In an ideal world, each person would have a clean kitchen, know what they’re going to make for dinner and have the ingredients, equipment and skills necessary to do so.
We do not live in an ideal world.
But with a little practice, some tips and a boost of self-confidence, we can get close. (Close to making food with what you’ve got, that is. I’m not here to solve all the world’s problems.)
How many times do you wonder whether you can substitute one ingredient for another? How often do you skip a recipe because you haven’t heard of this spice blend or don’t have that flour on hand? How many browser tabs do you flip between when cross-referencing advice on cooking forums? I’m here to tell you: Stop. Stop wondering, stop searching. Just do it. Make the replacement, trust your intuition, and go for it.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Naturally, this requires a certain level of skill — and it helps to keep in mind certain principles (more on that later). But as a motivational poster hanging in someone’s office surely says, you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t start.
“It’s an age-old problem. Because people don’t practice cooking, they don’t have confidence cooking. As you practice, you’ll know it’s going to be okay,” cookbook author Pam Anderson says.
So Step 2 to becoming a better, more confident you: Practice. Step 1? Learn the basics. Voraciously is a good resource (if we may humbly say), but it’s helpful to have a book — something physical and hefty — that you can thumb through, dog-ear, markup and get dirty. “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat and “How to Cook Without a Book” by Pam Anderson are two current (read: published recently) favorites that will teach you fundamentals and techniques without seeming like textbooks or talking down to you. They both include recipes, too, so you’re not flying blind.
“The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg and “The Food Substitutions Bible” by David Joachim will help you spread those culinary wings a little more — the former listing flavor affinities, a.k.a. foods that go together, the latter being a valuable index of definitions and substitution possibilities. Both can help you think of ways to use the ingredients you already have and get through cook’s block (you know, writer’s block, but for cooking).
From there, look for recipes that work for you, from sources you trust. Follow them, sure, but more important, learn from them. Find something you’re not very experienced at cooking, try it a few times, and discover what works best for you. Don’t let the recipe dictate what you can and can’t do — it’s your food. You can do what you want.
“Recipes are good up to a point,” Anderson says, but “most recipes derive from a formula or a technique. You can internalize that and cook with what you’ve got around. Because half the time you’re missing two or three of those ingredients.”
These tips should help you when making substitutions:
Think about an ingredient’s texture, plus water and/or fat content. Are you eyeing a recipe for Butternut Squash and Sage Oven Risotto, but have only sweet potatoes in your pantry? Use the potatoes, but know they may break down more than squash would have (and that’s fine). Inspired by a quesadilla recipe but not into mushrooms, which happen to be a main ingredient? Use any vegetable that you do like, cut it into bite-size pieces and cook it until it’s done and ready to be folded into tortillas with a little cheese.
Ground meat is fairly interchangeable, too — just know that lamb, beef and pork tend to be fattier and more flavorful than turkey or chicken, so you may need to adjust accordingly. (Also know that crumbled extra-firm tofu, ground walnuts and green and brown lentils can approximate the texture and/or effect of ground meat.)
Consider flavors, but don’t be hamstrung by them. In moments of desperation (you’re out of an ingredient that is key to the dish’s final flavor, and you’re past the point of no return), do not give up hope. I once ran out of sesame oil but had already started making a pile of Silken Tofu With Soy Sauce (Xiao Cong Ban Dou Fu), so I used tahini instead. The sauce was thicker than the recipe intended. This was not a bad thing.
My simple syrup frequently went moldy before I could use it, so in a pinch I used maple syrup in a Daiquiri instead. Now I don’t bother with simple syrup.
The lesson? Never give up when you need a cocktail. Also, making do with what you’ve got often leads to finding something you like better.
Baking can be trickier. It’s mostly about chemistry and how ingredients interact with each other, after all — but even so, you can be a little more liberal with swapping ingredients than you may think. For example: Faced with a sudden craving for Coconut Turmeric Sweet Bread but without any all-purpose flour, nondairy milk or coconut oil to my name, I used a mix of whole-wheat pastry and spelt flours, and yogurt thinned with water and melted butter. It was far from the original but still completely craveable. Since the original is essentially a quick sheet cake, not something more complicated (looking at you, macarons), I was confident that even if the cake’s crumb was a little drier than intended (it was), the cake itself would still be tasty. (And if it was too dry or fell apart? I could crumble it up, toast it on a baking sheet, and scatter it over ice cream or yogurt. Or turn it into a trifle. Or make cake truffles.)
Another plus to this devil-may-care way of cooking: It’s fun to be the creator of something. It’s invigorating. It’s you, in total control. Will you fail? Yes, sometimes. Will your stockpot explode into flames because you swapped beans for ham in your mother’s potato soup? No. Will flavors clash and go beyond rescue to the point of ordering takeout? Maybe.
But that’s fine. You’ll learn. And you can still ask us for help — we’re impressively good at salvaging “ruined food.”
Above all, remember: If something terrible happens, it’s just one meal.
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