I love snooping around in second hand bookstores, looking for recipe and cookbooks. There is something about an old cookbook that brings out nostalgic memories in everyone, and I am no exception. It can, however, be a challenge to translate and update these recipes for a modern kitchen, especially in light of newer techniques and research around food and cooking.
Recently, a friend gave me a whole collection of old cookbooks and I have spent a lot of time poring over and cooking from them. While the books have been inspirational and very instructive in teaching me about ingredients, food and cooking, I must admit that they are not always easy to cook from. Ingredient lists are long, techniques are old fashioned and a lot of these recipes don’t always take into account modern appliances.
We live in a fast paced world, and while slow cooking, old fashioned techniques sound terrific, real life doesn’t always allow for spending hours in the kitchen making that beautifully layered mille-feuille. On the other hand, I do want to make and eat these dishes. So, I came up with a few tips to adapt these recipes to suit my busier lifestyle. This workflow helps me work out ingredients, quantities, and techniques and most importantly, make sure that the dish tastes exactly as it should.
One of the first steps in updating older recipes is making sure that the ingredients we use are the right ones. Occasionally I come across ingredients that I have never heard of, yet were popular in their time. For example, I was browsing an old German cookbook that was passed on to me by a friend, and one of the ingredients called was hartshorn salt. I did a little more research on this, and learned that it’s an old baking and leavening agent, mainly used in decorated, pressed cookies. Finding these ingredients can be time consuming, but there are specialty stores that sell them, and if you want to stay authentic to the recipe, you can certainly seek them out.
Which brings me to the second tip – what do we do when the ingredient is actually unavailable or unsuitable Staying with the hartshorn, while it is technically available in specialty stores, I don’t necessarily want to go to the trouble of buying it. And, having read and researched more about where it comes from, I have realized that it’s not a vegetarian ingredient, so it won’t be suitable for my family. At this point, we look for substitutions for ingredients. It’s usually easy to find substitutions. A quick look on the internet confirmed that hartshorn can be replaced with baking powder, as it is primarily a leavening, raising agent. Most ingredients can be substituted with their modern counterparts, the key is to make sure that you are able to directly substitute them. The internet is a fantastic resource for this, and we can find almost everything with a little bit of extra research.
Reworking quantities and temperatures
Substituting ingredients is all well and good, but how much? There are three parts to this tip.
The first part is researching whether we can directly substitute the quantity of ingredient to ingredients. Going back to my hartshorn, a little more digging found that I could substitute 1 teaspoon of baking powder to 1/2 teaspoon of hartshorn. Finding the right quantities when it comes to substituting ingredients is crucial, as it can mean the difference between making a recipe work, and having a disaster on your hands.
The second part of this tip is more practical. Older recipes may use measurements that we are unfamiliar with, and there are several times when a recipe doesn’t even specify a quantity. This is especially true of handwritten recipes, and if you’re trying to recreate the exact taste of grandma’s applesauce cake, it’s not helpful when grandma writes ‘a pinch of this, a smidgeon of that’, and what on earth is a jigger, a gill or a peck? Thankfully a website like this one, comes to the rescue, and I can’t count the number of times I have referred back to it to get the exact quantities for the recipe I am making.
And finally, part three, is working with temperatures. My go-to chocolate cake recipe is over a hundred years old, and recommends that I bake the cake in a slow oven. The website above also talks about the specifics of oven temperatures, and this time I was lucky enough to also have the benefit of asking my mother-in-law. So a slow oven is about 300 F.
It’s worth asking older relatives if they will help out with recipe adaptations. Most people will tend to remember a few things here and there, and with some detective work, you can end up with an amazing cake that tastes just like the one grandma made (well, perhaps not exactly, after all, no one can add the extra love that grandma would have put in)
The other thing to keep an eye while adapting older recipes is techniques. Occasionally we come across unfamiliar techniques, or some that are no longer in use. It can definitely be fun to learn and practice older methods of cooking, and I love experimenting when I get a chance. Understanding techniques means I also get a feel for how the recipe will work and where I can use shortcuts. Again, research is key. Look for old cooking shows that illustrate some of these techniques and practice.
However, the downside is that there are also techniques that new research has now deemed unsafe, and not to be used. Canning recipe, in particular, are one such instance. My mother-in-law gave me a fabulous old canning book, which has really beautiful and unusual recipes for putting up vegetables, fruit and making jam. While their technique for putting up vegetables seems reasonable, modern research has found that there is always a chance of botulism, and recommends using a pressure canner. The recipe book also talks about ‘flipping’ jams over so that fruit doesn’t float. But it means the canning seal is at risk of unsealing, potentially becoming hazardous. So while I am not saying that all old recipes need their techniques updating, I am saying that it is best to be cautious, and use modern science wherever available.
The old French technique for making the perfect meringue calls for whisking egg whites in a copper bowl. Oh, how I wish I had a beautiful old copper bowl and the time to whisk my egg whites by hand. But, I do have a nifty little electric whisk and a stainless steel bowl that I don’t need to polish. Hurrah. One of the joys of today is that there are appliances that do just about everything. And while there is no substitute for good old fashioned graft, there is also absolutely no reason why the bread has to be made by hand when there is a perfectly decent stand mixer just waiting to save you time and effort.
There is nothing to be ashamed of in using technology to make our lives better and easier. I would much rather use a mixer, and make fresh bread every day, rather than feel tired after a day’s work and buy processed food instead. Modern appliances make it easier to adapt older recipes, and a little bit of research will help in making those choices a lot easier. And the end result of updating older recipes is that we now have the opportunity to pass them down to our own children and grandchildren. Now that is a legacy worth leaving.
So, how many of you love the smell of old books, recipes and have hoards of handwritten recipes from generations back? Confess here.
Recipe development: How to adapt old recipes for a modern kitchen was written by Michelle Peters-Jones. Michelle blogs at The Tiffin Box, and is a food writer, recipe developer and communications professional. She loves weaving stories around food, and creates recipes inspired by her family and friends. She writes about East Indian, British and Canadian food, with a strong focus on using fresh, local and sustainable ingredients. Michelle writes a regular column for FBC called the Spice Box.