Four tips for dealing with new-to-you ingredients

October 13, 2016
Four Tips for Dealing with New-To-You Ingredients, Weeknight, For Beginners, Tips, Cooking Tips, Organization, Grocery List, Grocery Shopping, Ingredient Substitutions, How to Substitute Ingredients, Alcohol Substitutions, Minimalist Cooking, Simple Cooking, Minimalism

It happens to me almost every week. I’ve found a recipe (or two, or three, or twenty) that I’m reeeaally excited about. I start reading the recipe in detail and then it happens.

Ah snap. A new (to me) ingredient.

Depending on the situ, my thought process ranges from what-the-what?!-I’ve-never-heard-of-this-before to the more frequent but no less annoying, know-it-but-don’t-have-it-and-not-sure-I-wanna-buy-it.

It’s probably happened to you too, whether during your weekly meal planning (once you’ve mastered the art, of course, and can go beyond just the recipes that you know), after buying a new cookbook, or changing your diet. No matter the case, it can be frustrating but also a fact of (cooking) life. Especially if you are overhauling what you eat on a daily basis, well, then it’s par for the course and, umm, obviously part of the plan?

Still, it can be overwhelming to deal with ALL new ingredients, ALL tha time so what’s a cook to do?

To start, here are four options that you can consider the next time you run into something unfamiliar. The bonus? You won’t end up with a pantry full of barely used, half filled bottles of one-off ingredients that do nothing but add clutter. This is important to me (small space problemz) and my friend Melissa too, who test drove these ideas and really didn’t want to upgrade her pantry just to fit all the new ingredients she would need for a few recipes (I’m pleased to report that the pantry is, indeed, still the same size).

Eliminate 

Where possible, the easiest way to deal with the ingredient is to simply get rid of it. Channel your inner Steve Martin and feel free to “remove the superfluous buns.” (another blog post, another movie quote—can’t stop won’t stop)

Now, this approach doesn’t work with everything and you’ll want to avoid ingredients that play a starring role in the dish—keep ’em in and focus your efforts elsewhere. Of course, each ingredient is there for a reason (and the recipe developer tested it as written) so consider what you’ll be missing out on and whether you can live with it. For example, you may have to sacrifice less flavour or less texture but these may be worth it in the name of keeping yo sanity. Plus, in my personal experience, if you think a lit’ bit first, the recipe will work out 89.3% of the time. And even when it doesn’t, there’s always tomorrow night, right?

Pro tip: Looking for a few no brainers that (typically) have little to zero consequences? Here are a few pain-free options to get you started:

  1. Toppings: Whether on a salad, burger, bowl or stir fry, all toppings are optional. It’s a rule of lyfe.
  2. Two different versions of the same ingredient: Melissa wanted to make these marinated lentils from the new Oh She Glows cookbook (which, btw, looks super awesome, even for a non-vegan such as moi AND caters to everyday cooking which obvi, is totally my jam). The recipe calls for two kinds of lentils, green and French (aka Du Puy), but Melissa had…exactly zero. I suggested that she simply pick one and use it for the full amount, which is exactly what she did. Will you lose a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ in sticking with the one ingredient vs. two? Maybe. It is worth it so you don’t need to invest in TWO new-to-you ingredients? Totally.
Substitute

Of course you knew this was coming but James Barber (aka The Urban Peasant), said it first: “Use what you’ve got.”

Needless to say, I internalized his wise words as a child and now Imma BIG fan of substituting and do it on a regular basis, almost unconsciously. The recipe says carrots, I think carrots OR sweet potatoes OR squash. Chard? I’m ok with anything green. Same applies to pantry staples: cashew butter is really just code for any nut butter, tamari is soy sauce, maple syrup can be swapped for honey and red wine vinegar becomes just about any vinegar I already own.

Again, mixed bag of results depending on the recipe but feel free to push it a bit if it helps simplify dinner.

Pro tip: Make sure you’ve got few ‘go tos’ for substitutions. Here are mine (this is your cue to bookmark these websites): Cook’s Thesaurus and Gourmet Sleuth.

Buy in bulk

Maybe the ingredient is mission critical to the recipe, or it’s something you’ve always wanted to try anyway. You’re committed to buying it for the sake of this one recipe but not sure you want it to take precious real estate in your pantry. The solution? Buy in bulk if you can (most big cities have bulk food stores or grocery stores with a dedicated section). Try it out and see what happens. Did you like the recipe? Does the ingredient fit in with your diet? Can you use it for other recipes? If yes, then you can confidently invest in the big girl version. If not, then hurrah! You’ve risked exactly nothing (or very little).

Pro tip: If this isn’t too embarrassing for you (and by deduction you should know that I’m talking about myself here), you can bring measuring cups and/or spoons to the bulk food store and get EXACTLY what you need. Bonus? It’s pre-measured for when it comes to cooking time.

Invest where it counts

When I encounter a new recipe, I typically start at the top and work my way down. So if you can’t eliminate it, swap it or buy it in bulk, it’s safe to assume that you either buy it full stop or give up on the recipe. If you’re not that into the recipe, not sure if your family will like it or it’s got other potential problems (e.g. requires special equipment or takes too long), then it may be best to part ways or at least put it on ice. Especially if you’re like me and have a condo-sized kitchen with a pantry to match and/or hate wasting food.

However, if you’re still keen on the recipe, then you can assume it’s an important ingredient and bite the bullet. If it’s part of a new diet or cuisine that you’re just getting into then you’ll likely find that same ingredient popping up in different recipes anyway. Win-win.


Whew. A lot of words for this week but hopefully you have a few ideas for the next time you encounter new-to-you ingredients. If you’re like Melissa, you’ll start with a long list of unfamiliar foods and end up with a handful of new additions with a whole lotta potential…heart-shaped stickers not included.

Melissa's pantry

Until next time, happy cooking!

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