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Improvising in the kitchen? What does this mean?

Shouldn’t you follow a recipe exactly?

Well, let’s explain…

There are many reasons why improvising in the kitchen by adjusting or changing a recipe from the original may be needed. Here are a few reasons to do so:

  1. You or a family member don’t like one or more of the ingredients called for in the recipe.
  2. You’re out of one or more of the ingredients.
  3. You like the recipe, but prefer a healthier alternative to the listed ingredients.
  4. You have a partial recipe, perhaps just an ingredient list, but no instructions.
  5. You just feel like experimenting to change things up a bit!

Knowing when NOT to make changes to the recipe is also important. Sometimes, certain ingredients are essential and cannot be adjusted or changed.

How do you learn this?  It just takes experience. You can’t just read it in a book or online. As much as this guide will try to teach you how to improvise or adjust a recipe, you really just have to try it on your own with your recipes.

I’ve been cooking & baking a long time! Married for over 30 years, I cooked for my husband (& still do) and two sons. (If you know anything about raising sons, you’ll know they eat a lot!) I cooked even when I was single. Way back then there weren’t as many options to eat out as there are today, plus I didn’t want to spend the money.

During those years, I was a stay-at-home mom, then worked part-time, and eventually full time. During the years when my sons were young and I wasn’t working, money was tight and I had to make do with what I had. I learned how to improvise in the kitchen, cook cheaply and use what  I had in the house.

Pre-internet, I’d look through my many cookbooks for recipe ideas and tips. You just learn what things go together and which ones don’t, cooking methods, & substitutions. Again, it’s all about experience.

You learn what ingredients you can use less of, how to combine ingredients, what substitutions to make, how to adjust cooking or baking times, what ingredients can’t be changed or substituted, etc. You’ll get a feel for doing this and eventually you can learn to make a recipe your own, if you want.

Sometimes when baking, I’ll tweak a recipe just because. I like to experiment with different ingredients and see how something comes out. Last summer, with an abundance of zucchini, I decided to make zucchini bread and used one recipe, but made four loaves, changing it up four different ways. Some were good, some were just OK, but none were terrible. We ate them anyways & survived.

Here are some things to do next time you get ready to cook and need to improvise:

Use a basic recipe as a launch or starting point, and then tweak it to make it your own, even if you have all the necessary ingredients.

  1. Line up all your ingredients—good to do whether you’re cooking or baking. This way you’ll know if you have everything or not.
  2. Are you missing anything? If so,
    • Is it a major part of the recipe?  Stop—go shopping or go out to eat!
    • Is there a “suitable” substitution for it?  Check your cookbook or look online for a proper substitute.
  1. Do you want a different flavoring or seasoning instead of what’s listed in the recipe?
    • Will the dish have an overall different flavor that doesn’t make sense?
    • Don’t make any seasoning changes that will have a major impact on the recipe or change its ethnic origins, i.e. adding ginger and soy sauce to taco meat instead of taco seasoning? (Yuck).
    • Can you make some slight changes that won’t change the overall flavor or ethnicity of the dish? Adding oregano & basil to spaghetti sauce instead of just oregano
  2. Do you want healthier ingredients?
    • Use leaner cuts of meat, add more veggies, use less oil to fry
    • Broil, bake or grill the meat or veggies
    • Make your own marinades or dressings instead of using store-bought so you know exactly what’s in them. No time??? Plan and make ahead!
    • Use different oils, i.e. coconut instead of vegetable.
  3. Do you or a family member hate a particular ingredient?
    • Reduce the amount. For example, I hate onions, but my husband loves them. I will either cut them up into tiny pieces so I get a little of the flavor without actually biting into a large piece, or I’ll reduce the amount called for in the recipe. (Hubby will add more just to spite me!)
    • Make a close substitution, If it’s a seasoning, to replace it.
  4. What to do when there’s an ingredient list, but no instructions or directions?
    • Look over similar recipes in a cookbook or online.
    • Follow those instructions; usually similar dishes have the same steps.

So, I hope this quick guide to improvising in the kitchen with your recipes was helpful and you learned some tips. Whether you adjust a recipe because you have to or just want to should not be a cause for alarm. Again, you’ll have successes along with the failures. Just have a sense of humor about it. Cooking and baking are not exact sciences, well, maybe baking is more exact, but the more you do it, the better you’ll become.

One of my favorite cookbooks is Better Homes & Garden. I received my copy when I got married, and I still use it today.  There are newer editions, of course, but it’s still one of the best around. Great for beginners and for the experienced, you’ll find good, basic recipes, tips & techniques, measurements and equivalents in it. If you don’t want to adjust, change or improvise, just follow a recipe exactly as written.

Pick a recipe today that you like and see what changes you can make to it. Look at similar recipes, see what different ingredients or techniques are used, and give it a try. If it totally stinks, dump it in the garbage and go out to eat—at least you tried! But don’t be afraid to try something new another time. Improvising in the kitchen can be fun (or funny).



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