Foodie Friday!  Today the topic is substitutes.  No, not the early song by The Who.

Butter and a butter knife

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had a thought about the use of different ingredients when the things called for in the recipe aren’t available.  This is a little different from changing up the seasonings – using oregano for basil, for example.  Cooks often do that to vary flavors and that’s an integral part of one’s own cooking style and food profile.  In this case I mean the times when you go to get the unsalted butter and realize all you have is salted or when you decide to use skim milk to lower a dish‘s fat content instead of the whole milk (or heaven forbid CREAM!) the recipe requires.

Substitutions are tricky things. Take the salted butter example.  There is no standard amount of salt in salted butter and the amount of salt can vary quite a bit.  If you’re aware of that and don’t automatically salt your dish as usual you might be OK.  Another thing about it is that the water content in salted butter is higher which, depending on the amount of liquid in the dish can make a difference.  Not a big deal for most dishes but critical in baking.  By the way, this is why I’m not a baker – it’s way too specific!

I could explain the reasons why cream vs. whole milk vs. half and half in recipes will or won’t work but you’re probably wondering at this point what the business point is.  Well, it’s that people are very much like ingredients.  Many managers see tiny differences in staff members – salted vs. unsalted – but fail to consider the broader implications those differences bring.  An unanticipated resignation from a staff member forces a substitution, but thinking that all individuals are replaceable because substitutes with the same basic skill set are available is a fallacy.  Just as an improper substitution can ruin a sauce or a custard, failing to acknowledge and adjust for the differences in the human ingredients can spell disaster.

As managers, we need to be acutely aware of how each small change in our team can precipitate much larger issues.  People are our most important ingredients, and just as great cooks consider every nuance of what goes into a dish we need to examine our people and blend them appropriately.  Feeling as if we can substitute at will is short-sighted and can ruin our business.  Then again, a smart change can make it many times better.  Your choice!

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