By Caroline Dipping
Don’t have it? Don’t like it? Can’t afford it?
Don’t fret. Substitute.
Into everyone’s life comes the time when they head into the kitchen to whip up a little midnight pan o’ brownies, only to find they are fresh out of unsweetened chocolate. They might just as well go back to bed.
But wait. With just a little kitchen wizardry, that brownie-craving insomniac can mix together 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon softened butter and voila! Now, there’s no need to throw a robe over those jammies to make a midnight run to the store.
Pam Schwartz, a restaurant industry veteran for 20 years and the culinary manager of Sur La Table in Carlsbad, Calif., for the past two years, is always reassuring her cooking students that it’s OK to substitute ingredients.
“I’m constantly telling them, ‘Don’t be scared in the kitchen,’_” said Schwartz. “Don’t be afraid to try a substitute. It’s just food.”
In a recent class on seasonings and flavorings, the topic of what to use when your pantry runs dry did come up, she said. She advised her students to take a moment to think about what works with what.
“Think about the ingredient you want to substitute and the region of the world it comes from,” said Schwartz. “If your dish calls for cumin or cilantro, but you hate those, think about what else grows where it does.
“Cumin and cilantro come from the Southern Hemisphere. What else grows in that region? Mint, basil and anise. Instead of cilantro, maybe use mint or basil.”
Also, substitutions in recipes are essential when something isn’t in season, such as fresh corn-on-the-cob, said Schwartz.
The way around that?
“Buy frozen corn and put it on a baking sheet and roast at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until it’s golden brown,” she said. “Toss it a couple times during baking, and it will have the same flavor as corn on the cob.”
Fresh fennel makes a dandy substitute for out-of-season celery root, she added. It doesn’t have exactly the same flavor profile, but it has the same consistency and crunch.
“And fresh fennel has a really mild flavor,” said Schwartz. “It doesn’t taste like black licorice.”
Baking, however, is one area where ingredients do not lend themselves well to substitution.
“You have to be very careful,” said Linda Bills, owner of Do It With Icing, a confectionary supply store and school in Clairemont, Calif. “Baking is a science. You can’t just throw things in like you can with cooking.”
Bills says baking a cake with substitutions — such as applesauce for oil, for example — can be done, but it is best to follow a recipe by someone who has already calculated the measurement changes and chemical transformation.
She is an advocate of checking the Websites of trusted manufacturers like Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, Kraft and General Mills, which have solid information on how to swap out ingredients. Bills says for people without Internet access, there are usually “800” numbers on cake mix boxes people can call for the same information.
Schwartz agrees about treading lightly around baking swaps.
“Baking is one area where I will never substitute … unless a recipe calls for raspberry jam and all I’ve got is strawberry.”
Caroline Dipping writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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