Three Rules of Thumb for Tinkering with a Recipe

I used to have a cooking rule, a rule I followed religiously, that I called Do It By the Book First. This rule essentially says you should never ever ever ever make serious modifications to a recipe without first making it "by the book," or making it exactly according to the recipe's specifications.

Here was my logic: you can't really change something for the better until you know what you're starting with, right? How can you improve a recipe without knowing what's wrong with it?

And, worst of all, what if the recipe was totally perfect as is? You'd never know if you modified it from the get-go.

The problem with this rule (and for that matter the problem with most rules when they are observed with absolutism) is that it occasionally would present me with an easily avoidable recipe fail. The bottom line: sometimes you can just tell that a recipe needs some adjustment--even before you make it for the first time.

Therefore, just as I've become a more relaxed person since I left my Wall Street career, I've also relaxed this once rigid rule in my kitchen. Nowadays, we often make pre-emptive changes to certain recipes, and not only has it reduced the number of failed new recipes we've tried out, it's helped us enjoy cooking more. A lot more.

Here are three of the key rules of thumb we use when pre-emptively adapting or modifying recipes. What rules would you add?

1) Remove salt

One of the modifications I now make--automatically--is to reduce the salt content of a recipe. Long-time CK readers know all about my issues with the use of excess salt, and whenever I see salt as an ingredient in a recipe, I always question if it needs to be there, or at least if it needs to be there in the amount called for.

Think about it: if you didn't like the ingredients in a dish in the first place, why would you make the recipe? And thus, why would you take the further step of masking those ingredients with excess salt? In most cases, it's highly likely that the dish can stand on its own without any added salt--and at the least it's worth considering adding less.

2) Add Heat

Some recipes just need some spice and heat. And again, you can usually tell with a quick glance at the list of ingredients. If you see a recipe that just screams "blaaand!!!!" (to be said in a zombie voice), a few generous shakes of Tabasco sauce or a teaspoon or two of cayenne pepper can save you from a tasteless meal. This adjustment works exceptionally well with soups, rice dishes, marinades and pasta salads.

3) Correct for "Midwestern Bias"

Hey, my parents both grew up on farms in the middle of Ohio, and most of my family is from midwestern USA. So I consider myself uniquely qualified to make the following statement: The Midwest may be the bedrock of our culture, but it's often the soft underbelly of our cuisine.

Thus I grew up in a house where everything was overcooked. Vegetables weren't considered "cooked" until you didn't need teeth to chew them. With pasta (whoops, I mean "macaroni"), al dente simply didn't exist as a concept. Therefore, a standard adjustment that you can confidently make with many midwestern-style recipes is to reduce the overall cooking time--often substantially.

Here's an example: my mother's lentil soup recipe contains the instructions boil lentils for one hour, add vegetables and boil for another hour. Please. I know I can reasonably cut down on that cooking time--as in cut it in half.

Readers, now's your chance: Which pre-emptive recipe corrections do you always make when you cook a recipe for the first time? Share your thoughts!


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15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I use recipes simply as a starting point. Usually a recipe will be chosen based on ingredients on hand, but where a recipe calls for something I don't have, rather than head to the store I will substitute whatever I have that is reasonably close. (ie. one variety of bean for another, leafy green thing for another type, one type of meat for another).
The other accommodation I make is health related, as a diabetic, I often take sugar and its equivalents out altogether, and substitute forms of starch to ones with lower glycemic-index. For example, replacing rice with barley gives me much better blood sugar readings after meals.
Be sure to take notes of modifications that worked (you'll want to reuse those)as well as ones that didn't (so you don't make the same mistake twice)!

Julia said...

Haha! I usually make the opposite salt adjustment.

I also find that most recipes benefit from a squeeze of lemon juice at the end. I bet you'd like this too as it cuts down on the amount of salt needed to "brighten" a dish.

The Calico Cat said...

omit butter/milk/cream (bacon &/or bacon grease)

Scott said...

Pretty much any savory dish can be improved with the addition of fresh basil leaves and marjoram sprigs.

Joanne said...

There are very few recipes that I don't tinker with in some way. I actually never even read salt amounts in a recipe (unless I'm baking) and just add it to taste. I almost always swap out milk for almond milk...and cream for almond milk (I'm kind of almond milk-obsessed). I also usually lower oil amounts if they don't seem necessary.

Karis Ann said...

I typically follow recipes as-is the first time around, unless the recipe calls for a processed food item(s). For example, while making pound cake last night, I subbed lemon zest & juice for lemon extract.

jules said...

Great post Dan!
I usually struggle to follow recipes.. find myself simplifying wherever possible.. and of course substituting for anything I don't have on hand.. so much fun

Daniel said...

Good ideas so far... and thankfully, no enraged midwestern readers. ;)

I particularly like the idea of adding some fresh greens/basil leaves (Scott's idea), and the idea of substituting real ingredients in place of processed ingredients, where applicable (Karis Ann's insight), or even throwing in a little splash of lemon juice (Julia's idea). These are low-risk, high-return modifications.

And Jules, I'm not surprised that you'd simplify... that's what I'm counting on whenever I visit your site!

What other modifications do readers instinctively make?

DK

Dawn said...

I always reduce the amount of onion. Here in Texas a whole onion means one the size of a baseball and even though they are sweet onions the flavor would overpower everything in the final dish.

Sally said...

I always tell people to make a recipe as it's written the first time -- but I realize that I almost NEVER do that! I'm always eliminating, substituting or adding. However, I do think that if you're going to critique a recipe, you'd better make it as written.

I may eliminate things from a recipe, but salt is never one of the things I eliminate. I probably use less than is called for, but I'm not sure. I rarely measure -- just add a pinch (and I do mean a pinch) here and there. I do measure when I'm baking.

I've read that one should omit salt during cooking and add it to taste at the table. I've found that to be unsatisfactory. It often seems that not enough can be added at the table to make up for what was omitted during cooking.

Salt is probably the only seasoning that enhances the flavor of the food without changing it. Herbs and spices change the flavor, and I'm often not fond of that change.

The seasonings I use most? Salt, pepper and lemon. Onions and garlic, too. I rarely even use herbs. I'd probably use them more if I could grow them, but fresh herbs are generally too expensive.

I would never add heat to a recipe, largely because I don't like and don't tolerate heat. A teaspoon or two of cayenne? You must have taste buds of steel! I can barely manage a pinch. I never use Tabasco -- don't even keep it in the house. I do keep a bottle of sriracha, but I use it very sparingly.

I was born, raised and still live in the midwest. I'll have to say that what you describe is not my experience of midwestern cooking. I'm probably much closer to your mom's age than yours, and my lentil soup has always cooked for less than an hour. I've eaten the overcooked pasta (and it was either spaghetti or macaroni, never "macaroni" as the default term for pasta), but it's usually been in restaurants. In fact, I was served some last week. Tasteless, under-salted, overcooked spaghetti.

For vegetables, it depends on how they're being served. There are dishes in which I prefer them tender-crisp and dishes in which I prefer them well-cooked. It also depends on the vegetable. I never like broccoli cooked long, but green beans are another thing. Sometimes tender-crisp, sometimes well cooked.

I've run into some bad midwestern cooks, but it's certainly not the norm. I do think there was a period of time when nearly everyone overcooked everything. I'm not sure why this was, but it wasn't limited to the Midwest. In fact, I usually associate overcooking, especially vegetables, with Southern cooking.

My own rules of thumb for adapting recipes would be 1) to eliminate processed foods and 2) eliminate unnecessary ingredients and/or steps while not losing the essence of the dish. Kind of a "minimalist" approach to cooking. I try to keep things seasonal as well.

Marcia said...

Cut the sugar by 1/2 to 2/3.

Cut the oil by 1/2.

Cut salt

DutchMac said...

I like experimenting with any form of liquid that's called for. Water is inevitably exchanged for/mixed with some kind of stock and/or wine in savory recipes (adjusting salt levels if needed) or fruit juice in sweet recipes, vanilla in baking could change to orange/lemon/almond/whatever other flavor extract, etc. And can I admit that i LOVE using alcohol in recipes, and still not sound like I belong in an AA meeting? Whenever possible I find that wine in savories and liquers in sweets adds SUCH depth of flavors. Yes, I even put them in recipes that my children will eat, as the alcohol content bakes out anyway and leaves only the flavor.

As a transplant from the Midwest myself, I'm not at all offended by the 'assumption of bland'. But let's be honest on one aspect....sweetcorn straight from an Iowa cornfield in August is about as close to Produce Heaven as one can get.

Anonymous said...

I routinely cut the salt in half. Usually follow the recipe at least the first time. My tendency is to toss in whatever is on hand, especially fresh herbs.

chacha1 said...

I rarely use salt, unless baking; cut sugar by 1/2 or more (especially in fruit desserts) and often substitute honey, agave nectar, or maple syrup; double to triple the quoted amounts of spices, and usually also increase the number of different spices!

Case in point, last weekend's roast duck from Better Homes & Gardens cookbook (my post-college housewarming cookbook). It called for a total of 1 tsp ground ginger and .5 tsp of five-spice. I used 1 tsp ground ginger all right, but also 2 tsp of my own 6-spice mix. And dumped into the cavity a tablespoon of dried shallots and a quarter-cup of diced dried apricots.

Don't care for green bell peppers, so I substitute red or yellow or orange. Love onions of all kinds and add them even if the recipe doesn't want them.

Prefer lime juice to lemon, ground bison to ground beef, and chicken thighs to breasts.

I don't actually cook with recipes all that often anymore. :-)

Dave said...

I come from German immigrants who cooked their veggies until they fell off the bone, so I can sure relate to the Correct for "Midwestern Bias" part.

Also, I always look at reducing the sugar. I recently hit a pasta salad recipe that uses a cup of sugar to counteract a cup of vinegar. Obviously one that needs some serious refinement.