I'm mostly cooking for myself and I'm inexperienced with cooking, so when I go onto any recipe website, I can't tell the difference between the ingredients & steps that are necessary to make a dish, and the ingredients and steps which are additional. For example, in an ideal world, I'd like a recipe to read something like this:

Base Ingredients:
    X g of A
    X g of B
    X ml of C

Ingredients for Improved Taste:
    X g of Some Exotic Herb
    X g of Some Additional Spice
    X ml of Red Wine

    Base Dish: (Takes 15 minutes to prepare, 20 to cook)
        Step 1:
        Step 2:
        Step n:

    Additional: (Takes 35 minutes to prepare, 25 to cook.)
        Before beginning, Prepare the X, Prepare the Y and Prepare the Z.
        On step 2, add X to the dish and add 3 minutes to the cooking time.
        On step 4, add a splash of red wine to the pan and cook for 2 minutes longer.

Or something to that effect. Just something separating the two.

This however is not what I find on recipe websites. So I need some way to differentiate the basic thing from the "chef's touch" you could say. I just need to be able to make things that taste reasonably good, quickly, and not be spending hours.

What ends up happening is since I can't differentiate, I find that my shopping list becomes very long, and cooking takes far too long for someone inexperienced like myself. I want to build up from the basics ideally.

  • 3
    Truly optional ingredients are often labelled as such. In many cases you can substitute a cheaper ingredient (for example the wine may need to be replaced, even if just with water, in some recipes, but not others). But it's not clear to me what your actual question is - are you looking for a source of recipes that give you this detail (probably off topic), or tips on how to judge for yourself (trial and error combined with a bit of thought)? – Chris H Feb 18 '18 at 11:29
  • How to judge for myself primarily, though if someone knows a website which does that that would also be useful. – Warbinator Feb 18 '18 at 11:36
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    I think there is a conceptual flaw here. You can’t make beef bourguignon without red wine and bouquet garni, but you can make a beef stew. If you leave the ham and time consuming cooking steps out of a Croque Monsieur, it’s a cheese sandwich. So rather than having disappointing results by changing more complex recipes, you would do better looking for more straightforward recipes. Some good rules of thumb are to look for recipes with a short ingredients list and cooking times and methods appropriate to your lifestyle and current knowledge. – Spagirl Feb 18 '18 at 11:56
  • True, but a spaghetti bolognese is still a spaghetti bolognese if you make it with 26 ingredients (as I found in one recipe the other day), or just 7, in a recipe I just found - though true of many dishes the complexity = different dish thing isn’t always true. I could just search for “simple [insert dish here]”, which would get me what I want some of the time, but it’s not a general solution because such fully simplified recipes often don’t exist online - the people who write them always seem to be adding extra things in for their own touch, which is fair enough, but not so useful for me atm. – Warbinator Feb 18 '18 at 12:16
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    @Warbinator indeed this goes as far as what a recipe is. Given that spaghetti bolognese exists in many places but not in Italy or Bologna, it is not a big surprise that you feel to claim that spaghetti bolognese is something with 7 to 26 ings.But I agree that blogs in general present in house and personal versions of recipes. – Alchimista Feb 18 '18 at 13:37

Get a stack of 10 or 20 trustworthy recipes for a dish - and compare.

Also take advantage of ingredient slots that seem optional in one dish - sometimes they are a way to use up something that you bought for another recipe where it is not optional.

Classify ingredients by the role they play in the dish:

  • What do they do to the balance of the basic six tastes? Can the balance be kept by using another, more generic ingredient (eg add vinegar or lime if you leave out a sour ingredient)?

  • Is there a functional reason for a sour/alkaline, salty, sweet, fatty ingredient? pH can matter to how something cooks; salt and sugar can interfere with liquid balance; sugar can be textural; fat can do heat transfer; fat or alcohol can put aromas into solution.

  • Is there an aromatic role - and is there something with a similar aroma?

  • Is there a textural role? If yes, is it ONLY textural because seasoning overwhelms the taste/aroma anyway?

Also - there are a lot of "exotic" ingredients that exist across ethnic cuisines in a similar form but under different names - though sometimes salt/fat/sugar balances can be different. One example would be korean doenjang and japanese dark miso. Experimentation might be needed at first.

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  • That’s a very good point on comparing many recipes, will do that 👍, a big concern of mine with the complex recipes is that I don’t know what is in there for functional reasons and what isn’t, so I’m afraid to change anything in case it doesn’t cook properly and I become ill as a result, or on the flip side in case it cooks too much and ends up setting off the fire alarm. Are there any general rules I can go by for that? That’s partly what causes this problem, I’m afraid to experiment because of those things – Warbinator Feb 18 '18 at 12:21
  • @Warbinator can you give us an example of a recipe or dish that you might want to simplify? It might help us get a better handle on this. For what it’s worth, I’m not aware of any dishes where you can make yourself ill by missing out an ingredient. – Spagirl Feb 18 '18 at 13:50
  • Underlying thought is often "how can I avoid it tasting good but accidentally being inauthentic and embarassing me in front of .. someone native to its origin, or an imaginary masterchef judge, whomever". Often compounded by having no access to an "authentic" version for comparison. Difficult deal. – rackandboneman Feb 18 '18 at 14:49

I suggest that you invest the time and effort to “learn to cook”. No, I’m not saying that what you do at the moment isn’t cooking, but from what I read in your question, you are following an instruction to the letter. A good book on basic cooking can help you understand the principles and basic techniques. In other words, you understand why a recipe tells you to do something. After that, you can easily recognize the building blocks of a recipe and determine the optional frills or cooks’ touches.

Flour and fat roasted in a pan form a roux, which combined with a liquid makes a sauce. So if you change the liquid, you alter the flavor, but changing the fat-and-flour step alters the texture. Once you understood this, you have the knowledge to decide whether for example switching the liquid will give you something close enough.

Rackandboneman’s advice of comparing multiple recipes of the same dish to recognize the common ingredients is spot on. Let me suggest that you can later push the principle a step further: Compare different dishes from a certain cuisine and you will notice that they have their standard sets of frequently used herbs and spices. And also notice if something seems “off”. If an Asian-inspired stir-fry calls for soy sauce, it’s probably not optional. If someone suggests soy sauce in a Bolognese, I’d be wary: that’s an individual cook’s touch and if you don’t have it, you shouldn’t worry. You can use the insights on the “most frequently used herbs and spices” to decide where you want to invest and where you can save a bit, especially if you reduce the regional scope of dishes while you still learn.

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