You’ve decided to save money by cooking more meals at home instead of eating out all the time. On your first night, you’re off to a good start, halfway through a brand-new soup recipe, when suddenly you realize it calls for a quarter-cup of sour cream, and you don’t have any. Now what do you do?
You could leave your half-cooked soup on the stove, run out to the store, buy the sour cream, and then run back. But even if your soup isn’t completely ruined, it’ll take time to make the grocery run and still more time to get the soup back up to temperature, and you really want to eat right now. Plus, you’ll be stuck with the rest of the container of sour cream to use up somehow.
Or you could just give up, throw out the whole pot of soup, and go out to eat. Of course, that’s about the worst possible outcome for your plan to save money. Not only will you be paying to eat out, but you’ll also waste all the ingredients that went into the soup.
The way to save this situation is with a handy food substitution. There’s a good chance you already have something in your kitchen that could substitute for that sour cream and save both your soup and your money-saving pledge.
Benefits of Food Substitutions
Food substitutions are good for more than just rescuing a recipe when you’re missing an ingredient. You can also use them to:
1. Save Money
Food substitutions can prevent you from wasting money on ruined recipes, but they can also save you money in other ways. For example, sometimes you have a favorite recipe you don’t often make because one of the ingredients is too expensive. Finding a substitute for that ingredient can help you enjoy the dish without blowing your budget.
2. Save Time
Last-minute grocery runs cost you time as well as money. By using food substitutions instead, you can skip the emergency trip and get dinner on the table sooner.
3. Avoid Food Waste
If you buy a pint of cream for a recipe and only use a half-cup of it, that leaves you with one and a half cups of cream left over. If you can’t use up the leftovers somehow, it will go to waste. That’s money going down the drain.
4. Work With Special Diets
If you follow a special diet, you’ll find yourself skipping over a lot of the recipes in most cookbooks because they contain ingredients you can’t eat. However, with a few judicious food substitutions, you can adjust your recipes to make them vegetarian, vegan, sugar-free, or gluten-free. You can also replace a specific ingredient you’re allergic to, such as milk or nuts.
5. Make Recipes Healthier
Maybe you’re not on a special diet, but you want to eat healthier in general — more veggies and fruits, less saturated fat, less salt, fewer refined carbs, or lower calories. With the right food substitutions, you can tweak your favorite recipes to make them healthier without sacrificing flavor.
Top Food Substitutions to Use at Home
There are lots of lists online of handy food substitutions recommended by cooking experts. Some of these lists focus on the kind of last-minute substitutions you might need to make when you discover you’re missing an ingredient, while others are more concerned with making recipes healthier or accommodating special diets. Here are 15 of the ingredients that show up most often on these lists, along with the foods that you can substitute for them.
1. Baking Chocolate
Many dessert recipes call for baking chocolate, also known as unsweetened or bitter chocolate. This is chocolate with no sugar added, usually sold in small blocks. Unless you bake regularly, this probably isn’t an ingredient you keep on hand in your pantry.
Instead of springing for a whole box of baking chocolate that could sit unused in your pantry for years, try a simple cocoa-and-oil mixture. Use three tablespoons of cocoa powder, plus one tablespoon of oil or shortening, for each ounce of baking chocolate in your recipe.
2. Bread Crumbs
Recipes often call for bread crumbs — plain or seasoned — as a coating or topping. If you don’t have this ingredient on hand, you can crumble up any kind of crackers to make a crispy, bread-crumb-like coating. If the crackers you’re using are salted, reduce the salt in the recipe slightly to make up for it.
If you want a gluten-free substitute for bread crumbs, try either gluten-free rolled oats or crushed flaxseed. You can combine either of these with dried herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, as a substitute for seasoned breadcrumbs. This substitution also has the advantage of being lower in sodium.
There are several reasons for wanting to skip the butter in recipes that call for it. Maybe you’re a vegan, or you want to be able to serve your recipe to a friend who is. Maybe you’re concerned about all the saturated fat in real butter, or maybe it’s just the price that puts you off.
Whatever your reason, you can find a substitute that will fit your needs. Many ingredients can take the place of butter, including:
- Vegetable Oil Spreads. Stick margarine, which at one time was the go-to alternative to butter, has largely disappeared from store shelves as the result of a 2015 ban on trans fats by the Food and Drug Administration. However, there are still several vegan-friendly vegetable oil spreads on the market, such as Earth Balance, that can substitute for butter in cooking and baking. Just don’t expect these spreads to save you money; pound for pound, they’re often more expensive than butter.
- Oil. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, simply substituting vegetable oil for butter in recipes won’t work, since the consistency isn’t the same. However, if your recipe calls for melted butter, you can replace it with the same amount of a neutral-tasting cooking oil, such as canola oil. This substitution is cheaper, healthier, and vegan-friendly.
- Coconut Oil. Unlike most plant oils, coconut oil is naturally solid at room temperature. That makes it a good vegan-friendly substitute for butter in both cooking and baking. You can use it in pie crusts, cookies, frostings, and any dish that won’t be harmed by a touch of coconut flavor.
- Fruit or Vegetable Puree. In baked goods, various types of fruit or vegetable puree can stand in for butter. Avocado puree, for instance, has a creamy texture that works well in rich dishes like brownies. If you want an even lower-fat butter substitute, try applesauce, canned pumpkin, or prune puree, which works well in dark baked goods like brownies. Just make sure the flavor of the puree doesn’t clash with the other flavors in whatever you’re baking.
- Chia. Although most people know chia seeds best as the source of greenery in the whimsical Chia Pet, they can also be useful in cooking. If you combine one tablespoon of chia seeds with nine tablespoons of water and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes, it will form a gel that can replace up to half the butter in your baked goods. This substitution cuts down on saturated fat and adds extra nutrients and fiber.
If a recipe calls for buttermilk and you don’t feel like running out to the store for some, soured milk will do the job just as well. To make it, put a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice into a one-cup measure, then fill it with plain milk. Let the mixture stand for about five minutes to develop the sour taste. For a vegan substitute, do the same thing with soy milk.
Cream lends a rich flavor to many recipes, but it’s expensive, high in fat, and not suitable for vegans. Also, even though it comes in smaller containers than milk, sometimes you have to buy as much as a pint at once when your recipe calls for a half-cup or less. In situations like these, it makes much more sense to find a substitute.
A cheaper alternative to cream is a blend of milk and butter. If you combine a tablespoon of melted butter with enough whole milk to make one cup, the mixture can take the place of a cup of light cream. To replace heavy cream, try evaporated skim milk, which is both cheaper and lower in fat.
If you need a vegan substitute for heavy cream, coconut milk often makes a good alternative. This ingredient has only a hint of coconut flavor, but if that’s too much for your recipe, you can try a mixture of soy milk and olive oil, such as the milk-and-butter combination described above.
If you ever find yourself short of eggs for a recipe, or if you want to leave out the eggs to make a dish vegan-friendly, there are several ingredients you can use to take their place.
- Chia. A tablespoon of chia seeds soaked in three tablespoons of water for 15 minutes can take the place of an egg for baking. This mixture will bind ingredients together, add moisture, and aid in rising. Just don’t try to use chia as a butter substitute and an egg substitute in the same recipe.
- Soy Flour. A heaping tablespoon of soy flour combined with one tablespoon of water can also take the place of an egg. According to “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” this combination works in “muffins, pancakes, cornbread, cake, and even meatloaf.” However, be careful about combining this with the applesauce-for-butter substitution; the complete absence of fat could make your baked goods come out a bit on the tough side.
- Flaxseed. A tablespoon of ground flaxseed, combined with three tablespoons of warm water, can take the place of one egg. Whisk the flax meal and water together with a fork and let the mixture sit in the fridge for five to 10 minutes before use. This mixture will not stiffen up baked goods the way an egg does, but it works well in pancakes, cookies, and cakes.
- Fruit Purees. According to Kitchn, a mashed, ripe banana can take the place of an egg in “chewy baked goods like brownies.” A tablespoon of applesauce can also replace an egg in most baked goods.
- Aquafaba. One of the hottest new discoveries in the world of vegan cooking is aquafaba, or bean water — the liquid left over from cooked or canned chickpeas. According to America’s Test Kitchen, this liquid can not only bind together ingredients like an egg, but it can also be whipped into a foam to lighten up muffins or puddings or even create a meringue. You can use three tablespoons of aquafaba to take the place of one large egg or two tablespoons for one egg white.
If you want to make a cookie or brownie recipe gluten-free, try substituting one 15-ounce can of black beans — drained, rinsed, and mashed — for one cup of flour. This substitution also adds some healthy protein and vitamins to your baked goods.
If you don’t normally keep mayonnaise in your fridge, you’re likely to feel stumped when you come across a recipe that calls for just one tablespoon of it. It hardly seems worth buying a whole jar of mayo just to use one spoonful. And you might not be thrilled with the idea of using this high-fat ingredient in the first place.
For a lighter alternative to mayonnaise, try Greek yogurt. It has the same tangy flavor and creamy texture, but without all the fat.
If you’re looking for a vegan substitute, replace mayo with an equal amount of mashed avocado. This replacement cuts out 70 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 87 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon while adding extra vitamins and a touch of fiber.
If you’re all out of milk, there are several ways to replace it in your recipes:
- Dry Milk. One easy solution is to keep a container of powdered milk on hand for this kind of emergency. Mix three parts water to one part dry milk to make the equivalent of fat-free milk.
- Evaporated Milk. You can also keep a can or two of evaporated milk in the pantry. Mix half a cup of this with half a cup of water to replace one cup of milk.
- Plant-Based Milk. To make a recipe vegan, simply replace the milk with your favorite plant-based milk alternative. If you don’t have any in the fridge, you can mix up a DIY oat or rice milk by blending one cup of rolled oats or cooked rice with three cups of water, then straining the mixture.
- Coconut Milk. Canned coconut milk can also make a vegan substitute for milk. It’s a bit thicker and richer than whole milk, so skim off the coconut solids from the top of the can before measuring.
Although oats themselves are gluten-free, the oatmeal you buy in a store sometimes contains gluten due to contamination, either in the field or in the plant where it’s packaged. You can buy oats that are guaranteed gluten-free, but if you don’t have any of these in your pantry, quinoa makes an interesting substitute. Cooked with milk and served with brown sugar or cinnamon, it makes a tasty breakfast cereal with an extra dose of protein.
Pasta makes a cheap and filling meal, but it’s not appropriate for gluten-free, paleo, or low-carb diets. If you want to serve your favorite pasta sauce to someone on one of these special diets, here are a few things you can spoon it over:
- Shirataki Noodles. These light, thin Japanese noodles are made from a particular type of yam. They’re high in fiber but very low in calories and carbs. They also require no cooking; just rinse, heat, and serve. The downside is that they’re quite a bit pricier than regular noodles and must be stored in the fridge.
- Zucchini Noodles. Zucchini noodles, or “zoodles” for short, are just long, thin strips of zucchini. They’re low in calories and carbs, and they’re a good way to sneak more veggies into your diet. They’re not the ideal stand-in for pasta with a tomato-based sauce, but they’re great with garlic oil, peanut sauce, or pesto. The only cooking they need is a few minutes of sautéing to warm and soften them up. You can also try making noodle-like strands out of other veggies, such as winter squash, carrots, parsnips, or sweet potatoes.
- Spaghetti Squash. This type of squash naturally forms spaghetti-like strands when cooked. All you have to do is pull them apart with a fork and top with your favorite sauce. One squash makes the equivalent of two to three servings of pasta.
- Quinoa. It’s not shaped like pasta, but quinoa makes a great substitute for couscous. The texture is similar, and it adds extra protein and fiber.
Rice is another ingredient that many people on special diets shy away from due to all the low-fiber carbs it contains. A healthier alternative that’s currently taking the world by storm is grated cauliflower, which has a similar texture and neutral flavor.
You can find packages of ready-grated “cauliflower rice” in the freezer case at the supermarket or grate a whole cauliflower with a box grater or food processor. You can steam it, sauté it, cook it in soups, and even make it into a risotto.
13. Sour Cream
Sour cream is an ingredient many people don’t keep around all the time and one that some people would rather not use because of its high fat content. For a lower-fat alternative, you can substitute tangy, protein-rich Greek yogurt.
Another way to replace sour cream in baked goods is with a combination of soured milk and butter. Use anywhere from three tablespoons to a third of a cup of butter plus three-quarters of a cup of sour milk to stand in for one cup of sour cream. Or, for a lower-fat alternative, combine one cup of evaporated milk with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar and let it stand for five minutes. You can do the same thing with coconut milk to make your recipe vegan-friendly.
If there’s one thing nutrition scientists can agree on, it’s that we could all benefit from cutting down on sugar. However, this doesn’t have to mean giving up sweet treats. You can reduce the sugar in many recipes by substituting one cup of applesauce for one cup of sugar. However, this swap adds moisture, so reduce the added liquid in the recipe by a quarter-cup to compensate.
Another trick that can make desserts taste sweet with less sugar is to add vanilla. Simply cut the amount of sugar in your recipe by two tablespoons per cup, then add an extra half-teaspoon of vanilla to boost the flavor.
Many recipes call for a bit of wine, but it can be an expensive ingredient for cooking. Some people would rather save their wine for drinking, and others — particularly those who have problems with alcohol — would rather not use it at all.
For an alcohol-free alternative, try replacing wine with fruit juice in your recipes. Apple or white grape juice can stand in for white wine, and grape or cranberry juice can substitute for red. A mixture of equal parts lemon juice and water can also replace white wine for deglazing a pan, according to Kitchn.
Stock can also take the place of wine for adding flavor to a dish. Use chicken or vegetable stock in place of white wine and beef or vegetable stock for red.
These are some of the handiest food substitutions for cooking, but there are lots of others as well. If you ever need to replace an ingredient that you don’t see on this list, simply do an online search with the name of the ingredient followed by “substitute.” You’re almost sure to find something you can use.
Do you have any favorite food substitutions that aren’t on this list?