Let’s Get Cooking

Athena ScalziAs many of you probably already know, I love cooking. I especially love baking, but both are great activities that I enjoy very much and have considered making a career out of. One of the things I’ve considered doing is food blogging, or cooking videos on YouTube or something of the sort! Or even just posting recipes and whatnot on here. Yet, I never do, and I want to talk a bit about why.

The thing about food bloggers, and the cooking/baking people I follow and watch, is that they’re always coming up with tasty new recipes, seasonal treats and exciting new weeknight dinner recipes. Like, coming up with as in creating themselves. Original recipes! And there lies my problem. Everything I make is someone else’s recipe. I just follow other food blogger’s recipes, I never create anything on my own.

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in the kitchen: those who guesstimate on ingredients, are okay to go with the flow and leave things out or add things in on a whim, who think it’s okay to just throw something in a 400 degree oven and eyeball it. Then there’s those who have to follow a recipe to a “T.” Those who will add in that 1/8th of a spice even if they don’t like that spice specifically because the recipe says to, and will not let something cook one minute longer than it’s supposed to, even if it doesn’t really look all the way done, because if the recipe says it, it must be right, and there is no room for changes or error. I happen to be the latter.

I can’t not follow a recipe. I’m not the type to just throw things together in a pan and see what I get. I can’t just gather up some things from my fridge and put it all in a monstrous burrito and call it a day. I need guidelines, instructions, precision. So, as a result, I can never create anything of my own making in the kitchen, and therefore I have nothing to share with you all.

However, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I’ll just share with y’all some food bloggers I like and post pictures if I make anything of theirs? I know in 2018 I made a post about a food YouTuber I like called Binging With Babish, and I know some of you ended up following him and watching his stuff too, so that’s cool. I have a bunch more I could recommend if y’all are interested!

For now, I’ll just keep being the non-experimentalist person in the kitchen and stay away from concocting any crazy burritos. Have a great day!


74 Comments on “Let’s Get Cooking”

  1. You never start out being creative in the kitchen. It takes time and experience to learn the things those bloggers seemingly do effortlessly. When I first started cooking I made some horrendous mistakes, but I learned from them and pushed on. You can too.

  2. Welcome to the club. I firmly believe that if I follow the recipe, everything will just be dandy!

    I have been proven wrong so many, many times. Still, I persevere, and would love to see your recommendations!

  3. Hi Athena,

    I had this exact conversation with a housemate once who was a superb cook. She reverse-engineered a recipe she enjoyed at a restaurant and it became a household favorite. I observed then that the fundamental difference between “art” and “craft” seems to lie in people’s love and capability for improvisation.

    As a musician I have decent craft, but it’s not my art. I don’t have the chops for improv, or, I don’t know, the three-dimensional familiarity with what it would take to invent and perform musical things myself. But music remains an amateur obsession of mine, so I feel much less bad about it than I once did.

    Writing is my primary art — I’m very familiar with the world of using words and have a reasonable amount of control with which to invent things or modify forms and tropes to my liking. But I get a lot of pleasure out of the things I practice as crafts, like playing music, photography, watercolors, etc. As to cooking, I’m just about proficient enough to feed myself; so I enjoy watching practitioners of craft do their thing nearly as much as I enjoy watching cooking artists invent or reinvent things.

    Which is all to say, even as craft I bet you could have fun making cooking videos, and give other people fun watching them, if you would like to do it.

  4. I find it’s easier to cook on the fly when I’m doing something in a skillet. It’s easier to eyeball the ingredients, watch what happens, and taste it while it’s cooking, than if you’re trying to bake something in the oven.

    I once made up a recipe completely on the fly because my mother told me that she’d defrosted some pork chops, but she didn’t feel like cooking, so she invited me to do it instead (her views on cooking were that she didn’t actually enjoy it, she only did it because if she didn’t, we’d starve–unless my father felt like cooking. He enjoyed it, and he’s good at it). I looked around the fridge and pantry to see what else we had, besides the pork chops.

    I trimmed the fat from the pork chops (four of them, roughly a pound, give or take, boneless), cut them into cubes, and set them aside. In a skillet, I browned some garlic in a little bit of butter (maybe a tablespoon), then I added the meat. I added one can (the 10 oz size, not the big one) of cream of mushroom soup (when it became available, I used cream of mushroom with roasted garlic), half a can of milk, 4 oz french onion dip, a little bit of worcestershire sauce (to taste), and a little bit of liquid smoke, stirred it all together, and let it simmer over medium-low heat. If it was runnier than I liked, I added equal parts cornstarch and water (generally one tablespoon each, blended until the cornstarch dissolves, then add that to the mixture) to thicken it.

    While that was cooking, I cooked some egg noodles in a pasta pot. Once the noodles were done, I drained them and added them to the meat mixture. I called it pork stroganoff. I’ve since made it with ground beef or stew meat, for something closer to an actual beef stroganoff.

  5. There are two cooks in our family.

    One is the kind of wild, crazy, experimental “oh, this spice smells interesting, I’ll toss some in,” “gosh, I don’t really think it needs to cook that long” cook who never, ever makes the same thing twice even if it has the same name.

    The other one is me. And while I have gotten to the point (in my 60s) where I’m willing to eyeball some measurements, guess at some cooking times, and once in a great long while, try a seasoning that isn’t in the recipe, it has taken me literally decades to reach this point after having embarked on cooking much the same way you describe yourself approaching it.

    It may be no accident that I am an accountant while the other cook in our family works in a much more loosely defined type of career path where creativity is essential. What can I say, I just like formulas – it’s an occupational hazard.

    So embrace your detail-driven formulaic self, and cook the way you like to cook. I suspect that at some point, you’ll gain enough confidence to dip a toe in experimentation, although if you’re like me, that may take a while. But however you approach cooking, enjoy the heck out of it. And never, ever, EVER tell anyone what you think went wrong in a dish you made, because trust me, you are very likely the only one who’ll ever notice.

  6. One way to learn to improvise as a follow-the-recipe style cook is to pay attention to the ratios among the main ingredients and vary recipes inside those boundaries. Michael Ruhlman’s ‘Ratios’ really changed how I look at cooking.

  7. The easiest way to get comfortable improvising in the kitchen is with pancakes. First, if you screw it up, you can throw it away and try again immediately. Second, you almost never check the temperature of whatever you’re making pancakes in–it’s the “throw a few drops of water in and see how it behaves” method of temperature measurement. Nor do you set a timer to see when it’s done–recipes say “when bubbles don’t collapse and it looks dry around the edge” which is something you learn by screwing up a couple of pancakes. And third, you can add or subtract or substitute almost anything and they’ll still be edible, if not perfect.

    Once you’ve got that, you realize that other cakes, muffins, biscuits, cupcakes, are mostly just pancakes, and cookies are kinda pancakes, too, and you’re off!

  8. Maybe it’s experience or maybe it’s how you are taught to cook. I am more inclined to throw things together but I have had years of cooking to develop a ‘feel’ for what might work. Even so, with baking, I will follow the recipe the first time I try it (baking is a more exact science).

    Maybe in time you’ll depart from the recipe more.

    Following the recipe isn’t always a sure-fire approach either. It really helps to taste as you go & adjust as needed. I once made a Vietnamese dish following the recipe for the amount of fish sauce to use. It turned out too salty. Turns out fish sauce can vary in saltiness depending on brand…

  9. I always used to follow recipes. Even Reader’s Digest type recipes that always ended up bland, overcooked, and colourless.
    Then I lost my health and my career. Now I make “Famous Tessa Surprise” which is shorthand for “Tessa looks at the cupboard, is baffled, desperately throws what’s there together, and is as suprised as anyone if/when it’s edible” I haven’t made many spectacular dishes, but on the other hand, we hardly ever end up eating peanut butter sarmies, so.
    I’ve also considered the blogging thing, but it’s not something to get into unless you’re willing to risk wasting a ot of food on wild guesses. I don’t have the financial or pain-free-hours budget to afford the conseqences.

  10. “I can’t just gather up some things from my fridge and put it all in a monstrous burrito and call it a day.”

    This genuinely made me laugh out loud. What does your dad think of that?

  11. I used to be more of a “follow the recipe to a T” type cook but I’ve found watching videos from test kitchens is really helpful in breaking out of that shell. Test Kitchen videos tend to explain a lot more about why certain choices were made and the science behind it. That information really helped me be a little more experimental because I actually started having a clue about how certain adjustments might actually affect the final product.

  12. I am very much a “follow the recipe” person. But at the same time, there are certain foods I do not like. So over time I’ve gotten used to evaluating in a recipe whether a particular ingredient is important to the dish or just an accompaniment; for the former I’ll either skip the dish or pick it out afterwards, and the later I just cut completely. I’ve also been more willing in recent years for some recipes to just shake in some of the spice rather than bust out the spoons to measure.

    When it comes to baking I don’t deviate, though. Baking is so much more exact because it’s a lot of chemistry in getting the structure right. The most improvisation I do is changing the mix-ins for a brownie recipe, like peanut butter chips instead of chocolate chips.

  13. Hey Athena! I started out as a baking loving teen too. I have a science background so I am also very much about following protocols/recipes! It took me until my 30s (now) to really start experimenting with different flavors, techniques, etc. It takes knowledge, time, and testing to come up with new recipes.

    I ended up starting a food blog during COVID for a couple of reasons 1) It helps me remember what recipes I have made and liked (sometimes web-bookmarked recipes disappear unexpectedly!) 2) It gave me a creative outlet 3) Friends/family seemed to enjoy pictures & recipes I posted on Facebook and a blog allowed me to share info with people not on Facebook.

  14. I’ll second Ruhlman’s Ratio, and also Ruhlman’s Twenty, which talks about essential techniques and how to deal with important ingredients like eggs. But if you want to improv, baking is tough, other than adding an extra flavor to cookies or cakes like nuts, chocolate chips, etc. The easiest playgrounds are probably salad dressings and stir fries.
    For dressings, start with a basic vinaigrette (3 parts oil, 1 part acid, depending on your acid), or a creamy dressing (equal parts mayo and sour cream or buttermilk).and start adding stuff and keep tasting. The worst that can happen is that to balance it out you end up with more dressing than you intended (then it’s a sandwich spread too!).
    For stir fry, pick a protein, cut it into even cubes or small slices, marinate with a teaspoon of soy and teaspoon of cornstarch per pound.. Mince garlic and ginger, usually equal amounts. Pick one or two vegetables you like, cut similarly to the protein. Pick a sauce — keep it simple at first, just soy, or maybe hoisin or oyster sauce, or something else available in the supermarket (the Asian markets will have a lot more choices). You can find out how to mix up, or modify, such sauces later. My best results come from this process: Heat some oil, stir-fry the veg, remove from the pan. If you need a little more oil it’s OK to add now and let it get smokin’ hot. Then stir-fry the protein. When it just starts to brown, add your garlic and ginger. Add the veg back in, then the sauce, cook until the protein is cooked through. Garnish with scallion tops or cilantro, thinly sliced, and/or sesame seeds, chopped nuts, etc. The possibilities are limitless, but start simple.

  15. Cooking is the one place that mixes science with art. Once you get the science down, you can start developing your art.

    I have half a dozen things that have become expressions of srt, the rest are stiil science projects.

  16. Your recommendation of Babish was outstanding, and I’d love to see whatever you’d like to share in a similar vein!

  17. I always like to know what people are cooking and eating, especially in stressful times, as food is so often comfort. I also love pictures of other people’s kitchens and utensils. So please let fly with what you made, who all liked it, and whatever else you want to say about it!

  18. So I am a food blogger (or I used to be, not so much anymore although I’d like to get back to it).
    The thing that I tell people all the time is that there are very very VERY few “original recipes” or “original creations” out there. Um, John’s burritos aside. :) Almost everything you see on food blogs, including Babish, who I love, is something that someone else has made at some time or another and then someone else has riffed off of it.
    I don’t know how interested you are in becoming a more adventurous cook, but if it might be worth it to post some of your “by the book” recipes and results here and let us riff off of them for you. Looking at your results and telling you what we might have done differently might give you some ideas or the confidence to start doing the same yourself.
    Just a thought. I’ve enjoyed the cooking posts I’ve seen by you in the past and would love to see more when you’re in a mood to share.

  19. There are many cooking channels on YouTube. The better ones, aside from production values, also explain the why of techniques, so that the episode is more than just a presentation on a particular recipe but also an education on cooking that can be applied in other recipes. My particular favorite is “Food Wishes”:


  20. I used to be more of the “exactly follow the recipe” type – mostly when I was unsure of myself and my abilities. When I was young, I had a severe need for perfection. I didn’t cook or bake much but when I did, I rarely deviated much from the written recipe.

    Decades later, I still don’t cook or bake much, but when I do, I don’t religiously adhere to a recipe. I REALLY loved Olive Garden’s Zuppa Toscana when I had it for the first time many moons ago, so I found a copycat recipe online. I usually measure the liquid ingredients but with the other stuff – onion, garlic, kale – I go with whatever amount looks good at the time.

    I hope you’re able to let go of that perfectionism and have some adventures during your time in the kitchen.

  21. I look at recipes more as guidelines, not hard and fast rules that I’ll wind up in some mythological jail if I don’t follow. Any time I see a recipe that calls for feta, I sub goat cheese. Why? I hate feta, but I do like goat cheese. If an ingredient that I despise is called for? Forget it. Why add something I know I don’t like? And if I think a recipe would benefit from some other ingredient, I add it in. What’s the worst that can happen? But…I’ve been cooking a lot longer than you have. Things that aren’t really new to me are still new to you. IOW I’ve made a crapload of mistakes you haven’t yet. So, how to go from being a steadfast follower to developing your own style? Hmmm. My mother used to follow a recipe exactly the first time she made it. If she thought it could be improved she would alter it when making it again. You could start there. Or someone above suggested starting with pancakes. My suggestion is soups. Soups are so forgiving. You can make them out of pretty much anything. It’s very hard to go wrong with them. And if you do, well, the garbage disposal looms. So start experimenting, make some some mistakes, throw out the questionable choices, and turn yourself into the cook you want to be.

  22. My first time making a recipe, I normally stick to what’s written unless there’s some overriding reason to change things. Back when I was taking home ec in junior high, my grandmother had high blood pressure and a tendency to be heavy-handed with the salt shaker (possibly connected), so I almost never use the quantity of salt that a recipe calls for.

    Once I’m making that recipe again, I feel more comfortable changing things around. “This was a bit bland last time, maybe 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence instead of 1 teaspoon?”

  23. An early example from when I was following recipes before breaking them: When I was first living on my own in LA I called my mother for the recipe for mashed potatoes. She laughed hysterically. Now I know why. Seriously, this became a lifelong joke.

  24. Baking (fine baking, at least) is very much a precision exercise. Cooking, and bread, aren’t. They are very much about being creative.

    Recipes are designed to be palatable to the most people, which generally means they are going to leave you with a bland result. So when it comes to food, don’t try to learn how to cook food, learn how food cooks. Learn the science of proteins and fiber and what heat and chilling do to various ingredients. Learn why certain flavors pair so well with others. “The Flavor Bible” is a brilliant book in that regard.

    If you understand that, cooking it isn’t “winging it” so much as it is painting a picture.

  25. I’m not in either category, I think. I’m the kind of person who masters the recipe by making it two or three times following the directions, after which I start winging it, playing with ingredients and cooking times. I noticed that this is how I do everything, too. Master the basics, and then after I got that down, I improvise.

  26. My husband is an engineer who has evolved into a pretty creative cook. How? By being quite scientific.

    When consumer-oriented food chemistry books became A Thing, I started buying them for him — with hope, since I never learned to cook. After he read about what goes on with gluten during bread baking, he began baking two different kinds of bread every week!

    Knowing the chemistry, he also felt he could adjust recipes. Even when experimenting, he makes very few inedible things. He prints out recipes and annotates them, so he knows what worked.

    I think this approach might help you be less of a strict recipe-follower (although if you are including ingredients you know you don’t like, perhaps not pushing to change is the right answer).

  27. I agree with Kara on there not being all that many “original” recipes. I completely understand the drive to be unique to set yourself apart, though. I think that’s a common anxiety in a lot of creative fields, even among professionals, so you’re in good company :P

    I think it’s worth considering whether being original is actually a priority for you, not just an anxiety. Is originality the thing that makes you happy, or is it the act itself of creating good food worth eating? There’s no rule saying you can only stand out with original recipes. What if you leaned into being the recipe follower you feel you are right now? Be downright draconian in following recipes that you find interesting. What works? What doesn’t? I’d love to read some recipe reviews by someone who follows the instructions to a T. No substitutions, no alterations, no adjustments. Just exactly what’s on the page.

    Maybe you’ll be more experimental in the kitchen one day, and maybe you won’t. Either way is fine; they’re both just different ways of being creative. As long as you’re having fun making food you like, it doesn’t really matter how you get there :D

  28. I would 100% follow a blog where you rated other food blogs and their recipes. Is it REALLY easy? Can you REALLY make it with ingredients the average mediocre midwest grocery store has? Do you have to slog through their whole life story to get to the recipe?

  29. Congratulations! You’re a Baker!

    Baking and cooking are actually very different on this exact point. Baking, as a favorite quote says, is Science for Hungry People. Getting something to rise the correct amount is absolutely chemistry, and messing around with proportions has a high likelihood of causing disaster. Don’t give it enough rise time? Hope you like flat bread.

    Cooking on a stove is Art, not Science. While there’s technique and timing to learn to get good results, improvisation rules and the best cooks can taste something and just know what it needs. My wife does this and is a far better cook than I am. But she hates following recipes, and I’m an engineer and can’t help it, so I turn out to be a better baker.

  30. Well, everyone pretty much said what I was going to say. I cook everything, but I love baking the best. It’s science, chemistry, and won’t work if you don’t get the equation right. I cook as well as bake, but it takes practice to start improvising. I always follow the recipe the first time.
    I love the magazine series ’Cook’s Illustrated’ and it’s spin off ‘Milk Street’. They break down every recipe and figure out why it works. The science behind it. As above, Ruhlman is great, too.
    But, like everything in life, it takes practice.

  31. I’ve found that learning the *techniques* is critical, having the right tools is important, and precisely following the recipe comes in third. Unless you have the *exact* same ingredients and tools and mastery of technique, the recipe is no substitute for ‘try and see what happens’. That said, a good recipe can inspire you.

  32. I’d enjoy write-ups of How It Went When I Made [Thing] – the “recipe of the day” (it seems like there’s a “hot” recipe online about once every six months or so – either something weird or some new strategy/ingredient/technique in a classic) or perhaps pitting two “top contenders” for a category against each other [this site’s baba ghanouj vs. that site’s baba ghanouj, or cookie faceoffs or whatever], or just something random, and rating it on your criteria for a good recipe and a good outcome, whatever those are (but being explicit, because “it was pretty good and wasn’t too hard to make, all things considered” without explaining what “all things” means… is neither interesting nor very helpful as information for someone else).

    (and I also agree with various people above who note that there are various easier points of entry to improvisation, although if it’s just not something that’s for you, that is also fine. I personally found the “look in the fridge, make something from what’s there” skill useful during lean budget years and snowstorms, and also, in a different way, useful during summer overflowing-produce season, but it’s not for everyone and that’s basically fine?)

  33. “The thing about food bloggers, and the cooking/baking people I follow and watch, is that they’re always coming up with tasty new recipes, seasonal treats and exciting new weeknight dinner recipes. Like, coming up with as in creating themselves. ”

    So here’s the thing: no they don’t.

    In fact, that’s not how human reasoning works. We reason by analogy with prior experience. Every recipe is descent with modification from something that came before, like evolution by natural selection. Those guys have a wider variety of prior experiences to draw on, including the rules from culinary school saying what goes with what, but that is all. They start with a base recipe and begin changing it based on what they have known in the past to be successful. With enough of that, you end up with something that looks totally new, just as the accumulation of incremental changes can make a bird out of a dinosaur.

    Take my meatloaf as an example. I think I have perfected the thing. It started life as a recipe I found for turkey meatloaf, back when I thought saturated fats were bad, but turkey meatloaf usually looks like a radiation victim. This one didn’t through the magic of grinding a pound of portabellas very fine, cooking all the liquid out, and adding what is left to the turkey.

    So I thought suppose I add that idea to a standard beef/pork blend meatloaf? That takes it in the direction of increased umami, and it turned out to be a good idea. So I thought about what else could amp up the umami. One blogger I read added marmite, not enough to say “Oh, there’s marmite in here,” which would be gross, but just enough to elevate the background umami flavor. Say, 1/2 teaspoon. That worked too.

    The turkey meatloaf glaze was basically just ketchup, which is a true Southern Thing. But I thought if I added a couple tablespoons of brown sugar it would caramelize better, and I was right. But it was too sweet, so I balanced out the sweetness by adding some cider vinegar and hot sauce.

    That was plenty good and I cruised on that meat loaf for a while. But one day, I remembered some other things I make in which I throw a 16 oz can of Guinness. Chili, for one. And because of the chili, I routinely substitute Guinness for red wine in a variety of beef recipes. It is almost always a good idea.

    Meat loaf has beef. Throwing a can into the loaf itself would be a bad idea, a terrible soupy disaster, but suppose I add it to the glaze? It takes a lot longer to cook down to a glaze consistency, and I get a lot more of it, but that just means I put it on in two layers, broiling to caramelize in between.

    Now where have I arrived? I have a thing that doesn’t look like the original turkey recipe in any way. But each step, borrowing an idea from another recipe, was a logical thing to try. And if I were a food blogger or a TV chef, the only thing you would see is the end product: an umami rich really rather huge loaf with a crisp crust all round (I don’t use a loaf pan) and a sweet, tomatoey, vinegary, hot malty glaze on top, and it’s awesome. But it would present the illusion of having burst from my head like Zeus from the head of Chronos.

    Most bloggers aren’t going to tell you about the journey. The lady at Smitten Kitchen is an exception to that rule.

  34. I like the idea of you cooking A Thing you find somewhere, cookbook or internet, just as the recipe says and annotating what worked and what didn’t, then cooking it again in a few weeks with your updated version and blogging that evolution process. I write myself notes in cookbooks, so it would be like that but seen by others. Might help you find your own bits of courage to change, might make things work better for your or your family’s tastes, might be fun for us to read or watch!

  35. I think it would be very informative and fun to watch someone follow a recipe EXCACTLY and see what actually happens. Theoretically, the dish should look like the picture. I find that recipes rarely end up like the picture :)
    I would watch!

  36. Here’s the thing: with baking, following the recipe exactly is critical. Baking is chemistry. With cooking, however, there are some things that are really important, such as doneness, and others not so much. Make sugar cookies and dust them with cinnamon? Sure! Add an herb to your scrambled eggs? Why not? If you put tortillas, cheese, beef or chicken and enchilada sauce together, it almost doesn’t matter how much of what, it’ll taste good.

    Go ahead, experiment a little. The worst that can happen is you don’t like it and toss it.

  37. If you want to do YouTube videos about food, there’s plenty of ways to bring your own creative unique spin and perspective without having to be a dish creator.

    For example, one could decide to try out a couple different varieties of the same dish and compare/contrast the experience — was one easier to make, etc.?

    One could take a certain theme ingredient and explore a few different dishes that feature that ingredient. Bonus if one can do a whole multi-course meal that way.

    One could discuss how to pair different main dishes and sides together.

    One could take some similar dishes and highlight common techniques that are used to different effect.

    All of these are valuable to people who watch! :)

  38. Sent you a recipe through your dads email, if he doesn’t relay it to you, he’s worried it will make him fat

  39. Also, here’s a watch list for you.
    the thousand foot journey
    me and julia
    good eats by alton brown

  40. No shame in being a recipe follower! Otherwise why would recipes ever be made?

    That said, if you ever want to go a little more open-ended while stilling having a recipe to follow, Food Network Magazine often has really fun mix and match recipes. September 2020 was icebox cakes- pick a cookie type, flavoring for the whipped cream, and a topping, and follow the structure. So like chocolate wafer cookies with espresso whipped cream topped with shaved chocolate, or vanilla waffles with strawberry whipped cream and fresh berries on top.

    I’m a tinkerer by nature and training though, so if that sounds like far too much variability forget I mentioned it :)

  41. The singular most important thing I’ve learned in 50 years of (mostly) following recipes is “all values are approximate”. Weight, volume, time, all SWAGs.

  42. It’s like every other skill. You start out by doing what others have done, and then, as your confidence builds, you start your own variations. It’s like this with music. You start with the score or copying things you’ve heard. It’s like art. There was just a recent article on how Edward Hopper started out by copying other artists’ work. Keep following recipes, but also start thinking about what goes in and how it tastes. Think about foods you’ve eaten, how they taste and how one might copy them. Before you know it, you’ll be finding your own variations and eventually creating your own dishes.

  43. Funny! I never follow a recipe to a T when I cook. Baking is another story—there you need to be precise. But most of the time when I cook I find two or three recipes but am not happy with any of them, so I pull a little from each one and make it my own. I must not be alone in this recipe tweaking, because half the comments on recipe sites seem to be: loved this but instead of the carrots I substituted oysters and peanut butter, instead of garlic I added two cups of sugar, etc etc

  44. Amplifying on a comment from Cindy F., above:

    The Milk Street and American’s Test Kitchen media companies are competitors; the former was started by Christopher Kimball in 2016 when he and the ATK group parted company after a failure to agree on Kimball’s contract renewal terms. It was not a friendly parting; afterward, ATK sued Milk Street and Kimball for substantially copying their TV show and magazine formats. The suit was settled last year, and both companies continue to operate. ATK, which has been around since 2001, is a good bit larger, with two separate TV shows, two magazines, a podcast, an extensive network of Web sites, and an extensive cookbook-publishing operation. In addition to broadcasting via public TV, the ATK shows recently acquired their own channel on the Pluto TV streaming lineup.

    I admit to being a fan of the ATK programs and cookbooks, and regard them as among the best sources of trustworthy cookware/kitchen gear recommendations (like Consumer Reports, they don’t take advertising). Their food and ingredient taste tests are a touch less useful – the winning products sometimes aren’t easily findable in the Western US – but always informative.

  45. On the rare times that I actually do cook for the family (all of us are on vastly different life schedules) I’ve always followed recipes to the “T”. That way, if I mess up, I’ll just blame the person who wrote it (j/k).

    There are only a few things that I do make from time to time, I will create like a “panster”: Chili and deviled eggs. Got the basic recipes memorized so it becomes a blast in creating both on the fly. The only issue I have be aware of is that most of the family/friends have a much lower tolerance of spicy/hot things than I do, so I have to adjust accordingly.

  46. I would enjoy both comments on other food bloggers and “this looked good so here’s what happened when I made it” stories.

    I second what everyone says about techniques and ratios, and the difference between baking and cooking. I would add, I took an on-line month-long cooking class (https://foodistkitchen.com/) and the most revealing part to me was her discussion of flavor families. She is more about taste than technique, and puts herbs and spices and other flavorings into families, and encourages experimentation, make and taste, with different combos. Really fun! And made me much more confident about sprinkling things over the frying pan.

  47. In my experience, with baking you really do have to follow the recipe exactly. A minor variation in things like the amount of baking powder or yeast makes a BIG difference. Or exactly how much ice water you put in the pie crust as you knead it! Big difference.

    For other kinds of food, like things you do on the stove top or pot roast, there is a lot more elasticity in the recipes. For example my sister and I were making dolmas at her house (well, she was making them and I was helping and learning) and with them you can vary the proportions of rice versus meat in them pretty much any way you want.

    Also I have found that some recipes are just wrong sometimes. The quality of recipes you find on the internet varies wildly too.

    I love food and cooking posts! Looking forward to yours.

  48. You often hear (or read) chefs say that the first thing you have to learn to cook well is the basic techniques. Sautéing, braising, various types of frying, searing, steaming, grilling blanching, and so on. This seems to me to be very true. You can give the same recipe to someone that has not learned basic techniques and someone who has and you’ll get 2 quite different results.

    Training yourself in basic techniques not only makes it easier to get good results from recipes but it makes improvisation easier too. And of course, lots of practice. As your “library” of techniques and recipes increases an easy way to start improvising is to try mixing and matching from that “library.” Perhaps the sauce component or recipe Z seems like it would work really well with recipe D. This is something I often do to try and be creative. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes not so good. Every once in a while the results are great.

  49. Someone mentioned Smitten Kitchen https://smittenkitchen.com/ above. That is the site I’ve become addicted to during shelter-at-home. I bought one of her cookbooks beforehand as well, but was always too busy to crack it open. No longer!

    She seems to have my palate (especially as far as desserts are concerned) and her recipes also suit my skill level and kitchen equipment. And I’m out of step with the times, in hating to watch recipe videos. They make me feel both bored and tense, and I can’t retain any information. Her written recipes are well-formatted and clear for a textual learner like me, and I can skip all the chatty-girlfriend copy above them. Someone told me the reason food bloggers have to include long-winded anecdotes is in order not to violate copyright on a recipe– since almost all recipes are derivative. And some readers like them, I’m sure! Saying I skip them is absolutely not a knock on Deb Perelman.

  50. re Dana Lynne – “In my experience, with baking you really do have to follow the recipe exactly. A minor variation in things like the amount of baking powder or yeast makes a BIG difference. Or exactly how much ice water you put in the pie crust as you knead it! Big difference. ”

    The oven itself remains a variable. A recipe developed in a professional kitchen using gas ovens may not translate precisely into a home electric oven. Temperatures fluctuate. (This is why, in part, every ‘roast meat’ recipe tells you to use a thermometer.)

    For baking, x degrees for y minutes is a starting point, but keep an eye on it. When the cookies look done, they’re done ;-)

  51. The first time I make a thing that I find a recipe for, I follow the recipe. Once I’ve made it once, I’ll tweek it to my tastes a little. If it stays in the dinner rotation, I’ll make it my own at some point.

    Have you considered culinary school?

  52. As others have said you are still young and your confidence as a cook will increase as you do it. I’m 67 and I’ve probably been cooking and baking for at least 55 years. (My mom started teaching high school when I was still in grade school and quite often it was my job to get dinner on the table.) We didn’t have food bloggers in those days but there was this great chef on TV, Graham Kerr the Galloping Gourmet, and his show was on just after I got home from school. I’d watch his show and send away for his recipes and try them out. I’d also flip through my mom’s recipes and cookbooks and try things. With time I got to know what went well together, when I could substitute and when I couldn’t, and when I should follow the exact quantities and instructions and when I could experiment. I still follow recipes for most baking but even there I feel free to substitute chopped walnuts for chopped pecans etc. So keep on cooking and baking and every once in a while try an experiment. Good luck!

  53. I’m an experimental physicist, and I do my best in the lab to follow procedures carefully and keep comprehensive notes. So I wanted to jump in to say that, despite calling yourself “non-experimental,” it’s actually an incredibly important skill to carry out a procedure according to a set protocol! If you ask yourself as you go along “Why am I doing these steps in this order? What’s the difference between adding oil to a skillet and heating it before adding the chopped onions versus heating the skillet, then adding oil, then onions, versus adding oil and onions then turning on the heat? Etc, etc.”, you’ll develop an understanding of what effects each permutation has on the outcome, and then have a basis for improvising a little. “Molecular Gastronomy” by Herve This has a lot of good explanations of different processes in cooking and baking (and I’m sure there are many other excellent books on the science of cooking, if that one is not your speed).

    The funny thing is, as a cook, I’m practically incapable of following a recipe. My parents both do a lot of riffing on general templates without a recipe for dinner (which meant a lot of “stuff on rice” growing up), and even if I am intending to follow a recipe, I usually find something I want to change. The struggle is to get myself to actually be scientific and write my changes down!

  54. It’s interesting that this particular thread seems to have led to many long and detailed comments.

    Herewith, a few thoughts and suggestions:

    1.) There are only a few basic techniques: steaming/boiling, frying/sautéing, grilling, braising with moist heat, roasting in an oven with dry heat (e.g., roasting a cake), etc. Get comfortable with those, and you can start riffing from there. If you want to go into details on these, and/or on handling and prepping ingredients, “La Methode” and/or “La Technique,” both by Jacques Pepin, are excellent. However, see (3) below.

    2.) Obsessive exactitude is probably unnecessary except for baking (esp. bread). The secret? Measure ingredients by weight, rather than by volume. Good digital kitchen scales are cheap.

    3.) If I had to have only one cookbook (and I have enough that I sometimes read them just for pleasure), it would have to be The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. In addition to excellent recipes and techniques, it provides a really solid base from which you can go on to improvise on your own.

    4.) I learned the basics at an early age from my Viennese grandmother, who was a very successful novelist–kind of the Danielle Steele of the Weimar Republic, although in my modest estimation a much better, and certainly less formulaic, writer. In addition to her published works, I cherish the manuscript of “Cookbook for my Son,” which she wrote for my father when he moved away from home. A few samples:

    an old-country recipe for “Gypsy Chicken Soup” begins, “Steal a chicken…”
    a recipe for meat loaf begins “put equal parts ground beef, ground veal, and ground lamb in a large bowl. Wash your hands…”
    a basic Viennese/Hungarian dictum: “There is no such thing as too much sour cream.”

    5.) Finally, a YouTube channel if you like Binging with Babish: “You Suck at Cooking.” (Yes, that’s really what it’s called.)

    Bon appetit!

  55. Oops…two more thoughts I forgot to add:

    1.) Be aware of the conditions around you. Changes in humidity make baking ingredients behave differently, for example. And we lived for fifteen years–my wife says “fifteen winters”–in a mountain cabin at 9650 feet, where water boils at 194 degrees on a standard day. (This, by the way, is how the 19th-century British measured the heights of Himalayan summits: “I say, Smythe, we’ve conquered Kangchenjunga. Care for a cup of tea?”)

    2.) If you have a dog, there is no such thing as an unsuccessful recipe.

  56. Hi Athena,

    I’m in a rush so not sure if someone else has mentioned it already, but a great resource for both some amazing recipes as well as the “why” behind them is the cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat. There’s a Netflix show as well, but the book does so much more to actually teach you. I’m in the guesstimate camp of cooking, but the understanding of how to balance flavors in a dish and how to use heat appropriately could also be really useful in recognizing why a recipe works well. I’ve been cooking for a while now, and do pretty ok with it, but this book was a huge level up for me last year.

  57. I really love the line you’re drawing here. That your adventurous side doesn’t extend to food right now, and while you love cooking, it’s a different love than your writing. I cheer for that self-awareness as someone who often can’t make recipes work and therefore is entirely on the food improv side, and if you ever decide to venture into the world of recipe creation, I hope you come back and let us know.

  58. Someone above mentioned Alton Brown as a place to learn the science behind ingredients and ratios. I’ve never been a fan of cooking, but my honey (also a scientist) loves his approach and started experimenting with food through the things he learned from his shows and books. He now has his own “cooking show” on a very small scale…every Friday he remotely teaches his nieces either old family favorite recipes or new things he’s learned that he thinks they’ll like. One of them has decided to be a vegetarian, so he’s been recipe hunting and altering old standby recipes to make them more vegetarian-friendly. And we get to eat the results, so I win so many times over.

  59. As I’m reading this I’m eating a sausage wrapped in spinach-flavored wholewheat bread and cooked in the oven, the whole thing looking something like a hellish burrito. The recipe I followed was for (white) pizza dough for the bread machine. I may have been more strictly by the book in my youth, but first you notice that Salt and Pepper To Taste can mean Leave It Out Entirely, and the next thing you know, everything in the recipe is Just A Suggestion.

  60. I have the opposite problem — I seem to be constitutionally unable to follow a recipe without messing with it. This has led to some fabulous but unreplicatable successes, and some really amazing disasters (a little curry powder is very good in chicken soup. A tablespoon full is too much for many people… Cookies nearly always need less sugar and more spice. Potato salad is improved by swapping half the mayo out with plain Greek yogurt.) It is probably fortunate that I live alone and just cook for myself, but potlucks are lots of fun. And sourdough is totally a hoot!

  61. I failed to make a right hand turn in Paradise. My reward was 18 hours community service.

    The Salvation Army was serving lunch on Wednesdays
    for the local gentry.

    They had been getting donations from the local KFC
    So they revived it and served it up on Wedneday. It was filling but it was rerun.

    I found out that they had a walk in freezer full of Moose, Bambi, elk, and a bunch of other wonderful stuff that they never used because Tom and Kim were brand new Captains and there first command was a pretty heavy load.

    I had to put in the 18 hours that’s the law. I ended up doing 2 1/2 years. Got pretty creative free forming Wednesday lunch.

  62. I highly recommend the New York Times recipes (there is a huge online collection via an app). They’ve really upped their game in the past few years, and have a large number and variety of recipes that I find easy to follow, and turn out well without a huge amount of effort.

  63. I agree with the people suggesting it would be interesting to review recipes by making them exactly as the recipe says. I hate it when I see a rating of 5 stars for a recipe and then it turns out the person made major substitutions. Mind you, I have no issue with making major substitutions, my spouse jokes I can’t follow a recipe*, but I wouldn’t rate the original after making changes. However, sometimes I’ll see a recipe rated 5 stars and then, once you read the reviews, you realize everyone doubled the vanilla. It makes it hard to figure out the base recipe.

    * When it comes to baking I am pretty precise and don’t usually go off-recipe the first time.

  64. I agree with the many comments above that stated that precision in the kitchen can be a virtue! Since you enjoy baking, you might want to explore the realm of pastry chefs and candy making… where precision really pays off

  65. There’s definitely a divide between people who really know what they’re doing cooking and can improvise everything, and those that need recipes at least to get them started. I need recipes. And after 20 years of cooking for myself & family, I learned I need to meal-plan and then make a shopping list. I can’t figure out what I can make just from what food is in the house, and I don’t know what to buy without a plan of what to do with it.

    I can make minor alterations to recipes, that’s something you can learn in time with cooking (I don’t mess with baking, baking seems to involve more precise chemistry and I don’t want to ruin things). Like I might add more garlic than it says (mmm, garlic), or remove chili powder because I have a spice-intolerant child. I can take a basic stew recipe and figure out what herbs & spices I want to put in myself now. It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am, and where I would call myself a good cook (but never a chef, chefs don’t need recipes in my mind).

    My best dish now is a cheater’s risotto (proper risotto requires too much annoying babysitting). I made it enough that I have the base recipe memorized, and know a variety of different add-ins (protein and veggies), so that I look like I know what I’m doing when I make it and can change it up in a variety of ways.

    So anyway, I think it’s good to know you can be a good cook even if you need to always have a recipe, it’s just knowing what works best for you. And then build your stash of recipes!

  66. Oh, this is something I actually have some expertise in. A chef would know more, of course; I never got my Red Seal, but I was in the industry for about sixteen years.

    Creating a recipe is about knowledge of how food interacts and changes as a process; what it does on its own when and where, and what we can do to alter that process. I learned the basics through a course on cooking at an adult high school. The textbook was fantastic! All the basics, about what makes a sauce, a soup, a course; why meat does what it does in various cooking methods, what those methods are. Tips and techniques for tool use and basic product knowledge. Learn these things and what a recipe is doing becomes a decipherable script that allows for some improvisation on the ingredients and knowing what the effect will be…

    Eventually you’ll have strategies for dealing with a variety of foodstuffs and the curiosity of creating more… it’s fun!

  67. I always follow the recipe fairly closely the first time, then I start winging it until it’s more to my preferences. The first time is to get a baseline and see if my whims make it better or worse. From the start I use less salt; some times no salt if it seems like that will work. Rarely, the experiment ends up ignominiously. Aside from it being harder to share recipes, I have been happy with this method.

  68. I can’t believe no one has observed that a YouTuber is someone who makes videos about potatoes! Or is it a website dedicate to videos created by potatoes?

  69. If you do want to learn to improvise recipes, pick something you don’t mind eating a lot of (or can convince others to help you eat). and just start altering the ratios, ingredients, or other recipe details and log the results.

    If you’re baking bread, try different amounts of water (a 60% hydration dough handles very differently to a 90% dough). Try different types or mixtures of flour (all purpose vs. high protein bread flour, wholemeal, rye, spelt, etc). See what happens if you leave the dough in the fridge to rise slowly. Or how adding a bit of fat changes the consistency. See what different oven temperatures and baking times do.

    After a while, you can start varying the recipe based on what you want the finished product to taste like.

  70. The 2009 film Julie & Julia has a funny scene where Julia Child (Meryl Streep) teaches herself to dice onions very quickly by dint of repeated practice on what looks like a metric tonne of them. :)

    Incidentally, the movie is said to be the first one to be based on a blog.

    While cooking exclusively from recipes is fine, adding to your repertoire of cooking techniques not only makes recipes come out better, but can give you more confidence in adapting to whichever foodstuffs & tools happen to be around at the moment.

  71. Pangolin: the Platonic ideal of cheaters’ risotto can be summed up in two words: Pressure. Cooker. Recipes for pressure cooker risotto all over the Internet. Living at 9650 feet (see earlier comment), we found life simply too short for the original “Italian nonna in a black dress hovering over the stove” method. Same goes for artichokes: seven minutes vs three quarters of an hour. I won’t even begin to talk about posole, other than to mention that it’s the basis of a favorite Bob Dylan song (“Hominy roads must a man walk down…”).

    Now we live at sea level most of the year…and still swear by the pressure cooker. Certainly not the vademecum utensil for everything, but indispensable for some.