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Frugal Foodie Recipe Redux - Substituting Spices

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Written by Heather Jones   
Monday, 03 August 2009
ImageLast Frugal Foodie we talked about saving money when serving cocktails, today we’re going to talk about saving money by substituting spices.  Now I know what you’re probably thinking, that certain spices have such a distant flavor there is no way you can substitute them and often times that’s true. But, spices are more than just about flavor, some offer heat, some offer sweet, and some offer smoky components that can be found in other, less expensive spices. 

Also some international spices can be used interchangeably, take Curry for instance.  There are as many different kinds of powdered Curry available now as shoes, but in most dishes one standard curry powder can be used in place of some of those harder to find ones.  So let’s take a look at some pricier spices and their budget friendly counter parts.



Saffron – This is the most expensive herb in the world. It’s derived from the stigma of the saffron crocus flower making it pretty labor intensive to harvest.  On its own it has a bit of a sour or bitter flavor. Its bright yellow in color and is used just as much for its color as the flavor.  It’s often best to add saffron at the end of the cooking process since the flavor is really activated through the heat in the cooking process. There are three dishes where the use of Saffron is most known for: Paella, Saffron Risotto, and Bouillabaisse.  One thing to note is there is American and Mexican Saffron, but it’s derived from the Safflower plant and is used more for color than flavor. 

Turmeric – Known as the Indian Saffron. Turmeric is one of the prevalent flavors in Indian cooking and can be used as a Saffron substitute.  Now keep in mind nothing will taste exactly like Saffron, but this spice has some of the same characteristics making it a suitable substitute in dishes where saffron is not a star ingredient.  Turmeric is also stronger in flavor so when using it as a substitute I would say start off by using half the amount that you would normally use of Saffron.  This substitute would work in the Paella or Bouillabaisse but stay away from the Risotto.  I’ve also used Smoked Paprika in Paella as a substitute for Saffron.

Green Cardamom – This spice is used in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian Cooking. It has a sweet, pungent flavor and is often used in dishes to kick up the heat.  Green Cardamon does well in sweet and savory dishes.  I have an office colleague who is Lebanese, he puts ground cardamom in his coffee grounds when he prepares his morning coffee.  There is also Black Cardamom which is less expensive, used primarily in Indian cooking and has a stronger more astringent flavor. 

Cinnamon – Cardamom has a very distinct flavor, as do all the spices that I’m profiling here, but believe it or not Cinnamon is a fantastic substitute.  It has the same heat/sweet component that Cardamom has.  Cinnamon especially works in Indian dishes that would call for Cardamom. Like Tumeric/Saffron, when substituting start off using half the amount that you would normally use and add more to taste. 

Pure Vanilla – I have a real thing for Vanilla; I love the smell of Vanilla and the taste of it.  There is something so calming and warm about it.  I have several different kinds of vanilla fragrances sitting on my dresser and have been known to add vanilla to practically every baked good that I make regardless of whether the recipe calls for it or not. In my mind everything tastes better with a little vanilla in it.  Vanilla like Saffron is also derived from a plant where harvesting is quite labor intensive.  The Vanilla orchid was traditionally found in Mexico.  There are several varieties of Vanilla Orchids grown throughout The West Indies, Central and South Americas and most notably Madagascar, which is touted as being home to the best and purist form of Vanilla found today.  Most often used in desserts, Vanilla imparts a smooth creamy flavor; the scent is very floral, downright seductive. 

Various – Okay the first obvious choice would be an imitation vanilla extract (the horror).  Don’t ask me why I’m being such a snob about this because when growing up, it was all my grandmother used. But once you taste pure Vanilla it will be hard to go back. With that being said imitation vanilla extract will work in a pinch.  Other things to consider are extracts of different flavors. Depending on what your making you may be able to add another dimension of flavor by using Lemon, Rum, or Raspberry extract instead of Vanilla.  Another substitute that isn’t the most frugal choice, but flavor wise can be pretty interesting, is to use a little Whiskey, or even better, a Bourbon. 

Bay Leaves – Bay Leaves are found on the Bay Laurel tree that is native to the Mediterranean. They are mainly used to flavor soups, stews, and braises.  The distinct full flavor of the Bay Leaf doesn’t usually form until they are picked and dried. Most of the bay leaves we used to today are imported from Europe (I think mine are from Turkey) but they are also available from California. 

Leave it out? -  So this the deal with Bay leaves, they are usually part of a whole cast of spices used in a particular dish so if you don’t have any on hand then just leave it out. But, if you are terrified that your dish will taste like it's missing something, you could try using a little thyme (although I find that most recipes calling for Bay also call for Thyme). 

There you have it, four of the most expensive spices out there and their substitutes. Please remember that when using the substitutes don’t expect the dish to taste exactly as it would with the original item; these are simply suggestions to give your meal the same flavor profile and make it just as enjoyable, but without the cost factor.

And as always we invite your comments and suggestions so please feel free to share if you have any additional suggestions.

Here are a few recipes where the main spice or substitute will work equally well.

Roasted Halibut with Tomatoes, Saffron, and Cilantro – In this dish the Saffron is more for color than flavor. 

Baked Cardamom Pears and Apricots – Cinnamon is indeed the perfect substitute in this dish. 

Iced Vanilla Coffee – A little Bourbon would do wonders in this already refreshing drink.

Fava Bean Stew with Garlic, Thyme, and Bay Leaves – In this one just omit the Bay Leaves and you will still have that rich earthy, woody flavor with the Thyme alone. 



Last Updated ( Friday, 31 July 2009 )
A Great "Frugal" Source for
RachelMVC (Registered) 2009-08-07 09:24:56

When trying a new or exotic recipe, I have always found it frustrating to have to buy a whole jar of a spice (expensive) that I'm not even sure I like.

My solution = find a local, good size health food store that sells spices in bulk. They have a great selection and you can just buy what you need. You'll be surprised at the cash register when your choices ring up at prices like $.23 and $.67!
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