Friday, June 13, 2008

Substitution Basics

Welcome, welcome! Here we are again at ‘Hey, I Can Eat That’ and I’ve got some good stuff for you. Let’s talk about substitutions.

Depending on how long you’ve been living with your dietary needs, you may already know LOTS about substituting ingredients. If so, you might find some of this old hat. If you are still pretty new to this, I hope you’ll find it helpful.

My first rule of creating a meal that is in keeping with a person’s diet is this: Be willing to experiment. I tend to do a lot of cooking with my nose, sniffing different combinations of ingredients before tossing things in the pot. I’ve even been known to hang over a pan with a handful of some new ingredient trying to smell both the ingredient and the contents of the pan, simultaneously. Looks silly, but it can be very effective. Don’t be afraid to make something that tastes absolutely dreadful. Granted, food isn’t cheap and special ingredients can be costly and less convenient. Still, try to look at it as an investment. Finding new ways to use different foods will expand your culinary repertoire and this is a good thing, no?

My second rule is: Don’t expect the taste to be 100% the same. It won’t be. Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s the honest truth. A substitution is just that. Something else in place of what you might normally do. So, it will taste like something else. Just remember that this needn’t be a bad thing. The point of this is to find combinations and substitutions that will allow you to eat food you can love and have it not be entirely one-sided and unrequited.

Okay. So let’s get down to it.

Some substitutions are obvious, yeah? If you are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, you use some dairy alternative. But have you thought about using different substitutes for different situations? Personally, I’m very fond of a good cup of cocoa but once I was off dairy, I thought I was pretty well out of luck. I did try using soy milk but, to me, it just tasted like hot green beans with chocolate sauce. Not my thing, really. Also, I’m not overly fond of rice milk. Now, many are less picky than I and have no problems. However, let me suggest checking out the different varieties of nut milks. If you are okay with almonds or hazelnuts, milk made from these nuts are a wonderful alternative for cocoa. Yes, there will be the undeniable taste of the nut but that is a pleasing combination with chocolate. More pleasing, anyway, than the rather bean-y taste of soy. This is where the experimentation comes in. Try different dairy-free ‘milks’ in your recipies and see if you don’t find some really wonderful combinations. Remember also that these milks are often available in low-fat, unsweetened and flavored (vanilla and chocolate) options. I can tell you from experience, vanilla soy or nut milk makes a very sweet biscuit that might not be to everyone’s taste.

If citrus is an issue for you, you can still get the tangy flavor in recipes by trying different types of vinegar. I like apple cider vinegar for roasted chicken (which I promise I’ll tell you all about someday soon) but I prefer garlic-infused rice vinegar for a chicken salad made with cabbage and brown rice. Again, that will be a dish we’ll discuss in detail before long. If you want to balance out the acidic vinegar so it is more like citrus juice, try various combinations and quantities of brown sugar, honey, white sugar and even maple syrup. You’d be surprised at the wonderful flavor profiles you can create.

If wheat is your downfall, turn to other grains. Corn meal, potato flour, rice flour, corn starch and so on are all readily available and ready to be tried in your favorite dishes. Remember that the texture of your foods might be a bit different . For example, gravy made with corn starch does have a different mouth-feel than gravy made with wheat flour. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is something to remember.

Don’t overlook tofu as a way to get texture and a bit of binding into foods. We’ll do some cooking with tofu over time. Some of you are, even now, wrinkling your noses and thinking, “Gross. Is she seriously going to tell me to eat that squidgy tofu stuff?” Yes, I am. But once we’ve worked it over, it won’t be squidgy. It’ll be great eating. I promise.

There are dozens and dozens of other substitutions we’ll be making in recipes but these were some prime examples. Mostly, I wanted to get my two rules across. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t expect it to taste exactly the same. Just be open to trying all sorts of combinations, even when they sound wacky and see if you don’t end up eating something that tastes even better than the original!

I wouldn’t want to leave you without some food to try. The ultimate substitution food has to be pizza. While you don’t really need a formal recipe for this, below are some instructions and suggestions for making pizzas that everyone can have.

Substitution Pizza:

Pizza is a great meal when you are cooking for people with different dietary needs. Nearly anything can go on a pizza crust if you are willing to branch out from the traditional pizza idea. Best of all, individual pizzas are easy to make so no one has to spend half the meal picking off ingredients they don’t want or shouldn’t have. Let the kids help and it’s a great family evening!

Many recipes suggest you partially bake your dough before topping it. I recommend this myself as it gives a bit of foundation to your work and you won’t have to overcook your toppings trying to get the crust done properly. If you have a problem with yeast (as I do), but you are okay with soy, you can use the pizza dough in a can, available in the dairy and egg section of your grocery. Find it among all the biscuits in a can. Just remember to ALWAYS READ THE INGREDIENTS LIST! Personally, I love the convenience and speed of using these pre-made doughs. However, you can do quite well mixing up something on your own. Here’s a link to the recipe at ( You can make a crust with prepared baking mix (such as Bisquick) as well. If you do and you are avoiding dairy, consider which milk substitute you will be using. This is one of those times when you will want to avoid vanilla flavoring and you might be happier without the strong nut flavor. But you never know and if you’re feeling very brave, pizza crust with a hint of hazelnut might really turn you on. If you need to avoid both dairy and soy, try making a savory soda bread dough. It’s a pretty standard, simple recipe that you can find in nearly every cookbook and on every cooking site. We’ll be talking about soda bread more in the future.

One more word about the crust. If you are trying to cut back your carbohydrates to help manage weight or diabetes or just because it seems prudent, consider using flour tortillas as crusts. Simple and ready to use, the tortillas get nicely crisp in the oven or you can heat them up in the microwave for a soft crust that can even roll into a pizza burrito. Best of all, the meal can be ready in minutes which is handy when you have a family to feed and a schedule to stick to.

We’re all accustomed to putting different toppings on pizza. If you are steering clear of tomato but are okay with dairy, a white sauce is a good alternative. Add some Romano or Parmesan and a healthy dose of garlic to a standard white sauce. White sauce can be made with dairy substitutes so you might even consider that though melting the cheese substitute into it might prove more difficult. If white sauce doesn’t float your boat, try something simpler. How about olive oil and minced garlic? Lightly drizzle the oil on the crust and spread a bit minced garlic around. I like to top that with lighter things. Roasted chicken, onion and fresh baby spinach are my favorites. However, you can try peppers, olives, fish and even some roasted fruits if you’d like. Pears and apples are nice in combination with other savory ingredients like fish, poultry and onions.

Obviously, if you have issues with dairy, you’ll be looking for cheese substitutes. There are many good ones on the market, readily available in mainstream grocery stores. Do beware and read all labels carefully because some so-called veggie based cheese alternatives still contain dairy. They won’t melt they way cheese does but they can still be tasty and do the job of sticking all the other ingredients to the crust.

Enjoy, and until next time, let's go eat that!


Corinne said...

Oh yum! A pizza crust made with hazelnut milk sounds like a divine "canvas" for wild mushrooms and sweet onions! I absolutely love hazelnuts... I have no need for substitutions because of food allergies, but where could I find this hazelnut milk? I've heard of almond-milk but never seen it. I will have to check into this.

Sandra Gordon said...

Oh, now wild mushrooms and sweet onions probably would be really amazing on such a crust! I hadn't thought of that. I've seen hazelnut milk at Fry's Marketplace here in Arizona. Fry's is part of the Kroger chain so you might find it that way. Also, try some specialty markets like Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Sunflower Market.

Good luck!