Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Make it or fake it: Substitutions in recipes

Cooking is like driving a car. No one is a gourmet chef right off the bat, just like no one is a Formula One racecar driver right off the bat. You accumulate that knowledge through practice. The best way to learn how to cook is to cook, a lot, and learn from your mistakes. You can't learn to cook from reading cookbooks or watching cooking shows any more than you can learn how to drive via correspondence course. You just have to get out there and do it. One day after many years, you find yourself effortlessly switching lanes at 90 miles per hour in rush-hour traffic on I-95. You don't get behind the wheel at 16 knowing how to do that. I didn't start off knowing how to free-hand a souffle. I just did it a bunch of times until the recipe was instinctual and I didn't need to refer to it anymore.

I realize the idea of cooking is intimidating to a lot of people, but following a recipe is just following directions. Anyone can follow directions. Don't worry about screwing it up--most kitchen mistakes are still edible, and it's virtually impossible to over-season a dish. (It IS possible to over-salt a dish, or to make it too hot, so be careful with salt and spicy things.)

Once you've done it a few times, it's easier to look at a recipe as a suggestion, rather than a rule. I almost never follow a recipe to the letter anymore; I'm always substituting in what I already have, adding seasonings, cutting back on the amount of sugar, whatever.

The key to substitutions is substituting like with like.

You can't substitute water for milk and get the same effect. You CAN substitute watered-down cream or half-and-half, buttermilk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, reconstituted powdered milk, soy milk, coconut milk, or goat's milk. Sometimes you can even substitute sour cream.

If the recipe calls for chard, you can substitute any other kind of bitter greens: kale, beet greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, dandelion greens, sorrel, tatsoi, even spinach or arugula. And vice versa.

Meat-as-flavoring is similarly interchangeable. I've used bacon, bacon fat, Italian sausage, turkey sausage, alligator sausage, andouille, tasso, kielbasa, ham, proscuitto, ham hocks, country ham, ground beef, ground turkey, ground pork, leftover salami, and leftover chicken in the same minestrone recipe and ended up with yummy soup every time.

Ditto root vegetables and winter squash. I've made fries with sweet potatoes, turnips and parsnips when I was out of potatoes; thrown all those things into soups; used butternut squash instead of pumpkin or sweet potatoes, and vice versa.

Ditto herbs. It depends a little bit on what you're making, but see above re: it's impossible to over-season a dish. No one ever added too much oregano to spaghetti sauce. I combine frequently-used dried herbs into a big jar called "Italian seasoning"--basil, parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and a little rosemary--and use a big scoop of that whenever I need any one of those. Fresh is always better than dried, but dried is better than nothing.

Broth or stock (I use the words interchangeably) is just that: broth. I use vegetable broth, chicken broth and beef broth in the same recipes, or a combination thereof, depending on what I have on hand. If the recipe calls for beef broth and you're vegetarian, you can use vegetable. If you're making chicken soup and all you have is vegetable broth, well, use that. I also use broth instead of water when cooking rice or quinoa. More flavor.

These are pretty instinctual, but here are other substitutions you can make:

Ricotta = cottage cheese
Sour cream = plain yogurt
Buttermilk = milk with white vinegar added (for 1/2 cup buttermilk, substitute 1/2 cup milk with 1 1/2 teaspoons of white vinegar added to it and let it sit for a few minutes)
Rice vinegar = white wine vinegar + sugar + salt
Baking chocolate, 1 oz = 1/4 c cocoa for cakes and cookies, 3 tablespoons cocoa + 1 tablespoon vegetable oil for frostings and sauces
Carrot greens = fresh parsley
Heavy cream, 1 cup = 1/3 cup butter (REAL butter, not margarine)  + 3/4 cup milk
Cornstarch, 1 tablespoon = 3 tablespoons flour (arrowroot is also a very effective thickener, and won't turn your sauces cloudy like cornstarch or flour will--it is more expensive, though)
Saffron = turmeric
Brown sugar = white sugar + molasses
Cake or pastry flour = put regular all-purpose flour in the food processor and whiz it a couple of times
Superfine sugar = put regular white sugar in the food processor and whiz it a couple of times

In chocolate recipes, you can substitute bourbon for the vanilla. The bourbon makes it taste more chocolatey.

Another clever trick: if you're out of butter, but have some heavy cream on hand, drop all the heavy cream into your KitchenAid and let it go for a while. It'll churn the cream into fresh butter.


  1. Cake flour isn't really a finer version of AP flour. A better substitution is to replace about 1 TB of AP flour with cornstarch, for every cup of cake flour.

  2. These are great tips! I'm doing just that through my blog, cooking and trying to learn from my mistakes and these are all things I've come across and spent too much time on Google to find substitutions for :)