How to Make Our Most Popular Recipes With Whatever's on Hand

April  1, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

These days, there are few recipes whose ingredient lists I have entirely in stock. But that hasn’t stopped me from cooking and baking. The truth is: Just about any recipe can withstand a substitution or three—even our most popular ones from the last decade. Will an adaptation turn out exactly like the original? Nope. Will you feel a small (but mighty!) sense of accomplishment for making it work? You bet. Below, we’ll cover smart swaps for each recipe, so you can off-road your dinner—or midnight snack—without ever leaving your kitchen.

10. Magical, Marvelous, Memorable Cookies By Drbabs

Food52er Drbabs came up with the recipe years ago when she was stranded in New Orleans with her family (her flight home was delayed by a snowstorm). For most of the mix-ins, there’s a substitute waiting in the wings:

  • Granola: any other cereal, like Cornflakes, Rice Krispies, or Cheerios (especially honey-nut)
  • Salted pretzels: any other salty snack, like popped popcorn, smashed Ritz crackers, or potato chips
  • Pecans: literally any other nut, like walnuts, peanuts, cashews, or almonds.
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips: any type of chocolate from milk to dark, or even better, chopped-up candy, like Heath Bars or Reese’s

9. Absurdly Addictive Asparagus By Kaykay

No asparagus? No problem. This very smart template from community member Kaykay should be applied to whatever vegetable is in your fridge. Here’s how to make it your own:

  • Pancetta: something salty-cured and porky, like diced bacon, hard salami, pepperoni, or chorizo; or, simply replace with a couple glugs of olive oil
  • Asparagus: think green and crunchy, like Brussels sprouts, sugar snap peas, broccoli florets, green cabbage, or even frozen peas
  • Leeks: another allium, like yellow or red onion, shallots, or scallions
  • Minced garlic a shake or three of garlic or onion powder
  • Citrus zest: a splash of vinegar (I bet white wine or sherry vinegar would be really nice here)
  • Pine nuts: walnuts, pecans, cashews, or even sunflower seeds
  • Parsley: mint, dill, thyme, sage, or skip it altogether

8. One-Pot Kale & Quinoa Pilaf By Deensiebat

“I love this as a base recipe, and make it all the time,” community member Van D shared in the comment section. Emphasis on base recipe:

  • Lacinato kale: any hardy green, like collards, mustard, arugula, spinach, watercress, turnip, or radish
  • Meyer lemon zest and juice: an old-fashioned lemon will do just fine; cut it with some orange juice for less zing
  • Scallions: yellow or red onion, or shallots
  • Walnut oil: hazelnut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil
  • Pine nuts: walnuts, pecans, peanuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds
  • Crumbled goat cheese: chopped fresh mozzarella, taleggio, Brie, or feta

7. Soy Sauce Eggs By Momofuku

Yes, you do need the soy sauce and eggs for this snack-ready recipe with a cult following. But! The marinade can be played around with depending on what you have in stock:

  • Sherry vinegar: any other vinegar works, be it white, rice, or white or red wine—or hey, why not sherry itself?
  • Sugar: brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, or molasses
  • Black pepper: red pepper flakes, cayenne, shichimi togarashi, Calabrian chile paste, Sriracha

6. One-Pan Pasta By Martha Stewart

Just shy of a year ago, we invited the Food52 community to off-road some recipes, like Martha’s One-Pan Pasta. There’s really no end to the variations you can apply toward this technique. Head here to read all of them, or get started with these highlights:

  • Linguine: any long shape, like spaghetti, fettuccine, angel hair, or ramen
  • Tomatoes: sun-dried tomatoes, canned diced tomatoes, chopped broccoli rabe, torn kale, or frozen peas
  • Yellow onion: red onion, shallots, scallions, leeks
  • Parmesan: Pecorino, aged provolone, torn mozzarella, ricotta, diced Brie, nutritional yeast
  • Basil: another fresh herb like thyme, mint, parsley, or dill, a few shakes of whatever dried herbs are around, or a spoonful of frozen pesto stirred in at the end
  • Red pepper flakes and black pepper: Calabrian chile paste, harissa, or something milder like fennel seeds for less spice
  • Garlic: garlic powder and onion powder, sure, but also other big-personality ingredients like minced capers, olives, or anchovies (or all three)

5. The Best Pan-Roasted Potatoes By Gretchen@Backyardnotes

Lucky for us, this is a pantry recipe to begin with: small potatoes, olive oil, and kosher salt. But, if you don’t have those specific items? You can still have the best pan-roasted potatoes:

  • Small potatoes: big potatoes, chopped into smaller pieces
  • Olive oil: any neutral-flavored oil, like canola or grapeseed
  • Kosher salt: any salt will do the job (just use less if you’re going with a finer grain)

4. Milk Bread By Kindred

One of several hundred reviews for this recipe: “This recipe was the best bread recipe I've ever tried.” Okay, one more: “I love, love, love this bread!” Okay, okay, one more: “Wow, what a pleasure it was to make!” Let’s join the fun, shall we?

  • Bread flour: though I wouldn’t recommend this in most cases, these are dire times, and all-purpose will get you there
  • Heavy cream: light cream, half-and-half, coconut milk, or whole milk in a pinch
  • Milk powder: some reviewers have omitted this and reported all is well (“it's not required for a great milk bread”)
  • Honey: sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup

3. Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter By Marcella Hazan

Another recipe that we took for a ride in our Recipe Off-Roading series. There are very few ingredients to begin with here—and odds are, you already have them. But in case you don’t…

  • Butter: extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, bacon fat
  • Yellow onion: red onion, shallot, fennel

2. 'World's Best Cake' With Banana & Coconut By Sarah Jampel

“Is it the world's best? I can't say it is, but I also can't say it isn't. It's up to you to decide that for yourself,” Sarah Jampel writes. There are several ingredients you can’t get around here—like butter, sugar, and eggs. But there are also several you can substitute:

  • Cinnamon and cardamom: any baking spices you like the flavor of, quantity adjusted to taste—pumpkin pie spice, five spice, ground ginger, nutmeg
  • Vanilla bean: vanilla extract, or skip it
  • Banana: any soft, fresh fruit you have around, from mango to pineapple to berries, or jam

1. Crock-Pot Brown Sugar & Balsamic–Glazed Pork Tenderloin By Melissa Bossler

Our most popular recipe ever comes together in a slow cooker, features the humble pork tenderloin, and we’re here for it. Let’s make it happen, no matter what you’ve got:

  • Pork tenderloin: pork shoulder, (cook on high for 4 hours, like this), boneless skinless chicken thighs (cook for on high for 3 hours, like this)
  • Ground sage: any dried herb in your pantry, ground into a powder
  • Garlic: garlic powder or onion powder to sight, or a bigger amount of a milder allium, like scallion or shallot
  • Brown sugar: white sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses
  • Balsamic vinegar: red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, black vinegar, or some combination
  • Soy sauce: miso or liquid aminos

Have you adapted any of these recipes? Let us know what changes you made (and how they turned out!) in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • hevandriel
  • sharon
  • ustabahippie
  • Patricia Stevens
    Patricia Stevens
  • Jane
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.


hevandriel April 19, 2020
This is probably one of the best articles from Food52, if only because it demonstrates a keen understanding of and empathy for the challenges that we're all facing at this time. THANK YOU, Food52❣(In the same vein, NYT'S Melissa Clark has a series on cooking with what's in your pantry.) Hopefully, this becomes more standard across the board even after we're on the other side of this godawful pandemic.
sharon April 19, 2020
just scanning your recipes- thrillls me to pieces- thank you!! in these times we often lack an ingredient and some of us are not always certain when we can substuitute-thank you so much--great help!!!
ustabahippie April 19, 2020
I have a recipe for crackers that calls for 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 cup of grated cheese. I have no cheese. How much butter could I add to substitute for all that cheese?
Karen B. April 19, 2020
I think it'd be best to seek out another cracker recipe (unless you have another cheese on hand that you can grate?). There are ones that only require what you have on hand -flour, butter. Good luck! If I come across any recipes, I will gladly send to you!
Emma L. April 20, 2020
Ditto to what Karen said! Here are a couple other recipes:
ustabahippie April 20, 2020
Hard to believe with my huge collection of recipes I have only this 1!!!
ustabahippie April 20, 2020
Thanks. I’ll try these.
Patricia S. April 19, 2020
Thank you so much for these recipes with all the possible substitutions.
Jane April 19, 2020
As usual, another great article. Thank you.
Junebug April 5, 2020
I often sub oat groats or teff for the quinoa when making One-Pot Kale and Quinoa Pilaf.
Lara Y. April 1, 2020
Perfect timing for this article. I was trying to figure out how to cook dinner tonight when I didn't have all of the ingredients for Sheet-Pan Chicken with Broccoli, Chickpeas, & Parmesan. I needed to cook the chicken tights in my fridge. I substituted heirloom cherry tomatoes for the sun-dried tomatoes and skipped the preserved lemon peel altogether. I didn't tell my husband. After two bites, he told me that this was delicious and we definitely need to make it again.
Thank you, Food52 & EmilyC for her amazing recipe, and for boasting my confidence in the kitchen everyday.
Emma L. April 2, 2020
Go Lara! So glad you found a way to make the recipe your own.