How To Not Follow A Recipe

In this life there are rule-followers and rule-breakers. I’ll never forget the day that Mrs. Murley, my high school A.P. European History teacher, kicked Brian T. out of class for being impertinent. As he was leaving, Mrs. Murley said, “Don’t fall off your motorcycle this summer.” Brian T. replied, “Don’t fall off of your high horse.”

Oof! The rule-breakery of it! This may not come as a shock, but I was the ultimate rule follower growing up. Rules meant structure, they meant a clearly defined path you could follow. Breaking the rules meant casting yourself off into the great unknown.

And yet, as someone who loves to cook, I find myself breaking the rules all the time. With savory cooking (as opposed to baking, where measurements matter), I rarely, if ever, make a recipe precisely as it’s written. That’s because I want to adjust the recipe to my particular taste, to make the recipe my own.

I’m often shocked at how many of my cooking friends follow savory recipes to the letter. Their food always comes out precise and correct but it often lacks the flair that makes great home cooking great home cooking. What’s missing is an injection of their own point-of-view, what writing school teachers might call their “voice.” How do you get your voice into a recipe? You have to break the rules.

The secret, though, is not to think of recipe steps as “rules.” They’re a general set of instructions that are meant to be interpreted. Imagine a dance that you like to do and then writing instructions for someone else to do that same dance. Would you expect their arms to flail at precisely the moment that your arms flail? Absolutely not. The dance is all about getting the gist of the idea and running with it. If the dance is going to be good, it’s got to seem spontaneous, not a carbon copy of something that came before.

The best way to make the dance, or recipe, your own is to read it first, imagining the tastes in your head. The best chefs and cooks have that ability; they can picture a dish–say, eggplant Parmesan–and imagine what that will taste like if you, say, swap the Parmesan for Pecorino. Can you imagine that? I can: Pecorino is sharper and saltier than Parmesan. So Eggplant Parmesan made with Pecorino would be an entirely different thing.

That skill, that capacity to imagine how various adjustments will alter a dish, is probably the single most important skill when it comes to making food your own. Because once you know how to do that (and it only comes by cooking over and over again) you can begin to tweak, to adjust, to alter things to your liking. And your food will taste better when you do that.

So that Eggplant Dirty Rice I just blogged about? I read the recipe and thought that adding the eggplant after browning the other vegetables would make for mushy, flavorless eggplant. So I decided to brown the eggplant first in a separate pan.


Was that a winning idea? Well the resulting Dirty Rice was absolutely wonderful so maybe it was. I also upped the amount of garlic and pepper because I wanted a flavor firecracker and that’s precisely what I got.

And that pea puree that I blogged about before the Dirty Rice, same thing. I didn’t use 1 Tablespoon of chopped preserved lemon rind. God forbid. I eyeballed it, as I did the lemon juice, the olive oil, the Aleppo pepper. I just added and tasted and tweaked until I absolutely loved what I was eating. If I’d just followed the recipe, that pea puree would have been merely “meh.”


Following the rules makes sense when you’re doing things like building a house or detonating a bomb. But when making dinner? Following the rules is as boring as it sounds. So take a chance, be a Brian T. and even if you fall off your motorcycle, chances are you’ll be eating something tasty when you do.

15 thoughts on “How To Not Follow A Recipe”

  1. I love to play with my food. When I read a recipe, I’m already tasting it with my minds eye and making adjustments. But I write them so you can follow them, if you so desire to…

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for a loooooonnnng time, and i find it adorable that you’ve gone from a pretty nervous rule follower to someone who sort of lectures down on people who haven’t evolved the same way. (You frequently do a similar thing when people make comments about healthfullness). So much genuinely good progress, and yet in some ways so little.

  3. Early on, I found that my food tastes better when all the rules are broken. I am an Asian female Brian T!

  4. Hi Adam,

    Seek out The Pedant In The Kitchen by Julian Barnes! It’s all about this kind of thing. And it’s guaranteed to make you laugh out loud!

  5. As a stubborn rule-follower I really appreciate this advice. Something as simple as imagining the flavors ahead of time, who would have thought!

  6. I never follow recipes, which is great for my own cooking, but very difficult when sharing a dish on my blog! I’ve just started cooking with a pad of paper next to me so I can change measurement amounts and remember what I did :)

  7. This one really spoke to me. I never follow a recipe exactly–my husband considers this arrogance, but he always enjoys the outcome. I LOVE to cook–HATE to bake because I don’t like rules.

  8. I am incapable of trying out a new recipe without tweaking. It’s a sickness. It always needs more garlic, fresh herbs, de-glazing with sherry, lemon zest, etc. And I’ve been banned from the kitchen as my husband cooks, because he has to follow the recipe exactly and I’m constantly hovering over him with “helpful” advice. “You don’t have to measure the spices Court, you can just eyeball it. I bet some Cayenne would add a nice kick.” “OUT, YOU KNOW-IT-ALL HOSEBEAST!”

  9. I have always felt one of the marks of a good cook is being able to look at a recipe and being able to imagine it, and therefore determine whether it will be good enough as is, or if not, how it can be improved/modified to be better. I know a few newbie/um, mediocre? cooks who pick just-ok recipes and follow them to the letter… and I judge them, harshly.

  10. That pea puree that I blogged about before the Dirty Rice, same thing. I didn’t use 1 Tablespoon of chopped preserved lemon rind. God forbid.

Let's dish!

Scroll to Top