How to Swap Insect Ingredients Into Your Diet
From cricket flour cookies to tarantula tempura, Smithsonian Earth's "Bug Bites" series explores how chefs prepare insect dishes.
When it comes to Western diets, insects are finally emerging on the menu with their nutritional and environmental benefits in tow. From the more widespread availability of protein-packed products like cricket flour to grasshopper tacos at baseball stadiums to the fervor around René Redzepi's Noma pop-up in Tulum, Mexico that featured an insect-filled menu, we Americans are beginning to catch up to the rest of the world in our appetite for bugs. But, of course, as with the adoption of any new ingredient, there's a learning curve that must be overcome, and with insects in particular—let's face it—a squeamishness factor. Bug Bites, a new streaming series from Smithsonian Earth, hopes to tackle both of those issues with the help of a biologist and some talented chefs.
Premiering on the Smithsonian Earth app and SmithsonianChannel.com on Monday, August 27, Bug Bites follows biologist and self-described foodie Haley Chamberlain Nelson as experts talk her through the preparation of insect-forward dishes from a fried tarantula to an asparagus, lobster, and Manchurian scorpion frittata. The culinary talent featured in the series includes award-winning cookbook author David George Gordon, Yummy Eats and Brooklyn Bugs founder Joseph Yoon, Oyamel head chef Omar Rodriguez, and Bitty Foods co-founder Megan Miller.
To get a better handle on bringing bugs into our own kitchen, we asked Miller, Yoon, and Gordon their advice for sourcing, prepping, and cooking insects.
Portions of these interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What are some ingredient swaps people can make to include more insects in their diet?
Megan Miller: The easiest way to get the health benefits of edible insects is to include cricket flour in your recipes. For instance, you can replace up to a third of the flour (whether wheat, whole grain or even almond flour—doesn't matter) in any baked goods recipe with cricket flour with great results. I especially like it in muffins and pancakes!
David George Gordon: It’s not really a matter of swaps as much as a matter of enhancements. By using cricket powder, made from roasted and finely ground adult crickets, you’re adding plenty of protein, lots of vitamins and minerals, essential amino acids and even omega-3 fatty acids—cancer-fighting anti-oxidants ordinarily obtained from salmon and other oily and often expensive) oceanic fish. You can also get these benefits from mealworm powder, created the same way as cricket powder.
Joseph Yoon: One important thing to note when using cricket powder for cooking, is that you are using 100% ground up crickets, so when you replace the flour with cricket powder, you are removing the gluten protein in the flour with the protein in crickets. Therefore, you can't replace the flour with cricket powder on a 1:1 ratio or you won't have the rising property that the gluten in flour provides. I'd suggest initially trying to replace about 10-15% of your flour with cricket powder when baking. If you are baking cookies or brownies, and don't need your baked good to rise as much, then you can use a higher percentage of the cricket powder.
What are some easy whole insects to start working with? How would you prepare them?
DGG: Many chefs regard crickets as the gateway bug. That’s because they’re easy to obtain, even easier to cook with and, for some reason, they look kind of cute, so they’re easier for novice bug eaters to get used to. Mealworms, like crickets, are also easy to obtain and work with. They’re not really “worms” but are actually baby beetles. I freeze them—because they’re cold-blooded animals, it’s a humane way for them to go. Then I’ll defrost them, rinse them off, spread ‘em on a lightly oiled cookie sheet and bake at low heat—around 225 degrees—for 20 or 30 minutes until the mealworms become slightly browned. Allow them to cool and incorporate in salads or stir-fries. I really enjoy making mealworm quesadillas.
JY: I encourage people to incorporate them into dishes that they already make so that it isn't such a big leap to add crickets to your meatballs. It's much easier to consider eating a cricket-beef meatball than to try eating a meatball made entirely out of crickets, right? Since most of the edible insects come roasted for shelf stability, I like to keep it simple and incorporate them into my favorite dishes. For example, if I'm making fried rice, I fold the crickets in at the end so that they retain their crunchy texture. If I make a mac n cheese, then I add them to the pasta-cheese mix before baking.
MM: For crickets, I recommend blanching them in boiling water first and tossing them around on a pan to remove the serrated legs. Then pop them into a pan with hot oil, lime, salt and chile powder. Mealworms just need to be rinsed and thrown in the pan.
What’s the most important thing to know about prepping or cooking insects?
DGG: Rule one: if you’re harvesting your own bugs from the wild, make sure you’re doing it in a pesticide-free locale. If the bugs eat the pesticides and you eat the bugs, then guess what—now you’re taking the poison yourself.
Rule two: some people are allergic to bugs. The same people are usually allergic to shellfish, so if you experienced distress after eating crab or shrimp, you should probably stay away from edible bugs.
JY: Some insects require a greater understanding of how to coax the flavor, or how to remove undesirable parts, so it helps to know what parts of the insect are edible, and how other people utilize them in their cooking. Much like how we may read a cookbook or get ideas for how others cook with a new vegetable or meat, so I'd recommend a similar process with insects.
How do you source insects and insect products? What do you look for?
DGG: In Los Angeles or other large cities, you can often purchase small bags of chapulines— grasshopper that have been wild-harvested, roasted and seasoned in the state of Oaxaca—in Mexican markets and grocery stores. Or look for silkworms and ant eggs in the frozen foods sections of Asian grocery stores. I’ve even purchased frozen giant Thai water bugs there, sold four to a shrink-wrapped package.
Search online and you’ll find a smorgasbord of dried bugs from Thailand and Japan—everything from ants and termites to locusts, stinkbugs, and wasps. My favorite site is EntoMarket and I usually order crickets and mealworms from a company called Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch in Denver.
MM: Since you're eating the entire insect, you want to make sure they've been raised on quality feed and not exposed to any toxins (for instance, heavy metals in soil). Ask your farmer what the insects have been eating and whether they have organic certification. It's still early days for the edible insect industry but a few farms do have organic certification. If not, they should be willing to provide you with info on the insects' diet (it should consist of grains, fruits, and vegetables). There are smaller farms cropping up all over the U.S., but if you don't know of one near you, try purchasing whole insects from Entomo Farms or Aspire Farms online.
JY: I host events for hundreds of people and also host elaborate ten-course dinner tastings, so I have to be very careful with selecting the highest quality of human grade insects possible for my diners. I researched companies that I thought had the best quality products available, and that also worked in an ethical and sustainable manner. These companies (Entosense, Entomo Farms, and Merci Mercado) are now my sponsors, and I'm very thankful for the support.
What’s an insect-based dish that you can’t get enough of?
DGG: I like all the recipes in my Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, but I’m especially proud of the Scorpion Scaloppine and Deep-Fried Tarantula dish. In both recipes, the bugs are really "in your face," not concealed by sauces or buried by other ingredients. Time magazine called my Orthopteran Orzo—pasta with sautéed five-week-old cricket nymphs—my signature dish.
MM: I serve cricket flour banana bread all the time. It's even better than regular banana bread only loaded with probiotics, fiber, iron, and protein!
JY: I also love using cricket powder in my fried chicken, because, people lovvvve my fried chicken!