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Suggested substitutions that are total BS


Chris Hennes
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I keep coming back to the example that spurred this topic on: epazote. For those not familiar with the stuff, let me try to concoct an equivalent example. Imagine a recipe for "pesto genovese" that suggested that if you can't find basil, you can use cilantro instead. Cilantro has a very strong flavor. So does basil. And they are both green and leafy! But who would argue this is a reasonable substitution? If you can't get basil, you simply don't make pesto genovese, it's as simple as that.

Pesto Genovese is a very particular dish where the basil is the primary and starring ingredient. If an Italian person in Italy were telling you to use cilantro, s/he would not be telling you to make pesto Genovese, but pesto coriandolo or something else. That's not a fair example.

In what recipe is epazote a primary ingredient where the entire dish relies solely on its flavour? I'm asking for the purpose of my own edification, as I only know epazote for its use in cooking beans.

(And to Chris A., I don't think you could use pineapple in my mango pudding recipe because of the gelatine, but if you really want to try, go ahead. You could probably use pintos in the shortbread recipe, but I would suggest soaking them in simple syrup for a bit, and perhaps dicing them so they're the same size as adzukis. To me, all beans taste alike, so I don't think the type of bean matters so much as the size.)

edited for clarity's sake

Edited by prasantrin (log)
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What about this? In Oseland's _Cradle of Flavor_ he recommends subbing cilantro for rau ram because

Though cilantro tastes nothing like Vietnamese basil, its fresh clean taste makes it a good substitute.

To my mind, he's not saying they taste the same, he's saying they have a similar effect in that they are both herbal in similar ways (fresh and clean). Maybe you buy this or maybe you don't but I think it works. Subbing canned pineapple for mango, come on! Yes, they're both fruits as cilantro and rau ram are both herbs, but if you sub out the mango in a mango pudding, its not mango pudding. That's a red herring. If you sub out one herb for a salad, you're not compromising the integrity of the dish. Pineapple for mango? That's apples to oranges.

So what I'm driving at here is that it's not an all or nothing proposition: if I sub out vermouth for white wine in a pan sauce or my risotto (I do this regularly), that doesn't mean I think you can just sub it out in any application (poulet au Riesling is one obvious example). In some instances it changes the dish, in some it doesn't. Knowing how to sub and how to read what a dish is or should be out of somebody's recipe is something that has to be learned by experienced cooks and really, I think, something that defines one. Besides, if I can't sub nebbiolo from Langhe in my brasato al "Barolo" I'd never be able to make it.

nunc est bibendum...

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White Wine

White wine for cooking should be strong and dry, but never sour or fruity. A most satisfactory choice is what Mâcon, made from the Pino Blanc or the Chardonnay grape. It has all the right qualities and, in France, is not expensive. As the right white wine is not as reasonable to acquire in America, we have found that a good, dry, white vermouth is an excellent substitute, and much better than the wrong kind of white wine.

There is no caveat there, no "except in this or that case." Simple, literal "an excellent substitute." Not even an "adequate" substitute! "Excellent"! And of course it works sometimes: a beurre blanc is actually quite good with vermouth. But to simply state that you can make the substitution at any time is crazy.

I will have to disagree with you Chris with my own caveat. White vermouth is indeed a very goood substitute for white wine, IF we know what vermouth to use. "cheap" vermouth is almost indistinguishale from white wine in 99% of cooked applications. So I usually have a bottle of Vya for drinks that I would not imagine putting in a risotto because you will taste it, and another much less expensive bottle of some vermouth that works perfectly fine if I want a 1/2 cup here or there without opening a bottle of white wine that I might not feel like drinking at the time. So I would have to say that vermouth is really an excellent substitute.

I also almost always substitute butter for oil in quick breads (few exceptionjs include those amde with good olive oil) and never use shortening. I am with Tri2Cook here, I'll do away with a little tenderness for more flavor and no oily film in m y mouth that I always get with muffins made from oil.

Now, Worcestershire sauce for soy? Disgusting and stupid and really makes no sense. And there is no substitute for fish sauce.

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Great thread.

A couple of things that really get me going:

- Substituting bacon for pancetta, especially in pasta dishes. Totally different result. Would you substitute smoked fish for baccala in a recipe that called for baccala?

- "All-purpose" flour for everything, especially in cake recipes

- Bottled lemon or lime juice as a substitute for fresh

- Insipid green bell peppers as a substitute for poblanos. Actually, green bell peppers in anything (they should be banned)

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As a reader and user of recipes as well as a writer of them, I have a few thoughts.

First, this may be incidental, but it might not be the cookbook author's decision to include the substitution. My guess is that it's usually the editor's doing. For instance, I wrote an article that included a recipe for corn soup that called for Old Bay seasoning. The publication didn't like to use brand names, so the editor asked me to change it. I didn't have much time, so after a quick internet search, I used the term "Maryland-style seafood seasoning" and crossed my fingers that readers would know I meant Old Bay and not Zatarain's crab boil or something. I can easily see an editor telling Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless that readers wouldn't be able to find epazote and that they should include a substitution. Not that this makes it right or wrong, just that it might not be under the author's control.

Second, some people just want to make changes. When we teach classes, we always have at least one student pipe up asking how to make a recipe lower fat, or what they can substitute for this or that ingredient. We try to be accommodating, but at the same time keep the integrity of the recipe intact as much as possible. Most of the time, that means saying, "Well, you could do this, but it's going to change the recipe in the following way. . . " God only knows what this translates to when these people cook. I'm not sure I want to know.

Of course, there are no perfect substitutions. When you change something in a recipe, you -- well -- change it. Sometimes the change is minor and sometimes it's major. In classes when we get questions about substitutions, I try to concentrate on the essence of the recipe to see if substitutions might make sense. If someone asks me what they can sub for sherry vinegar in a salad dressing, I'll give them some ideas, and try to give them an idea of how the various possibilities will change the flavor profile of the dressing. But if they ask about a sub for sherry vinegar in the recipe for chicken in sherry vinegar sauce, I tell them to try a different recipe. You just can't do it. Ideally, every cookbook author will be able to do this kind of thing, but I doubt that's realistic.

Finally, it takes a pretty experienced cook to be able to predict the effect of substitutions with any accuracy, but it's the beginner cooks who tend to want to make changes. They don't have a stash of pantry ingredients like more experienced cooks usually do, and they don't want to invest in an expensive ingredient for only one recipe. I have a lot of sympathy for that attitude, but I'm sure it results in a lot of unfortunate food.

Edited to add that I see Alcuin made much the same point above, which I missed.

Edited by JAZ (log)
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I will have to disagree with you Chris with my own caveat. White vermouth is indeed a very goood substitute for white wine, IF we know what vermouth to use. "cheap" vermouth is almost indistinguishale from white wine in 99% of cooked applications.

No disagreement at all: my objection is in uncooked or barely-cooked applications. I personally use vermouth in place of white wine when it's going to be cooked even when I have the white wine, because I like it better much of the time.

I've never seen the Worcestershire/soy sub recommended, where is that from?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I've never seen the Worcestershire/soy sub recommended, where is that from?

I was mostly responding to a previous poster here. I am sure I've seen it somewhere though.

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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I also almost always substitute butter for oil in quick breads (few exceptionjs include those amde with good olive oil) and never use shortening. I am with Tri2Cook here, I'll do away with a little tenderness for more flavor and no oily film in m y mouth that I always get with muffins made from oil.

I do this as well, as my husband swears he suffers from heartburn from muffins made with corn or other vegetable oil.

I live overseas, so I have to adapt recipes constantly. Even if I can find and afford the ingredients in many dishes, I just don't have a big enough kitchen to keep eight kinds of vinegar and six kinds of mustard on hand. But, I don't want to eat the local cuisine all the time. Thus, compromise.

So

I think, as is being pointed out, that the quality of the substitution matters. Using a poor quality ingredient to maintain the authenticity of a dish may be less successful than using a substituted but less authentic ingredient. I will do crazy things like sub in Hunnanese smoked ham or other Chinese pork products when a recipe calls for parma ham, or even, heaven forfend, pancetta. I just don't invite any Italians over for dinner, or attempt to give the dish an Italian name. Does it taste like the original dish as written? I'd guess not. But I know enough not to blame the recipe's author if it doesn't work out. It's a risk I take.

When doing this, I always try to ask myself, "What is the role of the ingredient in this dish?" I mean, I'm sure there are Asian cookbooks out there (And let's face it - this a problem for many regional cuisine cookbooks) that suggest using can use things like canned baby corn in dishes. But the whole point of baby corn is that it's a fresh, crispy vegetable with a sweet taste. If people can't find fresh baby corn, then using a floppy pale tasteless corn will result in an "authentic" but tasteless dish. Using something that mimics the spirit of the ingredient will compromise authenticity, perhaps, but maintain tastiness and enjoyment. I'd like to think when editors ask cookbook authors to suggest substitutions for difficult ingredients, that they make substitutions with the spirit of the ingredient in mind, and not necessarily the form of the ingredient. It sounds like James Oseland is one of these kinds of authors.

What I try never to do is make substitutions in the spirit of health. It almost always compromises tastiness.

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I think that this discussion goes to a core question: what do people value in cooking?

Some people really enjoy trying new dishes or replicating ones they've had at restaurants, and the substitutions are often an inevitable part of that. Bacon subs for pancetta, even though it's smoked and pancetta isn't. Big whoop.

Some people really enjoy striving for that elusive beast, "authenticity," and will hunt down ingredients to approach it, even going so far as to cure their own pancetta. Of course, then you get into finer and finer granularity defining "authentic pancetta," and it's turtles all the way down.

Some people really enjoy considering the conceptual aspects of dishes and want to have the ingredients function in relation to those concepts. Erin's Hunnanese smoked ham substitution and Oseland's recommendations seem to do this, if I'm understanding her correctly. (FWIW, this is what the best cooks I know do regularly, like Channavy Chhay in this piece on Khmer cooking in the US and Ami Meganathan in this topic about South Indian food.)

And some people just want to make something tasty for dinner, call it whatever you will. Last night, I made a green bean side dish with what I had on hand; when my parents asked me what it was, I realized I had made a nearly classical rendition of green beans almondine without realizing it. (Click for Saveur's take, which I just found this morning.) I almost put bacon in there, in fact.

What strikes me in this discussion is the moral relativism many of us, including yours truly, have to this issue across these different value categories. The thought of using ketchup for tamarind paste in pad thai makes me go all Kurtz and think "kill... them... all...." But then I read StevenC getting POed about bacon for pancetta and think he's over-reacting and should chill out. Of course, I've never substituted ketchup for tamarind paste, but bacon for pancetta, now just maybe....

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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My values are extremely high when it comes to cooking or baking.

When it is a "choice" and not a "necessity," it becomes more reasonable to assume that the cook is making the substitution because he or she wants to see if it works.

I think this may be the true origin of "fusion" cooking and I have done a lot of this over the years because I love to experiment with food.

Not always a terrific result, sometimes a disaster, but it was mostly fun.

One example, I've used couscous instead of rice to serve with Asian dishes. I didn't have to but I wanted to see if it worked.

I never tried to sell anyone on the idea that it was authentic. I like it and so have my guinea pigs/guests. There are lots more but this is the one that comes readily to mind.

Yesterday I read a hilarious mystery that I really should mention in the topic about food in books, because food plays a significant role in the story.

And an integral scene was an attempt to prepare chicken marsala by replacing the "good stuff" with low-fat and non-carb ingredients and you can guess the result.

(If anyone is interested the book is Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie and it is aimed at a female audience.)

I don't believe in substituting a cheap ingredient for a more expensive one and trying to pass it off as authentic. I detest the phony in everything, not just cooking. If the ingredients are too costly for the budget, make something else. There are thousands of dishes that can be made with very inexpensive ingredients.

The most glaring examples are the fake "crab" and "lobster" and the "punched" scallops which are worse than phony. I've never purchased them and never will.

For some things there simply is NO substitute.

Edited by andiesenji (log)

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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On 24 August 2010 - 10:24 PM, Chris Hennes said:


On 24 August 2010 - 10:07 PM, maggiethecat said:


Fist bump! A man who gets it. *What cookies?


Polvorones Sevillanos from Fiesta at Rick's. Seriously, four ingredients: flour, sugar, cinnamon, and lard. A beautiful thing!



I gotta try these! Seems it's like a shortbread. But made with lard.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Yesterday I read a hilarious mystery that I really should mention in the topic about food in books, because food plays a significant role in the story.

And an integral scene was an attempt to prepare chicken marsala by replacing the "good stuff" with low-fat and non-carb ingredients and you can guess the result.

(If anyone is interested the book is Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie and it is aimed at a female audience.)

The book which inspired me to cook Chicken Marsala for the first time. There's knowledge I didn't need! :laugh: The best part is when one of the characters shows up to save the day by bringing real chicken marsala. I'm still looking for a bottle of marsala in China - no dice so far. I've tried subbing in red wine for it, and it just ain't right, to me. It's one dish I won't make until I can find the real thing.

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One of my favorite phenomena of all time was a recipe on something like AllRecipes.com for boiled water, featuring all sorts of commentary from people who complained that it was tasteless, or the best recipe for boiled water ever, and included obligatory commentary from the "I'll substitute anything for anything and rate your recipe as if my substitutions are exactly the same" crowd... "Yeah, I really like this recipe, except that I substituted chicken stock for the water and added salt and pepper and some fresh herbs for seasoning. It's great! 5 stars!"

As for me, I'm pretty idiosyncratic. There are certain substitutions which I just can't appreciate or accept. I don't understand substituting mirin with sugar. I can't replace butter with margarine. I can't replace fresh September tomatoes with the similarly shaped things by the same name that supermarkets sell in February.

On the other hand, I'm quite happy to improvise based on unique needs or available ingredients. When I knew I had a Muslim guest coming who wanted to avoid foods made with any sort of alcoholic beverage, I substituted wine that I was accustomed to using in a German fruit compote called "Rote Grütze" with some verjuice, with results that a friend of mine who once studied in the same town as me pronounced "better than the German version." It turns out there are probably as many variations of that dish as families (and further variations that depend greatly on which red fruits are in season), and some versions use lemon juice rather than wine, but it was at least a "new" substitution for me.

I often find that I'm not that clever with substitutions... I started making a miso caramel ice cream a while back, as an experimental variation of salted caramel ice cream, only to learn that miso caramel was a trend being popularized by people with far better marketing skills than me.

Some substitutions that were based on things that were available have produced some truly great food, if the function of the ingredient was at least compatible. For example, my friend bought some fresh basil to make tomato-basil-mozzarella spring rolls, but ran out and started using shiso, which was available in abundance in Japan. Certainly not the same, but really nice, and completely in spirit with the combination behind caprese, if not the ingredients. I finally believed the advice of a Japanese teacher I had in Germany, who said that one could substitute shiso with basil when shiso wasn't available. It wasn't the same dish, but it worked as well.

When the function of an ingredient is compatible, you can certainly make some very nice discoveries, though you certainly won't have the same product. But considering that even an ingredient by the same name isn't always the same quality (Gallo Burgundy from the late 1960s instead of France's version, anyone?), it's an understandable impulse to make do with what's available. I will use yuzu instead of lemons in Japan (and I usually like the results better than the same dish made with lemons). In the US if I can't find yuzu for something that prefers it I'll try to make do with Meyer lemon and maybe seville oranges.

Jason Truesdell

Blog: Pursuing My Passions

Take me to your ryokan, please

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