How to Cook Almost Any Recipe…Even If You Have a Bare Bones Kitchen

How to Cook Almost Any Recipe…Even If You Have a Bare Bones Kitchen

Have you ever started on a recipe, read a direction such as “4 cups, sifted” and thought, “But I don’t have a sifter!”? Here’s the thing: You don’t really need to run out and buy a sifter (or a garlic press, or a pineapple-shaped baking pan)…especially if you’re not going to use it for other recipes. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Admittedly, my kitchen is a bit, um, overstocked. But, I used to run a small baking business and I still bake a lot. I have almost every gadget, but most of the time, I don’t use them. Instead, I rely mostly on a sharp knife, a good cutting board, and — OK, OK — my stand mixer. But, it’s the first two that do most of the heavy lifting.

If you’re working with very limited supplies, you can still cook most recipes. Like with any job, the right tools help make the process more efficient, but here’s how to get by without them.

Still stuck? Tell me in the comments!


You’re Missing a ______

No sifter? No problem. Sifters are excellent for breaking up large clumps of flour and sugar, getting more air into your mixture, and for making sure your ingredients are evenly combined. For instance, if you use baking powder to make muffins, sifting the mixture helps assure that the baking powder is distributed evenly among all of them.

Solution: Use a fork to stir the mixture until it looks fully combined. Then pour all of it through a metal mesh strainer. No strainer? Then just stir until it looks like there are no large clumps. (When measuring sugar in the first place, avoid the large clumps as this will also help.) The dry mixture is not going to look as fluffy, but 99% of the time the final recipe will turn out just fine.


Food Processor
A food processor — even a mini version like this one from Silex or this one from Cuisinart — will save you hours of time in the kitchen in long run. But not having one shouldn’t prevent you from trying a recipe.

Solutions: If the preparation calls for ingredients to be chopped or minced into small pieces, do it by hand with a sharp knife. If the ingredients need to be pureed, use a blender, but add the ingredients to the blender bowl in smaller batches, as most blenders aren’t as powerful as food processors. If the recipe calls for you to add ingredients slowly while the food processor is running, scoop everything into a bowl, press the bowl against your body to hold it steady, and use one hand to mix and your other hand to slowly add ingredients.


Blenders are great for making shakes, pureeing ingredients, and making frozen margaritas. I’m totally kidding about that last one. (Not really.) But, I didn’t have one until recently and made do just fine.

Solution: Most of the work a blender can do a food processor can do. For instance, if you’re making a Shakeology recipe that calls for blended fruit, puree the fruit and ice together in a food processor, add the mixture to a shaker cup full of water (or milk) and a scoop of Shakeology, put the lid on, and shake. It’s not going to be quite as creamy, but it’ll work in a pinch.


Mixing Bowl
As soon as you can afford to, purchase a set of glass nesting bowls. They will save you so much time.

Solution: In the meantime, work with what you have. If you only have soup and cereal bowls, use those. If you have a glass or metal baking dish, use that. If you only have takeout containers or Tupperware, these are your new mixing bowls. You’ll have to divide the ingredients evenly among the containers if one singular container isn’t large enough to hold (and mix) everything the recipe calls for, but in the end the recipe should still come out correctly.


Mixers rapidly speed up the baking process. But, there often isn’t room for one in a small kitchen.

Solution: If you need to mix something, use a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon (or a mixing bowl and your clean hands). If you need to whip something (egg whites, etc.), a fork and a very clean glass or metal bowl will do the job. Whip as quickly as you can, have patience, and make sure there is absolutely no water or oil on the fork or the bowl surface.


Other Common Issues

Wrong Size Baking Pans
There’s bound to be a time when you come across a recipe and you don’t have a baking pan that matches the size the recipe calls for.

Solution: Most of the time, it’s OK to substitute one baking pan for another. Ideally, you want to substitute one that has a similar volume. This chart is my go-to for quickly determining a pan’s volume. If you don’t have anything that will swap in nicely, then use this trick from pastry chef and James Beard finalist Hedy Goldsmith: If the new pan makes your batter (or ingredients) shallower than indicated in the original recipe, raise the temperature and decrease the time. If the new pan makes your batter or ingredients deeper, lower the temperature and increase the baking time.


You Have One Cutting Board
One cutting board to rule them all, huh? Ideally, you want at least two. One for meat and one for produce.

Solution: After working with raw meat, poultry, or seafood on the cutting board, clean it very thoroughly before putting anything else on it. (This includes resting your knife on it.) To do so, scrub it with a dishcloth or scrub brush using hot, soapy water, then disinfect with bleach or sanitizing solution, and rinse with clean water. If the idea of using a diluted bleach mixture freaks you out, wash it with hot, soapy water, then wipe down the board with vinegar, and finish by wiping it down with hydrogen peroxide.


Your Skillet Has Hot Spots
If you’ve noticed when cooking eggs or other foods in your skillet that some areas cook much faster than others, you may be dealing with hot spots.

Solution: If your pan is not non-stick, heat it dry until you can hold your hand 6 inches above it and feel the heat. This allows the tiny cracks in the pan to expand so that when you add the oil, the oil will coat the pan more evenly and should reduce the hot spots.


Oven Problems

Incorrect Oven Temperature
I don’t know a single person who has an oven that actually heats to the temperature the dial is set to. Learning how off your oven temperature is should alleviate most under/overbaking issues.

Solution: Find out if your oven runs hot or cold using an oven-safe thermometer or a meat thermometer with a corded probe. If you use the latter, place the thermometer portion inside the oven and set the display on an unheated surface. Set the oven dial to 300° F and after 15 minutes, check your thermometer. Then use the finding to adjust the dial on your oven accordingly. For instance, my oven consistently runs 25° hot. So I know if I want to cook something at 350° F, I should set the dial to 325° F.


Handling Hot Spots
Not every oven cooks evenly. If you want to test how evenly your oven cooks, do a toast test. Set the oven to 450° F, lay slices of white toast in a single layer on a baking sheet, and place them in your oven. Use an oven mitt to remove them after 10 minutes and you’ll likely see areas that are deep brown and others that are golden. The same thing happens inside your oven when you roast veggies, bake granola, or make egg cups! To work around this issue, carefully mix anything loose (veggies, granola, etc.) using a wooden or silicon spoon every 10–15 minutes and turn anything in a muffin tin or on a baking sheet (egg cups, cookies, etc.) 180° when they’re halfway done.


Dealing With Erratic Temperatures
If your oven temperature fluctuates wildly — say from 425° F to 500° F to 350° F —after it’s preheated, the oven sensor may need to be replaced. However, if you notice the temperature goes higher during the preheating phase and then only fluctuates within a 25° F range, this is normal. This is one reason why it’s smart to allow an oven to preheat for 15–20 minutes before using it.