As someone who professionally develops recipes, I have something to admit. Recipe developers like me have overcomplicated a simple task—cooking. What’s that saying about teaching someone to fish? You feed them for a lifetime? Well, if you give someone a recipe, I’m convinced that you only feed them for a day.
Listen, don’t get me wrong. I definitely think that there’s a time and place for recipes. But I’m also saying that we, as a society of home cooks, have become too dependent on recipes. I see a path between that rock and hard place: Let’s try to look at recipes as less of a strict, rigid approach to cooking but rather a helpful guide. Look at the ingredient list as a roster, understanding that substitutions are welcome and appropriate. Look at the method as a general sequence to follow. Why? Because sweating over a recipe and following it like a formal government document is not fun, and guess what, folks? Cooking is—rather, should be—fun.
Which is why we need to put down the measuring cups and spoons
What?, you might be thinking. What’s so wrong with measuring your ingredients? Fundamentally, nothing! But in order to become a more confident cook, I argue that you should do away with your stack of cup measurers and train your eyes and sense of taste to take over from those tools. Not always, mind you. But with a little practice, you’ll be amazed at how you’ll gain confidence wielding classic ingredients like salt and oil with more relaxation and fewer tense moments filling up spoons and cups.
How to get started
Let’s start with a few standard measurements, and how you can begin to “feel” and “see” how much they represent. Think of:
- 1 cup as the size of your fist
- ½ cup as the size of tennis ball
- ¼ cup as the size of an egg
- 1 tablespoon to be about the size of your thumb
- 1 teaspoon is about the size of the top joint of your index finger
This might seem overwhelming, but as you eyeball more and more, you’ll become increasingly comfortable. Most non-baking measurements are pretty arbitrary, so if you go overboard with something on accident, you can always correct your mistake by adding a little bit more of something else.
Some easy tricks with oil
How many times have you spent precious minutes searching for a ¼ cup measure for the oil for your sauté or your roasted veggies, or oiled up a tablespoon to make your nightly salad dressing? Let’s revise our thinking to free you up:
Sautéing: If you’re preparing to sauté in oil, just pour in enough to coat the bottom of your pan (knowing that if your ingredients start to look dry or are charring, you can always drizzle in a little more!).
Roasting: If you’re roasting with oil, just eyeball your ingredients and see if they look well coated. (I know this is arbitrary, but don’t be nervous—if those veggies look a bit dry, you need to drizzle a little more oil, is all!)
Salad Dressing: If a recipe asks you to make a dressing, rather than harping on each measurement, simply estimate all of the ingredients based on the ratios you see in the recipe and give it a taste. Does it need more acid? Reach for the vinegar. More sweetness? Add a little bit of a juice or honey. More herbs? Toss ‘em in! You’ve got this!
Now, let’s talk about salt!
Believe it or not, the most common mistake that home cooks make is not properly salting their food. First, let’s remind ourselves that salt enhances ALL the flavors of a dish (it doesn’t just make something salty), so don’t be afraid. You need this miracle ingredient. Second, not all salts are the same—by a long shot. Morton Kosher salt is twice as salty as Diamond Crystal, and if you’re using table salt, pink Himalayan, or sea salt, then you have to keep in mind that those also have different levels of saltiness.
But don’t panic! This is actually liberating. Stick to salts you like (and try others), and just start small with a pinch out of your hand and keep adding and tasting until you like what’s in your tasting spoon. No measuring! Just make relaxed adjustments until you’re in the zone you like.
Pro tip: If you happen to oversalt your dish (it happens), remember that the solution to pollution is dilution. Add more of whatever is the main component of your dish (more veggies, more broth, more cream, anything that will offset the balance of salt), and you’ll be on your merry way.
Finally, always keep this in mind
Cooking, like any hobby, requires practice. No matter how comfortable you feel in the kitchen, I still think there is something to be learned every time that you cook. If you don’t walk away from a bout in the kitchen without one “note to self” about something you would do differently if you were to make the dish again, then I don’t think you’re growing or improving as a cook. Don’t sweat it if something doesn’t come out as planned or you wished you had done something differently. This is how you get better. Remember, this is fun! We’re not competing on Top Chef, we’re just making dinner. Take a deep breath (and don’t get out those cups and spoons) and tell yourself that you got this. The more that you trust your culinary instincts, the better and more confident you’ll become in the kitchen.
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