6 Swaps for Classic Polarizing Ingredients
Love ‘em or hate ‘em—or swap ‘em.
There are certain ingredients that are just polarizing. You'll spot one on a restaurant menu or in a recipe and immediately think of something else you could swap in. And I feel you on this, because I have plenty of those ingredients in my own list of dietary preferences. But it's sad, because often we are missing out on delicious food that with a little tweak would be totally wonderful. You can, of course, simply ask for things to be left off of a dish in a restaurant, but when it comes to home cooking, don’t write off a recipe just because it contains something you don’t like.
Over the years of dealing with my own culinary nemeses, I have realized that there are some easy swaps that anyone can use to effectively deal with those preferences. Obviously, not when an undesirable ingredient is the primary ingredient in a dish. If you don’t like lentils, then skip the lentil salad recipe. But when an ingredient is just a small part of a dish, you can make some alterations that will allow you to enjoy the parts that drew you to the recipe to begin with.
Here are my go-to swap outs for a few of the most egregious offenders:
I am one of those folks who have the special enzyme in my mouth that makes cilantro taste like soap. This can often make it feel like many Mexican or Indian dishes are off limits to me. But not so! When dining out, I just ask for it to be left off, but at home I look at the recipe and swap it out for a different fresh herb. Is the cilantro there simply for a bright punch of herbiness? Parsley will fill in for it easily. Does it seem like the dish would benefit from something less bitter and more deeply flavored? Try marjoram or tarragon, in smaller amounts than the cilantro called for. If it seems to be bringing a bit of sourness to the party, see if you can find fresh sorrel.
Generally, people either love it or hate it. If you hate it, the good news is, it’s a pretty easy swap out. If there is blue cheese in a sauce, it is there for both creaminess and pungent flavor, so try a funky, soft melting cheese like taleggio. Crusted atop a steak or chop? Then it is there for salt and funk, so try feta instead, and maybe a marinated feta for even more punch. Need a different cheese for your salad? I’d go with crumbled goat cheese, and ditto for stuffing martini olives or bacon-wrapped dates.
Some people just don’t like the taste of garlic. It's often bringing flavor to the party that is not fundamentally different from onion, which does the allium thing in a more subtle way. So try using granulated onion instead of granulated garlic in recipes like garlic bread or salad dressing. Finely chopped or grated shallot is a good swap when fresh garlic is asked for, especially in raw applications. In quick cooking like sautés and stir-frying, I will sometimes use scallion instead of garlic, since it has that spicy pop, and for long-simmered sauces, soups, or stews, red onion which doesn’t get overly sweet when cooked. If you want to get adventurous, try a sprinkle of asafetida spice, which you can usually find at a good spice shop or in Indian or Asian markets. It smells a bit like old socks in the jar, but when cooked it goes to a very garlicky place.
Anchovies are often dismissed for being overly salty, hairy-looking things that feel more like a dare than a valid pizza topping. But there are a lot of recipes that use anchovy for its savory punch, as well as some salinity. But if you either don’t have any on hand, or just can’t bring yourself to use them, there are some ways to get the effect of the anchovy without opening a can or jar. In sauces, try either Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce, about ½ teaspoon for each anchovy called for. Those will bring the funk, salt, and umami you’d be missing otherwise. Making a recipe that calls for anchovy paste? Try umeboshi paste or red miso, which will also hit the same place in the palate, with the bonus of being vegan. Lastly, oil-cured black olives are another great swap out, especially in places where the anchovy is either chopped or left in larger pieces.
Mayo is another one of those love-it-or-hate-it items. Some people want thick swaths on their sandwiches; others cannot bear the idea of the stuff. If you are making sandwiches that need a schmear and mustard isn’t your jam, try butter. Softened butter is one of the best condiments for sandwiches, especially ones with cheese in them. It is a tradition in France to serve soft unsalted butter on your cheese platter, because a thin layer of butter between your bread or cracker and your cheese makes the cheese taste cheesier. Same thing on a sandwich. It also enhances and balances salty flavors from cured or deli meats. Making a salad with a creamy mayo-based dressing? Try swapping out full-fat Greek yogurt or crème frâiche. They will bring the creaminess and the tartness you are looking for.
These punchy green peppers bring more than just heat to the party—they bring flavor. If you are looking for the heat and cannot find jalapeños, look for serranos, and use half the amount because they are spicier. Don’t have time to look for fresh? Red pepper flakes or a hot sauce will get you the spice you need without a trip to the produce section. Can’t stand the heat? Try using fresh poblano or shishito peppers which will have the right flavor but no spice.