The 10 Rules for Meal Preparation Success countdown continue. We’re up to Rule # 5 – Ingredients & Equipment Matter. Don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about making choices, not trying to stifle creativity or suggest that you can’t make do with minimal cooking equipment.
Making a conscious decision to change a recipe’s ingredients is the time-honored way to create a great new dish. And I’m in no position to argue against last minute substitutions, done out of laziness or necessity. When I plan to make a recipe and find that I’ve got most, but not all the ingredients, I often substitute others instead of heading out to the store.
Kitchen equipment substitutions are no sin either. Sometimes a recipe calls for using one type of pan to achieve a particular result, and yet you could substitute a different type of equipment with the same recipe and get a marvelous result. For example, my son Liam made muffins out of my banana bread recipe. On the necessity point – I have at least a few more pans and kitchen gadgets than I typically need. But if a recipe calls for a specific pan or a gadget I don’t have, I still have to improvise. Sometimes sheer laziness motivates me; I’ve been known to use a can instead of a rolling pin to make a graham cracker crust when I don’t want to search for the “real” equipment buried in a cabinet.
Take butter for example. It’s difficult to imagine baking without butter – or a substitute. And you need fat (though not necessarily butter or all-butter) to fry or sauté vegetables or meat. But knowing that you need butter doesn’t tell you the whole story. What type (or substitute) and what quality do you want or need?
Butter comes in both salted and unsalted or sweet cream varieties. And you can buy it in a bar or whipped in a container. If you want to lower the fat or cholesterol, there are substitutes (broadly grouped as margarine), including types that are made with oils containing no dairy.
Try a taste test for butter in both salted and unsalted or sweet varieties: “conventional” or American-style butter, European-style butter such as Plugra (which has more butterfat than “conventional” American-style butter) and butter made from the milk of grass fed cows, such as Kerry Gold. While you’re at it, try a few of the substitutes. Put a little of each on a piece of plain bread or cracker and taste them. If you’re really ambitious, try baking batches of cookies using several different types. I can’t predict which you’ll like best or which you’ll end up using for taste or dietary reasons in a given recipe, but I’ll bet that you will notice a difference.
If you are baking, generally you should use unsalted or sweet cream butter or a substitute that does not have much salt.
On the other hand, when serving butter at the table or using it in a sauce, salted butter may be more appropriate. Whipped butter has more air in it than bar butter, so if you use it in a recipe and measure it by volume when the recipe expected you to use bar butter, you’ll be using less than the recipe intended.
If a recipe calls for you to sauté meat, fish or vegetables in butter or oil (or a combination), the type of pan matters. A non-stick pan allows you to use less fat, but also prevents the food from browning with a crust. For that reason, I prefer to sauté in a pan without non-stick coating.
Food processors and graters all cut up ingredients. But each piece of equipment works differently and cuts ingredients up in a particular size and shape. Which one is right depends on the job you want it to do. For example, I’ve got a fancy food processor with several blades, but found that my hand graters work best for cutting up hard cheese to put on top of pasta.
When preparing carrots for carrot cake or potatoes for latkes I do use the processor, checking to make sure I’m using the right blade. (If I don’t check, I typically end up with a plate of mush or huge clumps instead of properly grated vegetables.) Even if I used a hand grater for the carrots or potatoes, I’d still have to check for the right size and shape cutting edge.
Learning what ingredients to use and which cooking equipment will do the trick is often a matter or trial-and-error. Although there are a few absolutes, I find fewer and fewer of them as I get more experienced and the online sources expand. For every time I have learned a hard-and-fast rule, I have learned 10 or 20 more ways to break a rule and end up with a perfectly wonderful dish. The bottom line remains that understanding how choices will affect the result is the best way to pick the right ingredients and kitchen equipment to make a successful meal.