Tips for Ingredient Substitutes and Swaps

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It’s a common dilemma: you’re halfway through a recipe when you realize you don’t have one of the ingredients on hand. Or, an allergy or dietary preference prohibits you from using it. Can this recipe be saved?

It sure can! Recipes are great guidelines. They offer an overall picture of what the finished dish will look and taste like. While they provide a certain structure, they can also be played with, modified, tweaked or customized to fit your own personal tastes and dietary habits. Nothing is gospel or written in stone. The world of baking is more precise and certain ingredient combinations produce chemical reactions necessary for the particular application, but in general, you can play with your food.

Making substitutions involves a certain amount of creativity and experimentation and that, at least for me, is where the fun is. I can already hear some of you saying “Maybe for you it’s fun. I just want to know what I can do when I am making pancakes on Sunday morning and the recipe calls for buttermilk and I don’t have any!” Turns out, there are a few things you can do. Let’s take a look:

Substitutions for Buttermilk, Sour Cream or Yogurt: These items are all interchangeable. They have the same basic sour or acidic properties and will produce similar results. You can substitute measure for measure sour cream and yogurt for each other. For instance, if you are making a dip or are adding it to a cake recipe, either will work. If a recipe calls for buttermilk and you have sour cream or yogurt you can use either, thinned with a bit of milk or water. You can also use plain milk with 1 Tbsp (for every 8oz) of lemon juice or vinegar added to it.

Substitutions for Natural Sweeteners vs. Refined Sugars or Sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, maple sugar and date sugar are great alternatives to refined white sugar. An easy rule of thumb when using natural sweeteners as replacements is to reduce the quantity by one quarter to one third. For instance, if a recipe calls for one cup of sugar, you can replace it with 2/3 – ¾ cup of natural sweetener. Because natural sweeteners are less processed, their flavor is more pronounced, therefore less is required.

Liquids: this can be a much more subjective category and has a few different sub-texts. Let’s start with alcohol (wine, for instance). In most dishes, wine or beer or liquor is used to enhance the flavor. The alcohol is generally cooked off, intensifying the flavors and reducing the liquid. In most cases another liquid such as stock or water can be substituted. Some of the exceptions are dishes that include alcohol as a main component such as Boeuf Bourguignon, a traditional French beef stew incorporating Burgundy wine or Bananas Foster or Flambe in which rum or brandy is added to the bananas and the dish is lit on fire to cook off the alcohol (and produce quite a tableside show!).

Water and stock can be used or substituted interchangeably. If you are making a soup and have no stock in your pantry or freezer, you can easily use water instead with attention paid to the required adjustments in seasonings.

Substitutions for Dairy items (milk, cream, or half and half): Can be replaced with non-dairy liquids (rice, almond, coconut or soy milk) in most cases, however the results will vary. This is more of a ‘grey’ or ‘experimentation’ area for most folks. The flavors, textures and structures of sauces, soups and baked goods will vary slightly. Whole milk can be replaced with lower-fat milk versions with slight differences in taste and texture. The same can be said for half and half (which is a combination of whole milk and heavy cream in equal quantities – thus ‘half and half’).

Heavy cream is an entity of its own. Its high fat content make it a luxurious, creamy addition to sauces, soups, baked goods and other dishes. Heavy cream will hold over high heat (boiling, for instance) without curdling, whereas milk has a much lower scalding or curdling point. Half and half and whole milk can be used in place of heavy cream in many instances (soups, sauces, baked goods). When making custard or ice cream, it is the higher fat content of the heavy cream that produces the unctuous texture and structure of the dish, therefore substitutions are discouraged.

Substitutions for Eggs: in baked goods, there are several different ways to make substitutions for eggs. One way is to use 1 tbsp of ground flax seed plus 3 tbsp of water (mix together until gelatinous) for every 1 egg. Other alternatives are half of a ripe banana or ¼ cup of applesauce for an egg. The eggs provide structure, fat and leavening and while the substitutions may not replicate the qualities of the egg exactly, they will produce good results and definitely do in a pinch.

There are myriad other items that are replaceable or can be omitted entirely in dishes. If you are making a stir-fry, for instance, that calls for mushrooms and you do not care for them, they are easily substituted with a vegetable you do like. Again, the exception would be a dish that uses the ingredient as a main component, such as a mushroom soup or stuffed mushrooms. At that point, better to move on to a different recipe. It really is all up to you.

- Chef Holly Pierce