When I got my first apartment after college, my mom gave me a box (a freebie from Land O'Lakes butter) full of recipe cards with handwritten instructions from her and other family members for the dishes I grew up with. The recipes themselves weren't that detailed, but I stuck to them. Then I started building a cookbook library—which now takes up a considerable portion of my living-room bookshelves—working my way through volumes by Lidia Bastianich, Marcella Hazan and Mark Bittman. Most nights, I was cooking for my boyfriend and myself. As I followed the recipes to a T, favorites emerged, and I started repeating them every couple of weeks. Sometimes, I'd scribble notes in the margins about skipping a certain ingredient or roasting something for more or less time than the recipe suggested. But I was pretty much a rule-follower, finding comfort in checking off steps and comparing my finished dish to the photo that accompanied the recipe.

Fast forward about 12 years. The boyfriend who happily ate every dish I tried in those early days is now my husband. We have two kids. I cook for us all, almost every night. But I rarely use recipes anymore. Sure, part of the reason is that I don't need to (I've made my go-to dishes so many times that I've memorized the ingredients and the steps), though the thing is, winging it is now my preferred way of cooking, and here's why.

The dishes I cook fit my life—instead of the other way around.
It's unrealistic for me to carefully adhere to specific recipe instructions from a book, magazine or website on most weeknights, since I'm usually trying to simultaneously cook, catch up with my family and assign someone to set the table (slash referee an argument between children about whose turn it is to set said table). Now, I make things that don't require constant attention and consolidate steps as much as possible.

We eat better vegetables.
When I was following recipes, I'd pick out a dish, then go buy the ingredients. This approach obviously makes sense—but only if the store has everything the recipe calls for. As I started reversing the process (for example, I'll often plan to make pork chops + a vegetable), I began buying whatever vegetable looked good. It could be kale, or Brussels sprouts or cauliflower. Without a recipe, I'm more likely to buy the freshest-looking (and, therefore, usually, best-tasting) vegetable in the produce aisle and not settle on kinda-wilting spinach just because the recipe requires it.

Chicken is crispier.
It used to be that if a recipe said to roast chicken breasts for 30 minutes, that's what I did. Now, I throw that chicken in the oven and take a peek after 30 minutes, but usually leave it in longer. I care more about what it looks like (golden, crunchy skin is what I'm after) than how long it takes. As legendary chef Jacques Pépin has said, a recipe is basically "a moment in time which can never be duplicated exactly again." The size of the chicken, its temperature before going into the oven and the way your oven circulates air will all affect the overall cooking time. Your senses are way more reliable than a number written on a page.

There are fewer dishes to wash.
A recipe may say to add a tablespoon of lemon juice; to stir in a half-cup of wine; or, to sprinkle a cup of shredded mozzarella on top of that casserole before sliding it under the broiler. When you start cooking to fit your own taste, you don't need to use measuring cups and spoons. You have a good idea of how much lemon juice you like on your salad (and you don't need a recipe to tell you that more is more when it comes to mozzarella).

The entire experience of cooking is more pleasant.
In the same way that following the GPS gets you to your destination without you necessarily noticing the route, adhering closely to a recipe can make us overlook the little things: the way minced garlic jitters when you sauté it in olive oil; the flowery scent you get when removing fresh thyme leaves from the stem. When you're not so focused on paying attention to what someone else is telling you to do, it's easier to soak in and enjoy everything that's happening in front of you.


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