Big Little Recipes

A Home Cook's Case for the Short Ingredient List

10 recipes that teach us less really is more.

December 26, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

Flavorful food means a lot of flavor, not necessarily a lot of ingredients. Such was my hunch when I started Big Little Recipes, a cooking column all about the biggest rewards from the littlest grocery lists possible. While I don’t count salt, pepper, or certain cooking fats—say oil or butter to sauté something or dress a salad—everything else is fair game. In other words, every ingredient has to work hard to earn its place.

Sometimes, this means taking a classic dish, skipping supposed necessities, and finding out that it still works (or tastes even better). Other times, it means swapping out one important ingredient for another, and ending up with a whole new, reimagined dish. And other times still, it means wringing a single ingredient for all it’s worth—whether that’s bumping up the quantity or messing with the technique to maximize the results.

This kind of cooking taught me to think less like a professional recipe developer and more like a home cook. Which is, of course, why I became a recipe developer in the first place. Because cooking has always been my favorite way to fix a bad day, or to show someone how much I love them. And none of that should be held back just because I don’t always have fresh herbs in the fridge or 19 different spices.

For these reasons and more, the recipes below were developed to have ingredient lists that you can count on one hand. Here’s what they taught me in the process.

Photo by Julia Gartland

1. Weeknight chili is possible.

Chili is all about secret ingredients and a low-and-slow cook time. This vegetarian rebel uses a few pantry staples and comes together in a blink—but still tastes like it took all day. The trick is to use canned beans two ways: one you’ll expect, the other...well, you’ll see.

Photo by Jenny Huang

2. One garlic clove is great. But 40 is even better.

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic is a classic for good reason—but why should chicken get to have all the fun? This saucy, braised beef pot roast gets to see what all the fuss is about.

Photo by Ty Mecham

3. Never buy bottled BBQ sauce again.

This DIY version comes by way of three ingredients: ketchup, cider vinegar, and chipotles. Just whoosh in a food processor, no cooking required. It's as A+ on pulled pork as it is on roast chicken—and pizza and those teeny-tiny meatballs at cocktail parties.

Photo by James Ransom

4. Cauliflower is the ultimate chameleon.

If cauliflower can pretend to be rice, then why can’t it dress up as beef? Spoiler alert: It can. All you need is a food processor, a couple sheet pans, and a super-hot oven. Oh, and some hard-shell tacos.

5. Buttery tomato sauce is best, even if it's raw.

There may be no tomato sauce more famous than Marcella Hazan’s. This recipe gives her famous combo the summer treatment: fresh cherry tomatoes and zero simmering. Just-cooked pasta will take care of the rest.

Photo by Ty Mecham

6. The creamiest vegetable soup doesn’t need cream.

Almost-burn a few vegetables to maximize their flavor, blend them with water and miso, and get your new back-pocket soup. The carrots can be swapped out for parsnips, rutabagas, sweet get it.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

7. All-butter pie dough is so last year.

Please meet: all-cheese pie dough. Cheddar’s higher melting point means an easier-to-work-with dough—and an extra-flaky, Cheez-It–crispy crust. Apple turnovers are very excited about it, but savory pies, like quiche, want in, too.

Photo by Julia Gartland

8. For "cream of mushroom," cream mushrooms.

Sometimes, a recipe's ingredient list—and method—are as simple as its title. Such is the case in this all-stovetop, ultra-minimalist green bean casserole that comes together in four ingredients—yep, even fewer than the 1955 original.

Photo by Rocky Luten

9. The easiest stuffing wins.

Thanksgiving stuffing (or dressing, depending on where you’re from) has always been about the mix-ins: onion, celery, sausage, nuts, fruits, kitchen sink. This one skips all that and focuses on the two most important ingredients: bread and butter.

Photo by Ty Mecham

10. The best breadcrumbs are actually seeds.

Turns out, sesame chicken can be made in two ingredients. Can you, ahem, guess them? This takeout-inspired remake is actually closer to a chicken cutlet—and it just happens to be gluten-free.

What's your favorite little–ingredient list, big-flavor recipe? Tell us in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.