Free yourself from the confines of recipes: Learn to improvise in the kitchen

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

As counterintuitive as it may sound for the editor of a cooking website, I'm not much of a recipe follower. I consider them guidelines. I skim them for flavor profiles and ideas. I almost entirely ignore the cooking times.

Recipes are, as food writer Sam Sifton wrote in the New York Times, like sheet music. They allow "home cooks to recreate the work of others, just as a printed chord chart allows Mike from Sheboygan to play a Beatles song passingly well in his den," he wrote.

Except what you want, ultimately, is to be able to enter your kitchen and riff on what's already in the refrigerator. You want to make your own music rather than do the burdensome work of tracing each step with your food-covered finger and measuring each ingredient with the clutch of plastic measuring spoons you dug out from the back of the drawer. That's tedious work.

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What you want to do instead is really, truly learn how to cook, and most recipes can't teach you that, just as sheet music cannot reliably teach you how to write a song.

Cooking off the cuff is possible because cooking is less of a science than baking. It's also necessary because there are so many variables to consider about your kitchen. Your oven may run hot or inconsistently. The sturdiness of your cookware can change the length of time you need to sauté something.

That's why, like in making art, you want to be able to judge when you're done and it's time to walk away. That means knowing when your dish has the right jiggle, fork-tenderness or perfect golden-brown color.

For meat, you need to know what interior temperature your roast or filet should be when it's cooked to your liking. That takes some Googling or reading and a reliable, calibrated meat thermometer.

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Once you're done cooking your meat, however, your work is not yet done. This is when you observe your food. Is your steak overdone yet sort of grey? You've cooked it too low and slow, or with too much moisture in the pan. Blackened on the outside and bloody inside? You've cooked it too hard and fast. Just right? Give it a poke. See what a steak feels like when it's cooked to your liking. Take notes. Try to do that again. 

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After years of cooking, you'll be able to tell when something has finished cooking by its smell. This will seem like magic to some. It's not. It's the result of observing with all of your senses what happens while you cook. That's real cooking.

Above all, perhaps, you must learn how to season, which requires learning how to taste. What makes your food taste good? Chef and writer Samin Nosrat has it right. Her book, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking," is an excellent resource, as is everyone's favorite flour-dusted kitchen tome, "The Joy of Cooking." 

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Balance, you will learn, is the key. Acid cuts fat on the palate, while a touch of sweetness tempers heat and makes a dish taste more well-rounded. Acid helps lift earthy flavors, which is why a dash of vinegar makes collard greens sing. Salt is crucial. Season slowly until you can season with confidence. 

And here is where I recommend that you do use recipes if you're just starting out, particularly when making unfamiliar food. I followed a recipe for mapo tofu religiously until I could learn to temper the heat properly with the coconut sugar I didn't believe I needed at first. Then I endlessly tweaked it, adding fish sauce here, some extra garlic there, some chili crisp at the end. Is it perfectly authentic? It is not. But I like it and it's a reliably good dinner. I can cook it from memory now.

What makes your food taste good is, ultimately, a subjective matter. I can tell from the emails I get when I share my customizable frittatas or my method for perfect hard-boiled eggs. Several readers told me they prefer to steam eggs for 15 minutes or less, which helps with shell removal. I remain a die-hard boiler. To each their own.

But like musical improvisation, cooking is a conversation. There are few dishes — I struggle to think of even one — where the conversation is not open to debate. 

Why is all of this important? Being comfortable with cooking can make the experience more fun — less of a chore.

Measuring takes forever. Reading instructions can be tedious. But if you already know how to cook, you're not beholden to an ingredient list. You can throw something together with what you already have if you aren't feeling like going to the grocery store. You can stop by the farmers market, select what looks good, take it home and cook it with confidence. 

How? Ask questions. Read books. Get comfortable. The worst thing that could happen is you have to order pizza. But you can't learn to make an omelet if you don't break a few eggs.

And to get you started, of course, we have plenty of recipes over at southernkitchen.com. My email is always open to you if you have questions. We're in this together. 

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.comSign up for my newsletter here.

A deviled egg recipe

A caption on a file photo in last week's column suggested we were providing a deviled egg recipe to go with our method for hard-boiled eggs. We did not. For those of you who wrote asking for one, here it is. You can add additional garnishes or flavor combinations (that whole improvisational thing), but this is a basic foundation for perfect deviled eggs.

Deviled Eggs

Serves: 4

Hands on time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 

Ingredients

Instructions

In a medium saucepan, arrange the eggs in a single layer and cover with cold water by one inch. Bring the water to a rolling boil, then turn off the heat and remove the pot from the burner. Let the eggs sit in the hot water for 11 minutes, then immediately transfer to a bowl of ice water. Let sit in the ice water for 10 minutes or more.

Peel the chilled eggs and slice in half lengthwise. Carefully scoop out the cooked yolks. Save the cooked whites for stuffing.

In a food processor, combine the yolks with the mayonnaise, mustard, capers or gherkins, salt, pepper and cayenne. Purée until the mixture is completely smooth. Transfer the yolk mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain tip, or to a zipper-lock bag. (If using a zipper-lock bag, cut off one of the bottom corners.)

Pipe the filling into the empty egg whites. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until ready to serve.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.