Can you cook wthout a recipe?

Do you always consult a recipe when you cook, or can you cook by “instinct”? I learned to cook mostly by watching my aunt and my grandmother, a little my bobbe, who was my aunt’s mother. My mother did a lot of basic stuff without recipes as well, but she also made a lot of stuff with recipes she either got from friends, or that came out of a copy of The Joy of Cooking that she got as a wedding present.

When I first became a vegetarian, I cooked a lot from recipes, particularly from The Tao of Cooking, and also from a couple of magazines I subscribed to for my first couple of years, but I’ve got them memorized now.

The thing is, I have done so much cooking, that I have a basic recipe in my head for just about anything I want to make, and I know what seasonings go together, DON’T go together, and what you have to do to be able to add certain things to a dish-- what vegetables need to be blanched, what fruits need to be sweetened, what fruits need something to add tartness, what should be boiled, what should be sauteed, what should be deep-fried, what should be pan-fried, how much to reduce or increase the liquid in a basic recipe if I want to add such-and-such an ingredient, and so forth. If I want to turn a cake I’ve made before into muffins, what tweaks does it need to get “muffin” texture, and not crumble when it pops out of the tin.

How many other people cook like this?

Does this make me a good cook, or does it mean I lack adventure? Honestly, sometimes I eat something way outside my repertoire at someone’s house, or a restaurant, and go home and make it through guesswork, and I can usually get it right. It might take one bad batch, but I can manage.

If you cook without written recipes, what could you put together for dinner? I could do several things, but here’s something I could do, and on pretty short notice:

Spinach-mushroom quiche (or individual tarts) with Swiss & cheddar cheese.

Chickpea-cucumber-tomato salad, with dressing made of (light) sour cream, yogurt, buttermilk, paprika & dill.

Deep-fried, cubed tofu with choice of peanut, or sweet & sour sauce. Sauteed pineapple, green & orange bell peppers, and onions, to mix in if desired.

Homemade dinner rolls, white & whole wheat, possibly rye as well. (I also can do GF rolls with rice, almond & lentil flours, tapioca starch & xanthan gum.) Butter, as well as seasoned olive oil.

Blanched asparagus tips with almond slivers, sauteed in olive oil & garlic.

Pastries filled with a variety of fruits and cheesecake-type fillings, coffee or tea, for dessert.

If the mix seems a little odd, it’s because I’ve more than once thought I was inviting all vegetarians, with one or two omnivores, and then found out that a couple of people had gone vegan and not told me, or that one of my “omnis” was actually lactose intolerant. I could do the whole meal vegan, and I have-- when I want to do that, and there are more than four people, I usually pull a tofurky out of the freezer, roast it with mushrooms, carrots, peas, parsnips and red potatoes, and make sweet potato tsimmes, and a garden salad. But that’s almost cheating. No one needs a recipe for that.

It seems that cookbooks are really popular, so a lot of people cook from recipes. If you cook with recipes, is it because no one taught you to cook, or is it because your trying to break away from what you grew up eating? Or something else?

I almost always follow a recipe unless it is a well practiced recipe I have done many times.

If it is the first time I am trying a dish I follow the recipe to a “T”. Absolutely NO variation whatsoever. I want to see what the recipe that interested me produces before I start tweaking it.

Of course, some recipes are more amenable to free-wheeling than others. Chili has a lot of room for a “pinch of this” and a “smidge of that” and still be good. Its low and slow cooking time can allow room for modifications and tweaks as you cook.

I find baking to be far less forgiving. You had better really know your stuff before changing a baking recipe and, generally, even the best bakers don’t eyeball ingredient amounts but still measure them closely.

Doubtless there are exceptions to all of this and many of us may have had a grandma who could do everything by touch but then she had probably been making that dish for 60 years or more.

My mother was the cook in our house when I was young, however she made sure that my siblings and I were able to cook, iron, wash dishes and clothes and clean house. Like you, I developed an instinctive approach to cooking and usually do not consult recipes. However, the down-side is that I find myself falling into ruts where I just cycle through a limited number of dishes, so what I tend to use other people’s recipes for is to bump me out of the rut and find new ideas. I almost never need to look at the recipe again once I’ve used it the first time, and mostly treat the recipe as a guide rather than a strict algorithm the first time through.

I am lucky to live in a city with active farmers markets and a diverse mix of cultures, so have lots of options regarding ingredients and exposure to many types of cooking.

My wife is the baker in our house, and like @Whack-a-Mole says, I have found my free-form approach doesn’t always pay off when applied to pie crusts or muffins.

It may mean you have a better memory for quantities than I. :slight_smile:

I almost always look at a recipe. I mean, not for something basic like roasting a chicken, but if I am making cornbread, even though I’ve done it a gazillion times, I want to be reminded whether it’s one egg or two.

I don’t follow recipes exactly. I’ll fiddle with the seasonings, or adjust to the foods we happen to have around. And if I want to try something new, I’ll usually google several recipes and then pick the parts I want from each. Sometimes I just want a single number – how much water should I add to a pound if lentils if I am cooking them in an instant pot? – and I’ll ignore everything else about the recipe.

Yeah, that. I have some staples I absolutely will wing and modify a bit on the fly. But my problem is absentmindedness. I too often forget to put in things I want or even need. Forcing myself to follow a recipe guards against careless screw-ups. I am comfortable modifying recipes to suit my taste, but I do find using an outline handy.

I just use approximately stuff I used before from recipes I read on the internet/cards (remember in the '90s when you could get a box of recipes for free and then pay for more if you joined a recipe club?) or off a box or in a cookbook.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I strictly follow baking recipes, though.

If I’m cooking from whatever random ingredients I have on hand, I am fully capable of putting together a well seasoned, cohesive dish from “scratch.” Stir-fried dinners or random 'use up leftover ingredients" lunches.

More often, though, I’m cooking from a recipe. There I will measure to match the expected results. If it’s a repeat recipe, I’ll adjust it and (try to) memorize it. But, I keep the reference. Lots of sauces and casseroles are closer to the science of baking than the art of cooking.

Anyone who has watched the “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix (or wherever) knows the truth of this. 12 people making the same thing and they get wildly different results. Even a recipe is no guarantee. It is a science and an art at the same time. Straying from the recipe is not good. And then you still need finesse. I have only mastered one thing to bake and when I make it I adhere to my recipe religiously with precise measurements and rigid process.

I feel like I have a firm enough grasp on the fundamentals of cooking to be able to cook without a recipe, but I’m pretty sure the reason I can do this is because I’ve previously followed a lot of recipes. I understand seasoning and balancing salty/sweet/sour/bitter. These days if I’m attempting something the first time, I usually look up a recipe or two to get an outline on which to base my dish, but ultimately when I’m actually cooking, I’m flying by the seat of my pants, and much more often than not it comes out pretty good.

I never ever use a recipe, unless I’m baking, which I no longer do. My husband, on the other hand, ALWAYS cooks from a recipe, measuring everything with absolute precision. I call him a kitchen chemist.

Following recipes is fun, but the stuff I actually cook day-to-day doesn’t really need a recipe. At most I need general tips.

I mean, what’s the recipe for frying an egg, bacon, chicken breast, or hamburger meat? Or cooking noodles (which I figured out how to do faster in the microwave), rice or mashed potatoes? Or making a quesadilla, nachos, grilled cheese, etc? Or heating canned or pre-packaged foods?

If I cooked the type of stuff where ingredients or their amounts really mattered, I’d follow a recipe, at least at first. I but I really don’t do recipe foods except to have fun. (Or the occasional cake/pie where I follow the recipe on the box.)

Gravy is probably the most complicated thing I make, and I find it works better if you just keep adding the thickener until it’s actually gravy like, rather than trying to measure it.

I guess if someone asks me to try something I have no idea how to make or I find something completely new online I’ll look at a recipe once and tweak it.

Other than that I’ve managed to live over 40 years and mostly cook for myself without looking at recipes. I do prefer mostly basic foods that I can cook over and over and have a fairly consistently calorie intake, don’t like a lot of leftovers since they get thrown out, etc. So the things I mostly cook don’t really require recipes.

I’ll often consult recipes to get an idea of ingredients and timings, but use my experience to adapt them. Recipes from TV celebrity chefs often seen to me to use ‘restaurant-style’ amounts of sugar, fats and salt - and I’m not looking for those (literally) sickening levels of indulgence in my home-cooking.

I might follow a recipe exactly the first time, but sometimes not even then: Like, sometimes it’s obvious that a dish is supposed to have garlic in it, but it’s not written down, so I’ll go ahead and add it.

After that, I’ll modify as seems appropriate.

And yes, there are some ingredients that are what might be called “functional”, and need to be present in the right proportions for the recipe to work properly. And these “functional ingredients” are more prevalent in baking than in stovetop cooking. But there are also plenty of ingredients, even in baking, that really are “to taste”, and which can be freely tampered with. Knowing which is which is part of learning to cook.

In particular, in baking, you need to mind your acids, your bases, your binders (usually gluten and/or egg), and your overall fluid level. But most other things are variable. If you have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, for instance, you can freely put in chopped walnuts, or rice cereal, or coconut, in addition to or instead of the chocolate chips, and the cookies will come out just fine.


Yup. I was thinking that I often tamper with baking recipes, too, and they always still work.

And even the functional ingredients can be tweaked. Use butter to replace some or all of the shortening. Fiddle with the ratio of flour to cornmeal. Change the amount of sugar a little to adjust the texture. Round up the eggs when making a half recipe, and removing a little milk to keep the amount of liquid the same. It’s a long list.

I almost always look at a recipe. There are only a few recipes I routinely follow as written. (those are all really good ones, though.)

To some extent, I think it also matters whether you are looking to make a particular dish or whether you just want to make something that tastes good. My husband is the cook ( not me) but if he decides to make chicken piccata, he’s going to need a recipe , even if that recipe lives in his head because he’s made it so often. I’m sure he could cook chicken cutlets in a way that tastes good without a recipe even in his head but that’s something different.

I 99% don’t bake but for everything else this (and the OP) is pretty much me.

For a new dish I’ll Google up 4 or 6 variations then make something that blends them together emphasizing the parts I like and de-emphasizing any details one or another recipe does dumbly.

Most of my other dishes come together entirely by feel. I have a recipe file that’s really more a file of notes about what worked and what goofs to avoid. Largely they memorialize times & temps for various doneness. I’m a stickler for everything coming together at the same time, so being able to predict whether this weight of roast at that temp will take 2 hours or 2 hours and 15 minutes is important.

At least pre-COVID my job required a lot of eating out and so I often bring home notes of an excellent restaurant meal I want to duplicate. Net of this effect, with which I agree:

A couple nights ago I had seared tuna medallions wrapped in Spanish Serrano ham. Not a combo I would have predicted working, but that’s totally a keeper. I’d have cooked it a bit more than they did, but I can fix that.

I work it the other way around. I keep an eye on the roast, and usually start the veg cooking just as it’s time for the roast to rest. The rice can keep warm for a long time in the pot without losing quality.

I tend to do a mix. For the most part, it’s by memory and instinct. I tend to remember my recipes by ratios rather than specific amounts.

More unfamiliar recipes I look up. Like I don’t bake that much. I can do bread and pizza dough and all that without cracking open a book, but if I had to make a German chocolate cake, I’m cracking open the book or a webpage. Same with most desserts as I don’t make them often, whereas main dishes I make every day.