The Improvisational Kitchen

Oct 11, 2018 | by Hawnuh Lee


Welcome to the improvisational kitchen – the funniest way to cook! Well, the most practical way to approach cooking. I like to think of my home chef practice as a “Yes, and…” improv style where any vegetable goes. We want to support our players here. Learning how to cook with what you have is an amazing skill that makes Iron Chef the coolest flipping battle you’ll ever stream. Improvisational cooking takes the seemingly random ingredients in your pantry / fridge and through resourcefulness, creativity, and trial + error transforms them into something edible. Literal kitchen magic! If you’ve ever added pickles to something that maybe didn’t need pickles consider yourself a dang wizard.

Growing up there was not a lot of food readily available in my house. Things were often stretched pretty thin and my dear mum, bless her, had a short repertoire of things she could cook. It fell on me and my younger sister to make dinner happen. Being given that sort of culinary freedom at such a young age was amazing. I could make a dinner for 4 out of 1 potato and some old tea leaves. Kidding, but that was the feel. I felt empowered to feed my family out of whatever ingredients we had available, like I was contributing in a real, creative way that nourished us through to the next day. What a fun kid I was!

It was scrap cooking in its earliest days for me. Before I had the language to identify it, I was intuitively making it happen. Whether or not that’s true for other folx, I believe that this form of preparing food should be accessible and easy to connect with for everyone. Improvised cooking is an important skill to start / continue your low impact journey. Let’s jump into some easy ways to start improvising in the kitchen!

How to improvise in the kitchen

It might feel intimidating to go off-recipe right away but you’ll feel super self-sufficient trying this new approach. Trust me! There’s nothing sexier than knowing what to do with leftover asparagus. An easy way to jump into improvised cooking is to open the fridge before you head to the grocery store. Most Americans buy more produce than they will actually use, so chances are you have everything you need to make something tasty.

Look around your kitchen.

Take note of what you have on hand before you head to the store. (Ideally instead of going to the store.) Knowing what you have available to make a meal out of is very important. You can start connecting which flavors / ingredients might work well together.

Review basic cooking techniques.

How to make ingredients come together will be the foundation for a successfully improvised meal. Start simple – cutting and chopping, making grains (rice, quinoa, etc…), boiling, roasting, an easy dressing or sauce. Figuring out seamless ways to combine ingredients will make all the difference. You can do a lot with a little! This roasted vegetable buddha bowl is a great place to start! Throw almost any vegetable you have on hand in there.

Stock up on staples.

Next time you’re at the grocery store grab items that will make your cooking life easier and serve as a basis for you to build off of. Fill up at the bulk bins (with your reusable bags of course!) Stocking up on noodles, rice, oatmeal, flour, nuts, anything that is a consistent ingredient in your diet will make improvisational cooking much easier. We’ve got a list here to help you get started.

Start small.

Try pairing 2 – 3 items together before jumping into a full meal. Maybe there’s a lone zucchini in your fridge, smoked paprika you haven’t tried in the cabinet, and leftover hummus in your hand. Roast that zucc and schmear my friend! Maybe you hate it, if so can I have it? But getting your toes wet before jumping in might help any calm any hesitations you have about taking full creative control in the kitchen. You got this!

Try and fail and try again. And take notes!

Your first few attempts might not be perfect but you’re building a skill set here, things will improve! If it’s still edible, hold your breath and swallow or compost it and try again. Just remember your mistakes for next time and don’t let one improvised mishap deter you from trying again.

My favorite way to cook

Improvisational cooking is my preferred approach to making meals. Whenever I have someone over for dinner or cook dinner at a friend’s house, it’s always done with whatever’s on hand. I might pick up a few things to supplement my staples or accent a dish but I take note of what’s available in the fridge / pantry / underground stockpile and make it work! It feels akin to a superpower – how did you make this? I had all of this?? are questions I use to encourage my friends to try improv cooking for themselves. It’s a great way to explore new ideas together.

Do you use improvisational cooking in your kitchen?
Let me know what you’re making! #closedloopcooking

Stay hungry,
Hawnuh Lee
Closed Loop Cooking


14 thoughts on “The Improvisational Kitchen”

  1. I started improvisational baking a while back, but I never took notes—which meant I could never recreate things I liked (or tweak ones that didn’t turn out well). It’s only recently I write things down or measure. Sometimes. 😉

  2. I have definitely been trying to implement this more lately in my cooking! And I get what you mean, it does feel empowering when you can make an awesome meal out of stuff you had on-hand without even realizing it! My husband and I spend way too much every month on groceries, so this is really an area I am working on both for our savings and the environment 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • It’s like a super power! I love that y’all are conscious of your spending and making sure you’re getting the most out of your grocery haul. It definitely takes practice though. We’ll try it out together 🙂

  3. Yes! This is how I grew up cooking, learning how to improvise with what we had, from my great-grandmother and mom. And with kids and unpredictable schedules now, other than when I do recipe development for clients or write recipes for the blog, it’s usually how we cook at home, too. Your tips on how to start are great!

    • That’s beautiful Marlynn! I love how it gets passed down through the family. Such a great thing to share.
      Thank you thank you <3

  4. learning how to improvise with what we had, from my great-grandmother and mom. And with kids and unpredictable schedules now, other than when I do recipe development for clients or write recipes for the blog, it’s usually how we cook at home, too. Your tips on how to start are great!


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