What would you say if I told you it was entirely possible—even desirable—to cook anything from a simple dinner to a great loaf of bread without using measuring cups, spoons, or a scale?
"Lies," I can hear you say, "Cheap internet lies!"
But it's true. Experienced cooks are able to create meals by simply eyeballing amounts and ingredients. They cook in dabs, pinches, spoonfuls, and handfuls, and often turn out wonderful dishes. They can cook quickly, without constantly referring to a recipe or the internet as a guide.
Most importantly, they're able to make a meal just by opening their refrigerators and cupboards and seeing what's in them, rather than relying on recipes that require specialized and expensive ingredients.
Training yourself to cook without measuring tools means you have fewer items to wash, gives yourself more freedom in the kitchen, and requires fewer trips to the store after you realize you don't need to have exactly one tablespoon of vanilla to finish a dish.
When you do decide to follow a recipe, you'll be able to spot errors in measurements (yes, the pros make mistakes all the time) and be able to adjust ingredients according to what you already have at home.
You don't have to cook for years to gain this skill—although that definitely helps. Read on to find ways to ease into the process and soon you'll be improvising as if you were a born chef.
Set yourself up for success and begin by cooking dishes that are basic and taste good. In other words, don't worry about making salmon en papillote without a recipe. Pasta with garlic, olive oil, and fresh basil, chicken stir-fry, oatmeal with fresh cream and berries, and even basic mashed potatoes are all great places to start.
Knowledge really is power, especially when it comes to food. Reading through a recipe once or twice can give you an idea about the ingredients you might need, proportions of said ingredients, cooking times, and temperatures.
There's a big difference between a teaspoon or a tablespoon of salt. When cooking without measuring cups or spoons, always start with a small amount of a seasoning or herb, and build from there. You can't un-add rosemary or cayenne pepper to a dish. Most importantly, don't use a dozen different spices and herbs. This will just muddy the flavor of your dish.
This is probably the most useful skill for the budding improvisational chef. Dip in a tasting spoon at regular stages throughout the cooking process. Then you can tell if you need more ginger, a dash of cumin, or extra green onions before dinner hits the plate.
Just remember to rinse the spoon off before reusing, as you don't want your dish to taste like toothpaste or whatever you ate last.
If one of the recipes you referenced calls for cream, what it's really calling for is a full-fat dairy product. If you have half-and-half, regular sour cream, whole milk, or even butter, those might work just as well. Need parsley but only have cilantro? They're both clean-tasting, crisp herbs and are actually part of the same botanical family, so make the substitution. Use your common sense, logic, and intuition.
Did you know a deck of playing cards equals about three ounces of meat, and a poker chip is about one tablespoon? WebMD has a portion size guide that's meant to aid dieters, but it comes in handy to know some of these associations when you're freestyling in the kitchen.
As you get more comfortable, you'll develop your own personal vocabulary. After years in the kitchen, I know that the cap off of my favorite brand of olive oil is roughly equivalent to one teaspoon, while my fist equals about one cup of flour.
Give yourself room to learn, make mistakes, and try different flavors together. Some of my favorite memories are of kitchen disasters, like the time my friends and I tried to make spinach gnocchi from scratch without enough flour. We used a box of cornstarch to make up the difference and essentially made green glue, which stuck our teeth together when we tried to eat it.
And remember that some great culinary discoveries (hello, chocolate chip cookies!) came about because a fearless cook went into her kitchen and tried something new.