For Easter, I made french onion soup with vegetable broth instead of the beef broth called for in the recipe. Was the flavor totally off? Did I destroy the whole point of the dish? Not at all. It was onion-y in a sweet yet savory way and even my ridiculously picky father enjoyed it.
As a vegetarian in a predominately chicken broth-based world, this is a very common substitution in my cooking. I also take recipes that for actual pieces of meat and work around it, but this does not mean haphazardly substituting tofu for meat and pretending that it works the same way in a recipe.
The most important thing to remember when tweaking a recipe is that you don’t want to upset the flavor balance. There is a reason that certain types of meat are served with citrus based sauces while others are garnished with berries. If you don’t yet have that sort of chef’s palate to tell you “yes, these flavors work well together” or “bleck – there is something off here,” don’t fret. This is what learning from recipes is all about.
When you are first getting going, start slow. Tweaking a recipe can be as small a gesture as leaving out the nuts in a batch of brownies for people with allergies or switching out the chili pepper listed in your salsa recipe to amp up or tone down the heat level.
Especially at the beginning, it is important to keep your ambitions in check. It is all well and good to decide to make a spring pea salad in the winter. But of course, you can’t get fresh peas. Canned peas, however, don’t have the same flavor as fresh peas and don’t jive well with the same acidic notes (i.e. lemon or lime) and herbs and spices (light dill on spring peas vs. stronger ginger and cumin for preserved) your spring pea recipe would call for.
Start by picking a recipe that sounds great except for one thing. Perhaps you want to make your lamb chops without a grill or a white pizza (no tomato sauce). First identify how your desired area of change functions in the recipe:
- the sauce provides a liquid component for the pizza
- grilling is the primary cooking method for the lamb
To find the correct way to handle your substitutions, one of the easiest things to do is to find another recipe with that element. This recipe for lamb chops demonstrates that you can cook the chops in a heavy skillet with olive oil for about three minutes per side. By just adding the garlic from the originally recipe to the olive oil in the pan instead of brushing the lamb chops with it, as you would do when grilling, you are all set.
Aside from just switching out an ingredient or cooking method, you must consider the original function of the item you are removing in the recipe. In a pizza, the tomato sauce provides a wet ingredient that creates pizza instead of just bread sticks with things on top. We can’t simply take off the tomato sauce and still have pizza. Consulting a recipe for white pizza, we find that olive oil is used to replace the tomato sauce while still retaining that moist pizza dough texture.
Tweaking recipes is both easy and a great way to expand your cooking repertoire once you get going. No blind substitutions, please. Consider first, change after. Start out slow at the beginning and always think about how you have changed functions in the recipe and make sure to compensate accordingly.