I’m an unredeemable direction-follower. As a boy, I’d account for the meniscus when measuring water to make Ramen noodles. As a man, I was relentlessly mocked by my wife for my stove-side devotion to the succinct instructions of Mark Bittman (aside: If you only ever own one cookbook--and you should only ever own one cookbook--it should be Bittman’s entirely accurately titled HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING. It’s like the universal Chilton Manual for prepared food).
This, obviously, is the pathology of a man terrified of failure--that I ever wrote anything at all, let alone an entire damn book (let alone several!) is itself a crippled miracle. While DIY is obviously empowering--My stove was broken, now it’s fixed; I did that!--having instructions in hand can really quickly shackle us, as it’s so easy to mistake a good way of doing X for the only way to do X.
I was a willing slave to the ingredients list and the step-by-step.
I finally confronted this at 28. When my son was born I left my job teaching and administering programs at a small private school to be a full-time father. It obviously wasn’t sterling economic judgement to add a human to our household while simultaneously cutting our income in half (or halfish--my wife had the better job and healthcare, which is why I’m the one who stopped working outside in the World of Real People). I was freelance writing and editing (mostly copyediting, really) during that period, but that was only night and nap-time work, and so our budget was tight. Our mortgage was a fixed cost; gas for my wife to drive to work was a fixed cost; as folks with no AC who never let the boiler get the house much above 60, utilities where a fixed cost. When we cut all of the fat from our budget, the only flex point left was the grocery budget. Subsequently, during that first year, I often found myself without an ingredient from the list. This meant a lot of improvisation, and subsequently a lot of discovery.
As it turns out, there’s nothing in a cookbook that’s written in stone. Does it say all-purpose white flour? I’m gonna tell you, cake flour will probably work. Whole wheat will probably work if you add a little extra wet stuff. For something that doesn’t really need to rise--quick bread or cookies, for example--masa harina (a fine cornmeal flour used to make tortillas) will work, as will oats ground up in a food processor. Beer can replace stock in any recipe, and bonus, cheap beer works better here. A striped down “French bread” dough (e.g., 3.5 cups flour, a teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon or two salt, 1.5 cups water; smash together) will serve as pizza crust, fry bread, buns, rolls, artisanal hand-formed round for a dinner party, or utilitarian sandwich bread. The savvy--and frugal--kitchen technician learns that cookies, scones, and biscuits are all the same thing: sweetened flour-and-water paste with fat added, baked at 375 for 7 to 10 minutes..
This new-found liberation carried over into faking a lot of things as I built and repaired what we couldn’t buy. And, when I started writing Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred, that same attitude wound up in the projects: How can I make this simpler? Cheaper to build? Easier to generalize? And I know I’m not the only DIY writer who takes this attitude.
My point: Every parts list is really a set of suggestions. If there is no danger in making a replacement (i.e., you’re not working with high voltage, high speeds, or high toxicity), then swap in what you’ve got for what you need. Three-quarters of the time it works well enough, and surprisingly often you wind up with something both surprising and awesome.
The rule then, for any project, is this: Do what you can with what you’ve got.
 FYI, the formula for cookies|scones|biscuits is 1:2:3, which is the ratio of sweet-stuff to fat-stuff to flour-stuff (by volume). So, for a lil batch of cookies, you can do 1/3 cup sweet-stuff (sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, cane syrup, or any combination there-of), 2/3 cup fat-stuff (butter or shortening for cookies), and 1 cup flour-stuff. If you use butter, this “cookie” comes out like a shortbread/sugar cookie. Replace butter with eggs and cut back on the sugar, you’ll get biscuits. Use a little egg and a little butter and either more or less sugar? You’ve got scones. Throw in raisins or chocolate chips, charge a couple bucks each, serve it with a cup of burned coffee, and you’re Starbucks.
 I was later informed that this is essentially Roosevelt’s Law of Task Planning, whose canonical formulation is: “Do… read more