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Every now and then, we get a question like this one:

Alternatives suggestions to apples and bananas

As you are aware, lots of recipes call for apples, applesauce, bananas but I am severely allergic to them. Do any of you know of alternatives for these healthy alternatives?

In my view, it is simply unanswerable. It seems to stem from a wrong idea of how cooking works, in that it expects to find a perfect substitute for an ingredient X which behaves and tastes like X under all circumstances and so can be dropped into place without further thought.

But the real world is more complex than that, so frequently there is no answer at all to this type of question. Changing an ingredient both adds taste and changes the structure of the final product of a recipe. A substitution which is equivalent in taste frequently does not exist, due to the complexity of taste, although there are special cases where the difference is so slight that the eaters won't notice. And it depends on the recipe whether the structure/texture of the finished product will work.

As a result, these questions tend to float around unanswered, or to collect random suggestions of the sort "if you are making a fruit salad, any other fruit will do" or "make zucchini bread instead of banana bread".

There are examples of sites on the network which close questions with too little context, and it makes for much more sensible answering. For example, the TeX site requires questions to come with a MWE (minimal working example). We don't need this for each question, but for substitutions, I propose the following rule:

1. If the question mentions no use case at all ("What is a substitution for bananas?"), it gets closed as "too broad"

2. If the question mentions a use case but not a recipe ("What to use as a substitution for bananas in a banana bread?") it can generally stay open. If users feel it's not clear enough, they should use close votes.

3. If the question lists the exact recipe: that's the best case.

What are your thoughts and ideas on getting this rule in place?

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I think this is probably one of the places where trying to make explicit rules is going to do more harm than good; what we need to do is look at each question and ask whether it's too broad/unclear and actually act on it, rather than letting the questions linger getting no answers or bad vague answers. We have those close reasons, and we're certainly allowed to use them on questions like the one you mentioned.

I still think that asking for the recipe is usually a good idea when the OP hasn't provided enough information; it's the best way to be sure that we get the information we need to answer without frustrating back and forth. In most cases, I'm not terribly concerned about this turning the questions too specific; the answers are still going to be general when possible. (Peter suggested that we should encourage answers to also say what part of the recipe is relevant. That's certainly what good answers should do, though I don't think we need to make a big deal out of it. We're already pretty good about upvoting that kind of answer!)

That said, I think your example question is actually a case where we pretty clearly don't need a full recipe, just an idea of the kinds of dishes the OP is making. It's not like there's going to be something where apples are used as leavening instead of just a bulky fruit ingredient.

And that brings us to the fact that it's quite easy to have a good substitution question without providing a recipe. For example, what can I use instead of apples in pies/cobblers/crumbles is totally fine. And sometimes they're even okay without a use case. Cheese is a decent example: if you want a substitute for queso fresco it doesn't really matter what recipe you're going to use it in; you still want a fresh, mild, crumbly cheese. And even in cases where there is some nuance, we have to keep in mind that a lot of people are looking for generally good substitutes and have some tolerance for imperfection. Answering those broader questions (possibly with answers including a few options for different situations) is still really useful to people even if it doesn't seem precise enough to everyone here.

So I think we just have to evaluate these on a case-by-case basis, and get better about actually closing them when they deserve it. If we were getting several bad substitution questions every day, I might change my mind about that, but it's really just a couple a month, so we should be able to deal with them individually, and avoid the false positives that might come with a hard rule.

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There are examples of sites on the network which close questions with too little context

There are also stacks which close questions for being so narrow that the answer won't help anyone but the OP. I think that promoting the inclusion of a full recipe is very much in that territory: people who do find the question via Google but have a different recipe might well want to post follow-ups because they're not sure whether the differences are significant or not.

What really matters for substitutions is the rôle that the ingredient plays in terms of flavour (on various axes - e.g. what the the Flavour Bible calls taste, volume, and weight; but most importantly the centrality to the overall flavour of the dish, since that can't necessarily be looked up) and chemistry (as you mention under "structure"). In most cases I think that a full recipe goes a good way beyond the necessary, and that the optimal amount of information is somewhere between your 2 and 3.

  • Providing the exact recipe isn't really the same as making it only useful for the exact recipe; there are probably lots of recipes that use the ingredient in the same way. I certainly agree that we don't need to try to make questions unnecessarily specific and localized. But it's a continuum, and completely undefined is probably a bit too far to one end. – Cascabel Aug 3 '15 at 2:05
  • Perhaps more directly helpful: asking the OP for an exact recipe is a great way to make sure that we get enough information without a lot of back and forth; you'd be surprised how often people will provide some small amount of information and not realize it's not enough. – Cascabel Aug 3 '15 at 2:17
  • @Jefromi, I don't actually disagree with any of what you say. The issue that I'm trying to raise is that while you and I and rumtcsho may be able to look at a question with a full recipe and work out which parts of the recipe are irrelevant, random people who arrive by Google might not. Perhaps an alternative way of addressing that issue would be to encourage questions with full recipes and answers which say which parts of the recipe are irrelevant. – Peter Taylor Aug 3 '15 at 6:13

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