Ingredient Substitution Guide

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In the kitchen, your ability to adapt is crucial. Whether you find yourself out of a specific ingredient or just don’t like it or want to use it, understanding how to confidently find an ingredient substitution can elevate or even save your cooking.

By gaining awareness of each ingredient’s role and considering alternatives that closely match their characteristics, you broaden your expertise.

finding an ingredient substitution

Finding a good ingredient replacement is not just about finding something that works; it’s about finding something you like and sometimes even discovering a version of a dish that’s better than the original.

With taste as your guide, you’ll learn that flexibility in the kitchen opens up a world of endless possibilities. In many cases, except baking, a recipe will work with a few different substitutions, so you really just need to experiment and find what works for you. In this guide, we’ll give you a list of starter ideas that you can use or alter to your liking.

Dairy Alternatives

ingredients for Pistachio almond ice cream

Finding substitutes for dairy that match the original taste and texture can be a bit of a puzzle. However, you can change the thickness or creaminess of dairy products to match what you need with a little effort.

Milk: Substitute with half and half diluted with water, evaporated milk, coconut milk, light cream, or any alternative milk like almond or soy.

Half-and-half: Create your own half-and-half by mixing a dash of cornstarch or flour (roughly 1 tablespoon per cup) into regular milk. Adjust to reach the desired consistency. You can also use heavy cream diluted with water.

Heavy cream: There are many good alternatives for heavy cream. Thicken 1 cup milk with 1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch or flour. Cream cheese whisked with water will also work. Note: if you’re trying to make whipped cream, these are not good alternatives.

Buttermilk: Combine 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or a mild vinegar with enough milk to make a cup, or blend creamy products like yogurt with milk or water for a similar tang.

Butter: This will depend on what you’re using the butter for. One bread or as a flavoring agent for pasta or rice, you can replace it with olive oil. In cookies, margarine or shortening, coconut oil, or sometimes Greek yogurt can work.

Shortening: You can replace shortening with butter, ghee, or coconut oil in most recipes.

Creamy Ingredients (like cream cheese, creme fraiche, or sour cream: Interchange creamy elements like crema, crème fraîche, and sour cream freely based on their texture and tanginess, as their physical properties are quite similar.

Cooking Oils and Solid Fats

cooking with oil

When selecting oils and fats for cooking, consider both flavor profiles and their capacity to withstand various cooking temperatures without burning, known as the smoke point.

  • Neutral Oils (High Heat Tolerance)
    Ideal for high-temperature cooking like deep and pan-frying. Examples include:
    • Canola oil
    • Coconut oil
    • Corn oil
    • Grapeseed oil
    • Peanut oil
    • Vegetable oil
  • Flavored Oils (Medium to High Heat Tolerance)
    These oils add distinct tastes to dishes and are suitable for moderate-heat cooking.
    • Avocado oil
    • Various nut oils
    • Olive oil
    • Sesame oil
    • Sunflower oil
  • Solid Fats (Low Heat Tolerance)
    These fats are prone to burning at lower temperatures and are better for low-heat cooking or baking.
    • Bacon fat
    • Butter
    • Chicken fat
    • Lard
    • Margarine
    • Vegetable shortening
    • Note: Ghee (clarified butter) is solid at cold temperatures but can handle high heat similar to neutral oils.

Flours & Grains

Cornstarch in a bowl with corn on the cob in the background

There are so many different flours and grains that we cook with on a regular basis. It’s a good thing to know what alternative options you have in case you fun out of something or need to make a swap.

All-purpose flour – Three excellent substitutes for all-purpose flour are almond flour, coconut flour, and oat flour. Almond flour and coconut flour are great options for gluten-free baking, while oat flour provides a heartier texture and adds a nutty flavor to the dishes. These substitutes can be used in a variety of recipes, including baked goods, pancakes, and bread, providing a different nutritional profile and flavor to your dishes. Not all of them can be used in a 1:1 ratio, so be sure to look up your preferred substitute for more details.

Self-rising flour – If you only have plain flour and needs self-rising flour, you can make your own by adding 2 teaspoons baking powder to 150 grams of flour (which is about 1 1/4 cups).

Cornmeal – The best substitute for cornmeal is polenta, which is essentially coarsely ground cornmeal. Polenta can be used in place of cornmeal in recipes such as cornbread, polenta cakes, and coatings for frying, offering a similar texture and flavor. Another alternative is masa harina, a type of corn flour used in making tortillas and tamales, which can also be used as a substitute for cornmeal in certain recipes.

Tapioca flour – Arrowroot powder or cornstarch are both excellent substitutes for tapioca flour. They can be used in equal amounts as a replacement for tapioca flour in most recipes, providing a similar thickening and binding effect. Additionally, potato starch can also be used as a substitute for tapioca flour in certain recipes, such as gluten-free baking and thickening sauces.

Cheese Alternatives

cream cheese

Cheese can be both easy and difficult to substitute, based on what you’re using it for. If you’re cooking with it, you’ll need to make sure the cheese you use has the same melting and blending ability of the original cheese. When using it as a garnish or just eating it, feel free to be more creative with your selection.

  • Soft and wet: Cottage cheese or ricotta are perfect for recipes requiring a moist, friable texture.
  • Creamy types: Soft-ripened cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, bring lush creaminess to dishes.
  • Semi-firm varieties: Choose from an array of cheeses like Cheddar or Gouda that balance flexibility and firmness.
  • Hard, aged selections: If a recipe calls for a deeply flavored, crumbly cheese, options like aged Parmesan, Pecorino or Asiago will work.

In all cases, modify the quantities to match the distinct flavors and melting points, ensuring your dish maintains its integrity. Remember, not all alternatives will act exactly the same.

Stock Alternatives

Instant Pot Bone Broth

When your recipe calls for stock and you’re out, fret not; you have plenty of options. For small amounts of stock, there are a lot of alternatives. But for recipes needing more stock, you’ll want to be careful with any substitute you use because it can dramatically change the flavor. For instance, if you need a cup or less of stock, you can use these alternatives for most recipes (base what you use on the flavors of your dish).

  • Water: Water will be the best substitute for most things.
  • Beer or White Wine: Adds a depth of flavor; ideal for broths and stews.
  • Juices: Try orange or apple but remember it’s going to add sweetness.
  • Dairy: Milk or its alternatives (coconut, nut, soy) when you’re looking for a creamier base.
  • Soy Sauce or Tea: Brings a distinctive taste—soy adds saltiness, while tea introduces a subtle, herbal note.

When you need a lot of stock in your recipe, you need to be more careful what you use so you don’t change the flavor. For instance, if you’re making soup that calls for 4 cups of chicken broth, you wouldn’t want to replace it with 4 cups of beer. Instead look to these substitutes:

  • Homemade stock: You can make your own vegetable stock fairly easily with just water, vegetables, and seasonings. See what you have on hand and go from there. It can take a while to simmer the stock for it to become flavorful. I always use my Instant Pot to make this faster.
  • Miso paste mixed with water: Offers a savory, umami quality.
  • Mushroom Liquid: Use the soaking water from dried mushrooms for an earthy touch.

Greens

spinach salad

When selecting greens, think about what you’ll be using it in to decide what flavor or texture you need to replace the original with. For instance, if you’re replacing arugula, look for something delicate and sharp.

When replacing spinach in a soup, you might go with a hearty, bold alternative like kale. Use tender varieties in raw dishes, while heartier greens can withstand longer cooking times. Here’s a guide to help you match your greens to your culinary needs:

  • Soft & mild: Opt for chard, lettuce, or spinach. Perfect for salads.
  • Crunchy & gentle: Try Bok choy or cabbage in stir-fries.
  • Delicate & sharp: Choose Arugula or radish greens for a peppery kick in fresh salads.
  • Hearty & bold: Go with Kale or mustard greens for soups and stews; they hold up well.

Herbs

dry rub ingredients

When cooking, the use of fresh or dried herbs can greatly influence the taste of your dish. Each herb has its own unique flavor profile, so they aren’t all interchangeable. Delicate herbs like parsley or dill offer a fresh taste, while robust herbs such as rosemary or thyme impart a deeper, more aromatic essence.

If you’re missing an ingredient, consider these equivalent alternatives.

  • Basil: Cilantro, dill, or parsley.
  • Bay Leaves: Oregano, thyme, or sage.
  • Chervil: Dill or tarragon.
  • Chives: Green onion or dill.
  • Cilantro: Parley or basil.
  • Dill: Basil, parsley, or chives.
  • Marjoram: Italian seasoning or thyme.
  • Mint: There are no close substitutes, consider using mint extract for flavor and aroma.
  • Oregano: Thyme or rosemary.
  • Parsley: Cilantro or chervil.
  • Rosemary: Oregano, sage, or thyme.
  • Sage: Bay leaves or oregano.
  • Tarragon: Parsley or chervil.
  • Thyme: Rosemary or sage.
  • Turmeric: Saffron or ground ginger.

Remember, dried herbs are more concentrated, so adjust quantities accordingly—1 teaspoon dried is roughly equivalent to 1 tablespoon fresh.

Spices

Toasted Spices

Understanding the flavor profiles of spices can guide you in making appropriate substitutions in your cooking. Spices tend to fall under a few main categories: earthy, floral, peppery, and warm. When you’re replacing one seasoning with another, it’s helpful to choose a substitute that shares the same flavor characteristics.

CategoryTypical Spices
EarthyCurry and garlic powders, cumin, turmeric, and za’atar.
FloralCardamom, marjoram, coriander, parsley, saffron.
PepperySavory, allspice, ginger, mustard powder.
WarmCinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, anise, cardamom, allspice, clove.

When adjusting your dish’s seasonings, start with a light touch and add more as needed. This method allows the flavors to build without becoming overwhelming.

Below is a quick reference for swapping some common spices:

  • Allspice: Mix together cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg or use any of these single spices.
  • Cardamom: Try coriander, fennel, or a hint of lavender as a replacement.
  • Cayenne Pepper: Alternatives include paprika, chili powder, or red pepper flakes for heat.
  • Chili Powder: Create a blend using paprika, garlic powder, cumin, and a touch of cayenne.
  • Cinnamon: Allspice or nutmeg can be used as a substitute.
  • Cloves: Switch out for allspice, cinnamon, or a dash of nutmeg.
  • Coriander: Cardamom or fennel may offer a similar taste profile.
  • Cumin: Curry or chili powders are often good stand-ins.
  • Ginger: Allspice, cinnamon, or cloves can provide a similar zing.
  • Nutmeg: Reach for allspice or cinnamon as a comparable addition.
  • Paprika: Cayenne or chili powder can be used for a similar effect.
  • Turmeric: Opt for curry powder or other similar earthy spices.

Alcohol Alternatives in Cooking

cooking with alcohol

When considering a replacement for alcohol in cooking, it’s important to assess its role in your recipe. Alcohol typically imparts a blend of taste aspects such as acidity and sweetness, while contributing moisture and sometimes effervescence to dishes.

There are numerous substitutes that can mimic the characteristics alcohol brings to the table. For lighter alcohols like white wine or sake, look to broths or fruit juices which offer a complementary level of acidity and sweetness without the alcohol content. For liqueurs, you’ll want to use syrups instead.

Here’s a quick guide to substituting light alcohols:

  • Broth (chicken, vegetable, beef)
  • Apple juice or cider (nonalcoholic)
  • Teas (especially white or green varieties)
  • Ginger ale or ginger beer (nonalcoholic)
  • Seltzer (plain or flavored)
  • Citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange)

For darker alcohols, which often have deeper flavors, consider replacing them with:

  • Pomegranate Juice
  • Cranberry Juice
  • Honey or agave syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Balsamic or other dark vinegars
  • Molasses (diluted as necessary)

Remember that when you’re substituting, match the substitute to the flavor profile of your dish, accounting for sweetness and the strength of flavors. If using something concentrated like molasses, it may be necessary to dilute with water or another mild liquid to achieve the desired balance.

Keep in mind that cooking times may vary when using nonalcoholic alternatives, as they tend to evaporate more slowly than their alcoholic counterparts. So, monitor your dish and adjust the cook time as necessary to achieve perfect results.

Proteins

Spatchcock chicken

When determining the centerpiece of your dish, flexibility with your protein choice can be incredibly useful. Match your selection to your preferences or what’s readily available in your kitchen, adjusting culinary techniques as necessary.

For quicker meals, cut proteins into smaller chunks, or conversely, cook them in larger portions for a slower process. Don’t overlook vegetarian options like tofu, beans, and lentils—they’re versatile alternatives that can be excellent protein stand-ins.

  • Versatile Cuts of Beef:
    • For hearty cuts like chuck, brisket, or round roast, interchange with other robust varieties.
    • Delicate beef cuts like strip steak or filet mignon lend themselves well to substitution with other quick-cooking options.
    • Use lamb for a more pronounced flavor as a beef substitute.
  • Ground Meats and Fresh Sausages:
    • Exchange these proteins with ease, adding seasonings like Italian herbs to enhance flavor.
    • Consider fat content—add oil when using leaner meats such as ground turkey to replicate the juiciness of fattier counterparts.
  • Pork Adjustments:
    • Pork chops and steak cooking times align when they share similar thickness.
    • Replace diced pork stew meat with beef or chicken, noting that chicken requires less cooking time.
  • Chicken Transformations:
    • Replace boneless chicken breasts with thighs; thin the breasts for even cooking.
    • Bone-in chicken thighs necessitate extended cooking times compared to boneless.
    • Turkey options, both ground and breast, serve as comparable chicken substitutes.
  • Seafood Selections:
    • Pair lean fish varieties with likeminded options—bass with flounder, for example.
    • For oily fish like salmon, seek out other fatty fish as equivalents.
    • Shellfish like shrimp, whether fresh or frozen, cook swiftly and thrive with high-heat preparations.

Other Ingredients You May Need to Substitute

Anchovies in a dish
  • Apple sauce: Mashed bananas or pureed prunes can be excellent substitutes for apple sauce in baking recipes. They can provide similar moisture and binding properties to the dish. Also consider using plain yogurt or pumpkin puree as substitutes for apple sauce. Each of these alternatives can be used in a 1:1 ratio as a replacement.
  • Anchovies: A good substitute for anchovies in recipes is miso paste. Miso paste can provide a similar depth of flavor and saltiness to dishes, making it a suitable alternative in recipes where anchovies are used for their umami-rich flavor. Additionally, soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce can also be used as substitutes for anchovies
  • Brown sugar: Add 1 tablespoon of molasses plus granulated sugar to make 1 cup
  • Cornstarch: One of the best substitutes for cornstarch is arrowroot powder, which can be used in equal amounts as a replacement for cornstarch in recipes requiring a thickening agent. Another alternative is tapioca flour, which provides similar thickening properties and can be used in a 1:1 ratio as a substitute for cornstarch.
  • Egg: 3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus 1 tablespoon water (for baking); or 3 tablespoons mayonnaise (for cakes); or 2 1/2 tablespoons of powdered egg substitute plus 2 1/2 tablespoons water, or 1/4 cup liquid egg substitute; or half a banana mashed with 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • Evaporated milk: The best substitute for evaporated milk is to use regular milk, preferably whole milk, and simmer it gently to reduce it by about 60%. Another alternative is to use a combination of half-and-half and whole milk to achieve a similar richness and creaminess.
  • Honey: 1–1/4 cups sugar plus 1/2 cup liquid called for in recipe (such as water or oil); or 1 cup pure maple syrup
  • Lemon or lime juice (not for cocktails): 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
  • Lemongrass: A lot of Asian recipes will call for lemongrass. Some of the best substitutes for lemongrass include lemon zest, which can provide a similar citrusy flavor, and lemon balm, which offers a mild lemony taste. Additionally, you can use lemon verbena or lemon thyme
  • Mayonnaise: 1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt; or 1 cup cottage cheese (pureed)
  • Oil (for baking): Applesauce (keeps baked goods moist, but with less fat) 1:1 ratio
  • Sweetened condensed milk (1 can): 1 cup evaporated milk plus 1-1/4 cup granulated sugar. Combine and heat until sugar dissolves.
  • Vinegar: 1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice, or 2 teaspoons white wine
  • Wine: 1 cup chicken or beef broth; or 1 cup fruit juice mixed with 2 teaspoons vinegar; or 1 cup water

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