Big Little Recipes

Hands Down, This Is the Most Versatile Ingredient

Our Big Little Recipes column (and cookbook!) wouldn’t be possible without it.

October 26, 2021

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This month, we’re sharing sneak peeks from the Big Little Recipes cookbook, all revving up to its release on November 9 (blasts airhorn, throws confetti in the air). Today, we’re sharing an excerpt from the cookbook, all about how water is way more than just a tall drink.


Water down is another way of saying dilute value. Which is—how do I put this?—baloney. Water is one of the most cost-effective, dynamic, powerful ingredients out there. Think of it this way: Water plus something else equals . . .

Any stock. Whether you’re simmering beans or blanching greens, water is often seen as a means to an end, not the end in itself. But why, when water soaks up flavor like a sponge? Enter: Eight tiny stock recipes in the cookbook!

Not-from-a-cow milk. Blend water with raw nuts and you earn a creamy nondairy milk to put toward a herd (sorry, couldn’t help it) of dishes, like this basil cream sauce. Same goes for other dry goods, such as rolled oats and coconut flakes.

Makeshift vegetable soup. Puréed vegetables plus water equals soup? Yep. So long as you season liberally (start with this miso template), this is a surefire strategy for whatever’s about to take a turn for the worse in the crisper, from carrots to cauliflower to squash.

Silkier pasta sauce. The starchy-salty water in which your pasta cooks is as valuable as the pasta itself. Either remove the noodles with a spider or tongs, or reserve a mugful of the water before draining the pasta into a colander. This liquid can enrich eggs a la carbonara—like the cookbook’s cover recipe!—or stretch puréed vegetables.

Never-dry meatballs or meatloaf. A splashy trick I learned from Rao’s Genius meatballs: Any ground-meat situation loves a tall drink of water. Think of it like moisture insurance—even if you forget the meatloaf in the oven after the timer goes off.

Better veggie burgers. Combine dried chickpeas with water before you head to bed, and you’re halfway to falafel-esque, never-mushy veggie burgers. Save the canned beans for something else.

Crisper salads. Jumping into cold water isn’t fun for humans, but, boy, do vegetables love it. Whether it’s limp romaine or wilting celery, a quick dunk in an icy bath yields a refreshed crunch. What’s more: With chicories like radicchio, the water wards off bitterness.

Creamy dressings. Whether it’s tahini or sunflower butter, whatever nut or seed paste is in your kitchen would love to turn into dressing. When this fatty ingredient combines with water, it essentially acts as oil, emulsifying into something pourable, creamy, and lush.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from Big Little Recipes by Emma Laperruque, published by Ten Speed Press, November 9, 2021.


Recipes That Wouldn’t Be Possible Without Water

Rye Puff Pancake With Greens & Eggs

Many Dutch baby recipes turn to milk. This one treads a different path. Instead, rich crème fraîche teams up with water for a liquid that has the consistency of milk but way more flavor. Then more crème fraîche becomes a swooshable topping.

Brown Butter Matzo Brei

Old-school matzo brei hinges on water. The only question is: How do you incorporate it? All my relatives do it differently. Taking a cue from my mom, I rinse the matzo sheet under a running faucet. Then, to add extra fluff to the egg mixture, I add another splash of water for good measure.

3-Ingredient Veggie Burgers

For the best veggie burgers—with a confident crust and never-mushy middle—take a cue from falafel. Instead of starting with cooked beans, start with dried, soak them in water overnight, blitz them in a food processor, shape into patties, pan-fry, and ta-da.

Easy Meatloaf

A suspiciously large amount of water ensures that this comforting meatloaf stays moist and tender. What’s more: Because you add the water to a skillet of sautéed onions, it picks up all those browned bits at the bottom, becoming the world’s fastest vegetable stock.

Crispy Cheesy Broccoli Cheese Soup

Once again, blanching water comes to the rescue. This is usually seen as a means to cook vegetables. But along the way, you end up with a humble vegetable stock that’s just as versatile as store-bought. This cozy recipe only uses some of the yield, so you’ll have extra stock to stow away in the fridge or freezer.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

A cream of mushroom soup whose ingredient list is just cream and mushrooms (plus water, duh, and salt and pepper). For the mushroom-iest mushroom stock in town, dried shiitakes all the way. Because their flavor is so concentrated, all you need is 15-ish minutes on the stove.

3-Ingredient Oatmeal Cookies

Yes, you can make oatmeal cookies with three ingredients—just rolled oats, brown sugar, and tahini. The trick is to add a splash of water to encourage all the ingredients to get along and work together. BYO coffee for dunking.

Chocolatey Tahini Cups

Inspired by Reese’s, of course. The only catch? Peanut butter is significantly thicker than tahini. That’s where the water comes in. Stir a little into the sesame paste and watch it magically stiffen into a peanut-butter-like consistency, perfect for tucking inside a chocolate shell.

Snag a copy of the Big Little Recipes cookbook in our Shop, or a slew of other places, like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Bookshop.org, Hudson Booksellers, IndieBound, Powell's, or Target.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in November 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

Jenina G. October 27, 2021
can't forget Herve This' chocolate mousse!