How the Recipe Formulae Works

This story contains an affiliate link to a book on Amazon. But just the one 🙂 and it’s about the best advice Katie Couric ever got.

What’s the biggest difference between baking and cooking?

In my mind, it boils down to one difference:

Baking follows a rigid recipe: skip the baking powder and you’re in trouble!

Cooking follows a guideline: there is room for improvisation. That’s where the creativity comes from.

Improvisation chart of different ingredients that can be substitutedPin

Of course, in baking, you can substitute walnut pieces for sliced almonds. Or double the milk chocolate chips instead of white chocolate chunks. Or substitute butter with canola oil.

But if you disregard the wet to dry ratio, you end up with a failed product.

Cooking is much more forgiving.

And, that’s the key to cooking fast and delicious.

Recipes are just descriptions of one person’s take on one moment in time. They’re not rules. People think they are. They look as if they are. They say, “Do this, not this. Add this, not that.” But, really, recipes are just suggestions that got written down.

Mario Batali, from [eafl id=”1427″ name=”Katie Couric book The Best Advice I Ever Got” text=”Katie Couric’s book The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives “](affiliate link)

Following Mario Batali’s wise words, that’s why I don’t follow recipes.

Instead, I keep a library of recipe formulae. It is the second pillar of the 4-part meal planning system.

Meal Planning System 4 pillars: highlighting the Recipe FormulaePin

They are inspirational, easy, and fast. Assuming basic cooking skills, it’s about how to bring ingredients together to make something when you are not motivated to cook but still want a fresh and healthy meal.

It works like formulae (or formulas, in American English) in algebra: you build a model and substitute the main variables with the ingredients du jour.

Recipe Formulae: dish = protein + veggies + ?

You can call it a recipe template or recipe pattern. Honestly, this is not revolutionary. You probably already cook like this when you see a recipe and substitute bits and pieces based on your palate preferences and ingredients on hand. Let’s formalize the process to save your mental energy!

Examples of the Recipe Formulae in Action

Recipe Formulae Example veggie stir fry = tofu + cabbage + carrot + garlic + green onionPin

Here’s a list of the different recipe templates in my library. I use them to guide my meal planning and reverse shopping list.

[table id=2 /]

Recipe Formulae Example coconut curry soup = tofu + lettuce + curry paste + kaffir lime leafPin


How do you create your Recipe Formulae?

1. Decide on the building blocks

Ours are vegetable or mushroom, protein, and flavor. The flavor “variable” is the most important because it forces me to ask:

what will I add to this dish to make it taste good?

2. Always stock a handful of ingredients for substitutions.

I like

  • broccoli,
  • cabbage,
  • carrots, and
  • green beans.

Ingredients Vegetables illustration: carrot, broccoli, cabbage, and green beansPin

I know that no matter what the recipe template, I can find a way to bring in one of these vegetables. For proteins, my go-tos are

  • eggs,
  • tofu, and
  • ground pork.

Ingredients Protein illustration: tofu, eggs, ground porkPin

For flavor, it is

  • cilantro,
  • garlic, and
  • green onions.

Ingredients Flavors: garlic, green onion, cilantroPin

I always have these items in the fridge as backups. What are your go-to items?

3. Take a realistic look at the meals you actually cook.

I never make pasta casseroles. So, it’s absent from the list. On the other hand, soups and stir-fries are staples in the Rider household. So, we have not only one but several variations on stir-fries and soups 🙂

Take Action

What are 2 recipe templates you can add to your repertoire today? If you can’t think of any, you have permission to steal ours.

Leave a comment to share your favorite recipe formulae!

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

1 thought on “How the Recipe Formulae Works”

  1. Interesting ideas.

    I have some basic formulae for certain vegetable salads and pasta dishes, but haven’t formalized them. One that comes to mind right now is roasted cauliflower or broccoli salad. 1) vegetables tossed with oil, roasted at 400 F, 2) background flavors of lemon juice, vinegar, and/or yogurt, 3) sharp flavors of preserved lemon, black olives, 4) something crunchy like toasted almonds, 5) the appropriate herbs (thyme, mint, cilantro, etc.).

    It’s quite a different recipe formula concept, but you might enjoy looking at Michael Ruhlman’s “Ratio” book, which deals with the magic ratios behind all kinds of different foods. Like a basic pancake recipe is 1 egg, X parts milk, Y parts flour, 1 tsp leavening, etc.


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