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Use this tips to make substitutions with your recipes


Along with the tragedies that came with living through the COVID pandemic came a lot of annoyances, like getting excited about a recipe only to realize you didn't have or couldn't get all the ingredients the recipe called for. Well, that's one thing you can stop fretting about because most of the time, there are ways to substitute what you're missing. From NPR's Life Kit, Dalia Mortada walks us through how to make cooking substitutions and still make the meal you crave.

DALIA MORTADA, BYLINE: Learning how to substitute ingredients while cooking can be overwhelming, especially if you're new to it. It's taken me years and plenty of less-than-ideal meals to get comfortable improvising in the kitchen. Here are three key takeaways to make it easier to figure out how to substitute while cooking. First, understand what goes into the flavor of a dish you want to cook.

KENJI LOPEZ-ALT: Think about what senses are being triggered, whether it's just the acidity or whether there's also sort of an aromatic component to it that you'd want to capture.

MORTADA: Kenji Lopez-Alt is a professional chef and food writer. He encourages you to really lean into your senses to understand the flavor of a dish, not just the way it tastes but how it smells, the way it hits your tongue, whether you can feel sensations like spiciness or creaminess in your mouth. That'll help you figure out what category of flavor the missing ingredient falls into.

LOPEZ-ALT: Like, the basic flavors like sweet, salty, acidic, spicy - things like that that we sense on our tongue combined with what we smell.

MORTADA: Ingredients that fall into the same categories can be swapped out more easily. Second, taste your food while you're cooking and ask yourself if you're getting the right balance of flavors. Cookbook author and food writer Deb Perelman says it's a simple, foolproof way to get your seasoning just right, and it'll help you find the right ingredients to swap out.

DEB PERELMAN: It really makes a huge difference. That's something chefs in restaurants do. And you could be cooking for 20 years and still have your seasoning off in a dish. The people who taste it all the time as they go, their seasoning is - they land it.

MORTADA: If something tastes a little off, you can adjust your seasoning like salt, spices, acids, sweets so that it tastes just right. When in doubt, if you're swapping out seasoning, make sure you start with less and add as you taste.

LOPEZ-ALT: With most flavors, it's very easy to add things but difficult to take them away. So as you're tasting, you know, you want your dishes to generally be a little bit underseasoned through the cooking process so that you can adjust the seasoning at the end.

MORTADA: Finally, Lopez-Alt says you should understand how your dish is cooked and what that brings to the way it tastes.

LOPEZ-ALT: If you really focus on technique and noticing, like, all right, I'm searing meat in this recipe. I'm also searing meat in this recipe. Like, what function does that searing do, and how is it similar in these two recipes? And how is it different?

MORTADA: Recipe calls for searing meat in a Dutch oven, and you don't have a Dutch oven? You can use a cast iron or a heavy steel pan instead. Cooking equipment is kind of like an ingredient of its own. Lopez-Alt says your technique is just as important to how a dish tastes as what you put into it.

LOPEZ-ALT: If you start really sort of thinking about it that way, then you realize that cooking is not just a series of recipes, but it's a series of techniques that you can adapt to your own taste.

MORTADA: With these guidelines in mind, you'll be able to swap out pretty much anything on the fly. Ultimately, it's your dish, and you get to decide the ingredients you want to swap out.

PERELMAN: The amount of miles and the amount of expense that goes into getting that one ingredient may not have changed the recipe fundamentally for the person who made it at home.

MORTADA: Cooking a dish, even when you don't have all the supplies in a recipe, is about trusting your taste buds, knowing what flavors you like and what goes into that flavor and being confident in the substitutions you make. Dalia Mortada, NPR News.

MARTIN: For more tips, check out Life Kit at npr.org/lifekit.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE CLEMONS SONG, "SHADOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.