Threshold ingredients

We all love "usable" cookbooks, but "usable" is different for everybody.  And one big part of "usable," I've come to realize, is the availability of specific ingredients.  Each of us carries with us an internal dictionary of the ingredients we consider normal--the ones we know how to get without thinking about it--and a sort of anti-dictionary consisting of the ones we consider hard-to-find or exotic.  I think of these hard-to-find ingredients as "threshold" ingredients, but what I really mean is "beyond the threshold"--as in, the threshold I won't cross to obtain it.

Every year, I try to expand my "normal" list of ingredients a little bit.  I think it's pretty decent-sized now.  For example, I know where I can get red fermented bean curd, rendered leaf lard, and habanero chile powder.  At the supermarket, I know the weird corners where you find the malted milk powder, the agave syrup, and the canned hominy.  The week that Whole Foods finally got farro in the bulk section, a Red Alert went off in my brain.

On the other hand, unlike most of America, I can't find the pet food, sliced bread, or breakfast cereal.  They're just not on my radar.

So I suddenly realized, when revisiting the very popular Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, that the reason I didn't find it as approachable as other people seem to was that so many of the recipes had at least one Threshold Ingredient.  Not other people's thresholds, necessarily, just mine.  For me, Fruity Pebbles is a Threshold Ingredient.  None of my stores carry gelatin sheets (just gelatin powder).  Citric acid and glucose might be there, but it'll take a knowledgeable stock clerk and long walk.  And till today, I'd never heard of feuilletine, which is basically crushed crepe flakes, and definitely not at any local market I can think of.

This, plus the heavily nested ingredients format (some recipes are little more than a list of 5 other recipes plus assembly instructions) made me leary of the book.  But I'm keeping it on theshelf, in the hopes that as my "normal" list expands, or as my hunger for radical desserts increases, the book will come within range.  And I should emphasize that I certainly don't mean to disparage the book, or the thousands of readers who seem to have made it their own.

How about you?  What are your Threshold Ingredients?  What ingredient stands out in a list for you and shouts "Don't Try This At Home!"?  It's OK--you can share.  There's no shame in it!


  • Leslie  on  12/13/2011 at 1:59 PM

    Interesting concept! I have no fear of asian ingredients, vegetables, but I was raised in a family that abhorred fats. So while I've overcome my aversion to butter, I still cannot bring myself to try recipes that require heavy cream (though i often try the non-fat milk substitute, usually unsuccessfully)..

  • Jane  on  12/14/2011 at 12:09 AM

    I don't think I have any turn-off ingredients. My (soon to ex) husband was one of the fussiest eaters ever and there were so many ingreidents I had to exclude from my cooking that I am now reveling in being able to cook with whatever I like. But now I think of it I am turned off by anything that requires a special shopping trip since time is the thing I am most short of these days. So if it's not in my cupboard or not something I can get in my local grocery store it's not getting made.

  • schambers  on  12/14/2011 at 12:20 PM

    Passion fruit--or at least I haven't figured out what season it is most likely to arrive up on the 49th parallel north. Ramps and fern tips. And salt cod, which would take a special order at a store specializing in fish. Or an internet order--many of my previous thresholds have been crossed with internet shopping. Fresh produce and alcohol are about the only things I won't buy that way.

  • ellabee  on  12/14/2011 at 1:24 PM

    My 'forget it' list is a lot shorter than it used to be. That's due both to internet ordering and to a dramatic improvement in the availability of formerly exotic ingredients in the last 5 years in my small town. There are three colleges here, so the offerings have always been a little bit broader than might be expected for a place this size, but the recent surge has more to do with the opening of two specialty stores. Last week the Kroger even had celery root for the first time in my memory (but I don't expect to see it regularly). Mascarpone seems to be a special order, even in the Thanksgiving-to-New Year's entertaining season. There's also a good fish store, something of a miracle in these mountains, but there are quite a few fish I don't cook for reasons of sustainability and expense, given that 50% of the household is not fond enough of fish to make it worthwhile.

  • Susie  on  12/19/2011 at 9:02 AM

    Ramps and fern tips! definitely. Kind of sounds like the NOMA cookbook, which is like a glossary of threshold ingredients all by itself. I agree that a lot of fish tend to be threshold ingredients, just because you never know what will be available and fresh a given day, plus as ellabee notes the rampant sustainability issues.

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