Photo by Ted and Chelsea

How to Make a Recipe Work If You Don't Have All the Ingredients

No chickpeas? Use beans. No capers? Olives will do the trick. Here's how to use what you've got without having to hit the store.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
April 3, 2020, 11:00am

With everyone spending more time at home these days, we’re all finding ourselves in the kitchen a lot more, whether we want to be or not. And man, is it a scary world to navigate if you’ve never really had to cook before. That's how you end up with things like "Babybel and Quorn ham 'salad.'"

First of all, relax: You can feed yourself. That's what recipes (of which we have many) are for—they're instructions! We test our recipes to make sure they don’t fail you, and if you have the ingredients, the equipment, and the good sense to read the recipe a few times before getting started, you should be good to go.

THAT BEING SAID… Sometimes, you have a recipe in mind, only to realize you don't have all of the ingredients that it calls for. While it might not make sense to risk going to the store for just one random ingredient if you don’t have to, all is not lost: In many cases, you can still make some variation that'll make you proud of your cooking skills.

The key is to think of the recipe as a framework of suggestions, instead of a strict list of ingredients that you absolutely have to follow—you know, "rules are meant to be broken" and all.

As we find our fridges and pantries getting sadder by the day, here's how we adapt recipes to end up with meals that are satisfying, even if they're not exactly as the recipe suggested.

Have a well-stocked pantry.

The first step is having stuff in your pantry. Obviously, it would be extremely easy to adapt a recipe if your pantry looks like a Whole Foods, but a well-stocked pantry doesn't have to mean hoarding products. Your pantry can be pared down, as long as you have the right kinds of things.

The way we approach a well-stocked pantry is by thinking of items in categories and figuring out how they might be interchangeable. Here are the shelf-stable pantry staples we always have around, and you'll notice that's how we've structured it. Instead of calling for olives and capers, for example, think of them in the umbrella of "briny things" and try to always have one or the other since a pasta recipe that calls for olives will probably also work with capers. Stock your pantry with a couple of options for each category, whether that category is "dried pastas," "legumey stuff," or "grainy boys."

If we have those goodies on the shelf, then we can buy fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, dairy, and whatever else calls to us at the grocery store, and we know that we can at least turn it all into something to keep us going.

Think about what each ingredient in a recipe adds to the dish.

Thinking of ingredients in categories is helpful because it lets you figure out shared qualities and make swaps from there. Let's break down this pantry pasta, for example. We called for: panko bread crumbs, olive oil, salt and pepper, a red onion, chili flakes, garlic cloves, capers, anchovies, linguine, parsley, and lemon. Don't have those things? Great! You can still make it work.

The absolute essentials in this recipe are some type of pasta, oil, and salt and pepper. Everything else is open to interpretation because it's a pantry pasta, after all, and everyone's pantry's a little different. (Even "pasta" is a flexible word, and if you used ramen noodles sans flavor packet, not even God would judge you.)

Here's how to make this recipe work for you, instead of the reverse. Garlic and onion add lots of flavor, but without them, you've still got a meal—ever heard of cacio e pepe? Chili flakes add heat, and lemon adds acidity, so without them, the flavor will be simpler. Capers and anchovies make it salty and savory, but you can replace them with other salty, savory things, like pieces of bacon, or olives. Parsley adds freshness, but so will most other herbs, and let's be real, they're also there because it looks nice. Panko breadcrumbs make the texture more interesting, but so would regular breadcrumbs or even nuts.

Think about why each ingredient is in the dish, and you can figure out what can be replaced and what can even be cut out entirely. For example: This is a tuna melt casserole. Even if you don't have mushrooms, as the recipe lists, you'll still get the general idea, and toppings like a salty everything bagel seasoning are basically always a suggestion, anyway. Live a little and crumble potato chips on top, if that's what you've got!

Some ingredients can be approximated.

Veggie and chicken stock, for example, are really just salty, flavorful water, so if all else fails, replacing them with salted water is totally fine, too. (No salt? Well, you should probably go to the store soon, but adding a few dashes of soy sauce—which we're assuming you've got from take-out orders—to water in desperation would also work.) Grains like quinoa, barley, or farro can all be swapped in for one another, since who can really tell the difference? Most beans are basically interchangeable—though since black beans are black, they'll change the color of your dish more than a great northern bean will. But chickpeas and cannellini beans will function and look pretty similar.

For those of us who want to bake sometimes but don't quite have all the goods a real baker would, many baking ingredients can be faked. Here are a few of our easiest hacks:

  • Buttermilk: It's easy to forget to buy buttermilk, but you've probably got some type of milk. Use the same amount of milk that the recipe calls for and add in either white vinegar or lemon juice. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, add a tablespoon of vinegar to 1 cup of milk.
  • Baking Powder: The "thinking we've got baking powder when it's actually baking soda" fake-out has happened to us all. To approximate 1 teaspoon of baking powder, sub in ½ teaspoon cream of tartar and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda.
  • Bread Flour vs AP Flour vs Cake Flour: There are other sites that explain this better, so go ahead and Google them, OK? Here's one guide from the trusted folks at King Arthur Flour.

Adjust your expectations.

Swap the vegetables and leafy greens and beans you have around out for one another depending on what's good at the store, as long as those vegetables are similar in texture and sturdiness. Most leafy greens are pretty interchangeable, and broccoli and cauliflower are similar enough—but if you replace the broccoli in our Caesar broccoli recipe with kale, it'll feel like a really different dish. (It'll still taste good, though, because the Caesar dressing is a banger.)

Just remember that flavor differences between vegetables will make your modified dish a little different than intended, and adjust your expectations accordingly. While a lot of root vegetables can be replaced for one another, some have a stronger flavor than others. A friend of MUNCHIES recently made Farideh's pork pot pie, but swapped in sweet potatoes instead of using the recommended Russets. It came out okay, but as was expected, it was a lot sweeter than normal potatoes would have been—not bad, just sweeter! Turnips and fennel aren't most people's go-to veggies, but if you end up with them, be warned that they're stronger in flavor than you'd think.

Be creative.

Deciding to follow a recipe is kind of a brainless endeavor. Someone else, like a recipe tester, did the hard part of figuring it all out, so you can just follow the instructions. But when you adapt a recipe—whether it's out of necessity, or because you want to put your own spin on things—you've gotta do the thinking.

You might want to say "ugh!" at this and just order delivery. But instead of thinking of it as something that makes cooking harder, think of it as a chance to impress yourself (and whomever you might be cooking for *wink*) with your creativity and innovation. Yes, you can be like the star of Top Chef or Chopped or your favorite cooking show that involves people making a dish out of surprise ingredients. The pantry pasta you end up with might not be the same as if you'd followed the recipe exactly, but it's your own personal cooking show.

Accept that some things just can't be swapped.

Don't fool yourself: There's a limit to adapting a recipe, of course. A recipe for linguine with clams, obviously, won't be the same if you don't use clams. And if you don't like the taste of anchovies, like many people in the New York Times comment section, then Alison Roman's anchovy-centric shallot pasta probably isn't the best recipe to adapt, no matter how many of your friends are making it.

If you don't have chicken, then replacing it with fish or tofu in a recipe definitely isn't going to be the same dish at all, though what you end up with might not be half bad. Replacing chicken with tofu in tikka masala, for example, might shock some purists, but we'd be lying if we said we wouldn't eat it.

You might fail, but just cook more.

The harsh reality is that everyone who cooks has made at least a handful of meals that were better in theory. Even if you're strictly following a recipe, we all have off days and harebrained ideas, and sometimes even the best cooks are bad at things.

The risk of messing up goes up when you're modifying a recipe, but as long as you're following food safety guidelines and safe cooking practices, a less-than-perfect meal is not going to kill you—you just learn what not to do next time.

If you accept imperfect dishes as part of the process—and even as rationale for drinking a glass of wine to soothe your nerves while you cook—cooking becomes something to practice, and you'll get better the more you do it. You've got this.

Get recipes like this and more in the Munchies Recipes newsletter. Sign up here.