Cooking Basics: Can You Substitute Ingredients In a Recipe?
Are you missing an ingredient in a recipe? Put off by an extra-expensive spice or an out-of-season fruit? There's a good chance you can pull off your meal anyway.
We have a whole list here of common ingredient substitutions, with suggestions like using parsley instead of chervil or ricotta cheese in place of cottage cheese. But there are also some good general rules to guide you through ingredient roadblocks:
Leave It Out
Some ingredients are essential. You'd never take baking powder out of a cake, for instance, without adding in something else to make it rise properly. But other ingredients are just a matter of taste. If a stir-fry calls for two red peppers and you only have one, chances are good that the recipe will taste just the same with one. Double-up on other vegetables in the recipe if you're worried about having enough. Some seasonings can also be left out if you don't like them or don't have them on hand. Saffron rice won't taste the same without using saffron, of course, but you can leave the expensive spice out of dishes like this Spicy Thai Vegetable Soup where it's in the supporting cast rather than a starring role. It's worth looking at recipe comments to see if anyone else has left out the ingredient you're thinking about omitting. In that soup, for instance, different cooks reported leaving out the saffron, the fish sauce, the lemongrass, and the broccoli, with different degrees of success.
Like For Like
You can often swap out one ingredient for another one in the same family or one that has a similar flavor profile. (Baking is a big exception, one where you need to be aware of how changes might affect texture, rising, browning, and other factors.) Tiny dried currants can often stand in for raisins, even in baking, and dried cranberries can work too depending on the dish. If you don't have shallots or don't want to pay extra for the mild allium, consider using an onion instead. Onions have a stronger taste, but that's rarely a deal-breaker. I've been known to use leeks instead of shallots too.
Along the same lines, one leafy green can often stand in for another, such as using a cup of chard ribbons in place of kale. Not all hot pepper sauces taste the same, but you can often exchange one for another for a slightly different take on a dish (recipes like these Buffalo Chicken Wings give you the option up front.) No pecans in the pantry? Try walnuts. We wouldn't recommend using white vinegar in place of lemon juice when you're making lemonade, but one acid substitutes perfectly well for the other in salad dressing. When it comes to sweeteners, we have a guide here for when and how to substitute.
Overall, a good general rule is that minor ingredients are easier to change out than major ones.
Change the Format
Frozen vegetables can often be used in place of fresh ones, especially for soups and casseroles and other dishes where you're not going for finely nuanced textures. Canned goods are another option. You wouldn't use canned tomatoes for caprese salad, but if it's not summertime I actually prefer canned tomatoes for sauces and stews. Dried herbs and spices can selectively be used in place of fresh ones, and vice versa (check out this guide).
Make Your Own
Explore whether you can put together the missing ingredient by using others from your fridge and pantry. Here are some examples:
You can make a DIY baking powder with this recipe.
All out of brown sugar? This easy recipe has you make your own from white sugar and molasses.
Self-rising flour is easy to make on your own with all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt (the recipe is over here.)
Plenty of Indian recipes call for garam masala, a blend that you can put together yourself from other spices you may have on hand. You can also make your own poultry seasoning or try the super popular Cajun Spice Mix, pictured below.
If you don't have thick Greek yogurt in the fridge, line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or with a clean, thin dish towel, dump in regular yogurt, and put the colander over a bowl to catch the drips. Refrigerate the whole setup overnight.
Bonus tip: If you have all the ingredients but you don't have the right size baking pan, we have a great guide here for converting recipes from one to the other.