When I was a new bride, cooking baffled me. The recipes I wanted to use often called for ingredients that a newlywed couple did not have on their shelves. Capers? Five-spice powder? Self-rising flour? I was lucky to have basic, all-purpose flour. I sure didn’t own those other items.
Gradually, my pantry options expanded, and I learned about the magic of ingredient substitutions. It truly felt like magic, at least to me, to be able to proceed with a recipe without stopping the cooking process to make a trip to the store.
During the pandemic, I have found myself again turning to easy and practical ingredient substitutions. Following are some of my favorites.
Note: Substitutions don’t work universally across all recipes, and you may get a slightly different taste than you expected.
1. Don’t have buttermilk?
Substitution: A scant cup of milk and 1 tablespoon vinegar
This was the first substitution I learned as a young cook. I wasn’t accustomed to buying buttermilk, yet it showed up in many of the recipes I longed to try, such as biscuits and Southern coleslaw.
I’ve since learned there are many buttermilk substitutions. But I almost always stick to my tried and true one: a scant cup of milk plus 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice.
2. Don’t have bread crumbs?
Substitution: Crushed crackers
Just the other day, when I was breading chicken, trying to stretch a small amount of panko (Japanese style) bread crumbs to cover three portions of meat, I ran out. Thankfully, I had a box of saltine crackers on the shelf.
Just crush as many crackers as you need, season as desired and use them as you would bread crumbs. This also works if you need the crumbs for a meatloaf. Or, you could toast bread and buzz the toast into crumbs in a blender.
3. Don’t have mayonnaise?
Mayonnaise works like a charm in such dishes as tuna or chicken salad. Many people love it on sandwiches. If you don’t have mayo, plain yogurt (but not the sweetened type!) will make a fine replacement. The Seattle Times has advice for cooking and baking with yogurt.
4. Don’t have sour cream?
Yogurt, again. Did you know that it is cheap and easy to make at home?
One of my favorite easy meals — it’s been comfort food for my family lately — is my mom’s beef stroganoff. (I think she got her recipe from Betty Crocker.) For me, the recipe just isn’t finished until I’ve swirled sour cream into the meaty gravy. If I don’t have sour cream, plain yogurt works just fine.
5. Don’t have an egg?
I didn’t believe this until I tried it. Completely out of eggs, I was able to substitute a quarter cup of applesauce for a single egg in my banana bread recipe.
I didn’t taste any apple flavor in the finished product, although I wouldn’t have minded if I had. Obviously, this substitution works in dishes, such as quick breads, where you won’t mind the sweetness.
6. Don’t have tomato sauce?
Substitution: Tomato paste plus water
I cruise through my canned tomato sauce — it’s just got so many uses. And yet, those tiny cans of tomato paste sit around forever.
If you’re plum out of tomato sauce, you can mix one part tomato paste to one part water, season to your taste and use as you wish.
7. Don’t have white sugar?
Substitution: Brown sugar or powdered sugar
Brown sugar has molasses in it, and in a recipe such as banana bread you can substitute brown sugar for white without too much problem.
Powdered sugar is really just crushed white sugar. Even Betty Crocker is A-OK with this substitution in baked goods. They recommend using 1 ¾ cup powdered sugar in place of 1 cup of granulated sugar.
Just know that, “if you are trying to make a sweet sauce then the starch in the powdered sugar may cause it to thicken more quickly,” as the folks at Betty Crocker say.
8. Don’t have baking soda?
Substitution: Baking powder (omit or reduce salt in the recipe)
During the winter lockdown, my daughter wanted chocolate chip cookies. I found myself completely out of baking soda. (We eventually found some in a hardware store.)
I knew that baking powder can be substituted for baking soda, but I wondered how the cookies would taste. I went ahead, anyway, using 3 teaspoons of baking powder for the recipe’s 1 teaspoon of baking soda.
The cookies satisfied my daughter’s craving. But I found them a little salty. If I need to make this switch again, I’ll just omit the salt called for in our favorite recipe.
9. Don’t have yeast?
Substitution: Sourdough starter or baking soda plus lemon juice
Stores have had trouble keeping yeast on the shelf at times, lately. With more people spending time at home, baking is a natural and practical hobby. So maybe that means active dry yeast sometimes can be a hot commodity.
If you don’t have yeast, instant yeast can easily sub in for active dry yeast. You can do that without a second thought.
If you like the taste of sourdough bread, you can make and keep a sourdough starter. There are plenty of guides online.
Another solution is to substitute 1 teaspoon of baking soda plus 1 teaspoon of an acid (such as lemon juice) for 2 teaspoons of yeast. Your baked goods may differ a bit from those made with yeast, but desperate times call for desperate baking.