How to improvise your cooking with recipe formulas

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Since I began building our meal plans around recipe formulas, meal planning moves faster with greater flexibility to substitute ingredients. Learn why I believe in building recipes using formulas so you can get dinner on the table easier with minimal planning. 

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What’s the difference between baking and cooking?

You might have heard the saying that baking is a science whereas cooking is an art.

While this sweeping generalization overlooks the importance of pastry arts in baking and chemistry in cooking, it highlights one important trait about baking that sets it apart from cooking. 

In this article, we’ll learn what that difference is and how we can reframe cooking by borrowing baking’s differentiator. Along with other pillars of the Meal Planning System, such as food inventoryingmeal planning, and reverse shopping lists, let’s learn how recipe formulas work to help you move faster in the kitchen and cook with greater flexibility.

Meal Planning System 4 pillars: highlighting the Recipe FormulaePin

Cooking is more forgiving

Here’s a commonly discussed difference between cooking and baking. 

Cooking follows rough guidelines. There’s room for improvisation. You can fudge the measurements. Cooking with cups, spoons, and pinches are appropriate. Eyeballing quantities won’t wreck your final product. 

Improvisation chart of different ingredients that can be substitutedPin

Baking requires greater precision than cooking. Sure, you can substitute ingredients, like butter and oil. But the extra water content in butter might change your cake crumb or the texture of the pie crust. It’s helpful to understand how to account for the difference in viscosity of oil. 

If you eyeball the ingredients when baking or forget to adjust for high-altitude baking, you’re more likely to end up with a failed baked product than when you’re cooking.

While the difference seems subtle, it’s a noteworthy mindset shiftFor example, have you heard fine home cooks complain that they just don’t “get” baking? Or have you experienced baking failures at a higher rate than cooking failures? 

What’s a recipe formula?

One of the tenets of baking is the importance of measuring by weight rather than volume. You’ve likely seen rigorous baking blogs give you the measurement for flour and sugar in grams and/or ounces, not only in cups and spoons. 

Commercial bakers usually go a step farther than just indicating the weight of the ingredients (though their recipes usually do that too). Commercial baking recipes often state the ratio rather than the measurement alone. This allows easy scaling up and down of recipe. 

Whether you’re making 50 cookies or 15,000, if you know the ratio of flour to butter to sugar, easy arithmetic can tell you the weight of the ingredients you need. 

I’ve been using this concept to create “recipe formulae” (or formulas if you prefer the U.S. spelling). 

A recipe formula is an ingredient and ratio-based approach to writing a recipe. 

You can call it a recipe template or recipe pattern

Rather than defining exact ingredient measurements in my recipe, I create a modular recipe where there are blocks of ingredients, like Legos. 

I assemble these parts to make a dish and can easily substitute the ingredients. It’s the starting point of meal planning and leads into my reverse shopping list. 

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. 

This is just formalizing the process to save your mental energy!

(I can’t think of a better name for this concept than recipe formula. Maybe recipe template? Leave a comment if you’ve got ideas.) 

Example of recipe formulae

Once I’ve made a dish 3-4 times, I know the instruction well enough that I don’t need to read the recipe anymore. (It helps to understand the cooking techniques behind the recipe.) 

To prepare for meal planning, I create a library of recipe formulae. 

Here’s an example of what my library looks like.

Veggie stir fry = vegetables + aromatics + soy sauce

Meat or tofu stir fry = protein + vegetables + aromatics + soy sauce + sesame oil

Coconut curry = protein + vegetable + coconut milk + curry paste + optional rice

Pasta = pasta sauce + optional aromatics + optional protein + optional vegetable/mushroom + dry pasta

Salad = leafy green + optional vegetable + optional fruit + optional protein + optional crunchy ingredient (nuts, croutons, pomegranate seeds, carrots, etc.) + dressing with acid

Chinese-style salad = shredded protein + blanched green vegetable + shredded crunchy vegetable + glass noodles + salad dressing

Quiche = egg + cream + umami-packed mix-ins + aromatics + optional pie crust

Ramen stir fry = ramen noodles + egg + vegetable + optional protein + soy sauce + sesame oil

Noodle soup = broth + noodles + vegetables + aromatics + optional protein + optional chili sauce

Bean/lentil soup/stew/chili = mirepoix + protein + lentils/beans/legumes + broth + dried herbs + optional tomato paste

Sandwich = bread + butter + optional meat + optional cheese + optional vegetable

Now that I have this list of recipe formulae, I will take one of these templates and customize it for my weekly meal plan or dinner that night. 

Here’s an example of this week’s meal plan. 

Sunday: Rao’s pasta sauce + onion + fake ground beef + sliced zucchini + penne pasta (pasta with tomato sauce)

Monday: Instant Pot green lentil soup + mild Italian sausage + chicken broth (lentil soup)

Tuesday: Baby spinach + carrot + glass noodle + shredded turkey breast Chinese salad + garlic & green onion oil dressing (Chinese salad) 

Wednesday: Napa cabbage + shiitake mushroom stir fry + tofu (tofu stir fry

Thursday: Spinach + shredded carrots + goat cheese + beets + walnuts + garlic lemon salad dressing (green salad)

Friday: tofu + cauliflower + coconut cream + red curry paste (curry)

Saturday: baguette + butter + prosciutto + brie (sandwich), romaine lettuce + sliced apple + balsamic vinaigrette (green salad)

Benefits of recipe formulae

Recipe formulae act like templates. You can build a dish by swapping out different components, especially if you understand what the particular ingredient is adding to the dish (is the ingredient contributing texture, acidity, or fat?).

Why create recipe formulas? 

It’s the second pillar of the 4-part meal planning system.

A list of recipe formulae gives you inspiration to make easy and quick recipes. 

Assuming basic cooking skills, at a glance, you can see dishes to add to your weekly meal plan. Or if you’re feeling unmotivated to cook, you can get a feel for which dish would be the easiest to bring together. 

I also rely on my list of recipe formulae to cook when my pantry and fridge are empty. It gives me ideas for what to cook with the ingredients I have. Or provides substitution ideas. 

Tips for building your recipe formula library

  1. Add your favorite recipes: Start by taking recipes you can make from memory. Break them down into ingredient groups. Do this for 5 dishes, and you’ve got a library going. Or borrow my list. 
  2. Focus on the building blocks: Ours are vegetablesmushrooms, protein, and aromatics. The aromatics “variable” forces me to ask, “What will I add to this dish to make it taste good? Is there enough flavor?
  3. Take a realistic look at the meals you actually cook: Because, I rarely make casseroles, they’re absent from the list. Soups and stir-fries are staples in our home. We have several variations on stir-fries and soups to give us plenty of variety.
  4. Through trial and error, I learn how to substitute ingredients: If I don’t have cabbage, I can use broccoli, kale, or another brassica. If I don’t have cucumbers, I can substitute with carrots or another crunchy vegetable. If I don’t have ground beef, I can use ground pork or crumbled tofu.
  5. Try a variation of recipe formulae and use a homemade cookbook: If building a recipe formula sounds too complex, follow my friend Benjamin’s strategy for eating seasonally by building your own cookbook—a compilation of your favorite go-to meals for each season.

READ NEXT: How to Meal Plan the Sane Way For Busy People

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 to improvise your cooking with recipe formulas”

  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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