Teaching ingredient flexibility is important during pandemic-related shortages and challenging professional cooking situations.
By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
Back in February, I began drafting an article about how all levels of culinary teachers need to be more flexible in the use of ingredients. The article’s point was that we as culinary instructors tend to be fixated on having students follow recipes exactly and discourage any variation. With March’s events, subjects (such as virtual teaching for low-tech people) were covered at the request of the Gold Medal Classroom editor. In other words, I had to practice what I was going to preach about flexibility.
It is now time to revisit the issue of cooking with what you and your students have, not what you wish everyone had. It is very clear that supply chain disruptions are going to be with us for a while. There will be shortages. Let’s use this as a “teachable moment.” With summer upon us, it gives us time to re-think how and what we will teach during the next school year.
I had a strong example of ingredient inflexibility several years ago when I was a lead presenter at a development conference for high school culinary instructors. My seminar was about how to teach high school students the basics of international cuisine. One of my presentation dishes was an Asian-style soba noodle salad.
The store did not have bok choy, so I bought Napa cabbage instead. When my seminar started, I told the teachers that, like in their classes, I was not able to procure all the product I wanted. I didn’t get specific. I informed them this would be a good drill for them to learn how students have to adapt to cooking with what they had, not what they wish they had.
The results were eye-opening. Almost every group struggled with making an easy substitution. Many instructors said things like, “Will you mark us down because we didn’t have bok choy?” And, “Mr. Weiner, we can’t do our assignment because YOU didn’t buy the right ingredients.” One group even said, “I thought you were a better teacher than this. We can’t believe you gave us an assignment we couldn’t do. This class is a waste.” Does this sound familiar?
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching ingredient flexibility was important for three reasons:
- Our students, when cooking at home or professionally, need to be able to work with what they have. If a recipe calls for using melted bakers’ chocolate to dip apple slices, they should be able to adapt that to dipping strawberries in melted chocolate chips.
- But, sooner or later our students will have to make substitutions. Thus, substitutions should be experienced.
- In today’s world, more people are going vegan or vegetarian, at least part of the time. The days of just serving steamed vegetables are long over. Furthermore, many people want the same type of food (for example, hamburgers) that look and taste like their animal protein-based namesake. (For more information, see “Changing Culinary Curriculum.”) You need to teach students NOW how to adapt, not only to plant-based diets but to other bumps in the food supply chain, demand changes and food trends that will occur long after they leave your classroom kitchens.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, there are two additional reasons for students to learn ingredient flexibility.
- With the ingredient shortages over the last few months--including in my geographic area flour, yeast, chicken, and even cleaning supplies--ingredients for classroom recipes might not be available or have become exorbitantly priced.
- With more and more classroom labs being done virtually (it is uncertain how long this will continue at the time of writing this article), you have to be cognizant that students probably don’t have the same ingredients at home that you are demonstrating.
The question then becomes how to teach ingredient flexibility. I have briefly touched on this in three previous articles:
- “Do You Teach Recipes or Technique?,” January 2013
- “Cooking by Description,” May 2016
- “Start Small and Finish It All – Even at Home—Minimizing Food Waste and Lost Food Costs (Home)” October 2016
Now, I want to add a fourth idea to working with on-hand ingredients. Believe it or not, this is the viewpoint of an optimist. Bear with me here. You need to be optimistic when cooking with different ingredients. You have to learn—and you as teachers must teach—when you look at ingredients, you should think, “What wonderful things can I do?” You can’t think, “It’s too bad I can’t add bacon.”
A couple of years ago my adult daughter became a vegetarian. When she visits, I have fun (yes, I really have fun) making her dishes that look like the dishes the rest of the family eats. I take the attitude of, “How I can have fun making her something with the ingredients I have?” For example, last night my wife wasn’t feeling well so I made her chicken and rice. One of her favorite comfort foods. It was based on chicken, broth, onions, rice, celery and carrots. I wanted something with a bit more dazzle, so I made myself chicken curry which is basically the same dish with more vegetables, spices and seasonings. For my daughter, I made a Thai flavored stew. I used the same vegetables and many of the same seasonings from the previous dishes and added cubes of a well-known plant-based burger and peanut butter. When I ran out of vegetable broth and needed more liquid, I used some leftover vegetable dumpling soup from a dish I made her a few days before. I served all three of us in matching bowls. Everyone loved their dinner.
The successful key to this dinner was the attitude, “What fun can I have with the ingredients I have on hand?” I didn’t take the attitude of, “Oh well, my daughter’s dinner won’t taste good because she doesn’t eat chicken. My wife’s dinner will be boring for me,” etc.
In summary you need to teach your students how to be flexible with ingredients. First, here are a few ideas:
- Make sure they learn basic cooking and knife skills. (The article on “Do You Teach Recipes or Technique?” will guide you with that.)
- Tell them unless they are professional cooks it is okay to make substitutions. (However, be sure there are no food allergies involved.)
- Start off by explaining basic substitutions, such as green onions instead of yellow onions. Green bell peppers will work fine as a substitute for more expensive red bell peppers, etc.
- Have them practice substitutions, even if they have the ingredients. For example, make a sauce normally served over pasta, but serve it over rice.
- Give an assignment that has them creating a menu including the ingredients for each dish for a dinner they would like to eat based just on products in their house at the moment. [Note: have them write menus and ingredients, but not recipes. Remember, you are trying to get people comfortable about changing to creating with what they have and not locking themselves into a different recipe.]
We have all seen and experienced people in the market asking for unusual ingredients or demanding weird quantities—like 1 ½ apples—while fixated on the phone screen. They panic when told they can’t have it their way. They can only cook it if it is exactly as specified on the internet. We want to make sure our students don’t become one of these cooks. After all, what we want them to do is to answer “YES” to all Kim Severson questions.
"The only ruler that matters is the one I pull out at the end of the day. Did I do my best? Did I tell the truth? Was I helpful to my fellows? And, did I make something good to eat?" Spoon Fed by Kim Severson, page 115
Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.