How to Improvise in the Kitchen

Dec 30, 2011

Several plates of food

For novice cooks, improvisation can seem both mysterious and daunting, but the most confident home cooks have mastered a few simple skills that make them appear like pros. Improvisation is at the heart of any good chef’s repertoire. All you’ll need to learn how to improvise in the kitchen is a grasp of basic techniques to transform basic ingredients into a satisfying meal.

Published: September 16, 2010

The standard vinaigrette, for instance, is essentially a simple ratio of one-part vinegar to three-part oil whisked together with herbs and spices. Or, Minced shallots, parsley, olive oil, and Dijon mustard offer a traditional topping for mesclun greens.

But improvise these mixtures a bit and also make fantastic marinades. For a succulent main course try soaking chicken breasts or thighs in one of the marinades for a few hours, then roast the chicken at 425 F until fully cooked. For a side dish, toss the vinaigrette over lightly boiled potato chunks and roast at the same temperature until crisp and golden. Or spread it over fresh green veggies, such asparagus or string beans, and roast for 20 minutes.

You can always get new and interesting flavors when you experiment with vinaigrette’s main components. Try balsamic vinegar as a glaze on steamed or broiled fish. For coleslaw, add a tablespoon of sugar and mix with shredded cabbage and carrots. Get creative—it’s hard to go wrong.

Impromptu pasta recipes function in much the same way. If you have some basic components in your kitchen—olive oil, lemon, and a chunk of hard grating cheese, such as Parmigianino—you’ll be surprised at what you can create.

The trick is partly in the water. If you’re preparing a pound of pasta, boil it in about six quarts of water with salt and a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Just before the pasta is al dente, carefully dip a heatproof liquid measuring cup into the pot and set aside some cooking water. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, squeeze in some lemon juice and sprinkle it liberally with grated Parmigianino.

As you gently toss the pasta, drizzle in small amounts of the cooking water—the residual heat of the pasta and cooking water will melt the cheese and begin to form a rich sauce. Once it seems to be the consistency you want—less water for a thicker sauce, more for a looser one—taste it, season with salt and pepper, and you’re done.

For a more substantial sauce add a can of drained and rinsed cannellini beans and a can of olive oil-packed Italian tuna—drained—to make a quick and quintessentially Mediterranean dish. Add some hot red pepper flakes for extra kick, and if you make it spicy enough, you just might be able to consider yourself an honorary Sicilian.