Ingredient substitutions plus other ways to deal with new ingredients

October 13, 2016
Ingredient Substitutions Plus Other Ways to Deal 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

Busy cooks ain’t got time for new-to-you ingredients. That’s why I’m sharing four strategies for how to deal, including my fave: ingredient substitutions.


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, new ingredients can be overwhelming. And if you’re busy (and I know you are), it falls squarely into the category of “ain’t got time for that”. So what’s a cook to do?


The minimalist approach to new-to-you foods

When you’re planning to cook a new recipe, it’s temping to slavishly make sure you have every. single. ingredient. on the list, even if these are new to you and not part of your regular repertoire. I mean, I get it. Why else would the ingredients be listed if they weren’t important? And certainly, this is true…to some extent.

But here’s the secret: after (much) trial and error, I’ve come to appreciate that not ALL ingredients are essential in order to achieve a meal that you actually look forward to after a long day of work. Yes, they all contribute in some way to the overall recipe but not to the same degree. Some ingredients are more form, some more function, and others, mere fluff. So what does this mean for you?


That’s right. You have permission to tweak, twist, edit, customize or personalize the ingredient list the way you see fit.* Does it always work out? Nuh huh. That’s the risk, of course—that dinner doesn’t work out perfectly. However, as a minimalist cook, it’s risk I’m prepared to take because there’s always tomorrow and in the grand scheme of things, I’ve still managed to put a homemade meal on the table that’s better than takeout, frozen or fast food, non?

So let’s give’r cuz #dinnerfail isn’t worth the stress.


The benefits of focusing on essential ingredients

Over time, three things will happen as you continue to flex your minimalist cooking muscles:

  1. You will get smarter at reading recipes, which means knowing which ingredients are mission critical for success and those which are targets for one of the strategies below.
  2. You will care less about following recipes to a T and actually start enjoying your newfound freedom and creativity in the kitchen when you encounter new-to-you foods.
  3. You will keep your kitchen clean and focused with ingredients that you actually use—no more pantry or fridge 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).

With that in mind, here are four options that you can consider the next time you run into something unfamiliar.


Ingredient substitutions

James Barber (aka The Urban Peasant, a Canadian cooking icon) 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 ingredient substitutions, as should be p-r-e-t-t-y obvious by now.

Truthfully, this is my #1 strategy for dealing with new-to-me foods and is the first place I start. It’s only if I can’t substitute an ingredient, do I then move to the other strategies in this list.

Today, I substitute ingredients 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. It can be a mixed bag of results depending on the recipe, but feel free to push it a bit if it helps simplify dinner.

Need proof that ingredient substitutions work? Read how I tweak Pinch of Yum’s chicken skillet using ingredients in MY kitchen.

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


Other ways to deal with new-to-you foods

Beyond ingredient substitutions, here are three other ways to tackle unfamiliar or new ingredients:

Strategy #1: 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) Sure, you may have to sacrifice (a bit) less flavour or (a bit) less texture but these may be worth it in the name of keeping yo sanity.

To help you figure out what’s essential to the recipe, think of the ingredients that play a starring role for flavour or texture, or an important functional role. Keep these in and focus your efforts elsewhere.

Pro tip: Sometimes it’s easier to figure out what’s NOT essential than the reverse. Here are a few clues that the ingredient in question may be ripe for elimination:

  1. It’s listed as optional: This falls under the “duh” category but Imma point it out anyway. If the recipe developer throws you a bone and lists an ingredient as optional, feel free to take them up on it, mmm k?
  2. It’s in a small amount: Take a look at any ingredients in really small quantities (relative to other ingredients in the recipe). Is it a strong flavour or performing a function that you can’t live without (e.g. thickening, brightening, binding, etc.)? If the answer is no, then you may be able to eliminate it without (much) consequence.
  3. It’s a topping: Whether on a salad, burger, bowl or stir fry, all toppings are optional. It’s a rule of lyfe.
  4. It’s a double: 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.

Now, the elimination approach doesn’t work all the time—the recipe developer included each ingredient for a reason (and tested it as written) so it’s possible that you will eliminate something that is, in fact, essential. Been there, done that. 🙋 The good news? If you choose to make the recipe again, you still have two more strategies to consider.


Strategy #2: Buy in bulk

Say you’re figured out that 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 if want it to take precious real estate in your pantry. The solution?

If you can, buy in bulk (most big cities have bulk food stores or grocery stores with a dedicated section).

Then, try it out and see what happens. Did you like the recipe? Does the ingredient fit within your diet and preferences? 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 how much you need. Bonus? It’s pre-measured for when it comes to cooking time and you. save. time.


Strategy #3: Invest where it counts

As I mentioned above, I follow a pretty linear approach when I encounter new ingredients. I typically start with my favourite strategy (ingredient substitutions) and work my way down the list.

So if I can’t swap it, eliminate it, or buy it in bulk, it’s safe to assume that there are only two choices left: 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 the recipe on ice. Especially if you’re like me and have a condo-sized kitchen with a pantry to match and/or hate wasting food.

If you’re still keen on the recipe, then it’s time to bite the bullet. If it’s a 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. Of course, my minimalist cook mindset means that this is a strategy I rarely employ. In my experience, the other strategies (including my beloved ingredient substitutions) come through in 89.3% of all cases.


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!

*Before we get too far, it’s worth pointing out I’m NOT suggesting you tweak baking recipes nilly willy. There’s a reason I don’t bake a lot and it’s cuz, well, science. Cooking is forgiving, baking…not so much.

Easy salmon and broccoli bowl Ground turkey chili with butternut squash

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