If you’re an absolute slave to recipes, you’ll know just how amazing it would be to know how to cook without a recipe. When you’re a recipe slave, you end up with a heap of random ingredients. They either go off or languish in the back corner of your cupboard or fridge, making all this food waste. Or, you end up eating the saaame thing over and over again (because you don’t have time to learn 365 recipes to keep things different every night of the week).

To free yourself from this tyranny, we created a series on what’s truly worked on our own journey to feed ourselves like a total boss, rather than let recipes boss us around. And if you’d rather be trying this out with some mates, check out Cookluck Club!

Let’s start by acknowledging that recipes and cookbooks are still amazeballs for inspiration. But knowing how to tweak them wisely will help save time running to the store, space in cupboards and money for unnecessary ingredients. Also, it’ll make dinner happen right now.

In one of our earlier posts, we covered the basics of how to make stuff taste good when cooking without a recipe. We’ll be drawing on that knowledge a lot, but if there’s one thing to help you tweak like a pro, it’s this:

Start seeing ingredients for their function(s) in a recipe

This is probably the best, most exciting mind-hack that will help you be that person – the one who seemingly knows how to substitute ingredients at the drop of a hat, and the end result is still perfectly delicious.

Here’s a little exercise to illustrate how to hack almost any recipe to what you’ve already got (it’ll be easy if you’ve stocked your kitchen well). Like with real exercise, the first time always seems to take ages, but then it gets a lot quicker and intuitive as you go.

We’re using the example of the ultimate weeknight food, stir fry (one of our five fallback meal templates).

  1. If you don’t have any recipes you follow, Google a recipe for a stir fry you usually order when you get take-away (or delivery), or one that you like.
  2. For each of the ingredients of your chosen stir fry recipe, list out the main flavour and texture that ingredient is providing to the meal. Also note what food group it’s in – carb, protein, vegetable/fruit, fat or seasoning.
  3. Start by simplifying the recipe (cutting down the sheer number of ingredients). Identify ingredients which fulfil the same flavour or texture function. For example, if you have sugar and honey in a stir fry sauce, cross out one of those. Leave whatever you do have – but if you have neither, we’ll address that later. If you have both, pick the one with the most depth of flavour (in this case, honey). After all, they’re both sweet, and and they’re both going to dissolve into your sauce anyway. If you don’t have any of them, substitute whatever you do have that performs the same flavour or texture function. If you’re just starting out, a quick google for “substitution for [insert ingredient]” will help give you more concrete ideas.
  4. Now look at your simplified recipe. For the ingredients you don’t have, substitute ingredients you do have that fulfil the same function.
    • What if there aren’t straightforward swaps?
      • You might use one ingredient that has 2 strong functions to replace 2 ingredients. For example, if I still need noodles and honey as part of a “honey soy stir fry,” I could swap them out for cooked sweet potato, which fulfils both the carb and sweetness functions. Boom.
      • You might use two ingredients to replace one with multiple dominant flavours. For example, if I still need tamarind (sweet sour) but only have lemon juice and sugar, I could use those instead.
  5. For any ingredients that aren’t providing much flavour in themselves (eg. noodles, chicken breast, or tofu), these can easily be substituted with other mild ingredients you have on hand. Don’t just take these out altogether – they provide careful padding out so your meal isn’t too intense.

Bonus advice to smashing substitutions

  • If you haven’t already, keep your kitchen stocked well so you’ve at least got the basic flavours that you can sub in.
  • Start off your practice with recipes you already know and love. This’ll more likely lead to success the first few times, which means you’ll develop some actual confidence.
  • Never serve something until you’ve tasted and tweaked the flavours (you should feel an irresistible urge to give yourself a high five when you get it right). If you’re new to this, check out the post on making stuff taste good.

Next up

Once you start feeling a little more smug about tweaking ingredients, it’s time to look at how to tweak the actual method.

We’ll look at ways to make the method faster, taste better, and even healthier.

Image credit: Unsplash

Zo Zhou

Zo Zhou

Zo is the National Communications Manager and will basically never shut up about vegetables.

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