The Cook’s Thesaurus: Lori Alden

Those of us who work with food rely on a variety of reference tools. There’s a plethora of wonderful books to learn about culinary history, how to use ingredients, and smart substitutions. I love Food Lover’s Companion, for example, and Kurt recently sang the praises of Waverly Root’s classic Food: An Authoritative Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. Both deserve a place on your cookbook shelf.

Truth is, though, if you want to learn more about how to use an ingredient or find a substitution, you’ll probably start with the Internet. My first stop is The Cook’s Thesaurus, a site I learned about a few years ago from a colleague. It has a homey, unfussy design, a vast range of reliable food information, and great navigation. I’ve consulted it on my iPhone while at the farmers’ market and when I needed to make substitutions on the fly in a busy pastry kitchen. It’s rare that I don’t find what I seek in The Cook’s Thesaurus, and every time, I’m impressed anew by the site’s breadth and depth.

food-subs-postIt’s also a remarkable labor of love. Founder Lori Alden created the site 1995, back in the early days of the Internet, as way to practice her HTML skills. An economist who spent 20 years teaching in the California State University system, Alden is also an adventuresome cook. She worked in kitchens as a student and did a short stint as a short-order cook, but it was during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa that she became a pro at substituting one food for another. “We had to improvise all the time with limited ingredients,” she says.

Improvising is exactly what she designed The Cook’s Thesaurus to give novice cooks the confidence to do. The site was inspired by a friend who complained of searching high and low for hazelnuts, not realizing that they’re often labeled “filberts” and could be swapped for almonds, walnuts, macadamias, pecans or Brazil nuts. Alden approached the project with academic rigor, and the result is an online reference that covers everything from the Indian spice aamchur to the crisp bread zwieback–with all of their alternative names and potential substitutions. To round it out, Alden gathered ingredients, set up a home studio and snapped pictures of just about everything.

But you don’t have to be novice to benefit from Alden’s efforts. For example, I can never remember which types of potatoes are starchy and which are waxy. So, of course, I visited the site before developing this potato-leek soup and was reminded that a lovely medium-starch potato like the Yukon gold would work beautifully.

Thanks again, Lori.