We’ve all arrived home from the grocery and realized that we’re missing something we meant to grab. While the impulse is typically to run back out to the store, sometimes you’re in a rush or the extra trip doesn’t feel worth it. Even worse, you might be mid-recipe and realize you forgot to pick up vegetable stock.
Luckily, most meals can be adjusted with substitutes. A lot of the time, you just need an item that will replicate the missing flavor note—i.e. a new source of fat or something that will provide the level of brightness vinegar offers (glances toward the lemon juice). Getting creative with how you adjust recipes will teach you about the ingredients you’re using and ultimately make you a better cook—so hop to it!
We’ve broken down our substitutions into categories based on when and how you’re likely to use a substitute.
This is possibly the easiest category to find substitutes for, and the easiest to customize to suit dietary needs. Dairy is likely a fat source in whatever recipe you’re cooking, so choosing to swap in a cup or two of a similar consistency fat is usually a safe bet (i.e. a cup of milk for a cup of heavy cream in pasta sauce). If you’re looking to reduce fat or adhere to vegan practices, substituting vegan products like coconut milk can be an easy solution.
Making a gorgeous lemon turmeric cake that calls for more sour cream than you have? Swap in Greek or plain yogurt. Missing heavy cream or heavy whipping cream? Coconut milk can be an easy solution depending on what you’re using it for. If you’re really low on dairy and dairy alternatives, the healthy fats in avocados can even work for some recipes. What’s more, a lot of recipes will offer alternatives to dairy ingredients within the recipe, so be sure to read any new recipes carefully to see if you can adjust to your preferences.
Pro tip? You should always use mayonnaise for grilled cheese instead of butter or margarine. It’s tangy, adds a slight amount of sweetness, and browns up beautifully.
Check out these great recipes that incorporate dairy alternatives:
Baking Ingredient Substitutes
This is a tougher category to improvise, as baking is more precise in general than cooking. It’s easy to be daunted by a recipe and have doubts about swapping in ingredients. Luckily, if you have the right substitutes, baked goods can be easily customized. Using whole wheat flour instead of or as a part of all-purpose flour is a very common swap, especially when it’s difficult to acquire all-purpose flour. Chocolate chips are usually an easy thing to mix and match with as well—not everyone keeps semi-sweet chips on hand, and they’re not as much fun to snack on as milk chocolate.
Sugar is an easy item to find swaps for, but using the wrong thing can easily alter a flavor profile. Using brown sugar instead of granulated sugar can cause food to have a deeper, more molasses-like flavor, while using honey might infuse more moisture than you need.
If you’re gluten-free, there are plenty of gluten-free ingredients that are great to bake with. Gluten is present in grains like wheat and rye, and many different products that derive from grains, including flour and even things you wouldn’t anticipate, like vanilla extract. Almond flour is a good solution for regular flour for many cases, and some flour brands also offer gluten-free versions, such as the King Arthur Gluten-Free Measure for Measure flour.
Wet baking ingredients tend to be easier to substitute than dry. A cup of butter can be swapped out for 7/8 cups of vegetable oil in some cases, and we’ve all heard the applesauce tip. Mayonnaise and bananas can sometimes stand in for eggs as a binder depending on what you’re making. The world is really your oyster where baking is concerned—just check that the products you choose to swap will replicate the effect of the product you’re missing.
Check out these articles for a few baking ingredient substitutes:
Herb and Spice Substitutes
Depending on the recipe you’re using, spices are either the easiest or hardest things to substitute. Typically, if you’re looking to recreate heat in a recipe, swapping out ingredients like cayenne for other heat sources like red pepper flake is an easy solution. Spice mixes like garam masala might seem difficult to replicate, but if you have items like cinnamon, clove, turmeric, and ground coriander you can easily recreate the flavor profile.
Herbs are often used in tandem, so your recipe won’t necessarily suffer from a lack of sage in your sachet of rosemary, parsley, and thyme. Herbs like chives can be replaced by green onions or even leeks, and some people swap out parsley for cilantro intentionally (and not just because they look exactly the same).
As Molly Baz from Bon Appetit notes, salt is key to almost any recipe, so if you’re worried about a lack of flavor in your food salt can be a balm (she even salts her smoothies).
Check out this guide to replacing herbs in your food:
Pantry Staple Substitutes
Making soup or chili is one of the easiest ways to utilize the items you have readily available in the cupboard, but most of the time you won’t have every single ingredient a recipe calls for when you decide to make soup on a whim. Luckily, many pantry staples are easily swapped out for other items you might have. Take broths and stocks, for instance. Vegetable stock is a common ingredient in many soups and chilis that can easily be swapped out for items you have at hand; using a cup of white or red wine with water can easily replace stock. Broth is trickier, but if you have bouillon cubes available those will suffice when combined with a few cups of water.
Canned tomatoes play a big roll in a lot of recipes, and tend to vanish from pantries quicker than most items. Using a cup of tomato sauce with a proportional ratio of water can be a good solution if you’re in a pinch, and spices can make up the balance for any missing flavor notes.
Dry goods like bread crumbs are the easiest things to replicate—making your own breadcrumbs by toasting up stale bread or crushing up crackers is a perfect solution and can offer better flavors than boxed ingredients.
Generally, Samin Nosrat (author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) has the rule of thumb down—wherever your ingredients are coming from, the key is balance where cooking is concerned, and finding it isn’t as hard as it seems!
Check out these articles for even more cooking substitutions.