Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Recipes are great when you’re trying a new ingredient, learning a fresh cooking method or discovering a type of cuisine, but there are occasions when you might want to free yourself from the page and invent your own culinary masterpiece, or at least dinner. You might be surprised to hear this from us, a recipe-based brand, but there are advantages to improvising in the kitchen – here are a few of them:
IT SAVES TIME AND MONEY. Armed with a well- stocked pantry, you can shop once a week and skip multiple trips to the grocery store. When you cook without a recipe dictating ingredients, you’re free to substitute a missing ingredient with something you already have. Using what you have on hand will also help you adhere to a weekly grocery budget.
YOU’LL BE EATING SEASONALLY. When you’re not tied to a recipe, you can plan a meal around whatever looks tempting at the farmers’ market — and your produce will taste better because it’s picked when ripe.
YOU’LL GAIN CULINARY SKILLS. As you build a pantry of fresh herbs, dried spices, different oils and vinegars, you’ll learn a lot about how to build flavor. Revelations like how good cumin tastes when paired with lime juice is knowledge that will stay with you for a lifetime.
IT STIMULATES CREATIVITY. When you’re creating an entirely new, custom-made meal to suit your tastes and mood, cooking becomes less of a chore and more of an outlet for your creativity (and healthy cravings).
YOU’LL DO FEWER DISHES. Since you’re not measuring according to a recipe, you won’t use nearly as many measuring cups, spoons and containers. Cooking with a dash of this and a handful of that is less messy.
YOU’LL WASTE LESS FOOD. The average consumer wastes 219 pounds of food annually. Without adhering to a recipe, you can adjust the amount of food you make to exactly what you need, which means you won’t be stuck with leftovers that may end up in the compost bin.
Related: Skip the Recipe
We’re so convinced this is a key kitchen skill to learn that we’ve dedicated an entire section to improvising. We’ve broken it down into types of recipes you should know — salads, bowls, pastas, sheet-pan meals, tacos and stir-fries — with basic how-tos for each dish plus sauce ratios and an example of how to put it all together. Create your own, or use our suggested pairings, but either way, enjoy flexing your creative muscles in the kitchen.
Pro Tip: Remember to read through all the directions in this section before you start cooking. Some instructions call for soaking nuts or cooking your protein before jumping in.
Build Your Own Bowl
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 25 minutes.
When creating your own bowl, choose a flavor theme — Mexican or Japanese, for instance — as a place to start. Try balancing both crunchy and creamy ingredients to add textural interest. Remember to drizzle the sauce on sparingly, as you can always add more as you’re eating.
1. Place ½ to 1 cup cooked whole grains, noodles, veggie rice or veggie noodles in each of 4 deep bowls. Try quinoa, farro, bulgur, brown rice, buckwheat soba or shirataki noodles, rice noodles, zucchini or beet “zoodles,” or cauliflower or sweet potato rice.
2. Add 4 oz hot or cold cooked proteins like shredded rotisserie chicken, grilled chicken breast, grilled steak slices, canned tuna, tofu, tempeh or beans to each bowl.
3. Arrange 1½ to 2 cups raw sliced, spiralized or chopped vegetables and/or fruit on top. Try cucumber, daikon, radishes, sprouts, microgreens, baby kale or salad greens, cherry tomatoes, edamame, carrot, beets, citrus segments or pineapple chunks. Or use roasted, grilled or steamed vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, butternut squash, asparagus, snap peas, green beans or broccoli.
4. Garnish with flavorful toppers that fit the theme such as avocado, toasted nuts or seeds, nori chips, kimchi, pickled vegetables, Quickles, fresh herbs, kale chips, baked tortilla strips, pickled ginger, wasabi peas, green onions or fried eggs.
5. Drizzle with Customizable Creamy Bowl Dressing. Or try Adaptable Homemade Salsa or Fresh Herb Sauce.
Sweet Potato Rice
Peel 2 sweet potatoes and cut into ¼-inch pieces. Pulse in food processor. In a nonstick pan on medium, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Add rice and sauté for 2 minutes. Add ½ cup coconut milk, bring to a simmer, cover and set aside to steam for 3 minutes. Drain; season with salt and pepper.
Customizable Creamy Bowl Dressing
1. Soak ¾ cup roasted cashews or macadamia nuts in ⅓ cup hot water and let sit 30 minutes. Transfer nuts and water to blender. Add 1½ tbsp lemon or lime juice and ½ small garlic clove.
2. Flavor with 1 to 2 tbsp (total) your choice of red curry paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, green onions, ginger, cilantro, basil, miso, Parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast and/or sriracha or other hot sauce. Blend until smooth.
Tip: Make sure to cook your protein and base, and soak your cashews for the sauce before starting the recipe.
Put it all together: Indonesian Chicken Bowls with Sweet Potato Rice & Creamy Cashew Curry Sauce
Sweet potato rice + grilled chicken breast strips + sprouts/microgreens + steamed broccoli and sugar snap peas + roasted cashews + cilantro + Customizable Creamy Bowl Dressing flavored with 1 tbsp Thai red curry paste + 2 tsp reduced-sodium soy sauce + 1 tsp ginger
Improvise Better: Memorize the simple ratios for the basic sauces in this section, or keep a note of them on your phone or in a cupboard for quick reference.
Build Your Own Tacos
Improvising tacos is pretty straightforward with a few guidelines: Make sure to cut your meat and vegetables into small pieces so they’re easier to stuff into tortillas. Use a heavy cast iron pan or grill pan and heat until very hot for a delicious char. Add vegetables to pan in order of density — onions before chard, for instance.
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 30 minutes.
1. Toss 1 lb protein, cut into strips, with sea salt, ground black pepper and seasonings. Try chicken breast, pork loin, flank steak, firm white fish, firm tofu, tempeh or peeled and deveined shrimp and seasonings such as garlic or onion powder, chile powder blend (aka chili powder), taco seasoning or fajita seasoning.
2. Heat a cast iron pan on medium-high and add a splash of oil. Add seasoned protein and sauté until cooked through. Transfer to a plate; cover.
3. Return pan to heat, add a splash of oil and 4 to 6 cups sliced vegetables and/or cooked beans and sauté until charred and crisp-tender. Try bell peppers, onions, corn, zucchini, mushrooms, chard, chopped kale and beans. Return protein to pan and toss to combine.
4. Stuff filling into tortillas and accessorize with tasty extras such as grated cheese, crumbled feta, shredded lettuce or cabbage, cilantro, sliced jalapeños, red onion Quickles, diced avocado or toasted pepitas.
5. Top with Adaptable Homemade Salsa.
Adaptable Homemade Salsa
To a bowl, add 1½ cups diced vegetables or fruit (tomato, corn, tomatillo, mango, peach, cucumber or melon).
Combine with 2 tbsp to ¼ cup finely chopped sweet, red or green onion. Stir in a flavor enhancer (chopped garlic, fresh cilantro, fresh basil, chipotle or jalapeño), to taste. Finish with a squeeze of citrus (lime, lemon, orange or grapefruit juice). Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
Put it all together: Chile-Rubbed Flank Steak Tacos with Chard, Bell Peppers & Chipotle Salsa
Flank steak strips + chile powder blend (aka chili powder) + oil + salt and pepper + sweet onion + bell pepper + chard + corn kernels + corn tortillas + crumbled feta cheese + cilantro + Adaptable Homemade Salsa: tomatoes + green onion + 2 tsp chopped canned chipotle chiles + lime juice
Improvise Better: Keep it tidy. Periodically go through your pantry, refrigerator and freezer to take stock and organize items so you can see them. You’re not likely to use items you can’t see.
Build Your Own Pasta
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 40 minutes.
Cook pasta like a pro: Reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking water before draining and use it as needed to thin your sauce. And remember to add your protein at the right time: Meats should be browned first, but delicate seafood added later.
1. Cook 12 oz pasta according to package instructions. Save ½ cup cooking water for thinning sauce.
2. Meanwhile, heat a splash of oil on medium- high. Add 8 oz to 1 lb protein; sauté until cooked through. Transfer to a plate. Try ground beef or turkey; bite- size pieces of chicken breast or thighs, turkey breast or pork tenderloin. (If using seafood, see below.)
3. Return pan to medium-high; add a little more oil and 2 to 3 cups fresh chopped or sliced vegetables; sauté until tender. Try leeks, bell pepper, onions, sliced mushrooms, chard, kale, fennel or asparagus.
4. Return protein to pan. If using seafood, add it here. Try shrimp, chopped clams, scallops, canned salmon or sardines.
5. To pan, add 2 to 3 cups Basic Marinara or Basic Béchamel. Add tender veg or flavor enhancers. Try peas, artichoke hearts, olives, roasted red peppers or capers. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes if using marinara, or if using béchamel, until everything is cooked through. Add reserved pasta water as needed to thin.
6. Add pasta to sauce and toss in tender leaves or fresh herbs and cheese. Try arugula, spinach, basil, parsley, tarragon or dill; and grated Parmesan, Pecorino Romano or goat cheese. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.
Heat 3 cups whole milk with 1 halved garlic clove and 1 bay leaf. Set aside. Melt 2 tbsp butter in small saucepan on low. Add 3 tbsp whole-wheat pastry flour (or gluten-free: 1½ tbsp brown rice flour and 1½ tbsp potato starch) and cook for 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in warmed milk. Cook over low heat, whisking frequently, until thickened, 8 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper. Add cayenne, freshly grated nutmeg and/or ½ to 1 cup grated cheese (optional).
Sauté 8 chopped garlic cloves in 3 tbsp olive oil on medium for 1 minute. Add 2 28-oz cans San Marzano tomatoes (chopped with juices), ⅓ cup tomato paste, 1 tbsp dried oregano, ½ tsp red pepper flakes, 1 cup water and sea salt and ground black pepper. Simmer for 40 minutes. Add ¾ cup torn basil leaves (optional).
Tip: If using the marinara sauce, make it ahead of time. It makes more than you need, but you can store it in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Put it all together: Spaghetti Marinara with Kale
Whole-wheat spaghetti + oil + chicken breast chunks + onions + kale + Basic Marinara + capers + basil + Pecorino Romano cheese
Put it all together: Parmesan Fusilli with Shrimp & Peas
Whole-wheat fusilli + oil + leeks + peeled and deveined shrimp + Basic Béchamel + canned or frozen artichoke hearts (not marinated) + peas + Parmesan cheese
Improvise Better: Commit to memory portion sizes and yields for staple ingredients. For example, 4 ounces of protein per person; 8 to 12 ounces of dry pasta feeds four people, 1 cup of dry rice makes 3 cups cooked, and so on.
Build Your Own Sheet-Pan Dinner
Use a sturdy 13 x 18–inch rimmed baking sheet, and preheat your pan while preheating the oven to encourage browning. Remember, don’t overcrowd ingredients or the food won’t cook evenly; use two pans if necessary.
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 50 minutes.
1. Place a baking sheet in the oven. Preheat to 425°F.
2. Toss 1 lb boneless protein with oil, sea salt, ground black pepper and seasonings. Try chicken thighs or drumsticks (use more if using bone-in thighs or drumsticks), sausage, boneless pork chops or pork tenderloin. Try curry powder, lemon pepper, jerk seasoning, chile powder blend (aka chili powder), steak rub, harissa or Za’atar.
3. Toss 1 to 2 cups dense vegetables and/or cooked chickpeas with oil, sea salt and ground black pepper. Arrange protein and veg on baking sheet in an even layer and bake 15 to 20 minutes. Mix and match any of the following (cut into bite-size pieces, thin wedges or slices): fingerling potatoes, carrots, broccoli, onion, parsnips, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, cauliflower or chickpeas.
4. Toss 1 to 2 cups bite-size chunks or slices of tender vegetables with oil, salt and pepper. Add them to the pan. Try bell peppers, mushrooms, green beans, zucchini, asparagus, broccolini, kale leaves or cherry tomatoes.
5. Bake until all the vegetables and protein are cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes more for boneless poultry, 20 to 25 minutes more for bone-in or larger pieces of meat. Serve drizzled with Fresh Herb Sauce.
Fresh Herb Sauce
In a blender, combine 1 cup tender herbs/leaves (parsley, arugula, cilantro, watercress or basil). Add 2 tbsp olive oil and 2 tbsp water. Add 2 tbsp citrus juice and 2 tsp zest (or 2 tsp red or or white wine vinegar). Flavor with 1 to 2 tsp your choice of finely grated Parmesan cheese, garlic, dried oregano, rosemary or thyme, fresh chile pepper, red pepper flakes, or ground spices such as cumin or coriander. Blend well and season with sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste.
Put it all together: Middle Eastern Chicken Thighs with Crispy Chickpeas
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs + oil + salt and pepper + Za’atar seasoning + red onion + chickpeas + oil + salt and pepper + zucchini + cherry tomatoes + oil + salt and pepper + Fresh Herb Sauce with fresh parsley and cilantro + lemon zest and juice + 1 clove garlic + ½ tsp cumin + red pepper flakes (to taste)
Improvise Better: Keep your favorite staples on hand so you have them for impromptu meals. A pantry stocked with often-used ingredients like olive oil, fresh garlic, fresh lemons, favorite vinegars, rice, quinoa and Parmesan cheese will have you set for success.
Build Your Own Salad
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 30 minutes.
Salads are a great place to unleash your creativity. Focus on in-season vegetables and fruits and mix textures and colors. For an Instagram-worthy presentation, arrange elements separately on your greens.
1. Start with 6 to 8 cups of greens. Try torn lettuce, kale, arugula, watercress or baby spinach.
2. Add 2 to 3 cups sliced, shredded, chopped or spiralized raw veg, or chopped roasted veggies. Try raw: shredded cabbage, spiralized carrot, sliced radish, slivered zucchini or tomato wedges. Try roasted: cauliflower, sweet potato, winter squash or beets.
3. Add up to 1 cup seasonal fruit (optional). Try sliced apples, pears or peaches, berries, citrus segments or chunks of fresh pineapple.
4. Add 8 oz to 1 lb cooked protein like rotisserie chicken, turkey breast, canned salmon or tuna, shrimp, chickpeas, lentils or other canned beans and baked or smoked tofu.
5. Add cheese, toasted nuts or seeds, and/or olives. Try crumbled feta or goat cheese, chopped cheddar or shaved Parmesan; pumpkin or sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts or pecan halves. Alternate slicing olives or serving whole.
6. Add a fun element. Try Quickles (see below), fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut, baked tortilla strips, homemade croutons, popped seeds such as amaranth or sorghum or wasabi peas.
7. Drizzle with Classic Salad Dressing.
Quick Pickles (aka Quickles)
Heat 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 3 tbsp water, 1 tbsp organic evaporated cane juice (aka organic sugar), 1 tsp each sea salt and pickling spice on medium until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour hot mixture over 1/2 to 1 cup thinly sliced vegetables (cucumbers, radish, red onion, carrot and/or bell peppers) and let stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain and use immediately.
Classic Salad Dressing
To a bowl, add 2 tbsp acid (such as white wine, red wine or apple cider vinegar, or citrus juice). Whisk in ¼ cup oil (such as olive, avocado or safflower oil). Season with sea salt and ground black pepper. Add 1 to 3 tsp (total) of one or more of the following: honey, Dijon or grainy mustard, garlic or shallots, fresh ginger, miso, dark sesame oil, fresh herbs or sriracha or other hot sauce. Add ½ tsp spice of choice such as ground cumin, chile powder, paprika or coriander (optional).
Put it all together: French Chop Salad with Salmon & Sweet ’n’ Spicy Dressing
Torn butter lettuce and arugula + halved cherry tomatoes + blanched green beans + grated raw beets and carrots + radish + red onion + Classic Salad Dressing with red wine vinegar + olive oil + 2 tsp honey + 1 tsp sriracha + ½ tsp paprika
Improvise Better: Get ahead and portion and freeze raw proteins, cooked grains and sauces. Use blue painter’s tape (it comes off easily) to label your containers with the contents and the date. It’s easy to forget what you have stashed in the freezer and hard to tell what’s what after a few weeks in deep freeze.
Build Your Own Stir-Fry
Serves 4. Estimated Time: 25 minutes.
Once you get the basics of creating a stir-fry, it’ll be a cinch: Heat your skillet or wok until very hot; let your protein brown for a minute before stirring to prevent sticking; and cut your vegetables in equal-size pieces so they cook evenly. Have all your ingredients ready to go before you start cooking because you’ll need to move fast once your pan heats up.
1. Heat a splash of oil on medium-high in a wok or skillet. Add 1 tbsp finely chopped aromatics and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Try garlic, ginger, shallots, white part of green onion and/or lemongrass.
2. Season 12 oz to 1 lb protein with sea salt and ground black pepper. Stir-fry until barely cooked through, 1 to 3 minutes; transfer to a plate. Try strips of chicken, beef, pork, cubed tofu or shrimp.
3. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add a little oil and 2 cups hard vegetables cut into bite-size pieces. Cook until crisp-tender. Try broccoli florets, cauliflower, thinly sliced carrots, sliced bell peppers, celery, radishes and/or daikon.
4. Add 1 to 1½ cups soft vegetables Cook until crisp- tender or just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes more. Try snap peas, asparagus, mushrooms, cabbage, bean sprouts, kale or spinach.
5. Return protein to wok along with Master Stir-Fry Sauce. Cook until sauce is bubbly and protein is cooked through, 1 minute. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, sliced almonds or chopped cashews (optional).
Master Stir-Fry Sauce
In a bowl, combine 1½ tsp potato starch or arrowroot with ¼ cup low-sodium broth or orange juice. Whisk in 1 tbsp rice wine or dry sherry, 2 tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce, 1 tsp dark sesame oil and 1 to 2 tsp sweetener, such as organic evaporated cane juice (organic sugar), raw honey or pure maple syrup. Add 1 to 2 tsp flavor options such as ginger, sriracha or other hot sauce, fresh basil or cilantro, fish sauce or hoisin sauce. Add ½ tsp spice (Chinese five-spice powder or red pepper flakes). Whisk until smooth.
Put it all together: 5-Spice Tofu, Broccoli & Snap Pea Stir-Fry with Orange Ginger Sauce
Avocado oil + garlic and ginger + extra-firm tofu + broccoli and carrots + snap peas + sesame seeds + Master Stir-Fry Sauce with orange juice + ½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder
Improvise Better: Write a menu plan and shopping list for the week, keeping in mind what you already have on hand. You don’t have to follow the plan exactly, but it helps to have the ideas written down and the ingredients available so you can throw together meals easily, even on busy nights.