How to Modify a Recipe Part 2: The Six Rules

(If you haven’t read it already, please see Part 1 of this series first.)

In Part 1 we started with a concrete and simple example by going over a few basic modifications to my waffles recipe.

Today, we will go from the specific to the general. Allow me to share with you my six rules for effective recipe modifications:

1) Do It One Time By the Book
I rarely find it helpful to start changing up a recipe before I’ve even made it for the first time. You can't really change something for the better until you know where you're starting from. Otherwise, if the recipe's perfect as is, you'll never know, will you?

Also, keep in mind that you'll get a lot of fundamentally useful information by making the recipe "by the book" first. What was hard or easy about the recipe? Were there any extraneous steps you might be able to remove? What ingredients were truly important or unimportant to the final product? Unless you're clairvoyant, you won't be able to answer these questions without following the recipe verbatim at least once.

Of course if you ARE clairvoyant, you already know what I'm going to say for the rest of this post, so you don't need to read any further.

2) Know Where You CAN'T Make Changes
Keep in mind that some recipes just don't tolerate modifications very well, and some recipe ingredients simply cannot be tampered with. You'll find this to be especially true with baked goods, batters, cakes and breads, where you’ve got to hold the relationship between liquid and dry ingredients relatively constant--and you most certainly can't mess around with the leavening agents (baking powder, yeast, baking soda, etc). You can really screw up the chemistry if you’re not careful with this.

Recall in Part 1, where I suggest adding oats to the waffles recipe? I also told you to add an additional 1/8 to 1/4 cup of milk along with the oats, although I never told you why. Well, here's why: this keeps the ratio of liquid to dry ingredients roughly constant.

Note that this is an inexact science, and in the waffles recipe the ratio of oats (1/3 of a cup) and milk (1/8 to 1/4 cup) is not one to one. This is the type of thing you'll get a feel for as you experiment with modifications on your own.

Notice how this ties in to my rule to make the recipe by the book first. You need to have a feel for what the basic batter looks like before you can experiment with it!

And don’t get too rattled here with all of these restrictions I’m throwing at you on baked goods. Baked goods just don't tolerate modifications all that well. Most other dishes, like soups, sauces or casseroles, allow for much more experimentation and flexibility.

3) Spend Some Focused Time Thinking: What Would Make This Better?
This is a mental approach I want you to take after you’ve made the recipe for the first time. When you and your family sit down to sample a new recipe, just take a little bit of extra time while you’re eating to think about the taste. What do you like and don’t like about it? What additional spices or seasonings could go well with it?

Again, let's return to the waffles recipe. When I thought about potential modifications, it seemed like cinnamon might go along well with the real maple syrup. Also oats seemed like they might be a neat addition to mix up the texture. Hmmm, then maybe cinnamon AND oats, who knows?

You get the picture. This is how I encourage you to think to let your mind embrace new ideas. Perhaps you can even get your family into the same mode too--this is one way to create some quality family time around the dinner table--and who knows, maybe one of your kids will grow up to be the next Wolfgang Puck!

Of course this assumes that everybody keeps an open and constructive mindset. Hearing your family say things like, “Dad, this recipe sucks!” is NOT particularly helpful...

4) Are There any Superfluous Ingredients?
Note that with our waffles recipe, there are no unnecessary ingredients at all. But in some dishes there will be items that you can easily leave out while sacrificing nothing in taste or quality. We'll see an example of this in Part 3 when we walk through "before" and "after" versions of my granola recipe.

Of course an even better example of this is a recipe with a gross ingredient that you hate and you're dying to leave out. For example, I can tolerate raisins in my granola, but I can’t stand soggy raisins in any baked goods. Nothing grosses me out more than biting into a cinnamon roll or a muffin and finding a smushy raisin in there. So, that’s a no-brainer for me: I’ll just leave ‘em out.

5) What Would be Over the Top?
It’s important to know what kinds of ingredients can screw up a dish irrevocably if you overuse them. Here’s an illustrative example. If you double the amount of onions in a vegetable soup, does that really change the fundamental taste or format of the recipe? Uh, no. Not at all.

But if you double the amount of salt, or if you double the amount of Tabasco (heaven help your wimpy-palated dinner guests if you do this…), that will fundamentally change the taste of the recipe--probably for the worse.

So, I want you to be mindful of what types of ingredients (like onions) are additive, and what types of ingredients (like salt, Tabasco, as well as most other spices) are multiplicative. The latter are the kinds of ingredients that can easily ruin your dish if you overdo it. You might be risking an entire meal by "overexperimenting."

If there’s an ingredient or a spice you think you’d like to add but are concerned about going “over the top,” just be sure to make a less aggressive modification on the first try. Jot a note to yourself on the recipe about the change you made and whether you think it could use still more. By iterating this way, you'll perfect the recipe without risking a ruined dinner.

6) Believe in Evolution!
Start thinking of your recipes as living things. They can grow and mature along with your palate. They can change and iterate with your whims. Rarely do recipes come out perfectly formed and optimized for your tastes the first time you make them.

Take notes. Keep records. Leave room on your recipe cards for writing down your experiments and how they worked out. Record what changes you made and use those prior changes as a platform for future changes.

Your notes will help you remember where you left off with the last time (hmmmm… did I already double the Tabasco last time when it came out too spicy or did I plan to double it THIS time???), and they'll prevent you from repeating mistakes you've already made (eg: “cook the granola for 30 minutes, not 40, and be sure to stir it this time or it will burn!!”).

Of course, at some point a recipe might reach maturity--it gets to a point where you're totally happy with it and don't feel the need to make more changes. And to drag out the evolution metaphor still further, sometimes recipes go through a sort of punctuated equilibrium, where they see saw several steps of radical change over a very short period of time, but then remain pretty stable thereafter. My Chicken Mole is one such dish.

Look for more on this subject of modifications as we tackle more complex examples! Be sure to check back later for Part 3 of this series.

Related Posts:
How to Modify a Recipe Part 1: Basics
Fake Maple Syrup
An Easy Granola Recipe
An Ode to Tabasco Sauce

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spring fawn said...

growing up with hippy parents in CA I thought the granola recipe would be a no brainer for me. My type A personality got in the way...thinking hotter oven, quicker granola. No success, I got a large brick of burnt oatmeal. my second attemt was much more successful...I took it easy, dropped the oven temp down 25 degrees and added a couple of minutes of cook time...turned out fantastic...thanks because if I would have had another granola disaster, I could have spent years back in therapy. :) spring fawn

Bethany said...

We made your granola yesterday... I feel so... crunchy. I burned it a little bit (who knew it would keep cooking after it came out of the oven!?!), but it is still very good. Sam helped, so our inadvertent modifications probably included boogers and toddler germs... but some extra TLC as well, so it balances out.

Daniel said...

Hmmm boogers. I never would have thought of that!! Sounds like a good modification to me. :)

Everybody's oven is a little bit different, but it sounds like MY oven might be a little on the cool side. I probably had better cut down the oven temperature a bit in the granola recipe. Thanks for the feedback.


Anonymous said...

I have a question that's more in line with a substitution than a modification, although it can be argued either way. Being that I am highly allergic to sesame I was wondering if I substituted peanut or even walnut oil if that would drastically alter the taste. I am told sesame imparts a particular flavor, but I would guess something like walnut would do the same, but would it be a bad thing?

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous,
I'd be pretty confident that you could substitute either walnut oil OR peanut oil for sesame oil and not miss it one bit. Especially if you're highly allergic to it. It most likely won't affect the taste whatsoever.

Thanks for your question!


Dawn said...

I found a recipe card I didn't remember a friend of mine giving me, it was for Double Chocolate Banana Bread. :) I came up 1/4 cup short on bananas, which I know will improve the taste next time but its still not very... chocolately. Should I up the cocoa powder and the sugar or change something else about it? I've never really done bread before so this is new ground for me.
Also, I'm always looking for new granola recipes, I look forward to trying yours. :)

Daniel said...

Dawn, thanks for your question. With the minor caveat that I haven't seen the recipe for myself, I'd considering adding 25-50% more cocoa if that's the flavor you'd like to have a lot more of in the recipe.

Another idea is to add another source of chocolate. Maybe 1/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate bits would work.

Banana breads are typically pretty flexible recipes so you can start with these ideas, see what you think, and perhaps iterate again from there.

Good luck, and let me know how it comes out after you've tried a few things!


Viviane said...

Thanks for sharing with us (: I'm currently working on my personal project and would have to modify my recipe! THANK YOU SO MUCH (: appreciate it.