No Turmeric? No Problem!
Turmeric is a particularly unique ingredient. It lends flavor as well as color to your dishes, with an aroma that adds to its distinctive properties. Ingredients with complex flavors can present a real challenge in the event that you should find yourself in need of a turmeric substitute for one reason or another.
As distinctive as turmeric is, there are still a few tricks that any creative chef can use to substitute the flavor as closely as possible so that your end result is a beautiful, delicious, successful dish that your guests will remember for all the right reasons.
First ask yourself: Is a turmeric substitute really needed?
Before you begin sweating over the issue of finding or creating an adequate substitute for turmeric, stop and take a moment to ask yourself whether this ingredient (or one like it) is really essential to your dish. If your dish will be fine without it and that flavoring isn’t vital to the success of the recipe, your best bet is to simply leave out the turmeric and forget worrying about a substitution. Many recipes call for small amounts of this ingredient and—in many cases—leaving it out really will not affect your dish negatively.
Some recipes use turmeric as the main seasoning for a dish, relying heavily on the distinctive flavor of this spice. Whenever this is the case, the best thing to do is rework your menu, waiting until you have turmeric on hand. Dishes such as African-based curries just don’t work with anything other than the real deal.
The most common temptation is to use curry powder as a substitute for turmeric. The reasoning is simple; curry powders are made up of several spices blended together, one of which is turmeric.
However, just because curry powder has turmeric in it, that doesn’t always mean it’s the best choice for a substitution. Because curry powder contains several spices, it tends to give most dishes a flavor that is much stronger than turmeric alone, and also different than the desired flavor which turmeric would create.
Some recipes can benefit from curry powder as an alternative to turmeric. As the chef, it’s up to you to use your best judgement in determining whether or not a particular substitution will make or break your dish.
If you feel that its sharp, spicy pungency complements your dish, ginger can make an effective turmeric substitute. If you opt to use ginger as a substitution, however, be sure to use it sparingly and be aware of the difference in flavor between this spice and turmeric. While similar in ways, no ingredient can substitute the flavor of turmeric exactly.
In many cases, ginger may be a bit too sweet for the dish you’re cooking. In the even that your recipe requires a bitter taste, earthy cumin can be helpful in mimicking the flavor of turmeric.
Smoked paprika & mace
Some dishes can be made with smoked paprika and mace acting together to create a very effective substitution for turmeric. The color and muskiness of the smoked paprika complements the pungent spiciness of the mace for a flavor that is quite similar to turmeric when combined just right.
Substituting for color
One aspect of turmeric that the flavor substitutions above lack is the vibrant color your cooking can gain from the use of turmeric.
Saffron is a popular option that can be used to add both color and flavor. It has the benefit of lending a similar vibrant yellow color to a dish. Its flavor—while different from turmeric—is similar enough to work in many dishes that call for this ingredient.
Another option for adding color is to use annatto seeds. Just combine a small amount of annatto seed with your choice of flavor substitute and you can easily liven up the look of your dish as well as successfully seasoning to achieve the best possible flavor.
The most important thing to do whenever substituting an ingredient is to consider the flavors within your dish and how you can best complement those existing flavors without overpowering them. With a bit of careful consideration, some experimentation and a little luck, you can create a stunning dish that is every bit as flavorful and delicious as it would have been without the use of substitutions.
Photo by: Steven Jackson CC 2.0