How to make a recipe work for you

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So you’ve found a recipe you love but you’re not sure you can make it.
It might be that it seems too hard, or it could be that you don’t have all the ingredients to make it. Then again it might be that the recipe calls for a heap of exotic ingredients that are expensive and you know you’ll never use again.

Or maybe you just don’t like all the flavours (like me – I can’t stand dill, and coriander tastes like soap to me).

In these instances, what do you do? Do you just skip the recipe and move on to another one? Or could you perhaps tweak a few things so you can actually make it suit your tastes?

Sometimes it means you change an ingredient or two, other times it means changing a technique. Whatever you do, keep one thing in mind: its harder to change a recipe for baked goods than changing other recipes. Essentially baking is an edible science experiment so if you don’t understand how the chemical reactions work its harder to get the recipe right. Therefore, my advice to you is to leave the baking tweaks until you know more about it. Work with lunch and dinner recipes first.

Ways to change a recipe


1. Change like for like

For example, swapping chicken for fish is okay as they are lighter meats, whereas swapping beef for fish might not work (depending on the recipe) because of the cooking times or flavours used. Also, changing one vegetable for another isn’t a problem.

2. Adjust the time

Harder vegetables, tougher pieces of meat or bigger pieces of food will take longer to cook so adjusting the cooking time will be necessary. Always take this into consideration when adjusting a recipe. 

3. Adjust the liquid

If you’re swapping the type of carbohydrate, for instance white rice for couscous or brown rice for white, you’ll have to adjust the liquid content. Couscous uses a lot less water than rice, and white rice uses less than brown rice. Check the packet for instructions or follow these guidelines or these.

4. Learn about substitutes

For your flavouring ingredients you can change ingredients based on their substitutes. For example use Greek yoghurt instead of cream for a lighter option, or if you don’t have that half cup of wine replace it with a half cup mix of vinegar and juice (apple juice for white wine and grape juice for red). There’s plenty of other substitutes you can learn about too – here’s a list of 83 to get you started and don’t forget to read my advice too.

5. Go with corresponding flavours

Go like for like on flavours too. So if you’re out of sweet chilli sauce you could use a mix of dried chilli flakes and brown sugar to give you the corresponding sweet and chilli flavour you need. Mix the two with a little cornflour and water to create a sauce base for a stir-fry.

6. Use a different cut of meat

Sometimes the recipe calls for a whole chicken when you’ve got chicken breasts instead. Or the recipe uses a porterhouse steak when you’ve got minute steak. Usually you can swap the cut of meat, adjusting the cooking time, and you’ll still have a great meal. This works especially well when the meat is cooked with spice rubs and marinades. A general guide however is that the tougher the meat the more liquid it will need to keep it moist during cooking and the longer it needs to cook, so you might need to play around with that.

7. Change the cooking technique

It’s best to change the cooking technique to one you know, but you need to understand the type of food you’re cooking. For instance, a tougher cut of meat needs longer to cook so switching from oven cooking to quick frying means the meat will stay tough (or chewy and gross). Switching to pan frying is okay as long as you are going to simmer that tough cut for a while so it breaks down and becomes soft. Vegetables can be cooked any way you like so its much easier to switch cooking techniques.


Example recipes tweaked to suit my taste


Pumpkin burgers on mountain bread

I didn’t have hamburger buns one night but I still wanted my pumpkin burgers so I toasted some squares of mountain bread instead and piled the vegetables high. This would be a great canapé idea if the veggie patties were smaller.

Pumpkin ‘burgers’ using mountain bread instead of hamburger buns


Paella using capsicum and dried chilli flakes rather than pimento peppers.

I don’t usually buy fresh chillies because I never use them before they go bad, so I keep dried chilli flakes instead. I use some fresh capsicum with the dried chilli in recipes where it calls for making a paste such as when making the sofrito at the start of a paella. This paella (below) was the best one I’ve ever made and I switched in the capsicum.

I use capsicum and dried chilli flakes instead of fresh chilli’s in my paella recipe and it works each time.


Greek yoghurt and desiccated coconut instead of coconut cream.

I don’t eat a lot of foods that use coconut cream so its not an ingredient I’ll usually have in the pantry. When I do need it I use a mix of desiccated coconut and Greek yoghurt because I always have them on hand. I only do this for a casserole or soup where its easier to hide the feel of the coconut.

This Kenyan Chicken recipe calls for coconut cream, so I used Greek yoghurt and a sprinkle of desiccated coconut instead.

Feta in my vegetable slice

I have a recipe from an old Weight Watchers cookbook for vegetable slice that I really love, but the recipe has bacon in it and I’ve never liked bacon. I know that bacon provides a salty flavour so I replace it with feta which is also salty.

General advice on changing a recipe

If you do want to change a recipe, my advice would be to start with changing the vegetables and the flavours. When you know a bit more about the cuts of meat experiment with those changes next. Lastly experiment with baking. Otherwise knock yourself out creating up a storm of culinary delights at home!

Question: In what ways do you change and tweak the recipes you cook?

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