Cooking Tips

Yes, You Can Stir-Fry in Olive Oil (and Other Advice for Becoming a More Improvisational Solo Cook)

Throw the rulebook out the window and make the recipes work for you.

Published July 17, 2020.

Indulging in the delight of dining alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you're one of the 36 million Americans who live alone or one of the countless others who cook for themselves for other reasons, you'll love our cookbook Cooking for One, which has more than 160 perfectly portioned recipes, along with approachable tips that will help you become a smarter, more confident, and less wasteful cook.

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Camila Chaparro

I love cooking for myself. When I’m cooking for others, even casually, the stakes always feel a bit higher—there are other palates to please, people to impress, food preferences to juggle, and expectations to manage. I’m more likely to follow a recipe precisely, and even purchase specialty ingredients for a particular dish.

But when you’re cooking for yourself, you have different priorities. Wasted food, for example. It might be more important to avoid buying extra ingredients that you’re unlikely to finish before they go bad than procuring that one specific item to complete a recipe. And because the only person you have to impress is yourself, your cooking style can be more flexible. There’s no reason not to adjust flavors to make a dish work for you (and the contents of your pantry). So if you don’t have the exact ingredients for a recipe, that shouldn’t stop you from making the dish. 

In our cookbook all about solo cooking, Cooking for One, we developed recipes with the improvisational cook in mind. Knowing how to improvise is key not only for tweaking recipes to your liking, but for winging it when you are missing an ingredient, or remaking leftovers so they don’t feel repetitive. Here are a few suggestions for stepping up your kitchen improv game.

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Keep a flexible pantry.

Having a pantry that is thoughtfully stocked according to your preferences and styles of cooking is essential for substituting ingredients on the fly, creating tasty leftover makeovers, or adding that one finishing touch that tweaks a dish to exactly your liking. As for what you should always have on hand, everyone’s “must-haves” will differ—and we’ll assume you already know what those are—but check out this article for some advice on what we recommend.

Get to know your herbs.

Fresh herbs can transform and elevate a dish: They bring fresh and bold flavors and a splash of color, and they make a dish feel special. But when you’re cooking for one, it’s a challenge to use up an entire bunch. And what if your planned menu for the week calls for two or three different kinds? Loosen up! Usually having a specific herb matters less than just having something fresh to finish a dish. (Chives, cilantro, and basil would all taste great on many dishes; better to buy one and use it up than to buy several and let them go bad.) For this reason, we list multiple options for herbs (nuts and cheeses, too) in our recipes, helping you on your way to becoming a more flexible cook.

When substituting herbs on your own, it’s helpful to think of herbs in two categories: delicate (think: leafy fronds) and hardy (think: woody stems). While they each have distinct flavors, “delicate” herbs such as parsley, basil, cilantro, chives and dill can be used similarly as a finishing touch to a dish, added at the end of cooking. “Hardy” herbs such as  rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano should generally be added at the beginning of cooking, but can largely be interchanged as well.

Find yourself  with more herbs than you need? Add them to salads, scrambled eggs or frittatas; make herb based sauces like pesto (no, pesto doesn’t have to be basil-based), chimichurri, chermoula or salsa verde; add them to vinegar to steep for an extra boost of flavor in vinaigrettes; chop and mix with oil and freeze in an ice cube tray for up to three months; or try drying them in the microwave.

Use olive oil to stir-fry or sear a steak.

While we do recommend stocking your pantry well, there’s no need to go overboard with your oils. When it’s just you, there’s no need to have multiple bottles of special-use oils collecting dust and potentially going bad before you get the chance to use them up.

Though it’s nice to have two oils (one for cooking, such as canola oil, and one for finishing, such as extra-virgin olive oil), here’s a secret: We use extra-virgin olive oil for high-heat applications, too. And it’s completely fine. Sear a steak, fry an egg, and stir-fry to your heart’s content. In the recipes in Cooking for One, we simply call for “oil,” leaving it up to you to decide what works best. 

Regardless of the kind of oil you ultimately purchase, buy a small (tinted or opaque) bottle, and keep it someplace cool and dark (not next to or above the stove).

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Step up your sides (with a little help from your pantry).

Skillet roasted cabbagePan roasted asparagusBroiled eggplant with honey lemon vinaigrette
A few side-dishes-turned-full-meals in Cooking for One: Skillet-Roasted Cabbage, Pan-Roasted Asparagus, and Broiled Eggplant with Honey-Lemon Vinaigrette.

Part of the joy of cooking for yourself is that you set the rules. So if you’d rather bulk up a side dish to create a satisfying meal, go ahead and throw the protein-starch-veg trinity out the window. Keeping your pantry and fridge stocked with workhorse ingredients that add heft, such as canned beans, eggs, bread, nuts, and grains, and you’ll be able to transform a side into a main in no time. Try adding canned chickpeas to Skillet-Roasted Cabbage drizzled with an herby yogurt sauce; serving Simple Ratatouille over toast with a fried egg and a shower of Parmesan; or spooning Sauteed Mushrooms over Parmesan Polenta sprinkled with a handful of toasted pine nuts. 

Reinvent leftovers.

When am I most proud in my home kitchen? When I’m able to transform a fridge full of leftovers into additional meals that don’t feel repetitive: Roasted chicken gets chopped and thrown together with cilantro and cumin for tacos; grilled or roasted vegetables get mixed with feta and eggs for a tasty frittata; leftover rice and ham gets transformed into an umami-packed fried rice. With a thoughtfully stocked pantry, a few key toppings, and a handful of herbs, you will be well on your way to your own leftover makeovers.

In Cooking for One, the only recipes that make leftovers are ones that make good leftovers—they keep well, reheat easily, and (of course!) are easy to transform into a new meal altogether. During recipe development, we tried to think of a different way to use up leftovers, and included our ideas with the recipes. Turn that leftover Roasted Butternut Squash into an autumnal salad topping, or make tacos out of extra Spice-Rubbed Flank Steak with Celery Root and Lime Yogurt Sauce.

Pay attention to potency.

The more comfortable you get customizing a recipe to accommodate what you have on hand, the more liberties you can take. But remember, not everything is an even swap. For example, if you’re subbing cayenne for paprika, you should use less because cayenne is much spicier and will make your dish inedible (unless you have taste buds of steel). Consider the intensity of each ingredient and adjust accordingly.

Want more info on cooking for one? Check out this collection of time-saving tips and other helpful resources, and our Cooking for One cookbook.

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