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Substitute Cooking - Flavor or Feel?

Substitute Cooking - Flavor or Feel?

Substitute-cooking to take out key ingredients, in my experience, is a lot like watching a new production of a favorite play. No two actors are ever going to play the part exactly the same, but so long as they don't change the role you will recognize it as the same play -- and you might even find the differences in the two performances refreshing.

We think about food substitutions in the same way. For most any food, it is very unusual to find a replacement part with the exact same flavor. But if you focus on the role that element plays in each of the dishes you want to create, you can usually find a substitute. Nuts on a salad are crunchy -- as are pumpkin seeds. Tomato puree makes a thick base -- as does pureed eggplant. Bread crumbs become gooey and absorbant to help hold meatballs together -- as does coarsely-ground cornmeal.

More surprising, I've found that I feel more satisfied by a substitute that serves the same purpose but tastes different than I am by a product made with different ingredients but engineered to try to imitate the same flavors.

I'll give you an example. One of the things I missed most when I was first put on a dairy-, gluten-, egg-, soy- and nuts-free diet was Mexican food. Now I know plenty of Mexican-tasting dishes I can make with those restrictions but at first what I missed most was the cheese. Faithfully, I would truck down to the grocery store and try one vegan, typically rice-based cheese after another. No offense to these food-innovators but inevitably I was disappointed.

Then one day I was putting the leftovers from a (cheese-less) taco dinner away and decided to turn them into a casserole, simply layering everything I had - including the refried beans. When it came out of the oven for dinner the next night, I was stunned to find that - for once - I didn't miss the cheese!  In fact, when my mouth experienced taco meat, refried beans and corn tortillas all at the same time it seemed to just assume there was cheese inside. Success -- and the beginning of a far-more-fruitful journey into the world of substitute cooking!

What are your go-to tips for re-creating recipes with substitute ingredients?  Leave me a comment below!

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