Can Herb and Spice Substitutes Save the Day?
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Many of us know that sinking feeling when, having enthusiastically embarked on an interesting recipe, we find we are missing an essential ingredient, necessitating an unexpected, time consuming and annoying trip to the supermarket. (Or maybe we have just been unable to source a particular item?)
When it comes to herbs and spices, however, there may be an acceptable alternative that avoids such a frustrating interruption. There are no rigid rules when it comes to flavourings and individual tastes can differ significantly. Being adventurous may not only avert a disaster, it could also prove surprisingly successful.
Bearing in mind that it is almost impossible to replicate a missing ingredient, when it comes to herbs and spices there are many store cupboard basics that can be effectively substituted.
Both fresh and dried herbs add important, essential flavour. Dried are generally added at the beginning of the cooking process to enable the flavours to infuse. Fresh are more usually added towards the end to give that newly harvested flavour.
Many dried herbs and spices are generally inexpensive, have great concentrated flavour, go a long way and can often be found in most kitchens. Bay leaves along with sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint and lavender are excellent examples of ‘woody’ herbs that impart a much more intense flavour when dried. The more ‘fleshy’ chives, tarragon and parsley are significantly less successful when dried.
The art of substituting herbs and spices requires caution, above all else. As a ‘rule of thumb’ dried herbs should be substituted for fresh in a ratio of 1:3 (1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon). However, extra care should be taken when replacing, such as, fresh chillies, garlic or ginger with dried. Be careful – tasting throughout the whole cooking process is essential and can prove time and again that ‘less is more’!
When ground seeds are required and you only have whole, grind them yourself using a rolling pin and a plastic bag!
Always take into consideration whether you are cooking or baking a sweet or a savoury dish, any potential allergic reactions and personal preferences.
The following suggestions (though not exhaustive) for alternative herbs and spices, can generally be substituted in similar amounts. When this is not the case it will be indicated.
Ground allspice is not a spice blend. It comes from the dried unripe berry of the pimenta dioica tree.
For 1 tsp substitute 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp nutmeg and 1/4 tsp cloves. Alternatively, 3/4 tsp cinnamon and 1/4tsp nutmeg or 3/4 tsp cinnamon and 1/4tsp cloves or just cinnamon on its own.
As cinnamon is the core spice this can be used on its own in like for like quantities. However a typical blend of ground spices would be:
Bouquet garni can be made with fresh or dried herbs. The original parsley, thyme, bay leaf and sometimes marjoram can be substituted or supplemented with any of rosemary, basil, chervil, tarragon or peppercorns.
Substitute with allspice, nutmeg or dried ginger. Equal amounts of cinnamon and ginger can work well.
A safe option when it comes to coriander is simply to leave it out. However, alternative suggestions include caraway, 1/2 cumin, parsley, basil, ground cloves, oregano, tarragon, dill or fennel – if you like licorice. Curry powder or garam masala are possibilities if they contain coriander and if their other ingredients seem compatable with the recipe in question. Always use half the amount of these two.
Great ideas are hot spicy paprika or red pepper flakes.
A mix of similar amounts of any or all of nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cardamom, coriander and ginger can work, but use much less. A definite case of trial and error. Store surplus for future use.
Allspice, nutmeg or cinnamon come to mind. Combinations of cinnamon with nutmeg, cardamom with cinnamon or cardamom with nutmeg are possible alternatives.
Try ground coriander, paprika (cautiously) or fennel. Other alternatives are 1/2 garam masala, 1/2 chili powder or 1/2 curry powder – checking that all their constituent spices are in keeping with the result you are after.
Fennel seeds have a very distinct flavour which is well mimicked by anise seeds. Dill seeds are good but you may need to increase the amount a little. Tarragon is a possible substitute as are caraway seeds (use less) and fenugreek seeds which, must be noted, are less sweet.
Fines herbes is the traditional and pretty inflexible French ‘mix’ of chives, tarragon, parsley and chervil. Use equal quantities of each. (In Italian dishes it would be acceptable to include basil!)
No fresh garlic? 1/8 tsp of garlic powder or flakes is equivalent to 1 clove of garlic. Add a hint of cumin for each clove for that extra ‘something’!
Out of fresh ginger? Try less than 1/2 the amount of dried ginger for a very satisfactory alternative. For dried ginger try galangal, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg and mace. These can be ‘mixed and matched’ as presentable alternatives keeping the total amount the same as that of the dried ginger. However, always take into account the savoury or sweet nature of the end product when deciding what to include.
Traditionally, herbes de Provence is a mixture of rosemary, marjoram and thyme though oregano, sage, basil, parsley, tarragon and fennel seeds are not unknown. Basic store cupboard herbs might well be put to the test. Experiment!
To make your own Italian herb seasoning where there are a substantial number of possible ingredients, it is sensible to make more than you need and store the excess in an airtight container for future occasions.
Oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary are the main dried constituents but some or all of sage, parsley, marjoram, basil, coriander, garlic powder, fennel seeds, savory and crushed red pepper flakes can have a supporting role. Use equal quantities but vary according to your own preferences.
Now here’s an exciting one! For 2 juniper berries substitute 1 tsp (only – unfortunately!) of gin. Hints of bay leaves, rosemary, cardamom and caraway seeds add extra interest.
A slightly more difficult problem – but try using rosemary in lesser quantities.
The juice and zest of fresh lemon or lime or any parts of preserved lemon will replicate the sweetness of lemongrass. Experiment! Alternatively 2 tsp fresh ginger plus 2 tsp coriander stalks is a rough equivalent to 1 stalk of lemongrass. Kaffir lime leaves (1 leaf for 1 stalk) can also mimic this flavour. (Remember to remove the centre vein if using fresh and to discard all of it at the end of the cooking process.)
There are much cheaper alternatives to mace, possibly the best being nutmeg. However allspice (using 1/2 the amount), cinnamon or ginger are possibilities.
Try any of basil, thyme, sage, savory, oregano (1/2) or herbes de Provence.
Always remembering that fresh herbs can be substituted with dried (ratio 3:1) and vice versa (ratio 3:1) try basil, marjoram, rosemary or even tarragon. How about raiding the herbal mint tea bags…?
Use basil, marjoram, oregano and thyme in equal proportions.
Substitute mace, allspice, ginger, ground cloves, cardamom, pumpkin (or apple pie) spice, garam masala, or 1/2 the quantity of cinnamon.
A mix of basil, thyme and marjoram is a good alternative. For Mexican dishes use 1/2 the amount. For Italian dishes try Italian Seasoning.
There are three types of paprika – hot, sweet and smoked.
For hot paprika – cayenne would be the first ‘go to’. Red chili powder or Aleppo pepper would also be alternatives. Start with half the quantity of any of these and adjust to taste.
For sweet paprika – ground black peppercorns, chili powder, cayenne pepper, or Aleppo pepper could be substituted but, again, with caution.
For smoked paprika – chipotle powder, chili powder, cayenne or crushed ancho powder would be alternatives. Start with small amounts…
In the likely situation of not having chervil or cilantro to hand, substitute fines herbes or chives (fresh or dried). Tarragon or oregano can be used but in much smaller amounts.
Peppercorns can be black, white, green, pink and red. One can be substituted for another but always do the taste test. For 8 whole peppercorns use 1/4 tsp of ground.
Allspice, cayenne pepper, chili powder and papaya seeds can be used instead with caution!
Invent your own! With sage as the main ingredient, add any of thyme, marjoram, parsley, rosemary, savory and black pepper. Make it your own!
See ‘Apple Pie Spice’
Since these are cayenne or chili peppers, use 2/3 of the required amount of either in ground form
Try the same amount of thyme, tarragon, savory, marjoram or herbes de Provence. Sage is a good alternative but start with about 1/2 the quantity.
Saffron is an expensive luxury and not one that might be regarded as a store cupboard essential.
Try the same amount of turmeric, 3/4 the amount of cumin, or 1/2 of sweet paprika or cardamom.
Marjoram, thyme or rosemary (1/2) make excellent substitutes for sage. Poultry Seasoning or Italian Seasoning would also ‘fit the bill’. Basil, savory (1/2) and oregano are also possibilities.
Thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, herbes de Provence, basil and oregano can all be substituted for savory, allowing for personal preferences.
Basil, dill, fennel, oregano and marjoram can all ‘stand in’ for tarragon. Anise seeds also work but be very sparing.
There are many alternative options using the same amounts but take into account the sweet or savoury nature of the dish. Poultry seasoning, Italian seasoning, herbes de Provence, oregano, marjoram, basil, savory or Za’atar are all contenders.
This is a more difficult one! A small amount of saffron would provide the requisite colour. 1/2 the amount of ginger or dry mustard might masquerade in terms of flavour.
Thyme or mixed herbs are a possible substitute for Za’atar. Alternatively equal amounts of any herbs – cumin, coriander, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds or sumac spice would be acceptable.
The ‘art’ of substituting herbs and spices is inexact at best. The unique nature of each one, with diverse properties that give them their very individual flavour, makes it impossible to replicate them perfectly.
There are no ‘hard and fast’ rules in finding alternatives for any herbs and spices. Certainly be guided by the generally accepted ratios of dried to fresh, by whether or not the dish is sweet or savoury, by avoiding allergies specific to you or those you are feeding and, of course, by personal preference.
Always err on the side of caution with quantities and taste throughout the whole cooking or baking process.
The desire or necessity to look for spice and herb substitutions presents an opportunity to improvise, innovate and be imaginative. Remember the results may prove distinctively different and unexpected but, at the same time, they could be amazing!
Above all, do not be afraid to experiment. Be inspired and adventurous! Create something extraordinary and wonderful!
When you know that you are going to tackle recipes with multiple flavourings and the idea of substitutions feels like ‘a step too far’, it may well be worth considering spice blends as substitutes. There are several potential benefits:
1 Less wastage by reducing the need to stock up on a large variety of individual spices.
2 Pre blended ingredients are easier to use.
3 No guesswork or experimental element which guarantees a reliable, even outstanding result.
4 An opportunity to ‘test’ the most authentic, traditional, dry-roasted, ground and blended spices on the market.
Curries are an excellent example of dishes requiring a great variety of sophisticated, exotic, aromatic spices.
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