Food Substitutions and How to Make Them

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The most important skill in the kitchen — and, arguably, life — is adaptability. The list below, which is by no means comprehensive, is meant to help you replace ingredients with confidence. Every alternative listed may not work in every case, especially when it comes to baking, but if you consider the ingredient’s texture, flavor, and cook time, and make decisions according to taste, you’ll greatly expand your options — and you may even end up with a dish you like better than the original.

Dairy

Flavor and texture are important considerations when substituting dairy products. When working with liquids, you can easily doctor consistency, thickening milk with a little flour or cornstarch to mimic half-and-half, or thinning out Greek yogurt with water to replicate milk. The ingredients below are ordered from thinnest to firmest; if you don’t have the desired substitute for a specific item, move up or down the list.

  • Ingredient & Substitution’s:
  • Milk: Half-and-half or heavy cream thinned with water, evaporated milk, light coconut milk, light cream, oat milk, nut milk, soy milk.
  • Half-and-Half: Thicken milk with a little cornstarch or flour (about 1 tablespoon per cup of liquid) or thin heavy cream with a splash of water.
  • Heavy Cream: For 1 cup heavy cream, use 3/4 cup milk and 1/4 cup melted butter, or thicken 1 cup milk with 1 to 2 tablespoons cornstarch or flour. (Whisk milk into cornstarch or flour little by little.) Coconut milk, coconut cream (beware of increased sweetness), or cream cheese whisked with a little water also work. Note: Alternatives won’t whip into fluffy whipped cream.
  • Buttermilk: For 1 cup buttermilk, add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (or light vinegar, such as white, white wine or champagne) to a measuring cup and add enough milk to reach 1 cup. Alternately, thin one part yogurt, sour cream or other creamy dairy product with one part milk, or thin two parts yogurt or other creamy dairy product with one part water.
  • Butter: If using butter to conduct heat, as in pan-frying, use olive oil or other fats. (See Oils and Fats below.) For flavor substitutions, like butter in risotto or polenta, a number of creamy options like heavy cream or mascarpone will work.
  • Creamy Dairy Products:Tangy, textural ingredients like crema, crème fraîche, mascarpone, Neufchâtel, Quark, queso fresco, sour cream or yogurt of any variety can be used interchangeably.
  • CHEESES:
  • There are so many cheeses it’s impossible to cover them all. When substituting, think about its purpose: Will it melt evenly in a pasta sauce, or spread easily on toast? If cooking, swap in one with a similar texture, but if using as an accent, there’s much more flexibility. Here are widely available cheeses (predominantly cow’s milk) broken into broad categories:
  • Types Examples:
  • Fresh, unripened cheese (soft and wet) Cottage cheese, cream cheese, fromage blanc, ricotta.
  • Soft-ripened cheese (creamy) Brie, Camembert, Pont l’Evêque, taleggio.
  • Semifirm or semisoft cheeses Cheddar, Colby, Edam, fontina, Gouda, Havarti, Jarlsberg, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, Muenster, pepper Jack, Port-Salut, Swiss.
  • Hard aged cheeses Asiago, Comté, Gruyère, Manchego, Parmesan, pecorino

Oils and Fats

Oils and fats all have a temperature at which they begin to burn, called a smoke point: Neutral oils with high smoke points won’t burn when exposed to high temperatures (as in deep-frying or pan-frying), whereas butter and other solid fats (with low smoke points) burn easily. Here, oils and fats have been grouped into three categories with that in mind. While many of the oils and fats in each category are interchangeable, you’ll want to consider flavor and smoke points when choosing a substitute.

  • Type Of Smoke Point:
  • Examples, Neutral oils High Canola oil, coconut oil, corn oil, grapeseed oil, peanut oil and vegetable oil.Flavored oils Medium-highAvocado oil, nut oils, olive oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil.Solid fatsLowBacon fat, butter, chicken fat, lard, margarine and vegetable shortening. Solid when refrigerated but liquid when hot, ghee (clarified butter) has a very high smoke point similar to neutral oils.

Stock

Though stock improves flavor, its primary purpose is to add liquid. If the recipe calls for a little stock, you can substitute water. If the recipe calls for a lot of stock, use water seasoned with one of the ingredients below, keeping the flavors of your recipe in mind. Start small and taste as you go, especially since some items skew significantly sweet, salty, or condensed. Substitutions include water seasoned with beer or white wine, juice (such as orange juice or apple juice), melted butter, milk (dairy, coconut, nut, or soy milk), miso paste, mushroom stock (liquid from soaked dried mushrooms), olive oil, soy sauce or tea.

Greens

Most greens can be defined by their flavor and texture: Are they bitter or mild? Sturdy or tender? When choosing a substitute, consider how the greens are being used. Tender greens are often consumed raw while sturdy ones might need to be cooked longer; simply add the greens earlier or later in the cooking process as needed.

  • Type Examples:
  • Mild and Tender: Chard, lettuce, mâche, mesclun, spinach, tatsoi
  • Mild and Firm: Bok choy, cabbage, collard greens
  • Bitter and Tender: Arugula, endive, frisée, mizuna, radicchio, radish greens, watercress
  • Bitter and Firm: Escarole, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens

Vegetables

Substituting vegetables can be tricky, and depends largely on taste. But some can definitely step in for others: say brussels sprouts for broccoli. Just bear in mind texture, moisture content, and density. We’ve broken common vegetables up into two categories, based on cook times: Many in the same category cook at a similar rate, but if you’d like to substitute a firm vegetable for a quick-cooking one or vice versa, increase or decrease cook time by adding the ingredient earlier or later in your recipe.

  1. QUICK-COOKING (LESS DENSE) Asparagus, cabbage (bok choy, broccoli, broccolini, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale), celery, corn, eggplant, fennel, mushrooms, peas, peppers, summer squash, zucchini.
  2. SLOWER-COOKING (MORE DENSE) Root vegetables (beet, carrot, celery root, parsnip, potato, sweet potato, turnip), winter squash (such as butternut squash, delicata, kabocha, pumpkin).
  3. ALLIUMS Leeks, onions (red, white or yellow), scallions, shallots and spring onions are largely interchangeable. (Garlic’s pronounced flavor makes it difficult to find an exact substitute.) Garlic and onions are available in dried form (powdered, granulated or dehydrated as flakes), which are infinitely more potent — and can skew bitter if overused. Substitute dried ingredients in place of fresh with moderation, and only when the fresh is called for in smaller quantities rather than bulk.

Herbs

Fresh herbs fall into two categories: tender, bright herbs (basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, parsley, and tarragon), which are most flavorful when fresh, or woody, savory herbs (bay leaves, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme), which are better dried. Since dried herbs are more potent, substitute 1 teaspoon dried for 1 tablespoon chopped fresh. In general, you can swap one tender herb for another (or vice versa), but substituting a woody herb for a tender herb (or vice versa) works less well. Rely on preference and availability when picking a substitute.

  • IngredientSubstitutions
  • Basil: Chervil, cilantro, dill, Italian seasoning, oregano, mint, parsley
  • Bay Leaves: Herbes de Provence, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme
  • Chervil: Basil, dill, parsley, tarragon
  • Chives: Cilantro, garlic powder, onion powder, parsley
  • Cilantro: Basil, chives, parsley, mint
  • Dill: Basil, chervil, mint, parsley
  • Marjoram: Herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme
  • Mint: Basil, cilantro, dill, parsley
  • Oregano: Bay leaves, herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, rosemary, thyme, sage
  • Parsley: Basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, Italian seasoning, mint, tarragon
  • Rosemary: Bay leaves, herbes de Provence, oregano, thyme, sage
  • Sage: Bay leaves, herbes de Provence, oregano, rosemary, thyme
  • Tarragon: Chervil, parsley
  • Thyme: Bay leaves, herbes de Provence, oregano, rosemary, sage

Spices

When swapping spices, think about what will work in your dish. Most spices can be grouped into four flavor profiles: earthy, floral, peppery, and warm. You’ll often be able to substitute a spice that hits the same notes by picking one with the same qualities.

  • Type Examples:
  • Earthy: Curry powder, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric, Vadouvan, za’atar.
  • Floral:Cardamom, coriander, fennel, lavender, nutmeg, saffron, star anise
  • Peppery: Allspice, ground ginger, peppercorns, mustard powder, sumac
  • Warm: Cinnamon, chile (dried), chili powder (blend), cloves, cumin, nutmeg, paprika
  • When it comes to spice, there is ample room for experimentation. Consider layering flavor carefully by seasoning lightly at the start of cooking so the end result is subtle, that way you can increase the spice to taste, if desired, once your dish is fully cooked.
  • Ingredient Substitutions:
  • Allspice: Combine cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, or use any one of the three
  • Cardamom: Coriander, fennel, ginger, lavender
  • Cayenne: Aleppo pepper, chili powder, dried chiles, hot sauce, paprika, red-pepper flakes, sumac
  • Chili Powder: Combine paprika (sweet, hot or smoked), onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, oregano and cayenne or red-pepper flakes; or use another warm spice, such as cayenne, cloves, cumin, nutmeg or paprika (sweet, hot or smoked)
  • Cinnamon: Allspice, apple pie spice blend, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, pumpkin pie spice blend
  • Cloves: Allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper
  • CorianderCardamom, cinnamon, fennel, nutmeg, saffron, turmeric
  • Cumin: Chili powder, coriander, curry powder, garlic powder, onion powder, turmeric
  • Ginger: Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, coriander
  • Nutmeg: Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ground ginger
  • Paprika: Cayenne, chili powder, curry powder, black pepper
  • Turmeric: Curry powder, garlic powder, onion powder, Vadouvan, za’atar

Meat and Seafood

While many home cooks plan meals around a protein, even that’s flexible. Make protein substitutions according to preference and what you have on hand, and shift cook times accordingly. Or adjust the size of the protein by cutting it into smaller pieces (or removing the meat from the bones) so it cooks faster or leaving it in larger pieces so it cooks at a slower rate. Thinking broadly can expand your options even further: Tofu, lentils, beans, and other vegetarian options can make excellent substitutes.

  1. BEEF: If swapping one cut of beef for another, try to substitute tough cuts (like chuck, brisket or round roast) for other tough cuts, and tender cuts (like strip steak, flank steak or filet mignon) for other quick-cooking cuts. You can also use lamb in place of beef in many recipes, though its flavor is more assertive.
  2. GROUND MEAT OR FRESH SAUSAGE: Both can be used interchangeably. You can remove sausages from their casings, and cook them as ground meat, or flavor plain ground meat with red-pepper flakes, fennel seed, Italian herbs and other seasonings. You can also substitute ground meat of any kind, swapping in ground pork for ground beef in meatballs, or ground chicken for ground turkey in a larb, for example. But bear in mind the fat content of whatever you’re using: Ground pork is the fattier option; if cooking with ground beef, chicken, turkey or veal, you might want to add extra oil to provide extra fat
  3. PORK: Bone-in pork chops cook in roughly the same time as steaks of similar thickness, but you will want to use a meat thermometer to check the temperature to achieve desired doneness. If working with diced pork stew meat, cubed beef stew meats will cook at a similar rate. Cubed chicken will also work, but you’ll need to reduce cooking times.
  4. CHICKEN: You can substitute whole boneless, skinless breasts for boneless, skinless chicken thighs: Just butterfly the breasts or pound them thinly to achieve a similar thickness of thighs. (You may also need to adjust cook time.) If substituting bone-in, skin-on thighs, increase the cook time. Ground turkey or turkey breasts also achieve similar results as their chicken counterparts
  5. SEAFOOD: Most fish fillets are either lean (bass, catfish, cod, flounder, halibut, monkfish, red snapper, skate, sole, tilapia) or fatty (char, mahi-mahi, salmon, swordfish, tuna). Substitute lean for lean, and fatty for fatty.Fresh or frozen shrimp cook very quickly at similar rates and benefit from quick, high-heat cooking methods. Depending on your recipe, fish fillets or small pieces of meat or poultry also might be suitable substitutes.

A GUIDE BY ALEXA WEIBEL

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