On Substitutions in Recipes

I have discussed ingredient substitutions in classes, and I will probably go on mentioning them here in my blog. They’re not cheating, they don’t fundamentally detract from the recipe and they’re not wrong. Purists who click their tongues are nothing but elitist food snobs who can’t think in the kitchen the way a chef thinks. And anyone who disagrees with me so far should remember that many of the original, classic recipes bear no resemblance to their modern day counterparts.

Substitutions should redefine a dish, not sabotage it. Here’s a classic example. A la Florentine is a well-known preparation of with spinach and typically Mornay sauce. Whether your protein is chicken, mullet, pork or eggs, the preparation remains the same.

The great masters of classic cuisines codified their knowledge based on hundreds of years of culinary evolution within their own cuisines. This meant that whatever ingredients they could regularly rely on, whether it was seasonal produce or consistently duplicable, cheese for instance, became the go-to ingredients that they spent centuries refining into the dishes that exemplify those particular cuisines. They did not have jet-fresh or cold-pack cargo planes available to them, and geography played a big role in availability. There are also a number of ingredients found in every major cuisine, but for the most part they were curiosities rather than staples.

Nowadays, chefs and home cooks alike have access to mega stores where esoteric ingredients from around the world can be easily had, for a price. My local market has frozen blueberries regularly, which is a quintessential American summer fruit. Likewise, chumous and other Israeli mainstays can be found on shelves all over the States. I have found southeastern lemongrass here in Israel, and so on.

Substitution on the other hand, is entirely different. The strictures of the kosher eating style do not allow for mixing of meat or milk, or the products of unkosher animals. Luckily, we have ingredients available that we can readily use to substitute that will allow us to maintain the integrity of the soul of the dish.

Margarine is a classic example. Created as a substitution for butter so that Napoleon’s armies would have solid fat that would go rancid for cooking during the months spent in the field. Yes, margarine has trans fats that are bad for you, so don’t eat whole sticks of it at a time.

Turkey and veal are excellent stand-ins for recipes that call for pork. Use turkey or veal for ground meat substitutions, or use the turkey breast in place of a pork loin. Watch the temperatures though, because they don’t have the same density and turkey will cook faster. Use veal in place of pork for recipes that require roasting or sauteing.

From Japan, we have the soybean in it many forms that give us a variety of textures and products that we can use in place of traditional ingredients. From milk to sour cream to bricks of tofu, the soybean has saved the day in the kosher kitchen. Soy protein has stood in for meat products, most noticeably bacon bits.

Non-dairy creamer is a very chemical substitute for milk, so I only recommend using it where the usage is comparatively small, and go with soy milk for the higher volume recipes. Soy milk can also be made in to ice cream.

There are some not so obvious substitutions, such as a soy bechamel for a cheese covering of a vegetable gratin to be served with a meat meal, meat lasagna, or mousaka, which won’t give you the tang of cheese but will most certainly dress up the dish quite nicely. And work is always advancing in the fields of artificial flavors, also known as triglycerides.

I feel no shame in using or experimenting with ingredients to open my culinary experience to flavors or textures that were unavailable to me. And neither should you. Feel free to contact me for ideas on how to adjust a recipe to suit our dietary laws.



One thought on “On Substitutions in Recipes”

  1. Nice article! I love when food or wine snobs get a sharp kick to their derrières. (Come to think of it, I used to appreciate it when the same fate befell music and poetry snobs in college.) This is not because I am spiteful. It is important for budding cooks and connoisseurs to feel that they have a contribution to make that won’t be crushed because they don’t see things “just so.” Kol hakavod.

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