How to choose the best ingredients for your recipe.

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The best recipes always begin with the freshest and highest quality ingredients. But, if you’re like me, sometimes you don’t have everything on hand that you need for a recipe. Or you don’t have time to run out and buy something special. Or your local grocery store is out of one of the ingredients you need.

How do you make do with what you have? How can you take a good recipe and turn it into something great?

The first line of defense is to substitute ingredients that are similar, but better. For example, a recipe may call for fennel but anise will give a similar flavor. If a recipe includes dried herbs, try using fresh herbs instead. If the recipe calls for whole milk, try using low-fat milk—or even milk with half-and-half or cream added in.

The next line of defense is to adjust the recipe to account for changes in quantities or flavors. For example, if you substitute honey for sugar in a cookie recipe, use less than the original amount so the cookie doesn’t get too sweet. If you substitute fish stock for chicken stock, use less salt and add more pepper to compensate for the difference in saltiness between fish and chicken stocks.

The third line of defense is

The recipe calls for “7 spice” but the label says “6 spice.” Does that mean it’s okay to substitute?

No, it does not. The recipe is your blueprint. Your ingredients are the raw materials you need to make your house. If you buy inferior materials, you will end up with a house that falls apart.

Taste is subjective. What I consider a good ingredient might not be what you do and vice versa. But if one brand of an ingredient is widely and consistently preferred by cooks who know what they’re doing, then I will call that ingredient good in spite of any personal taste I might have against it. You can always substitute a different brand or kind of an ingredient, but don’t substitute anything for an essential ingredient.

If you want to get really serious about cooking, then after some experience begin keeping a notebook where you record all the things you cook and how they turn out. That way when someone gives you a new recipe you can check it against what other people have done to see if there are any special tricks involved with that recipe that might be hidden in the instructions or the other ingredients list.

When you are cooking a meal, the quality of your ingredients is one of the most important factors in determining whether the result will be delicious.

Freshness is important because there is only so much you can do to make old ingredients taste good. You can’t make an old tomato taste like a fresh one. (It may not be possible to make a fresh tomato taste bad, but that’s a different issue.) If you’re using ingredients that are past their prime, you should probably just throw them out and get fresh ones.

In general, the fresher the better.

The most important thing to remember when choosing a spice is that it will be part of a dish with other spices. When you combine spices, you are doing something like mixing paints. You can’t just choose red paint and expect to get vermilion. It is the same with spices: you need to look at them in terms of how they will mix with the other ingredients.

The best way to do this is not to think about taste but instead to think about smell. If I had to give one piece of advice on choosing spices, it would be this: Always imagine what the cooked dish will smell like. If you are buying a spice for its taste, it isn’t true that one kind tastes just like another. But if you are buying it for its smell, then usually there is no difference between brands.

There are some exceptions to this rule, though. Black pepper comes from a very smelly vine (the peppercorn). The aroma of black pepper is so strong that even after the pepper has been picked and dried, it keeps releasing scent into the air around it. Grind the pepper fresh and use it while it is still hot from grinding; otherwise much of the aroma will be lost.

Spices are more potent when cooked than when tasted raw

Spices are a huge part of the world’s cuisine, and a big part of its commerce. But they are mainly used in small quantities, so their cost is high per serving. Which spices are worth buying, and which should you avoid?

Spices fall into two categories: those whose flavor is mostly just scent (e.g., vanilla and cinnamon), and those that lend flavor as well (e.g., ginger and garlic). Scents tend to be more expensive than flavors, but that doesn’t mean much because the amounts used are small.

Spices are sometimes sold ground; some spices, such as nutmeg, have a strong flavor but don’t keep well. Whole nutmegs can be kept for years if stored in a dry place; after grinding them, the flavor quickly deteriorates. It’s not worth grinding spices if you’re just going to use them soon; buy whole ones instead. Ginger keeps better than most other spices; keep it in a freezer if you have room.

Taste a lot of different brands of spices before deciding on the one you want to settle on. If you can afford it, buy whole ones and grind them yourself — the flavor will be fresher than in pre-ground spices.

There is a recipe for making the perfect steak. It’s a bit long, but you can find it on the internet. What does it say? “Season each steak with salt and pepper.” What else? “Heat a grill or skillet to very hot.” That’s it.

What makes this funny is that we have no idea how closely the recipe follows the advice of professional chefs. Maybe they never season their steaks, or they always use salt and pepper together (one of which will ruin the taste of any meat). Or maybe they don’t heat their grills enough, or they place the meat in the center of a cold pan, or some other mistake that would spoil the flavor.

Why do we assume that people whose business it is to make great-tasting food know what they’re doing when we assume no one else does? Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, your failure rate is likely to be small enough so that an occasional success will look like skill. And even if you are skilled, there’s always some chance you’ll mess up any given opportunity.

“You can’t make a good curry without fresh curry leaves” is an Indian proverb.

That’s because spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg are highly aromatic, and the flavor they give to food comes mostly from their aroma. Aromatic plants use volatile oils to repel insects and other predators. Some of these oils end up in the plant’s dry seeds, contributing to their aroma when you grind them.

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