Cooking can be a fun and rewarding hobby for anyone who can faithfully follow a recipe. However, following recipes without variation can get a little tedious. It’s tempting to put your own spin on dishes and surprise your guests a little with your own unique and delicious take on a recipe. Unfortunately, it can be hard to know where to start. Most variations on a recipe will inevitably make it worse.
Fortunately, there are some ingredients that are just so much better than other classic ingredients that they can improve essentially any recipe automatically. In the interest of helping you on your culinary adventure, here are five substitutions that can provide a starting point for your own unique take on hundreds of classic recipes.
5. Vegetable Oil -> Lard
Many modern recipes, in an ill-advised attempt to be healthy, now suggest that vegetable oil or low-fat butter be used in baking various flaky pastries and crusts. This couldn’t be more wrong. Good old-fashioned lard, despite what you’d imagine, is perfect for any flaky pastry dish or pie crust. Unlike butter, lard dough is hard to overwork, and lard doesn’t need to be cold. On top of that, lard produces a much flakier result. The slightly savory flavor left by lard is also superior to that of vegetable oil. Use lard. Your dinner guests will thank you.
4. Cheddar -> Sharp Cheddar
In a world in which sharp cheddar exists, it’s ridiculous that conventional bland, American cheddar is still the standard in many dishes. By replacing it with its fiester, more aggressive older brother, you can easily put a kick of flavor into tired dishes like macaroni and cheese and the classic cheeseburger. Tillamuk or Cracker-Barrel brand ‘extra sharp’ cheddar cheese are both excellent options for adding a bit of personality to cheesy dishes.
3. Milk Chocolate – Dark Chocolate
In a similar vein to cheddar, dark chocolate is an improvement on milk chocolate on many fronts. It has more flavor, a more interested texture, and avoids the cloying sweetness of milk chocolate. Almost any chocolate-based desert can be improved just by swapping milk chocolate out with its richer counterpart. While we’re on the topic, here’s another tip: avoid cheap chocolate chips whenever possible. Buying bars of higher-grade dark chocolate and grating or crumbling them gives you more control over the size of the chocolate, and delivers an overall better flavor. Ghiradelli and Green & Black are both good choices for most recipes.
2. Mayonaise – Miracle Whip
This one may be a bit more controversial, but in many dishes it’s a huge improvement. Mayonaise is fine – unobjectionable – but hardly inspired. Replacing mayo with miracle whip makes a strong statement about the minimum level of flavor you’re prepared to tolerate in your food. Deviled eggs? Miracle whip adds a unique kick. Falaffal cucumber sauce? Richer and sweeter. Macaroni or egg salad? Not so different, but unique in noticable and important ways. Miracle whip adds a touch of sweet tanginess that conflicts with very few dishes and complements many, and is very hard to place. Street vendors often use it in their ‘secret sauce’ for precisely that reason.
1. Dry Spices -> Fresh Spices
While this may seem like a no-brainer, people still make this mistake every day. The difference between fresh spices and dry flakes is night and day. Fresh spices can make a meal, especially when working with cheap ingredients. It varies by spice (garlic survives drying pretty well, dried parsley is horrifying), but in almost every case, there’s an easy, improvement in the quality of your food to be had just by using fresh spices. Fresh spices are, of course, somewhat more trouble, but you can reduce the workload by buying large quantities, blending them, and freezing them in ice-cube trays. Then, when it’s time to cook, you simply pop out a cube of what you want, add to the dish, and you’re done. Because the spices are typically going to be cooked anyway, the loss of texture from freezing shouldn’t impact the final result significantly.
Judy Long is a professional is a professional blogger that shares advice on healthy cooking for your family. She writes for RecipeChart.com, where you can find a large selection of delicious recipes.