How to Adapt Vintage Recipes for Modern Kitchens
If you've come across confusing instructions and mystery ingredients, or have already had a recipe flop trying to make grandma's favorite cake following instructions from a faded, handwritten recipe card, you're not alone. Using recipes handed down from previous generations might call for a little extra effort and maybe even a bit of internet research. Luckily, most of the issues you may encounter fall within a few broad categories, each of which has a fairly simple solution. Read on to find out how to successfully recreate vintage recipes in your modern kitchen.
1. Handling discontinued ingredients
Recipes created between 1946 and 1990 are the biggest offenders for relying on brand name ingredients or mixes that have since been discontinued. The frosting mix in the original 1966 Tunnel of Fudge cake is a famous example, and bakers have learned to seek out alternative brands to sub in for the specific product.
If package size isn't specified in your recipe, quick internet sleuthing can help you discover how many ounces were in the original. I have the best success with image searching under the product name (and year, if known), so I can zoom in on the package. Then, get as close as possible with still-existent brands (national specialty brands like King Arthur, Jiffy, and Krusteaz are generally good sources; I've also had luck with Etsy sellers.) With that cake recipe, the original 13.5-ounce mix is often replaced with two 7-ounce mixes, and it works fine.
Sometimes, a flavor is the issue, like the 1960s flop, celery-flavored Jell-O. Substitute a flavor that you think suits the other ingredients (this is why lemon Jell-O is now used in savory salads), or experiment by adding a pinch of ground celery seed to the correct amount of unflavored gelatin powder.
There are also homemade ingredients, such as my grandmother's oatmeal cookie recipe that called for raisin juice. I didn't expect to find this in a store but couldn't guess what it was until Instagram friends solved my confusion, telling me to soak raisins in hot water before baking, and use the cooled liquid as "raisin juice." I've since tried it with other dried fruits, and it's a terrific addition to my pantry repertoire.
2. Adjust sugar and salt for modern palates
My old recipes rarely include salt in cookie dough or cake batter, with a bare minimum in yeast doughs. If you're used to cooking with salt, your baked goods will taste flat and bland — broadly not as good — without it. For cookies, the amount will be from ¼ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon depending on the batch size and amount of flour; for cake, ¼ to ½ teaspoon; for yeast dough, I find 2 teaspoons is correct for enriched doughs.
Similarly, older recipes can lean too far in the direction of sugar. Test kitchens typically agree that reducing sugar by 10 percent in most baked goods won't drastically change their textures or browning, so that's my starting point. If I'm feeling precise, I'll use the scale to reduce precisely 10 percent by grams; if not, I'll use a spoon to remove an estimated 10 percent from my measuring cup amount.
3. Embrace estimates
I've seen everything from "an egg cup of cold coffee" to "a handful of pecans" — and "soup spoon" is common in my oldest cookbooks. If you're comfortable with recipe imprecision, feel free to estimate based on what makes sense. If your goal is testing and updating for consistent perfection, take the extra steps of weighing or measuring those old-fashioned amounts and recording how many milliliters of cold coffee fit in your egg cup, or how many grams of pecans equal a handful. Take clear notes until you settle on the precise weight of your ideal pecan handful.
4. Revise temperatures and times
I'm thrilled to have the only cookbook my great-grandmother owned, but it took some bravery to cook from it, since the instructions were almost all "cook in a hot oven till done." To be fair, she would have been equally intimidated by digital timers and convection ovens.
A hot oven is generally 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) and up; a slow oven is around 300 degrees F (150 degrees C); a moderate oven is 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). You can generally find a modern recipe to refer to as starting point — biscuits are almost always baked in hot ovens, cookies and breads in moderate ovens, and baked custards in slow ovens.
"Till done" requires trial and error. Helpful tools include toothpick tests for cakes, color evaluation for cookies, and internal temperature checks of breads — 190 to 200 degrees F (87 to 95 degrees C) — depending on richness, after again referencing how long similar modern recipes require. Update your recipe card with what works, particularly on recipes you use rarely.
5. Forego the special trip
Before the boxed mix era, countless families had two options for food sourcing: Grow it themselves, or buy from the one grocer in their town. I sometimes pick up eggs or lard from the farmers' market to match the quality of a century ago, and playing with new-to-me ingredients is a permanent pleasure in the kitchen — but I'm not going to deprive my family of shortcake if I don't have the ideal, regionally-produced, low-gluten flour on hand for my grandma's biscuits. She would have found the idea absurd!
Never shy away from tweaking spices, dried fruits, nuts, and other flavorings to match what you have on hand. Not only does this keep your pantry goods from going stale in a grandma-approved way, you might discover a new combination that your own grandkids will come to consider a classic.