10 Tricks to Cooking Without a Recipe

Go ahead, break the rules!

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Cropped image of cute little girl and her beautiful parents cooking together in kitchen at home
George Rudy/Shutterstock

When did I take the turn from being an okay cook to becoming a great one? When I started cooking with my senses. The more I practiced, the easier it was to let the ingredients (especially, what’s in season) speak to me! So put down that recipe and use these tips to turn what you have on hand into a quick-and-easy dinner.

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Collection of grain products in storage jars in pantry

Stock Up on Pantry Staples

Without these staple foods, I’d never be able to cook without a recipe! I always have pasta, rice, quinoa, eggs, flour, lard or butter, salsa, various oils and vinegars, pickles, broth and a few canned goods (like tomatoes and beans). With those on hand, I can whip up any number of dinners by adding a protein and a few vegetables.

Psst! Skip the store and make these pantry staples from scratch.

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Korean red pepper paste gochujang
Shutterstock / successo images

Learn to Make Substitutions

There are many recipes that call for a tablespoon of a specialty ingredient, like gochujang, freekeh, miso paste, lemon zest, or cotija cheese. Instead of buying a whole jar, make a substitution instead. Try swapping in lemon juice for zest, or use dried chilies instead of chili paste. Experiment!

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Fresh ground beef in resealable plastic bags ready to go into the freezer
Shutterstock / Ozgur Coskun

Keep Portioned Proteins on Hand in the Freezer

My favorite go-to meal when I don’t have anything planned? Stuffed baked potatoes. It’s easy to add protein to the potato when you have a package of leftover shredded chicken or beef in the freezer, vacuum sealed and ready to eat. You could also reheat those leftover meats for casseroles, pasta, tacos, or rice bowls.

Don’t have a vacuum sealer at home? Use this easy trick.

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Homemade meatless spaghetti sauce
Taste of Home

Memorize a Few Quick Sauces

Having a few key sauces memorized will help you whip up a batch of pasta in an instant. Think tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes, pesto, an ooey-gooey cheese sauce, or even a simple a-la-minute white wine butter sauce. Add a few fresh veggies, grilled chicken, or sauteed shrimp and you’ve got yourself a meal.

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recipe book with fresh herbs south asia and spices on wooden background

Menu Plan

Cooking without a recipe doesn’t have to be an on-the-fly kind of experience. I often get prepared by planning a weekly menu on Sunday. Then, I can get most of the shopping out of the way and stock up on the specific vegetables and proteins I’ll need for the week.

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Homemade pizza sauce
Taste of Home

Love Your Leftovers

If you’re already making tomato sauce for dinner, why not double it up so you’ll have leftovers? I always make extras when I’m cooking stock, beans, or sauces. All of these things freeze exceptionally well and you’ll have a dinner component ready to go when you need it.

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Black beans and beef tostadas
Taste of Home

Keep It Simple

Don’t feel like you have to go crazy just because you’re improvising! I like to follow the 5-ingredient rule, for example: tacos can be delicious with just meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, and guacamole. And pasta can be as simple as shrimp, garlic, red pepper flakes, butter, and noodles.

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Ground spices in measuring spoons. On the black chalkboard.
Shutterstock / Artem Shadrin

Don’t Stress the Measurements

At first, it seems impossible to cook without measuring anything. But, after a while, you get used to a pinch of salt here and a dash of pepper there. Here are a few tips for winging it. When in doubt, you can refer to a recipe for ratios (roux to thicken cheese sauce is equal parts flour and fat, or pie dough is 3-2-1 ratio of flour, fat, and liquid).

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Top view of meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, milk are lying on the table while man is taking photo of it on a smart phone.
Shutterstock / 4 PM production

Get Inspired

When I was a professional chef creating 10 special dishes every week, you better believe I didn’t make everything up from scratch! To get inspired, I turned to my favorite Pinterest pages or Instagram feeds. Screenshot the foods that speak to you and recreate them with the ingredients you have on hand.

Learn how to create your own original recipes here.

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Fresh vegetable salad with red cabbage, cucumber, radish, carrots, sweet peppers, red onion and parsley on a white plate.
Shutterstock / Kiian Oksana

Consider Color

When in doubt, cook by color. An entree salad tastes so much better if you add a few vibrant tomatoes to it, and that rice bowl would be even tastier with some shredded purple cabbage. Often times, I’ll shop the produce section at the grocery store by placing one of every colored fruit or vegetable in my cart.

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially when she can highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.