How to Adapt Recipes for Dietary Restrictions

Uncover the art of adapting recipes for dietary restrictions and food allergies, substituting ingredients to create delicious & inclusive meals.

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July 11, 2024 14 min read

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Imagine dining at a restaurant and not being able to find anything on the menu you can order because of a food allergy or intolerance. The frustration and disappointment of feeling excluded from enjoying a meal out with friends or family can be disheartening.

According to a paper published in Foods, it’s believed that recent years have seen increased dietary restrictions due to food allergies and intolerances, which are changing the culinary industry.

While there are restaurants and bakeries dedicated to serving vegan or gluten-free fare, the growing number of people limited in what they can consume makes it important for any establishment to adapt recipes for dietary restrictions.

In this guide, we’ll explore practical strategies and tips for adapting a recipe to accommodate dietary restrictions, helping restaurants and culinary professionals create inclusive and enjoyable dining experiences for everyone.

Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

There is a common misconception that food allergies and intolerances are the same thing. While they do have some similarities, there are key differences that are important to understand.

What Is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy develops when the immune system overreacts to an allergen present in a specific type of food. When a person is exposed to this food, their body releases a large amount of chemicals, which can lead to varying levels of an allergic reaction. Symptoms can include:

  • Itchy skin, rash, or hives
  • Coughing, wheezing, hoarseness
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling of the eyes, lips, or face
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Digestive problems

The most dangerous allergic reaction is anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. It causes the airways to narrow, blood pressure to drop, and the person experiencing it to go into shock. In some cases, anaphylaxis can occur within seconds of a person consuming the food they’re allergic to.

What Is a Food Intolerance?

Food intolerances are inconvenient and can cause uncomfortable symptoms, but they are not immediately life-threatening. They happen when your digestive system struggles to break down the food properly. They can lead to symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain but do not affect the immune system like a food allergy.

Common food intolerances include:

  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Soy
  • Food and drink sulfite (commonly found in beer and red wine)
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Chart of food intolerances

There are many food intolerances to be mindful of when adapting recipes.

Understanding the difference between food allergies and intolerances and the common culprits is crucial for culinary professionals. With this knowledge, chefs can prepare to meet their guests’ diverse dietary needs.

Substituting Ingredients for Recipes: The 9 Main Food Allergens

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recognizes nine major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame. While these foods appear as ingredients in many dishes, simple adjustments can make the meal safe for everyone.

When adapting recipes, it’s essential to understand the role of the ingredient in the dish. It may be important for the taste, texture, nutritional value, or visual appeal of the dish. Understanding the ingredient’s purpose can help you choose the best substitute, allowing you to achieve a similar result.

Here are some common ingredient substitutions to accommodate the main food allergens:

Original Ingredient Substitute Notes
Milk Plant-based milks (almond, soy, oat) Choose unsweetened varieties for savory dishes. Consider fat content for consistency
Butter Vegan butter, oil Vegan butter works best for baking, Oil substitutes require adjustments in baking techniques
Cheese Vegan Cheese shreds, nutritional yeast Vegan cheese shreds and melts differently. Nutritional yeast adds a cheesy flavor
Eggs (scrambled) Tofu seasoned with black Himalayan salt and turmeric The salt adds a sulfuric flavor while turmeric mimics the color
Eggs (binding) Flaxseed meal, chia seed gel, starch-based egg replacers Mix 1 tbsp. ground flaxseed meal with 2.5 tbsp. water (per egg) to create a gel-like consistency
Eggs (Leavening) Applesauce, baking powder with vinegar Use unsweetened applesauce, baking powder with vinegar reaction mimics the leavening effect
Fish Shellfish, Tofu, Lentils, wakame flakes Consider flavor profiles. Tofu and lentils add protein content. Wakame can add oceanic flavor
Shellfish Fish, Chicken, Beans Choose an alternative protein with similar textures
Tree Nuts Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, seed butter Seeds can add a similar crunch, and seed butter can replace nut butter in spreads
Peanuts Tree nuts, sunflower seeds, tahini Choose substitutes based on specific allergies
Wheat Gluten-free flour blends (almond flour, coconut flour, etc) Research specific blends for baking vs. thickening needs. Adjustments in recipe ratios might be required
Soybeans Tamari, coconut aminos Tamari and coconut aminos offer similar umami flavor without soy
Sesame Sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, tahini Seeds offer a similar texture.

Making these simple substitutions can help you create inclusive dishes catering to various dietary restrictions without compromising on flavor or quality.

Here are simple ways to adapt recipes calling for these main allergens as ingredients. We’ve grouped fish and shellfish into one category and peanuts and nuts into another.

1. Milk

When adapting recipes calling for milk, there are a variety of plant-based milk alternatives to consider. Each option provides a slightly different benefit, so consider the fat content and flavor profile when selecting which substitute to use in the recipe.

  • Almond Milk: Can work well in sweet and savory dishes, with a light and slightly nutty taste. However, it has a lower fat content, so it may affect the creaminess of some recipes.
  • Oat Milk: Has a neutral flavor that lends itself well to most recipes without altering the taste.
  • Soy Milk: While it does have a distinct flavor, soy milk has a high protein content that provides a thicker consistency.
  • Coconut Milk: The coconut flavor makes this an ideal substitute for desserts and Thai-inspired dishes but does not lend itself well to all recipes.
  • Rice Milk: Has a mildly sweet flavor and thin consistency for light dishes.

When substituting for butter, vegan butter can be a good one-to-one substitute for traditional butter when baking. It provides a similar moisture content and texture. Oils can also be used, but you may need to adjust the amount used.

For cheese alternatives, vegan cheese can be used to top pizzas or other dishes, but it may melt differently than traditional dairy cheese. Liquid cheeses like Miyoko’s liquid mozzarella are much better for a melty cheese substitute on pizza. You can also use nutritional yeast to add a dairy-free cheesy flavor, and tofu-based cheese and cashew cheeses can add a creamy texture to your dishes.

Chef slicing vegan butter into equal sections.

Vegan butter offers a delicious alternative for spreading, baking, and cooking.

2. Eggs

Egg substitutes can be straightforward depending on the role eggs play in your recipe—binding, leavening, or the main ingredient.

  • Binding Agent: If eggs are working as a binding agent in your recipe, you can substitute them with a mix of flaxseed meal and water or chia seed gel.
  • Baking: Mashed bananas can be an excellent substitute for eggs in baking. About half a banana replaces one egg. In muffins and quick breads, this can add moisture and sweetness.
  • Leavening: When it comes to leavening, you can use applesauce instead of eggs in muffins or cakes. Use ¼ cup of unsweetened applesauce per egg. Another alternative is mixing one teaspoon of baking powder and one tablespoon of vinegar to replicate the leavening effect.
  • Scrambled Eggs: If you just want to replace scrambled eggs, tofu is an excellent option. Crumble tofu and season it with turmeric to dye it yellow and black Himalayan salt to impart a sulfuric flavor akin to eggs.

3. Fish & Crustacean Shellfish

Adapting fish and crustaceans shellfish recipes can simply be completed by substituting other meat protein sources like chicken or plant-based proteins like tofu, lentils, or beans.

The specific recipe and additional ingredients can help direct you to choose the best substitute. Consider the dish’s flavor profile and texture.

  • Chicken: With the ability to absorb flavors well, chicken can be a good substitute for seafood stews and fish tacos.
  • Tofu: Tofu mimics the texture of fish, making it useful in fish stir-fries or seafood soups. You can also marinate tofu in seaweed or wakame flakes to impart an oceanic flavor.
  • Lentils and Beans: With a hearty texture and rich in protein, lentils, and beans can be a good substitute in fish stews and seafood salads.

When preparing a dish for someone with a fish or shellfish allergy, it’s essential to be mindful of cross-contamination. The prep and cooking area and utensils must be clean to avoid accidental exposure.

Grilled tofu plated with mushrooms.

Tofu is a versatile ingredient that can mimic the texture of fish, making it a great plant-based substitute.

4. Tree Nuts & Peanuts

There are several alternatives that can provide similar textures and flavors, such as tree nuts and peanuts.

  • Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, and Hemp Seeds: These substitutes work well in baked goods, salads, and granola, along with other recipes where nuts typically provide a crunch to the dish.
  • Seed Butter: Tahini and sunflower seeds are excellent replacements for peanut butter in many recipes. You can use this substitute in dips, sauces, and spreads.

When substituting ingredients for tree nuts and peanuts, it’s essential that you ensure you’re using ingredients that don’t contain even trace amounts of nuts. Check for the “may contain” warning on the ingredient label to help ensure the product is safe to use without accidental exposure.

5. Wheat

When preparing a gluten-free dish, there are many gluten-free flour options to choose from. Each one has a different texture and flavor, which can affect your finished product.

  • Almond Flour: Made from ground almonds, this is an excellent replacement for baking cakes, cookies, and quick breads.
  • Coconut Flour: Made from dried coconut meat, this flour has a mild but distinct coconut flavor. You may need to use more liquid when using this alternative because it is highly absorbent.
  • Oat Flour: Made from ground oats, this alternative has a slightly sweet flavor. It’s a great alternative for baking pancakes, muffins, and cookies.
  • Chickpea Flour: This alternative, which has a slightly nutty flavor and high protein content, is suitable for savory dishes. It’s also known as garbanzo bean flour.
  • Dedicated Gluten-Free Flour Blends: Companies like King Arthur also produce dedicated gluten-free flour blends that combine various starches and other ingredients.
  • Tapioca Flour: This alternative adds a smooth texture and is ideal as a thickening agent for sauces and gravies.
  • Sweet Rice Flour: Perfect alternative for making a roux and is commonly used in Asian cuisine.

You may need to adjust the ratios in your recipe, especially in baking. Gluten-free flours behave differently than wheat flour, so it’s important to experiment to find the right balance. Some pastries are traditionally gluten-free by nature, such as a dacquoise sponge for cakes. That can make certain substitutions more readily available or give you a permanent gluten-free option that anyone would gladly order, regardless of dietary status. Just be sure to follow strict sanitary measures and inform your guests of any potential for cross-contamination.

Coconut shell filled with coconut flour.

Coconut flour is one of many substitutes that can be used in place of all-purpose flour.

6. Soybeans

There are several alternatives you can use when adapting recipes calling for soy or soy-based ingredients.

  • Soy Sauce Substitute: Tamari and coconut aminos are great substitutes for soy sauce. They have a similar umami flavor. Both options are also gluten-free.
  • Protein Substitute for Tofu: Tempeh, chickpeas, and lentils can act as protein substitutes for tofu. Tempeh is made from fermented beans and has a nutty flavor great for stir-fries, salads, and sandwiches. Chickpeas are rich in protein and good for a variety of dishes. Lentils are available in a variety of colors and absorb flavors well. They’re good alternatives for stews, soups, and veggie burgers.

Be careful when employing any pre-made ingredients, as well, as things like deli meats can contain soy.

7. Sesame

There are several options for you to consider when looking for sesame substitutes that provide similar textures and flavors:

  • Pumpkin Seeds: Offering a similar crunch and slightly nutty flavor, pumpkin seeds are a good substitute for salads, sushi rolls, and baked goods.
  • Hemp Seeds: With a mild nutty flavor and crunchy texture, this alternative can be sprinkled on dishes or incorporated within to add texture and nutritional value.
  • Sunflower Seeds: These seeds are versatile and provide a slightly nutty taste and crunch which can be good in baked goods, salads, and as a topping on dishes.

While the above foods are the most common for people to be allergic to, food allergies can extend beyond these to fruits, vegetables, and spices. You may need to get creative when looking for substitutes for the less common allergies.

For example, you may try roasting vegetables instead of using a certain spice to add to the flavor profile in a different way. Roasted carrots can be used in place of cumin. Or, if someone is allergic to tomatoes, you can use roasted peppers to provide a similar color and flavor profile.

As with any allergen, it’s crucial to avoid cross-contamination when adjusting for any food allergy or intolerance. Ensure your prep area, cooking surfaces, and utensils are thoroughly cleaned before use.

Other General Tips for Adapting Recipes

These general tips can help you as you continue to learn and experiment with adapting recipes to be more inclusive of the food allergies and intolerances that exist:

  • Understand Ingredient Roles: Consider each ingredient’s role. Does it contribute to the function, flavor, or texture of the dish? These answers will help you choose the best substitute.
  • Start Small and Adjust: Begin by adding a small amount of the ingredient substitute to the recipe as a test. This allows you to fine-tune the adapted recipe to achieve the desired results.
  • Experiment with Flavors: Consider adapting the recipe as a creative challenge and look for new alternatives and spices to balance the end product and deliver a delicious dish.
  • Taste as You Go: Ensure you’re on the right track by testing the dish throughout the adaptation process so you can make quick adjustments as needed.
  • Document What Works: Save yourself time by documenting every successful adaption you make so you can easily replicate the adapted dish in the future while building a repertoire of allergy-friendly recipes.

Using these general tips can help you move toward confidently adapting recipes to meet a wide range of dietary restrictions.

“I have learned how to adapt recipes that I see online and have used before to get a better end result.”*
James Haynes
Escoffier Online Culinary Arts Student
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

Boost Your Culinary Creativity to Accommodate Others

With an increasing number of people living with food allergies and intolerances, it’s important to learn how to adapt recipes to help ensure everyone can enjoy your delicious recipes. Inclusivity in cooking is a growing need in both restaurants and home kitchens. Meet the challenge head-on and put your creativity to work in the kitchen.

Challenge yourself to find ways to adapt your recipes to meet each of the different food allergen restrictions. This can help broaden your culinary skills and show you’re committed to providing a safe and enjoyable meal for everyone.

If you’re interested in learning new skills to help you develop inclusive recipes and menu selections, consider a culinary arts education. Escoffier offers various programs, including plant-based culinary arts, holistic nutrition & wellness, culinary arts, baking & pastry, food entrepreneurship, and hospitality and restaurant operations management. There are endless ways to put your passion for cooking to work in the food industry while helping meet the needs of unique dietary restrictions. Contact us to explore which path is right for you.

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