How Close is Close EnoughIf the goal of substitution is undetectable changes in the final product, a great deal of experimentation is required. Realistically-managed expectations will serve you well. In terms of mouthfeel and taste, meat substitutions tend to be among the more discrete secret agents. It is amazing what they can do with poultry these days, though red meat purists will always find reasons to grouse. Turkey bacon and sausage and ground meats tend to perform well in terms of appearance, texture, and the all-important gratification factor. Be observant of cooking temperatures and times of course as different meats behave differently.
Making Sweets Safe for the DieterSometimes, effective substitutions come from surprising directions or radical experimentation. Only recently have we begun to hear of black beans as a substitute for flours, but in certain contexts— brownies, most notably—the results can be spectacular, even game-changing. Similarly, unsweetened applesauce is proving itself in healthy kitchens everywhere not only as a multi-purpose sweetener but as an able oil and butter impersonator. Ask not whether its consistency and flavor accent are identical; ask whether they are agreeable.
Replacing FatsFat substitutes, as we know, are where the rubber meets the road. Avocado can be a textural wunderkind with a beneficial fat profile. Mashed bananas bring the sweet and the fats in voluptuous, mouth-pleasing ways. Again, keep in mind that foods taste like themselves. Do not expect miracles. Expect adventures.
Seeds and nuts are stars in this area as well—chia or flax as an egg substitute, almond and other nuts for flour, etc.—though they often require specific preparation techniques like soaking and grinding, and they will behave quite differently in the act of cooking as well. Put your white lab coat on.
Turn and Face the ChangesSo maybe part of the point with food substitutions is fooling yourself (and others) into believing you’re still eating in unhealthy and diet-defying ways. But it shouldn’t stop there. The problem with much fast- and junk-food is its over-reliance on a few basic taste and textural satisfactions—namely sweet, salt, cream, and crunch. Food substitutions can “do” those things, often acceptably, sometimes admirably.
But why should the process end there? Healthy food substitution can affect a gradual transition to a more lively and diverse palate. In time you come to appreciate the infinite subtleties of spice over the blunt gratifications of salt. In place of the expectation of knockout sweetness, you find you prefer the distinctive flavors of the different fruits and sweet spices. It’s all about the path to a new you that stays on speaking terms with the old you.