Improv Cooking

Tips for becoming a better improvisational cook.


Improv Cooking

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One of the holy grails of becoming a really good cook is the idea that you can walk into any kitchen and whip up a meal with whatever ingredients and equipment is on hand.

NEWS FLASH:  This is hard.

When Betsy and I were at the beach last week with her family, we were planning a meal one night and Betsy said, “I really want to get some hush puppies tonight!”

Normally, I guess they just buy the hush puppies pre-cooked from a very reputable restaurant down the road.

I, being the budding chef in the group, blurted out, “How about I just make some!”

This idea was very well-received and Betsy’s family was duly impressed.  How hard could it be after all?  Make some batter.  Heat up some oil.  Fry some stuff.  Done deal.

Turns out it was a bit harder than that and I had to do some quick thinking…

The Word of the Day is “Location”

When I said I would make some hush puppies, I was imagining cooking these things in my kitchen at home.  In my kitchen, I have plenty of equipment and I know how everything works.

I quickly discovered that there was going to be a few issues once I started cooking.  Issues like:

– Not having a really big pot to heat oil in.
– Not having a lot of oil to heat anyway.
– Not having a thermometer to monitor frying temperature.
– An electric stove which I rarely use.

A smart cook would have surveyed the kitchen location and equipment prior to agreeing to make something.


The Best You Can With What You Have

Once I realized that I was in new territory, I didn’t panic.  Getting oil wasn’t a problem.  A quick trip to the store solved that.  Ideally, the store would have also had a thermometer, but no such luck.

After digging around the Internet for awhile I found a few hush puppy recipes that I kind of molded together to make what I figured would be a good fried item.  I smashed together an Allrecipes version with a Paula Dean version.

My largest issue by far was temperature.  Normally, at my house, even if I don’t have a thermometer, I know my pots and stovetop so well that I can make a very educated guess on when my oil temperature is right.

Not so in this case.  I ended up having to use a smaller, thin pot which would heat and cool much faster than my dutch oven.  I also was using an electric stove instead of gas.  I honestly have no idea how fast electric stoves heat up.

So I came up with two ways to get a basic idea of where my oil temperature was at.

First, water.  Sounds weird, but it worked.  I put a few drops of water in with my oil (seriously just a few drops).  Once the oil was in the 200-250 range, the water turned to steam and starting making a horrible popping sound.  Some might call this dangerous, but I call it ingenious.  I knew that when my water was gone, my oil was probably around 250 degrees.

After that, I waited a few minutes and then did a test (my second way to know where my temp was at).  My test hush puppy did all the things that I imagine a hush puppy should do:  puff up a bit and brown evenly.

Once I knew I was in a good range, I made my first batch!

The results turned out surprisingly good.  It may not have been the most scientific method in the world, but it did put some good food on the table which is all I ever really hope for.

Improvisational Cooking

When I got done with that meal, I spent some time really thinking about what I could’ve done differently to make my life easier.  Also, I brainstormed a few things that might help you improve your improvisational cooking in case you are ever stuck in a tricky spot!

Plan Plan Plan.  When you’re in a new kitchen, take an extra moment to really plan the meal.  Don’t take any piece of equipment for granted.  Check for smaller tools like whisks, thermometers, and measuring cups.

Know Your Substitutions. It’s pretty inevitable that if you’re cooking in a new kitchen and cooking a new recipe, you’re going to skip an ingredient.  It happens all the time.  Be ready to substitute on the fly so you don’t have to take a trip to the store.  Cooking for Engineers has a great chart for substitutions that I use all the time.

The Flavor Bible. One of my most frequently used cookbooks is my copy of The Flavor Bible.  If I’m missing an ingredient, I can quickly look up similar flavors and see if I can find a good substitute.

Practice! Any good improv actor will tell you that the only way to get really good at improv is to practice.  Luckily, you can practice improv cooking anytime you want.  Just walk over to your pantry, pull out a few items and try to use them in a dish without going to the store!  If you do this occasionally, you’ll start to get better and better at pairing flavors and coming up with unique ways to use things in your kitchen.

Have You Ever Improv Cooked?

Have you been stuck in a situation where you had to cook on the fly?  Did it work?  Leave a comment with any stories or tips you have!

Photo by Robbert van der Steeg.

5 Responses to “Improv Cooking” Leave a comment

  1. I'm glad to see someone talk about what to keep an eye on when shooting from the hip. More than once I've been asked to make pizza on no notice and been forced to substitute pre-made pizza crust, bottled sauce, and whatever else was asked for, relying on my knowledge of both how a pizza cooks and how to skimp without ruining the final product. Thank you for enumerating the main points to keep an eye on when cooking outside of one's comfort zone!

  2. Great topic, Nick! I've been forced into the same situation many times. One thing I think you left out, however, was the "fun factor"! As far as I'm concerned, it's quite enjoyable to come up with solutions and end up turning out a quality product with minimal ingredients that I have chosen on the fly. Occasionally, I've been faced with tossing some things in the trash rather than serving them, but that has been rare. For the most part, the meals after a "pantry raid" have been successful, reasonably healthy, and, more importantly, successful. There is a certain enjoyment in that. I liken it to completing the New York Times crossword puzzle, or solving a particularly difficult math problem. Fun Fun Fun, which is what the kitchen is all about. When it ceases to be fun and is no longer a challenge, I'll eat out or order delivery. I applaud you for tackleing a difficult problem.

  3. I was once cooking for a crew of hungry farm hands and they hadn't had anything but reheated pre-made frozen food for a while. We were living out of travel trailers with limited time, supplies, and tools. I made an apple crumble using the individual packets of breakfast oatmeal as the base for my crumble with a few other odds and ends tossed in. I couldn't replicate it but when people walked in for dinner and smelled baking apples and cinnamon I could have asked for the moon and they would have got it for me I think.

    I didn't know how it was going to turn out – the experience lacked predictability but I also think it added to the fun of it , and to how impressed people were.

    Interesting post – keep up the fantastic blog!

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