I’m pretty on-record that I enjoy cooking. I’m one of those people who reads cookbooks—the actual recipes—for fun. And, I’m not afraid to experiment in the kitchen. Over the years, through trial-and-error, passed-along tips, and amateur exploration of food trends, I’ve assembled an arsenal of ingredients that I will sub in at any opportunity.
This post is entirely about substitutions that streamline preparation or enhance the finished dish, given the limitations of the average home kitchen and domestic budget. We aren’t putting anything under a Salamander or finishing with truffle oil. We’re just meeting a few new staples to add to our friends list.
Also, this post is not about modifying dishes to increase nutritional value or reduce calories. I’m all about subbing whole grains for refined and using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, but that’s a topic for another day.
Here are six ingredients I plug in whenever possible:
The inspiration for this post. As artist Anne Taintor knows, shallots can save a girl from mediocrity. Like onions, garlic, and chives, shallots are a member of the allium family. However, their flavor is sweeter and more complex than onions’, without the oniony “bite.”
For a more reputable endorsement, look no further than chef Anthony Bourdain, for whom “shallots are one of the things—a basic prep item in every mise-en-place—that make restaurant food taste different from your food.” In his kitchen, they “use nearly 20 pounds [of shallots] a day.”
Shallots are a great addition to any savory dish, even ones that don’t call for onions or another allium. I like to substitute them for purple onions in raw preparations. Their milder taste is not off-putting like purple onions’ can be, and because of their small size, they don’t leave me with excess the way onions often do.
Be classy. Use shallots.
Although they are most often associated with Indian and East Asian cuisine, I substitute basmati or jasmine rice pretty much anywhere I would use white rice.
The floral, nutty flavor adds an extra dimension to whatever I’ve prepared, and the aroma when the rice is cooking is divine.
Between oil-pulling and at-home, natural beauty treatments, coconut oil is really having a moment. When substituted for the fat called for in a recipe, it adds a subtle coconut flavor to your dish. The result is unexpected but welcome in savory dishes that can rock a tropical vibe. It is absolutely divine in desserts. Even chocolate chip cookies get a boost from your substituting coconut oil for the butter or shortening you normally would use.
I don’t remember when my love affair with frozen mango started, but I became an evangelist two years ago. My brother-in-law is a fantastic from-scratch cook. On one occasion, I was in the kitchen while he was processing a few pounds of fresh mango into chunks. At the end, he was disappointed with the stringy, flavorless fruit.* I asked if he’d ever used frozen, and he was surprised to hear that I did.
Girls. Use frozen mango. The quality is predictably high, and—unlike many fruits—it suffers little loss of quality in the freezing process. It comes in convenient-sized chunks. The fruit’s high natural sugar content keeps it from freezing too rock-hard, so if your recipe calls for a smaller dice, you can chop it smaller directly from the freezer.
Seriously. Stop peeling mangoes. Start living.
*I love to eat fresh mango out-of-hand. I don’t even peel it. The peel has a great astringent bite that compliments the fruit. But I have not a second to spare for peeling and chopping when I’ve got a recipe to make.
Better Than Bouillon
If I were a better person, all my stock would be made from scratch. Sadly, I have neither the time nor the freezer space to live that dream. Instead, I rely on Better Than Bouillon concentrated stock. The beef and chicken varieties live in my refrigerator. The taste is far superior to dry bouillon, and the unused portion can be refrigerated indefinitely (unlike liquid stock).
With the convenience of this product, you’ll never use plain water again. Just crack open a jar, and put the “Mmmmmmmmm” in “umami.”
I don’t deep fry, so I’m probably losing traditional-use points in the panko game. I make them up by using panko for breading and anywhere else breadcrumbs might be used. The flakes are large and airy, so they don’t pack together. As a result, the coating they make is lighter and crunchier than the spackle that breadcrumbs can produce. Use panko instead of bread crumbs as a topping for casseroles or as a binding agent for dishes like crab cakes and meatballs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek under my apron. If you have favorite ingredient substitutions, tell us about them in the comments below!