Cooking at home is a big task. And to be honest, before I met Zach, I never, ever did it. I was always fast food or bust. But I think we’re all in agreement that eating out is really not that great for you. Sure there are exceptions (Zoe’s Kitchen, ily), but when I go to Texas Roadhouse with the purest intentions of ordering a salad, I can’t resist that freshly baked bread and cinnamon butter, and when that basket hits my table, all bets are off.
But the alternative of cooking at home is really not very appealing to me. First of all, lol cooking. Second of all, it can easily be just as expensive as going out to eat. And at that point, if it’s expensive and more difficult, I’m not doing it. Even if it is healthier.
So I’m all about simplifying and working with what you have. TBH though, I learned how to cook from Zach’s mom and Bon Appetit. But when I first started cooking, I was cooking v impressive meals that were v expensive (“2 saffron threads are $20 and I need 4 of them?!”). But as I watched Zach’s mom, I watched her adapt recipes to make the process of cooking way simpler and much more approachable.
The more I cooked and followed recipes, the more I realized all ingredients fall into categories. I’m not talking categories like proteins, carbs, and vegetables — I’m talking categories of flavors and textures. And the more I got used to the layouts of recipes, the more I became okay with substituting ingredients. And as that happened, I realized I could make recipes healthier.
And if I really didn’t feel like cooking and dealing with the complexity of a recipe (which is pretty much me all the time now), I could go rogue and cook without a recipe.
Now, for those of you who grew up with a chef like my mother-in-law, that last sentence is probably funny for you.
“Of course you can cook at home without a recipe LOL” *hair flip in slow motion* *laughs and rolls eyes while looking at friends (also laughing) crowded around you in a circle as you casually stroll away with your hair blowing in the wind and leave me by myself with a cracked egg I dropped on the floor*
BUT *LOL* NO I COULDN’T DON’T BE RUDE, REGINA GEORGE. My pantry is bare and cooking with what I had on hand was pretty much impossible.
So for all the people who don’t do things like Painting with a Twist and decorate cupcakes for fun, this is for you. Here is how you can cook things that aren’t pretentious, just healthy and good, with what you have in your pantry. And when you follow recipes that call for things you def don’t have (lol @ the fact all my food magazines seem to think I have whole green cardamom pods on hand), here are the things you can substitute that won’t mess up what you’re cooking.
So if you stumble across a recipe online that has one of the ingredients on the list below, try to swap it for something in the same category. If you don’t have a recipe, I’ve outlined some base recipes that you can experiment with at the bottom of this post!
Before we even start though, here is one key principle for slacking off when it comes to recipes and still achieving a good result:
Ingredients with adjectives are a turnoff.
When I’m cooking preserved lemon is just as good as lemon, Aleppo-style pepper turns into any type of pepper, smoked paprika is paprika, bow-tie pasta = spaghetti. Yes, you might lose one element of flavor or texture, but you can add it in with something else (like salt for preserved lemon). Or you can just ignore it. Unlike the Cup Song, you’re not gonna miss it when it’s gone and it’s definitely not a reason to ignore a recipe.
And in the spirit of channeling every top reviewer on AllRecipes (“I made it exactly as the recipe stated except I replaced 100% of the ingredients. Def will make again!”), here are the things I substitute most frequently.
the easiest swaps ever. If you’re going from fresh to dried, use a little less and add a tiny bit of an acid (see below) to make it feel even fresher.
- Bay leaves
Indian Spices –
mixing & matching is great here. I have a bunch of these and while it may not necessarily be authentic, the flavors are $$$$. Plus, it turns out a lot of Indian and Moroccan spice blends are actually just combinations of other spices. Mix whatever, but keep the amounts the same. And Google to search for substitutes if you aren’t feeling too adventurous.
- Tandoori spice
- Garam Masala
- Cardamom pods
Crunchy stuff –
some discretion required. I wouldn’t ever try to crust a chicken in water chestnuts for example, but if you’re just looking for some bite on a salad or in a lettuce wrap, it would work.
- Fried Onions
- Water Chestnuts
- Panko breadcrumbs
- Rice cakes
basically the enemy. This swap is always one-way.
- Dried apricots
- Maple syrup
- Balsamic vinegar
Butters & Oils –
this is actually pretty complex; I could honestly do a whole post on this, but for now I’ll just put these in order of highest to lowest smoke point (AKA the temp when an oil starts smoking and releasing carcinogens). Lighter-colored oils are generally more refined and thus, have a higher smoke point but might be less nutritionally dense than others. Because most unrefined oils are complete shit for you (unless they’re naturally refined), I’m just leaving those out.
- Clarified butter (ghee)
- Virgin Olive Oil
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Avocado oil
- Vegetable oil*
*this is refined but I’m adding it to the list because it’s in so many recipes. Don’t even bother using this; anything is better for you — even refined canola oil!
- Coconut oil
- Sesame oil
- Hempseed oil
- Peanut/Soybean/Walnut oils
- Canola oil
Carbs & grains –
probably the second easiest things to swap besides herbs. Check cooking times because they may vary, but most grains (except for quick-cooking) have a 2:1 water:grain ratio.
*not very good for you; it’s actually just a pasta, so swap this out for sure
- Brown rice
Sour cream & mayonnaise –
just use greek yogurt.
Earthy vegetables –
most of these are root vegetables or grow in the same season, so that’s one way to identify good vegetables to swap!
- Butternut squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown/red potatoes
this is actually a fun one because the different textures of the vegetables in this list doesn’t really throw things off as much as you might think, especially in pastas or side dishes.
- Collard greens
- Green beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Rainbow or Swiss chard
Pops of Color –
think salad bar toppings. These are usually vegetables added to pastas or other dishes to add variety and nutritional value.
- Cherry tomatoes
- Red/yellow/orange bell peppers
An onion’s an onion –
any color really because all of the things listed below are expensive, hard to come by, or never in my fridge.
- Green onions
not the drug. This list has both foods that can make a dish interesting and some liquids that sauces call for because who knows what life will throw at you.
- Lemon juice or zest
- Lime juice or zest
*honestly, just use canned because steaming these things is so not worth it
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Red Wine vinegar
- White Wine vinegar
- Balsamic Vinegar*
*this is generally sweeter, but if you want to minimize the sweetness, avoid cooking it down AKA heating it too long that it becomes a syrup.
deserving of its own category. You’d be surprised how much a little bit of bacon can bring to a dish, but if you’re just not into saturated fat or if you’re vegetarian/vegan you’d be surprised how many things can go in its place.
- Deli meat
- Salted, shelled, roasted sunflower seeds
- Corn nuts*
*no, not a joke. Throw it in your potato soup, then who’s laughing?
Now, put this new knowledge to work and try out some of these recipes. I’ve included what I do with them based on everything listed above; don’t be afraid to play — you won’t mess them up!
- Use regular onions, any whole grain, and sub out the bacon. Add more chicken broth instead of white wine if you aren’t into getting a little drunk while cooking (I cannot relate)
- Swap out the bulgur for another grain, add cucumber or another vegetable for a pop of color and change out the root vegetable. For that bite of sweetness, swap the raisins for another dried fruit (see the “Sugar” section below)
- This is a tried and true for me. I sub out the milk, keep the mascarpone, use any kind of nut I have, use dried pasta, and add lots of vegetable for Pops of Color. This is one where ignoring adjectives is key. Basically the only thing I keep here is the sauce.
- So simple — just sub out the herbs and the grain!
- I use any kind of onion, chicken broth if I drank all the wine, any type of herb, any type of pepper instead of the chili flakes, oil instead of butter, and this is one of my very favorite dishes.
- I still don’t know what Vadouvan is, so I just mix a bunch of Indian spices together in the same amount and this. is. so. good.
If you have any suggestions, thoughts or things you’ve tried when cooking at home, leave me a comment to let me know!