Why Long Ingredient Lists Aren’t Always the Worst
Sure, this headline provokes the thought, “5 ingredients or bust!” Although most of us like to keep cooking easy-breezy, here’s why long ingredient lists don’t necessarily entail more work.
The last thing most of us want to see when scrolling for recipes in the summertime is a long ingredients list. “Fresh corn plus fresh tomatoes is all you need!” “Stone fruit is dessert!” “Why overcomplicate it?” “Don’t forget the rosé!”
This is typically my thinking, too, and it informs how I cook (or don’t!) nearly all season long, but after a while I tire of raw, produce-centric, Western European cuisine. I find myself craving Asian noodles and dumplings, stir-fries and curries, enchiladas and chaats, and the glorious cuisines of other parts of the world.
And you know, for the home cook facing a daunting ingredients list, there’s not a lot better than seeing the accompanying step titled, “Combine first 11 ingredients in a bowl, stirring with a whisk.” That’s a beautiful thing. And in this pork and rice noodles recipe, which should take all of 15 minutes if you have all the ingredients, you should be able to get dinner on the table without breaking a sweat figuratively or literally.
Consider, too, the glory of the mini food processor, immersion blender or standing blender, which can eliminate all sorts of hassles. For this curry, which I make a couple times monthly, I’ve been tossing the shallot, cilantro stems, garlic, and even the peeled ginger right into a blender. I’m a wild woman. I maybe end up with some ginger strings in the finished dish, but you know what? It saves me crying over my shallots, and it gets me out of the kitchen faster.
Half the time, these long ingredient lists include things you already have on your spice shelf, anyways, and they won’t require the sneaky prep that produce will. Think: Cumin, paprika, cayenne, and oregano—all of which toast at once—in this excellent black bean chili recipe.
Another chunk of the time, you can just make substitutions using your best judgment. I have yet to make that curry with the fresh Thai chili pepper called for; I simply throw Italian chili flakes into the base, and it’s totally fine. The recipe calling for shallots and white onion? I’m probably using just one or the other—whichever I have.
This can apply to fresh herbs, too; if a recipe calls for “mixed fresh herbs,” take it literally! Don’t go out and buy a tablespoon of a fresh herb if you don’t have time or energy. Don’t have sage? Consider thyme. Have a bit of cilantro left, but no mint? Think about how the dish would taste with the swap; often, those two herbs make cameos in the same cuisines.
Occasionally, of course, the ingredients list will be long, and the recipe author will encourage you to avoid shortcuts—sometimes in the strongest language. (I’m looking at you, 21-ingredient mole poblano.) When that happens, I suggest you heed the advice. The wonderful thing about a well-executed ratatouille or mole, both of which feature many components, is that each bite is nuanced and delicate. One bite of ratatouille showcases plush, olive-oil-soaked eggplant, a second highlights tender squash, and the third booms with sweet summer tomatoes.
And remember the genius of the freezer. If you’ve sweat over your summer cooking, remember that more often than not you can freeze it, bust it out in February, and have beachy French Riviera daydreams over ratatouille while the snow falls.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.