We’ve all been there. You’re halfway through a recipe and realize you don’t have the next item on the list. Or maybe you found some recipe that sounds delicious but you can’t get one of the ingredients where you live. Sometimes you just want to make a familiar meal and realize you don’t have something you need and you don’t have time to run to the store. (These same guidelines apply if you are trying to adapt a recipe to special diets such as gluten free, dairy free, egg free, etc.)
If you are in the middle of that panic right now and don’t have time to read a whole article, check out the Cook’s Thesaurus or UNL list of Ingredient Substitutions stat (and bookmark them for future reference). Everyone else keep reading.
The key to good substitutions in cooking is understanding why the ingredient is in the recipe in the first place. Some ingredients are there to cause a critical chemical reaction or process. Leavening agents like yeast, baking soda, etc. produce gas which causes dough or batter to rise. Get that wrong and you will end up with a brick instead of a light fluffy bread or cake. Eggs are frequently included in recipes as an emulsifier or binding agent. Things can literally fall apart without them. Most fats like butter, shortening, oil, etc. fall into this critical category. They can not be simply left out, but careful substitutions can often be made.
The next major reason an ingredient is in any recipe is flavor. Here we have more flexibility in substitutions. If you don’t have it, don’t like it or have an allergy, etc. for a flavoring ingredient you can leave it out or substitute with something complimentary. Let’s take fresh garlic as an example. It can easily be substituted with garlic powder. No garlic powder either? Finely chopped onion or chives will do in a pinch. The idea is to find something similar in flavor and texture. The closer they are, the easier it is to swap. Turkey instead of chicken, easy. Tofu instead of chicken, is more of a stretch – use the extra firm. Most tree nuts can be easily substituted for one another – walnuts, pecans, pistachios, etc. If you have a tree nut allergy try sunflower seeds or toasted pumpkin seeds in place of nuts.
Cheese is another ingredient that can be pretty easy to substitute if you don’t have or can’t get what the recipe requires. Here you should try to find a cheese with a similar texture and color. No cheddar cheese in the house, try Colby. If you don’t like Swiss cheese, try farmers cheese or another mild white cheese.
Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice can be swapped in a pinch. Hopefully you are starting to get the idea. Recipes aren’t written in stone. If you start to think of them more as guidelines you can open the doors to endless possibilities. Use tools like the cook’s thesaurus mentioned above when you are first starting to substitute or if you hit an unfamiliar ingredient. It get’s easier with practice.