Shopping and cooking these days is requiring a lot more creativity. Whether you’re staring at picked-over grocery store shelves, making the best of what your food delivery brought you, or trying to cook with just what’s in your pantry, odds are you may not have every ingredient a recipe calls for. Learning to adapt to and accept that will not only serve you well during the challenging times we’re faced with right now, but also any other time you step into the kitchen.
“You do have to be open right away to changing, and I think people are these days,” says cookbook author David Joachim, who literally wrote the book on food substitutions, The Food Substitutions Bible.
Joachim suggests a three-step process to think about making substitutions.
1. Assess the situation. What ingredient are you missing? What family does that live in? Do you have anything similar? If for example, it’s milk, do you have other dairy products? Plant-based milks?
2. Think about the function of the ingredient. Is it there for flavor or garnish? Is it a main ingredient, or a supporting player? Will not having it affect texture or structure?
3. Make a choice. Decide what will work best (best doesn’t always mean exactly the same or perfect) — and don’t necessarily look back. “Some people think that substitutes are magical and that one ingredient equals another,” Joachim says. “The results will be a little different.”
Here are some broad categories to consider:
Swapping different types of dried pasta is almost always fair game. Joachim recommends replacing short shapes with short shapes and long with long, but otherwise, use whatever you can find.
Think of pasta as what it is, too: grains. If you're making a sauce and can't get pasta, what else can you put it on? Barley and farro are both good possibilities, as they cook up well as individual grains.
Another option would be to try a different type of noodle. No linguine? Maybe you can use soba or Chinese egg noodles, or even pivot to rice noodles or vermicelli.
For situations where you want wide noodles or sheets, Joachim suggests egg roll or wonton wrappers. He says empanada wrappers are another option. Family-style lasagna made with flour or corn tortillas? Sure.
Spices and herbs
Here, Joachim says, the main function is flavor. The success of a dish does not necessarily hinge on which one you choose as long as you like the way it tastes. “You can do flavor jockeying all day long,” he says. Substitute a spice for a spice or an herb for an herb, or go real crazy and use an herb instead of a spice or vice versa.
Spices are pretty interchangeable, especially in baking. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, cloves, and even pumpkin pie spice can be swapped in for one another. The result won’t be the same, of course, but if you’re OK with changing the genre, spice blends can take the place of each other. Think garam masala, Chinese five spice, Cajun seasoning, za’atar, and ras el hanout. This works especially well with simply roasted vegetables or chicken.
“Though no herb is a direct substitute for any other, there are many situations in which you’re not necessarily looking for a specific flavor but rather the freshness that herbs provide,” writes Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything. “In these cases you can substitute parsley for basil, cilantro for mint, and so on. Just don’t expect the end product to taste the same.”
Some swaps are easier than others. Better Homes & Gardens offers this handy chart. Among the tips: using oregano, basil, and thyme in place for each other; basil, marjoram, or rosemary for mint; and savory, marjoram, or rosemary for sage. While the flavor is markedly different, parsley and cilantro can replace each other in many instances.
Now is also the time to recognize the utility of dried herbs. When using dried, add a quarter to half the amount of fresh the recipe calls for — or as much as you think tastes good.
Many recipes that call for milk can be just as easily made with plant-based options made from soy, almond, or coconut. Sour cream and yogurt make fine one-for-one swaps for each other. Like Stella Parks over at Serious Eats, I’ve never been a fan of the lemon juice or vinegar and milk substitute for buttermilk. Instead, she gives high marks to kefir and a pretty decent grade to yogurt.
The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst endorses ricotta for cottage cheese, as well as 3/4 cup ice-cold evaporated milk (for whipping) or 3/4 cup whole milk plus 1/3 cup melted butter (for baking and cooking) for 1 cup heavy cream. To replace 1 cup half-and-half, try 1/2 cup light cream and 1/2 cup whole milk, or, for cooking and baking, 1 1/2 tablespoons melted butter plus enough whole milk to equal 1 cup.
Butter substitutes seem like old hat these days, with typical options including margarine, other plant-based products and shortening. Joachim also likes coconut oil, thanks to its level of saturated fat, as a butter stand-in. Virgin will have more coconut flavor than refined. Of course, you can always make your own butter if you have heavy cream. Just shake cream in a jar. “It’s a remarkable process,” Joachim says, though one better suited for spreading on bread than baking with.
Pantry and condiments
Here's another category where you can mostly relax and feel free to experiment as you work with what's in your pantry. Like spices, these types of ingredients are there for flavor. Your salad dressing will not fall apart with the wrong kind of oil or vinegar.
Oils are rather interchangeable with a few exceptions. First, be aware of smoke points. Some oils cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as others, which is most relevant in frying. Peanut oil for canola oil? Sure. Walnut oil? Not so much. Joachim says it can help to think about which oils are generally near each other on the grocery store shelves — your typical vegetable oils all function similarly.
Sometimes you need to think creatively within the same flavor category. Maybe your recipe calls for tahini and you don't have it. If you still want the sesame flavor, try sesame oil or sesame seeds. In some recipes, peanut butter can stand in for tahini, and vice versa. Spice and heat work the same way. If you don't have gochujang or chile paste, perhaps you have sriracha or even, one of my personal favorites, Frank's RedHot. Red chile flakes, a pantry basic, are always in play.
While the flavors won’t be identical, you shouldn’t hesitate to play around with soy sauce, fish sauce, and liquid aminos in place of one another. I also swear by a vegan fish sauce from America’s Test Kitchen made with water, salt, soy sauce, and dried shiitakes if you happen to have those items around instead of the real stuff.
Vinegars aren’t worth getting hung up on either. While balsamic is more in a category of its own (although adding sugar to red wine vinegar is on the table as an approximate replacement), you can play around with other varieties — white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, cider vinegar, etc. Even if you don’t have vinegar, maybe all you need is acid. The New Food Lover’s Companion says two teaspoons of lemon juice is a reasonable stand-in for one teaspoon vinegar. Another citrus juice could do the trick too, depending on what you’re making. One of my favorite ingredients I tend to use in vinaigrettes is pepperoncini brine, which already has vinegar in it. Siphon off the brine from whatever pickled foods you might have around, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what it does to your salad dressing or pan sauce.
Joachim says he's heard reports of people having problems finding ground beef, and in situations like that, or any other, it helps to "take the 30,000-foot view."
What does ground beef do? Mainly, it’s a filling. Ground pork, turkey, and chicken (or a mix) can work just as well in your favorite lasagna or tacos. Or since so many of us have stocked up on beans anyway, try lentils. Now could also be the time to try the wave of new plant-based products, if you’re so inclined. Ditto finely chopped mushrooms. There’s even good ol’ tofu. Joachim says that to better mimic the texture of ground meat, you should drain, wrap, freeze, and thaw the tofu before turning it into crumbles in the food processor or by hand. You might lose some umami, that not-so-mysterious savory flavor, with the substitution, but you can make up for it by adding any number of other ingredients, including tomato paste, soy sauce, and anchovies.
Dishes that call for shredded meat are also quite flexible. Stir-fries allow for plenty of improvising for whatever you have on hand. Pork and chicken are simple replacements in these types of situations.
In some cases, the best answer is to not substitute and simply move on to another dish. And that’s OK. “You have to let go sometimes and just let a disaster happen … and be open to other possibilities,” Joachim says. “If it’s a matter of getting dinner on the table, that’s not going to make or break your life.”