Friday, December 24, 2010

Food Substitutions

During my senior year in college, I was the weekend cook at my sorority.  It was a great little job and I remember one of my friends teasing me pretty badly when I had actually made the corn bread according to the recipe.  She knew that I had a penchant for changing any recipe I started with.  Fortunately, the food I cooked always tended to turn out pretty good.  I never heard any complaints from the gals I cooked for.  At the time, the internet was just in its baby stages of development, so there wasn't any way I could have searched for food substitutions when I needed them.  I just used my own experiences cooking as my base for ideas.

When I was just out of college, I found a little food substitution book, Substituting Ingredients, in an out of the way used book store in rural Colorado.  I was so thrilled!  I'd found a book to go to when I found myself in a jam missing a spice, tomato paste, or an egg.   That was thirteen years ago and I've used that book for all this time.  This year I discovered that an updated edition had been published.  A few months back, I posted a review for this book.

Although it was a big improvement over the older edition I had, I realized that there were so many things that were still missing!  There were so many substitutions that I went looking for regularly and still couldn't find in the book.  One of the prominent ones was for wine.  So, I began a search for another cookbook of this type that would be more helpful in all the cooking I do.

In my search, I came across two books that I reviewed recently: How to Break an Egg and How to Squeeze a Lemon, both published by Taunton Press.  These books were more tip oriented.  The substitution sections at the end of the books were tiny and only as helpful as the chart that's on the inside cover of many basic cookbooks on my shelf.  The tips were fun to read, but I realized my search needed to go on.  Please forgive the song allusion, but I still hadn't found what I was looking for.

What I wanted was a thorough substitution book that covered both the basics and the out of the way, unusual ingredients.  But, I also wanted it to be formatted well.  Formatting, I've discovered, makes a huge difference when you're pressed for time and trying to find an emergency substitution.  Your fingers have to be able to flip through the book and your eyes have to find the page you're looking for in a few seconds.  Formatting truly makes all the difference in the world when it comes to this kind of cookbook.

It was the formatting that I felt needed improvement in the two books of cooking tips which I reviewed.  Substituting Ingredients solution to the formatting was to make a small book with small type, less words, and more spacing.  For people who only do basic cooking, that cookbook is probably the way to go.

But, for those of us who love to cook or just simply cook a lot, I finally found a book that I think hits the mark!  It's the second edition of
The Food Substitutions Bible 
by David Joiachim  
The title was actually a bit off-putting to me because the Holy Bible is very important to me and I've noticed a trend to use the word "Bible" in the title of various books over the past few years.  You can laugh at me because it was actually the title that caused me to overlook this book many times over the past few years as I was searching for a better food substitution cookbook.  Now I wish I hadn't waited so long to pick up this book!

The first time I opened up this book it was hard to put down.  I expected to find a very dry, boring book of substitutions.  Please don't get me wrong.  I was just expecting information that was only useful, not information that was engaging and interesting as well.  This book drew me and my husband in with its funny stories and interesting tidbits of information.  For example, I had no idea that "Saanen, a Swiss cheese of amazing longevity, sometimes edible for 200 years.  Traditionally, a child's birth is commemorated with an individual saanen cheese.  Tiny pieces are consumed on special occasions during the person's lifetime.  In some cases, the cheese outlives the person." p. 481  Other notes are helpful to explain things I've always wondered about.  Savory is a spice I've come across over the years in various recipes and have puzzled about.  It is "known in parts of Europe as the bean herb because its pleasant spicy nature benefits beans, peas, and lentils.  Summer savory is milder and the spiky leaves are more tender than those of winter savory." p. 496  Under the substitution section for savory, several good alternatives that are on my shelf were listed--thyme, rosemary, and safe.

This book is hefty at 696 pages.  But, the heft is worth it.  This book doesn't sacrifice meat for size the way Substituting Ingredients and other books I've seen recently do.  The type is very readable.  The formatting is excellent--all of my complaints I've had with other cookbooks this year about formatting are null and void when it comes to this book.  The book is arranged in alphabetical order with several helpful ingredient and measurement guides at the end.  I would suggest using some tabs to mark the guide pages at the end that you tend to use a lot, then you will be able to flip to them quickly.

The ingredients in this book range from things you use every day to that strange spice you once saw in a Middle Eastern cookbook named Za'tar.  Even "egg scissors" are explained.  The irony was that we just had soft boiled eggs last week--it would have been helpful to know about egg scissors then! I was particularly curious about this book after I read a negative review of it that complained of its listing of ingredients you'll never use.  Now, although you might never use many of these ingredients, you never know.  I wish I had known the substitution for Golden Syrup a few months ago when I bought a bottle of it for a specific recipe.  I had no idea that the substitution of light corn syrup or maple syrup (both of which were in my cupboard) would have been quite easy.

But, the true test of a substitution cookbook is whether they will work.  I looked up many substitutions I've been using faithfully in my cooking over the years and they are in there.  The ratios of things I use are also there.  The charts of similar ingredients like flours, apples, and chiles also agree with all that I've read and discovered cooking over the years.

There is only one thing missing that I've discovered so far--which I didn't expect to find.  The author assumes that people only use store bought whole wheat flour.  I know I'm one of those unusual people that grinds their own grain at home.  The substitution I've discovered is 1 1/8- 1 1/4 cup fresh ground whole wheat flour to 1 cup of store bought whole wheat flour.

If there are substitutions you use regulary, make yourself a cheat sheet or use sticky notes to tab the pages you turn to a lot.  There is a lot of information in this book and it will take up a bit of space on your shelf, but my feeling is--it's worth it!  If you happened to get a little money as a Christmas gift and you're trying to figure out what to get, this book would be a keeper.  It's going to have a permanent place on my shelf for many years.

My compliments to the chef--this is a great cookbook!

Please note that I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from The Lisa Ekus Group.

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