Substituting in Recipes

One of the first comments that people make about The Boat Galley Cookbook is the number of substitutions and alternate ingredients it offers. It’s sort of the opposite of many of the “foodie” cookbooks available, that “require” specific types of many ingredients. Kalamata olives, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper, heirloom tomatoes, white balsamic vinegar and so on.

And that inevitably brings on questions about how I view recipes, substitutions and ingredients in general. I mean, shouldn’t recipes tell people exactly what to use to re-create what you made? Isn’t that why they’re using your recipe?

In my opinion, no.

To me, the goal of cooking anything is to create a good meal. And recipes are there as guidelines. To me, the goal isn’t to create an exact duplicate of what someone else made.

So many times on a boat, you’re limited to what’s on board . . . and that may be limited by what was available at the last grocery store you visited. And you may not like a particular ingredient or spice that I love (for example, I’m not wild on cilantro and usually omit it from recipes). Food allergies may come into play.

But you know what? You can make a pretty good dish out of what you’ve got.

For example, if I have all the ingredients for lasagna but discover I don’t have any lasagna noodles, I can still make “almost” lasagna using the rotini (spirals) that I do have.  It’s still going to taste great.

If I’m making chili and discover that my chili powder has gone dead, there’s a good chance I have some spicy peppers with me (they’re almost a staple for us). I can chop them up very finely, and the resulting dish may even be more authentic.

My husband is allergic to cheese . . . so I make cheese-less pizza for him.  It’s not the same, but he loves it.

Admittedly, if you really have your heart set on Aunt Millie’s Special Meatloaf, where the secret ingredient is rosemary, and you’re out of rosemary, you’re out of luck. But why not create your own “Special Meatloaf” with your own secret ingredient . . . carefully chosen from what’s on hand?

If you haven’t done much cooking from scratch before, it can be a little scary to alter the ingredients. I mean, that’s why you’re using a recipe, right?  But usually there are numerous combinations that can make a good dish.

Most substitutions are pretty logical, using items that are closely related. You can find time-tested substitutes in many cookbooks (we have a huge list in their own chapter in The Boat Galley Cookbook as well as many suggestions in individual recipes), but you can often just look in your cupboard and figure out an acceptable alternative.

Just keep reminding yourself that the goal is to make something that tastes good, not to exactly follow the recipe. Besides, if it’s something you’ve never made before, you don’t know how the original tasted, so all that matters is that you enjoy it. And if it is something you’ve made before, just call it by a different name so people are expecting something a little different.

Yeah, cooking on a boat is different — and one of those differences is using alternate ingredients!

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  • Cookie Johnson
    Posted at 29 April 2014 Reply

    I am allergic to onions! Almost every recipe out there requires onions! I can usually substitute bell peppers if the onions are a primary incredient and I actually do ok with onion salt. I’m not a big lover of spivey foods, do you have any other substitution suggestions for onions?

    • Cookie Johnson
      Posted at 29 April 2014 Reply

      Oops, I mean spicey foods

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 29 April 2014 Reply

      For a lot of recipes, they can simply be omitted (I do this for my husband’s milk allergy, which means he can’t have any cheese, yogurt, sour cream, etc.). But in other recipes where they add some interest to the other ingredients, I’d probably go with mushrooms or even diced carrots or whole kernel corn.

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