If you are going to spend any time in the kitchen, you will at some point, fail. It happens to good cooks and everyone else. With countless fantastic meals under her belt, my mother was forever plagued by something referred to in hushed tones as “The Dill Fish Incident.” I will not speak of the details here but it taught me that even the best cooks can suffer failure.
In my Experimental Foods course, fully two-thirds of everything I cooked was engineered to fail. Like being pushed off the edge of the pool, I lost my fear of food failure. In some situations I even found myself asking, had I failed enough? Accidental successes were vexing. Why, oh why, were these biscuits so light and fluffy?
This Fail Parade from my kitchen, the repetitive construction of dishes rich with disappointment, freed me from my prison of Martha Stewart induced kitchen perfectionism and made me a better cook.
I am a picker, poker, changer, modifier. I am not certain if it is arrogance or curiosity that convinces me I can change a recipe for the better. This, coupled with a love of cooking ,can produce spectacular failure. Spectacular. These failures are not the end of the world, but often inefficient. They leave nine-year old boys gagging. They have me eyeballing that mysterious opaque container at the back of the fridge and calculating the statistical likelihood of it harboring a bacteria that would make it a fatal choice as back-up dinner. No one wants kids home from school with food poisoning, no one likes to re-make or rebake. So it would be nice if failure could be kept to a minimum.
For me, I make most changes to improve the nutritional content of a recipe or to adapt to the tastes of my family. The easiest way to improve the diet of the whole family, is to take the recipes you already make and improve them. But before you modify a recipe, swapping one thing for another, you have to understand the function of that which you have removed. Without fully understanding the change you are making, you are doomed like Lindsey Lohan at the Viper Room – it’s not going to turn out good. The food industry appears to do better with these low-fat, non-fat, sugar-free, sugar-less, low-sugar, whole-wheat, egg-free versions because they go all mad scientist and start adding things like gums, esters, coloring and flavorings that compensate for all the real natural food they left out.
My most frequent recipe alterations are the following: type of flour, sugar, fat,and eggs.
Switching from white to whole wheat. I hope since you are reading this, that means you have been conscious and alert for the last ten years and you know that whole wheat offers a whole host of good stuff that your stripped down, highly processed white flour does not. I will not dwell on the health benefits. While it seems you could swap one for the other, it is unfortunately, not as simple as that. If you have tried this, I am sure you know that the results are dry, heavy, and hockey puck-like. Why? Well, whole wheat flour contains the bran of the wheat. One cup of all-purpose flour weighs 115 grams, whole wheat weighs much more. So the best option, when swapping for whole wheat is to use a kitchen scale to weigh out 115 grams. You could also opt for Whole Wheat Pastry Flour that is more finely milled and can, in fact, be substituted one-for-one with whole wheat.
So you get the measurement the same, but it still seems different. Well, that’s because even though the whole wheat has a higher protein content, the bran particles interfere with the formation of gluten. Don’t look so scared. Gluten is not evil – not for most of us that do not express and intolerance – it’s just wheat protein that makes a dough elastic and cohesive. Less gluten, less elastic, not as able to expand during leavening – so a heavier result. For this reason you may decide to start by substituting half of the flour for whole wheat. You can increase the proportion of whole wheat until someone tells you it sucks. Those are the guidelines I use.
Everything can get screwed up here. Somewhere, someone got us to thinking that all sugar is evil. Unless you are diabetic, its like anything else and too much of it will make you fat. But I am pretty sure it never killed a lab rat and the FDA never puzzled over whether to consider it safe for human consumption. So unless you’re a diabetic, I happen to think that sugar substitutes are unnecessary. Use real sugar and some moderation. But it’s not a bad idea to reduce the amount of sugar in your recipes, such as baked goods. But you can’t do it all willy-nilly. Sugar is more than just sweetness. Sugar tenderizes and helps texture, helps retain moisture, contributes to color and flavor by caramelizeing and helps leavening. So if you just go throwing a box of sucralose in your muffins, you can spend the twenty-five minutes that they are in the oven anticipating how disappointing they will taste with a cup of coffee in the morning. Go ahead and reduce the quantity of sugar by 1/3 to 1/2, but any more will leave the recipe sucking. No one will eat your colorless, flavorless, dense, low -sugar muffins and they will end up thrown outside for the squirrels. Even the squirrels will think twice.
I’m not sure eggs have ever recovered from the hit they took in the 80s as some sort of stealthy, serial killer. Yes, a six egg omelet everyday probably isn’t a good idea. So here again, lets consider moderation. Like most animal products it is probably not healthy to have it as the center of the meal, but can be incorporated as a part of a healthy meal. If you feel inclined to remove it from a recipe for calorie or cholesterol savings, understand that eggs contribute a great deal to the form of a dish. The proteins in eggs provide structure and rigidity, they help incorporate air – making a baked product less dense, and they function as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers help fat and non-fat ingredients combine. The yolk – well that offers color and flavor.
Egg is one of the harder ingredients to remove from a recipe. So if you are looking for baked goods without eggs, I suggest you start with vegan recipes, they have already accounted for the absence of the egg. Otherwise, remove yolks and add a white, being certain that you are not altering the amount of liquid in the recipe.
Oooo. Fat. The great evil if you are Dean Ornish, or not if your Richard Atkins. But, fat has calories, and some fats are better than others. If you choose to reduce it or substitute for it, you need to know what it does. Fat makes things yummy. Fats make baked goods tender, they aerate batters and improve mouth feel. Nom Nom Nom. It is a dense source of energy (read:calories) so we are evolved to seek it for survival. But we aren’t going to starve in our caves any time soon, so many of us could benefit from the calorie reduction from decreasing fat. Leaving fat out entirely, isn’t going to produce good results. If you don’t want to eat it, what’s the point? Instead decrease the amount and switch to healthier fats: olive oil, trans-fat free shortenings when shortening is necessary, and plain old butter. Yes butter. Butter is real food. When sauteing, I add meat first on a medium heat to allow it to release its natural fats and moisture, before adding vegetables, like onion and garlic. Oh, and how about adding some moderation.
There are a few fat replacements on the market. If you consider replacing a food (fat) with a non-food product (fat replacement), think back to all the jokes about “anal leakage” warnings on fat-free potato chips. The American Dietetic Association offered these warm words when endorsing fat replacements
” …majority of fat replacers, when used in moderation by adults, can be safe and useful adjuncts to lowering the fat content of foods and may play a role in decreasing total dietary energy and fat intake.”
Wow. It’s these strong and decisive statements from the ADA that make me suddenly not care if I ever end up a dietitian. It is my guess they don’t want to keep any of the producers of fat-replacers from a full page advertisement in their next journal…or a sponsorship of their next conference. That is snark. Here again I say, in moderation, fat never killed a lab rat – or caused anal leakage.
Try these substitutions
|Basting Fat||Wine, Stock, Fruit Juice|
|Butter||Decrease by up to half.|
|in baking||use equal amount applesauce our pureed cannelloni beans.|
|Bread crumbs for topping or breading||Flax meal|
|Cream Cheese||Farmers Cheese, Skim ricotta, kefir cheese|
|Unsweetened baking chocolate||3 Tablespoons cocoa + 1 Tablespoon oil|
|Heavy Cream in cooking||2 teaspoons cornstarch whipped in 1 cup milk|
|Evaporated low-fat milk|
|Sour Cream||Greek yogurt|
|Lowfat plain yogurt|
|Whole egg||2 egg whites|
|Sugar||Reduce sugar 1/3 to 1/2|
|1 cup all-purpose flour||115g whole wheat flour|
Cleaning Eating Magazine is a great source for new recipes and also inspiration to improve on your old recipes. They feature familiar recipes “cleaned up” to remove processed foods improve the nutritional profiles. It is published six times a year and there is flurry of cooking at my house after each new issue. Here is one of our favorites. My boys call them Mystery Brownies. Don’t be scared…