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One day I was watching an episode of the cooking show Molto Mario. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, allow me to briefly limn the show’s format. It features Mario Batali, an intelligent, adroitly articulate, and highly revered chef who specializes in Italian cuisine. Seated to his left are three guests who change episodically. They are basically his “class” for that particular episode, the ones to which his attention and instruction are directed toward. The viewers observe this microcosm of culinary training vicariously.
During the course of the episode in question, the members of the triad repeatedly interrupted Batali with substitutional questions: One individual had an issue with the alcohol in a dish, other times they asked if one ingredient could be exchanged for another, and so on, etc. Apparently it got on Batali’s nerves, (and more sympathetic I could not be), for during the last dish, as he added the veal, (a controversial meat for some), Batali snapped: “Anyone got a problem with that?”
I am frequently posed with such queries when I teach my cooking classes. Individuals forever want to switch ingredients in recipes. This is due to a plethora of reasons: personal taste, food allergies, an ingredient’s cost, an ingredient’s unavailability, lack of confidence or experience with a certain ingredient, health concerns, (sometimes warranted, sometimes not), and an endless panoply of idiosyncratic beliefs that repel individuals from certain foods. Whatever the plausible explanation the template is always the same: “Can you use (blank) instead of (blank)?”
Therefore, in the interest of assisting all you switch-hitters out there, let’s review some guidelines for ingredient substitution. There are three categories as I see it: First, are the substitutions which have absolutely no bearing on a recipe, the second are substitutions that can be made without culinary disaster but will augment the nature of the dish, and finally, those which would be a general fiasco. Wading through which classification your switcheroo falls in usually requires nothing more than common sense, but sometimes more extensive culinary knowledge is necessary.
Benign substitutions, (and by benign I mean making no difference or only an infinitesimal difference), are the easiest to identify. I defy anyone to be able to discern the contrariety between two beefs stews, the first whose meat was initially seared in canola oil, and the second whose meat was seared in vegetable oil.
Likewise, nobody’s going to notice if your gelatin was soaked in tap water vs. spring water, your pasta sauce employed yellow onions vs. Spanish onions, or your lamb shanks were seasoned with black Tellicherry peppercorns from India or Lampong peppercorns from Indonesia. At this rudimentary level of ingredient substitution, just flip a coin.
The next category of substitutions is the most common: whereby it is not culinarily inaccurate to switch one ingredient for another, but the resulting flavor profile will change. Examples are endless. Sure, you can put parsley in your salsa instead of cilantro but it will taste entirely different. Don’t like pancetta? Use prosciutto in the carbonara sauce instead. Switch carrots for parsnips, ground round for ground chuck, flounder for sole, and half and half for light cream. Just be aware that in each instance the final flavor will change. Notice also, that in all of the above examples, the replacement was a similar victual. Parsley and cilantro are both delicate herbs, pancetta and prosciutto are both salty, cured pork products, carrots and parsnips are both root vegetables, flounder and sole are both light, white fleshed fish, etc. You have a far greater chance of running amok when you replace an ingredient with a discrepant counterpart. Thus, depending on the recipe, allspice berries for parsley, bologna instead of pancetta, artichokes for parsnips, and bluefish for sole could be a substitution for disaster. Therefore, the rule of thumb here is, the more similar the replacement is to the replaced, the more likely it will be a simple taste difference and not a folly.
Lastly are the substitutions that are blatant culinary errors. These are not subjective changes open to personal taste, they are outright blunders. This is where cooking expertise and/or knowledge of food science comes into play. For example, you can’t substitute half and half for heavy cream when making whipped cream. It won’t whip. The fat content of any dairy product other than heavy cream isn’t sufficient enough to whip. Baking soda cannot be substituted for baking powder. Baking powder contains acid and alkaline, the combination of which releases carbon dioxide and produces leavening. Baking soda is solely an alkaline and will not generate the same chemical reaction without an acid in the mix. Quite simply, baking soda alone will not cause your baked goods to rise where baking powder can stand on its own. You cannot substitute fillet mignon for veal shanks in a braised dish, or else you’ll transform the tender fillet into shoe leather. Tender cuts of meat necessitate dry heat methods, not wet cooking one such as braising. There are many other examples but I’m confident you get the gist.
As a final note, before you embark on switching ingredients in a recipe, I beseech you to do one thing first: ask yourself why. Harking back to Mario Batali, what is your “problem” with the ingredient in question? I raise this challenge because my mission is to educate people about food, and hopefully dispel the myths, unwarranted fears, and multitudinous quirks that impede humans from enjoying one of life’s most simple pleasures. If you truly don’t like the taste of a particular ingredient, can’t find it, or can’t afford it, case closed. If you have a legitimate, scientifically based reason substantiating a specific ingredient’s deleteriousness to your health, (such as a food allergy or sugar for a diabetic), end of discussion.
But are you eschewing an item because of the latest scaremongering fad, (like organic food), the newest weight-loss hoax, (like low carb diets), it’s an item that a small minority are sensitive to but is harmless to most, (such as salt), or its perniciousness is a complete misnomer, (like bleached flour)? American culture is especially prone to vilifying, misconceptualizing, and mythologizing food. I embolden you to have the courage to reevaluate your food notions, scrutinize their veracity, and maybe, just maybe, make a more profound substitution.