Fresh Only, Please! 5 Cooking Shortcuts to Avoid, for Tasty Hasty Nom

lime and cilantro

Believe me, I understand: you worked late, traffic was beastly, and you want dinner immediately if not sooner. Sometimes quick-and-easy recipe substitutions make sense — but some ingredients just don’t lend themselves to shortcuts!

For the tastiest hasty meals, avoid using substitutes for fresh…

1. Lemon or lime juice. If you don’t have fresh, for some recipes consider using rice vinegar or white wine vinegar instead — the bottled kind substitutes poorly for fresh citrus juice in most cooking projects.

2. Ginger. Powdered ginger doesn’t behave at all like fresh ginger, in your cooking! You risk cheating yourself out of some serious delicousness if you sub the former for the latter! To save prep time on those busy work nights, without compromising on flavor: peel, grate, and freeze fresh ginger in a thin layer on wax or parchment paper. Store in a baby-food jar in the freezer until needed. Ta-da! No need for dried ground unginger.

3. Cardamom. Cardamom seeds lose flavor rapidly once they’re dried and jarred; the pre-ground kind is almost flavorless compared to the real thing. If you’re cooking Indian recipes that call for cardamom, seek out the fresh pods in your Asian or International market. If you must use dried cardamom, buy the whole dried pods rather than the ground seeds. Use a mortar and pestle to crack pods, then remove and grind cardamom seeds; they’ll taste more like nutmeg than fresh cardamom, but better than the pre-ground version.

4. Lemongrass. If you’re cooking Thai or other Asian recipes calling for lemongrass, there is no substitute. Buy fresh! Ok, ok, fine, if you don’t have a good source of lemongrass try substituting fresh lemon balm, lemon basil, or lemon verbena. It won’t be exactly the nom of fresh lemongrass, but it will be very much tastier than if you’d used dried or jarred lemongrass.

5. Cilantro. The drying process removes so much flavor from this herb, it really shouldn’t even be called the same thing. In salsas, soups, stews, or, well, anything (!) if you don’t have fresh cilantro consider substituting another fresh herb — depending on the dish, perhaps parsley, basil, or chives — but don’t swap dried for fresh and expect non-disappointment.

Shortcuts Are Great! (But Not Always)

Store-bought vs. homemade tortillas? Absolutely! BPA-free canned beans instead of dry beans cooked from scratch? Sure! No-boil lasagna noodles in place of regular ones? Yes please! Sometimes busy cooks need speedy tricks. But for the love of everything holy and secular, insist on ‘fresh only’ when it comes to these 5 ingredients. Your belly and your dinner guests will thank you!

What ingredients do you find most resistant to non-fresh substitutions? Comment below to share any I’ve left out, that belong on this list!

Image credit: photo via Shutterstock.

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