Serious Eats culinary expert: Learn to cook without a recipe to save money on food

Serious Eats managing culinary director Daniel Gritzer.
Courtesy Daniel Gritzer

To save money on food, Daniel Gritzer, the managing culinary director of the food blog Serious Eats, has an unexpected suggestion. "I make my living writing recipes, so this may sound crazy: Learn to cook well without a recipe," he says.

Basic competence goes a long way in the kitchen, he points out. "You don't need to reach chef-level virtuosity. You just need enough confidence and know-how to cook simple things nicely."

When Gritzer was just 13 years old, he started working at Chanterelle in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood – a restaurant that helped establish the neighborhood as a destination for fine dining. After graduating from Columbia University in 2000, he moved to Europe to work on farms in Italy, France, and Spain.

When he returned to the States, Gritzer cooked at some of New York's top restaurants, before joining Serious Eats, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning food blog, dedicated to developing tested and tasted recipes for cooks of all skill levels.

Below, Gritzer shares his best tips and tricks for saving money — and explains why recipes can lead to overspending.

What's your best tip for saving money and avoiding waste?

I think recipes have a ton of value. They provide inspiration and instruction on how to make a dish, and we all need that guidance, at least sometimes. But they also lock us into shopping for a specific recipe, and there are inevitably portions of the required ingredients that remain unused when the recipe is done — half a bunch of parsley, most of the remaining carrots from the bag, three-quarters of the box of chicken stock, etc.

If we move on to the next recipe, which often doesn't call for the same stuff, those leftover ingredients languish in the fridge and then get tossed out.

The real solution to this is for the home cook to have a set of techniques and simple recipes in mind that they can apply depending on what's sitting in the fridge and at risk of going to waste.

What if you don't feel confident enough to cook off-the-cuff?

Give yourself the permission to experiment and mess up. Not every meal has to be magazine-cover ready.

There's no good way to learn and to experiment with more creative and intuitive cooking if you don't give yourself permission to have plenty of failures and near-misses along the way. I've forced myself to choke down a lot of terrible meals over the years that I've made, and still sometimes do, because that's how we all learn.

Cooking is a skill that will pay dividends for the rest of your life. It gives you control over what you buy, how much you pay, and what you eat.

Give yourself the permission to experiment and mess up.
Daniel Gritzer
managing culinary director, Serious Eats

What's your best tip for saving money at the grocery store?

Learn how to work with inexpensive ingredients.

Dried beans, when cooked properly, are a thing of beauty, far, far better than anything that comes out of a can (though the convenience of a can makes them often a totally acceptable choice). There are a million things you can do with beans, from hot and cold salads to soups and even pasta sauces.

If you want to save money, it's best to look at the cheaper cuts [of meat] that are less popular. They often require a little more technique to prepare them since they're often tougher cuts that need longer cooking time, but when done right, they're often way tastier than a basic steak.

What's a kitchen tool that's worth the investment?

A pressure cooker. While there are some great stove-top pressure cookers out there (I love the Kuhn Rikon I have at home), I think you get the most bang for your buck with an electric multicooker.

The most famous brand these days is the Instant Pot, and it's priced very reasonably for all that it can do. It primarily is a pressure cooker, which can be an incredible time-saver for stews and braises. Dried beans can be cooked quickly, and homemade stocks become a speedy cinch — no more slow simmering for hours on end. On top of that, they double as rice cookers, yogurt makers, and more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

More from Grow: