How Important Is It to Follow a Recipe Exactly?

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Do you consider the list of ingredients and directions in a cookbook recipe sacred or a starting point for your own invention? . (Photo: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

Last Saturday night, I took one of my favorite dishes to a party: Sourdough Panzanella with Summer Vegetables. Over the years, I've learned you shouldn't leave out or substitute a few of the ingredients in that recipe — like the red onion or the type of bread — but other ingredients, particularly the variety of vegetables, can be changed.

I tend to follow recipes closely the first time I make a dish, but after that, I improvise. A British study says I'm not alone. No one actually follows recipes, the study found. Instead, most people are "freestylers, throwing caution (and abnormal amounts of curry powder) to the wind when stepping into the kitchen," Phoebe Hurst writes for Munchies on

One of the best reasons to freestyle is to make sure food doesn't get wasted. The British study found that one of the main reasons people chose to stray from the recipe was "a need to use up fridge leftovers and create cost-saving meals."

Here in the United States, many of us may not be adding abnormal amounts of curry powder to our recipes, but we do tend to be freestylers in our own way. We're also willing to throw in foods the recipe doesn't call for if they need to be used up before they go bad, as long as they complement the dish.

Take the panzanella I mentioned. I had half a zucchini in the refrigerator that needed to get used. I sliced it up and added it to the other vegetables being roasted even though the dish doesn't call for it. In the past, I've added mushrooms and eggplant to the recipe for the same reason.

I asked my friends if they always followed recipes to a T or if they improvised. Not a single one said they were sticklers with ingredients and directions, although a few said they may follow a new recipe exactly the first time they make it, like I do. After that, it's time to add personal touches. Many others, however, called recipes "guidelines," "suggestions" or "starting points."

Choosing recipes based on what needs to be used up is something many of my friends do, and then they freestyle the rest because they may not have all the ingredients needed for the newly found recipe either.

Tips for improvising in the kitchen

Young woman putting together a dish
There's a certain confidence you gain about ingredients — and what works together — one you allow yourself to stray from the recipe. (Photo: Milles Studio/Shutterstock)

If you don't have the confidence or the cooking knowledge to improvise, start with making small changes to recipes and build your skills over time. Here are a few suggestions to help start your journey to creativity in the kitchen:

  • Vegetables are versatile. If you're making soup, salad, a pasta dish with veggies or some other vegetable-heavy dish, throwing in an additional variety or two will rarely harm the dish. But, use some common sense with flavors. Adding something like radish to pasta with veggies will probably change the flavor of the dish too much.
  • Google is your friend. If you have a recipe you want to use and you're wondering if a certain ingredient would work in it, try this: Google the name of the recipe with the ingredient you want to use and see if you can find a recipe with it in there. If you can, then look at the rest of the ingredients. If they're similar to the ones in the recipe you've decided to make, there's a good chance adding the ingredient will work well.
  • Use just one fresh herb per recipe. If you have fresh herbs you need to use up, add just one to a recipe. Adding too many at a time can alter the flavor more than you want.
  • Leave the improvising to cooking, not baking. Precise ingredients and measurements are important to making sure a cake or cookies come out right.
  • Be okay with failing from time to time and have a frozen pizza on hand or the number of the local pizza place in your contacts. Occasionally, you may create something that tastes bad. It's happened to the best of us.

Of course, these suggestions are for those who are just starting to step away from following recipes strictly. As you gain experience, you'll also gain instincts. Before you know it, you'll be throwing odds and ends of foods into your dishes like an expert, and no one will ever know they weren't supposed to be in there.