It happens to the best chefs now and again. You want to make something but are out of a particular ingredient. Luckily, in most cases, there is probably something you can swap out that will still turn out a delicious dish, but unless you’ve made a specific substitution in the past, it can be hard to tell if it will work the way you hope.
Read on for tips on making substitutions work, as well as one tip on how to avoid having to make those ingredient swaps in the first place.
Don’t Substitute Crucial Ingredients
Before subbing an ingredient ask yourself how crucial it is to the final outcome. If you don’t have basil, making a basil pesto sauce may be difficult. You can certainly use another herb, but since basil is the dominant flavor, it will certainly taste different. If a certain ingredient adds a specific quality or flavor you’re looking for, sometimes there isn’t a substitution that will do it. Trying to make your grandma’s coffee cake recipe with allspice instead of cinnamon probably isn’t going to give you what you’re after, but using vegetable oil instead of butter will probably be suitable.
Pay Attention to Texture
While flavor is an important factor in making an ingredient switch, texture may be more important. When choosing an ingredient to sub, think about the texture. Sweet potatoes can easily be subbed for white potatoes or carrots, but you probably won’t have the same results if you use a softer vegetable like eggplant.
Always make sure that the texture and structure of your new ingredient is as close as possible to what you’re switching it with or know how to make adjustments to the cooking process. For example, you can probably use eggplant instead of sweet potatoes in some things, but you may have to adjust the cooking time and temperature.
Not All Oil Is The Same
Oil and fat seems like something you can easily substitute, and it can be. A recipe can also turn out very, very badly if you use the wrong one however. Don’t have butter to sauté your veggies in? Olive oil will probably make a fine substitute. Avocado oil may smoke too much, however, and sesame oil will have a different flavor than you may be looking for.
Be Careful When Baking
Unlike cooking where practically anything goes, baking is a different story. Using a different flour, type of sugar, or liquid can turn what should be a delicious treat into an unappetizing mess. You can usually substitute spices or seasonings, but be very careful with leavening agents. Baking powder and baking soda are not the same!
Be especially cautious with gluten free baking, which is in a category all by itself. Simply swapping regular all purpose flour for a gluten free variety will more often than not turn out something that is dense, heavy, and not at all what you expected.
Some Substitutions Never Fail
If your recipe calls for chicken, but you’d rather use pork, you’ll probably be okay. Meats are generally interchangeable, but you need to pay attention to cooking times, since textures are often different. While using shrimp instead of chicken will work, shrimp cooks much quicker, so pay attention to the cooking process more than what the recipe says.
You can usually substitute milk with a lower fat variety, although you may lose some richness in the process. Be careful with cream or half and half, however, as the high fat content is what makes these ingredients special.
Berries are another food that are pretty interchangeable in most recipes, and depending on what you’re making, most fruits will substitute well for each other. Be careful with fruit that has a high water content; melon won’t make a good sub for something like mango in a lot of cases. Lemons and limes are generally interchangeable.
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
Part of the fun of cooking is trying new things, and for that reason, substitutions can be fun. You never know if a different seasoning or flavor will make a dish into something spectacular until you try, and unless you’re baking something, you will more than likely turn out something that’s edible, even if it’s not the most delicious meal you’ve ever made.
Be Careful With Expensive or Hard to Find Ingredients
If you’re making a lobster dish, or something with an exotic meat, it’s probably best you just follow the recipe. You’d hate to ruin an expensive meal because you didn’t have something on hand right?
Don’t Make Too Many Substitutions
Making one substitution changes the dish, even if only slightly. With each swap you make, you change the dish a little more. If you think you may end up subbing more than two ingredients, you may want to consider waiting and making the meal at another time.
It’s also not helpful to make a recipe you found online using several substitutions and then give the recipe a poor rating. More than a couple changes the dish to something else entirely, so if you like to rate recipes, at least rate it as written to help other readers that may want to try it.
Consider Leaving It Out
If you’re making a recipe that has a long list of dried herbs or spices and you’re out of something (or don’t want to spend several dollars on a spice when you only need 1/4 teaspoon), consider leaving it out. If there are plenty of other flavoring agents in the recipe, chances are you won’t miss it. This works out well with raw dishes like salads as well; not having cherry tomatoes is not likely to make or break your dish.
If a seasoning happens to be the only seasoning in a recipe, you may want to find a suitable replacement, however, as not doing so may leave you with a bland tasting dish. Better yet, just wait until you have everything you need.
Extra Tip: Read Your Recipe Before Starting
If you find yourself constantly scrambling for substitutions at the last minute, the solution is probably a pretty easy one. Read your recipe thoroughly before you begin cooking. It’s helpful to read the entire thing, including the cooking steps, and you should read it before you head to the store. Even better, make a weekly meal plan and shopping list, and read each recipe carefully as you’re making your list. While substitutions are helpful, if you’re constantly relying on substitutions, you may be missing out on a really great recipe that was written as is.
No matter how much planning you do, if you cook a lot, you will likely run into a situation where you don’t have everything you need. In most cases, it’s an easy fix, and there’s a substitution that will work wonders. You may even stumble upon something better than the original recipe. Experimenting can, and should be fun when you cook this way.
Remember, though, to be careful with baking. Much more scientific than savory cooking, baking is technical, detailed, and relies on proper amounts of specific ingredients to produce the desired results. It’s not to say that you can’t make substitutions when baking, it’s just that if you have high hopes for something, you should follow the recipe.