients to transform simple dishes into absolutely delicious meals.
13. Learn how to stretch
With freestyle cooking, you can easily stretch a recipe to feed more people by adding more vegetables or beans plus more liquid and seasoning.
When I cook with ground beef, we’ll often add half a cup of soaped lentils to stretch the beef while still filling us up.
If I’m making a big pot of a soup or something, I’ll often chop up cabbage, cauliflower, zucchini or other vegetables to make it bigger and more flavorful.
14. Add salt whenever you add an ingredient
Season your dishes gradually, every step of the way. This allows all of the flavors to come out. To be successful with this, you do need to taste as you go (step #10) so you don’t accidentally oversalt a dish.
Think of it this way. Add some salt as your ground beef is browning. Add another pinch after you add diced onions. When you add your cabbage, add another good pinch. Keep tasting and seasoning as the flavors develop.
Did you know freestyle cooking is good for the environment?
When you become comfortable tweaking and adapting your cooking style to what you have on hand, you can make the most of the ingredients in your pantry & fridge. This ensures you don’t waste anything!
This saves you money and also reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses that will be emitted from your food waste because you’ll have less hitting the landfills. It’s a key step to setting up a zero waste kitchen!
Start cooking from scratch everyday with a well-stocked pantry
Cooking from scratch is way easier when you have your favorite ingredients on hand all the time! Imagine knowing you already have everything you need for your favorite dinner at all times.
Keep a well-stocked pantry all the time with my free printable pantry staples list! It’s part of my ebook A Well-Stocked Pantry, which includes all my favorite tips for beginners about cooking real, nourishing foods from scratch.
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Are these tips for cooking from scratch helpful?
Did I miss anything? Which are of these are the mot helpful? Tell me in the comments!