6 Ways to Become a Fearless Improviser in the Kitchen

published Dec 16, 2015
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(Image credit: Lucy Hewett)

Becoming a master in the kitchen doesn’t simply mean memorizing recipes from cookbooks or making a successful soufflé. It also means being able to look in the pantry and fridge and use what’s on hand to make a meal, replace a missing ingredient, or add something unexpected (and unlisted) to an existing recipe.

In other words, you must be able to improvise. If this idea scares the living daylights out of you, here’s the trick: practice.

But wait … isn’t practice the antithesis of improvisation? Yes, by definition it is, but giving yourself time to play around and creating the right environment to make mistakes, helps build confidence and knowledge for future improvisation.

By learning how to fearlessly improvise, you’ll find more ease in the kitchen. You’ll make more of what you have on hand, as well as what you have leftover — which, in turn, means less money spent on ingredients and less waste. Basically, practice makes a good improvisor and a good improvisor makes exciting food. So when you’re ready, use these six tips to conquer to off-the-cuff cooking.

1. Build Skills

The more you understand different techniques, ingredients, and flavor combinations, the more confident you will become when going rogue from recipes, which is why education is a key component to kitchen improvisation. But you do not have to sign up for culinary school to get the skills: Simply immerse yourself in magazines, websites, and of course, the many TV culinary shows to get top-notch instruction on everything from the elemental to the ad hoc.

If you’re looking to specifically sharpen improv skills, though, there’s nothing better than cooking competitions. Which, by nature, test a chef’s abilities to cook on the fly.

2. Stock Up

Even if you know how to cook, it won’t help if your fridge and pantry are empty. And while part of improvising often means not having all the ingredients you need, it does help to have staples at the ready to add bulk, flavor, and texture to your creations. Here are some lists to get you started.

More on Pantry Staples

3. Fail-Free Zone

Never improvise for the first time when you’re hosting guests or you’re really hungry. Instead, pick a day and time when you have nothing to lose and no one to entertain; usually an empty weekend afternoon or evening is best. This guarantees plenty of time to enjoy the process and — oh, yeah — have fun. Having backup snacks on hand never hurts either.

4. Start Small

Before you make up an entire recipe, build your cooking confidence by playing with a single herb, spice, or vegetable first. Pick out an ingredient you don’t normally cook with and then try to use it throughout the week in as many ways as possible. If you need inspiration, do not hesitate to head to Google or other beloved cookbooks for ideas. Then stretch your ingredient and imagination beyond what you thought was possible, until it is all gone.

5. Switch It Out

Even when you try to follow a recipe exactly, there’s often that moment when you realize you forgot an important item at the store. This is when the ability to improvise really comes in handy. So practice for this moment by purposefully leaving something off your shopping list (ground meat) and then substituting in something else you think might work (minced mushrooms).

The more you do this, the more you’ll build your understanding and instincts of how different ingredients may successfully replace each other.

6. Go for It

Whether you decide to pick up a few random items at the farmers market or stick to what is in the house, the final step in learning to improvise is to take the plunge. That means making a whole meal from scratch, with no guidelines or recipes — just your well-honed skills and imagination.

Note: For those first few experiments, pick more forgiving ingredients — like potatoes, rice, or chicken versus mustard greens, lentils, and liver — that pair well with a large spectrum of other foods and flavors, which will give you more room for success. Save the liver for another day, and carve out plenty of time to enjoy the creative process. Smell and taste, dash and splash — if things don’t work out the first time, try again. And remember,

even experts sometimes fail.