Do Missing Ingredients Make You Panic? 4 Tips for Facing Your Fear

published Apr 16, 2015
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(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

For those of us who did not grow watching Grandma make pasta from scratch, the kitchen can be a scary place. From the store to the sauté pan, there’s a lot to learn and often a lot at stake for the beginner cook — like, an edible dinner. These fears often keep people from trying something new or cooking at all. Which is why, one by one, in this new column we will tackle these roadblocks. With the help of some tips, solutions, and maybe a few breathing exercises, we will push past the anxieties to help you feel more confident.

So let’s start with the first: a subtle but recurrent fear I hear about from many people: What if I start a recipe but don’t have all the right ingredients?

The Fear to Overcome: Missing Ingredients

According to my mom, a recipe should be followed exactly. You either have the ingredients to make it or you don’t (meaning, you don’t make it). It’s black and white. And the wrong ingredients mean guaranteed failure. Which is why, when trying a new dish, if she forgot an ingredient (or burnt it), she never went rogue. She trekked back to the store to start anew. A fact that only increased her anxiety in the kitchen, and the reason why, for many years, she rarely cooked out of cookbooks or her comfort zone; the zone being a combination of steamed vegetables and oven-roasted meat.

This is the power of missing ingredients.

Like my mom, many people fear that without all the correct ingredients on hand, a recipe simply won’t taste good. Fair point. And for a beginner cook, it’s an added point of panic in an already stressful new world. It’s a fear that clogs creativity, or worse yet, keeps people from expanding their culinary repertoire. (Which is the gateway to food ruts and ordering a lot of takeout.)

But here’s the thing: While recipes are indeed made (and tested) in order to be followed, they are also meant to be stretched and tinkered with and adapted. I like to think of recipes less like a finished picture and more like an outline in which I, the cook, gets to choose the colors. And while I stick as close to a recipe as I can, if I don’t have all the ingredients, I don’t run for the hills. Or the store. I simply find a way to replace and improvise. And I have found that most of the time, unless I burn something or throw in an old shoe, I end up with a dish that still tastes pretty good.

So let’s take a moment to breathe and release the fear.

The Mission: Overcome the Fear

Do not let missing ingredients scare you from cooking something new, cooking on-the-fly, or cooking at all. Use the following tips to increase your likelihood of buying all the right items or at least having the right substitutes on hand. And keep missing ingredient emergencies (and takeout) to a minimum.

Fear-Fighting Strategy #1: Take Stock

To give yourself ultimate recipe flexibility, make sure your pantry, fridge, and freezer are well stocked according to your diet and food preferences. With the right staples on hand, you can find a tasty solution to almost any “ingredient gap” (which we’ll get to in a moment). Use these 15 nifty lists to help fill up your kitchen with the right emergency essentials.

(Image credit: Jessica Goldman Foung)

Fear-Fighting Strategy #2: Take Your Time

When shopping for specific recipes, go in with a clear head and a game plan. That means making a list, old school or electronic. I personally find it best to use a pen and paper, and check off items as I go. But for those who will forget the paper list at home, a list on the phone may be preferred.

As an added tip: My friend Rebecca says to make your list in the actual order of your store’s aisles (i.e., produce first, then dairy, then meat counter). That way you don’t have to zig and zag to grab everything, making it less likely to forget an ingredient or two. And of course, it’s always best to keep distractions to a minimum for ultimate laser focus (i.e., no conference calls while shopping).

Fear-Fighting Strategy #3: Learn to Swap

Inevitably you’ll find yourself in a situation where you forget to buy the onion. Or find a great online recipe for harissa chicken only to realize you don’t have harissa on hand. In those cases, most ingredients can be left out or swapped out with equal success. Even baking, the most finicky of cooking endeavors, has verifiable substitutes, too.

To fill an ingredient gap, start by asking yourself what the ingredient does in the dish. Is it a sauce or a textural element? Does it lend a certain taste (salty, sweet, bitter), bulky meatiness, or color? When you’ve pinpointed an ingredient’s purpose, then try to find its food twin (something lurking in your cupboard or fridge that will taste, look, or feel similar).

Of course, if you get stumped, Google and this list are both here to help. And remember that even non-edible items — like roasting racks, thermometers, muffin liners, and baguette pans — often have easy homemade solutions. Thanks to many creative cooks and DIY-ers, the Internet is filled with an incredible amount of ingredient swap advice.

Fear-Fighting Strategy #4: Change the Game Plan

In the rare scenario you cannot find an appropriate substitute or solution, do not turn to takeout quite yet. Simply flip through that favorite cookbook, magazine, or trusty website for a new recipe — one that uses ingredients you do have on hand — and give it a try. You may surprise yourself.