7 basic kitchen formulas + 1 fantastically simple recipe
Ever tried to make up a recipe—only to have it fail completely? (I swear this is where bad 70s hippie food came from: people making stuff up without any background in the art and science of the kitchen.)
And I think just about everyone has done that, so you’re not alone.
As we face a brave new world in which we may indeed need to start cooking from scratch and eating at home more often, I’m hearing a lot of people complaining that it’s really hard to do this—not just because they don’t have time but because they don’t have the skills they need in the kitchen.
What’s the solution?
- Meal kits are great—if you’re independently wealthy and don’t mind the amount of packaging they generate.
- Plenty of recipes available on Pinterest—and they’ll keep you forever tied to shopping and cooking from day to day, always struggling to answer the question of what’s for dinner and feeling not enough when your result isn’t Instagram-worthy.
- Cooking shows? Totally unrealistic for a home cook (and a dangerous rabbit hole to go down).
- Online cooking classes? Maybe.
I’ve thought for years that it’s time for us to really get back into our kitchens and start learning how to cook from scratch. Will the pandemic finally help this happen?
It’s going to require us to rethink our relationship with the kitchen, to do what I call “flipping” your kitchen into a place that can really nourish our families without adding stress to our already full plates.
flip your kitchen
In a flipped kitchen, it all boils down to 4 steps (haha—pun intended):
- Create a whole foods pantry
- Learn a few basic recipes and techniques
- Plan your weekly meals.
- Always cook for more than 1 meal.
I’ve covered a lot of these steps in greater details on my blog and podcast and in live and virtual workshops over the past 5+ years, and I suddenly realized that I haven’t said much about step 2.
Some day, when I have the budget for a lot of cool videos, my cooking classes might appear online, and for now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves by talking about recipes in a way you probably haven’t before.
One of my favorite cooking classes to teach is called “Deconstructing Soup,” and we start this class by listing all the soups we can think of and naming our favorites. We usually end up with a list that looks something like this: chicken noodle, beef barley, clam chowder, potato leek, cream of tomato, split pea….
These recipes all appear to be very different from each other, and in fact, there are three basic types: clear (chicken noodle and beef barley), thickened (clam chowder, potato leek), and puréed (cream of tomato, split pea).
And guess what? Deep down, they’re all the same!
That’s right: all soups are in fact made using the same procedure:
- Sweat some vegetables in fat (in French cooking, it’s usually onions, carrots, and celery; in Mexico, it might be onions and peppers; in China, it’s likely to be garlic, ginger, and scallions, etc.)
- Add some dried herbs and spices, and—if you’re thickening it—some flour, then add liquid (water, stock, broth).
- Add other ingredients that need to be cooked or just heated through: vegetables, legumes, meats, fish…
- Purée the soup or don’t.
So what? So this: now you can make a soup from scratch using what’s in your pantry—without running to the store, and without a recipe!
Here’s a list of seemingly different casseroles—even some that are sweet:
- tuna noodle
- chicken + broccoli + rice
- shepherd’s pie
- green bean
- bread pudding
- apple crisp
If we were to deconstruct the recipes, they would all come down to this:
- main ingredients:usually a starch, often with vegetables and meat or fish mixed in
- binder: some sort of sauce
- topping: usually crunchy or cheesy
Can you see how you could start to look at what’s in your fridge (yup, even the leftovers) and come up with a casserole?
I challenge you to start looking at recipes this way: What do stews have in common? How about salads? Stirfries? Once you start deconstructing the recipes, you’ll quickly learn how to make substitutions and figure out how to make meals out of what’s on hand.
In addition to the “formulas” for soups and casseroles, there are a lot of basic recipes that use the same formula over and over—once you can spot it, you’re much more likely to feel more comfortable with a new recipe or even with creating your own.
Here are just a few, and I challenge you to look for others.
Mirepoix is a fancy French word that means “onions, carrots, and celery”—it can also be another combination of veggies that are sweated or sautéed at the start of a soup, sauce, or stew recipe.
Classic mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onion to 1 part each carrots and celery. So if you use 1 cup of onion, you’d use ½ cup each carrots and celery; 2 cups of onion, 1 cup each carrots and celery, etc.
Roux is another fancy French word for flour cooked in fat and used to thicken something, like soup or a sauce or stew. Roux is usually made with 1 part butter to 1 part flour, so ¼ c butter to ¼ c flour, ½ c butter to ½ c flour, etc.
Melt the butter, add the flour, cook it, then add the liquid you want to thicken. Depending on your liquid, you cook the roux just until white (for milk), brown (for gravy), or really almost black (for gumbo).
Yes—you can use other fats and even GF grain-based flour such as oat or brown rice, but you’ll have different flavors and thickening power as a result. It just takes the courage to experiment or, as we used to say at the nonprofit where I contracted, you need to have a high level of comfort with ambiguity.
Roux is used to make Béchamel, or white sauce, which is really just thickened milk. Sometimes there are herbs and spices added, too. You might see Béchamel made a few different thicknesses depending on what it’s in.
- A thin sauce is used in creamed soups—more milk to roux.
- A medium sauce might be used for making cheese sauce—add cheese and cooked pasta, and voilà.
- A thick sauce might show up in a casserole recipe.
Custard is another classic formula: 3 eggs can thicken about 2 cups of liquid, so if you want to make something like a frittata or quiche or even a baked custard dessert, there’s your base. More eggs will make it firmer.
vinaigrette + marinade
Vinaigrette and marinade are a fun example of kitchen formulas, too:
- Vinaigrette uses 1 part acid to 3 parts oil plus a few other ingredients.
- Marinade flips the formula to 1 part oil to 3 parts acid.
I’ll be adding more recipes to my website over time—you can find them on the all-new recipe page. This week, I’ve added one for a basic vinaigrette: I’m always on my clients to reduce the number of processed foods they buy and consume, and store-bought salad dressing is one of the most highly-processed chief offenders!
The recipe is simple enough for kitchen novices and yet provides a lot of room for experimentation as you slowly gain confidence in the kitchen.
make the connection
My cookbook, Fl!p Your K!tchen, lays out a lot of the why and how to cook 21 meals a week without spending your life in the kitchen. (Sorry, I’m all out of “real” copies—only the PDF version is available for now.) And the Fl!p Your K!tchen® meal planning system (covered in the cookbook and accompanying workbook) helps busy people find a way to cook from scratch more often—whether that’s moving from 0 nights a week to 1, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, or more.
This week, try deconstructing a recipe or two, then make your own vinaigrette, and let me know in the comments how it turned out!