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Substitutes in Cooking

Here’s the scenario:

You’re cooking. It could be anything. You go to the pantry to get the (fill in the blank, could be anything) and you look and look and there isn’t any. NONE! And you’re in the middle of your recipe. What do you do?

Well…first of all, I’m going to be snarky here so be prepared. You should have read through your recipe and gathered all your ingredients BEFORE you started cooking. Remember the term, mise en place. It’s your friend. It means you’re organized; you have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go BEFORE you start cooking. But, okay, you didn’t and I’m over that now.

So, you don’t have that one ingredient. Seriously, what do you do? You SUBSTITUTE. Yep, that’s right. You have to bring in your sub. And that’s what this blog post is all about. We’ll give you some ideas about how to substitute one ingredient for another. Now some of them will be easy and straightforward, and others, not so much.


Let’s start out with an easy and pretty common one. I find myself using this one regularly because I don’t keep buttermilk in my fridge.

Your recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk. And really, unless you’re over 65, it’s unlikely that you have buttermilk on hand. So, here’s what you do – substitute with 1 cup of plain yogurt OR make buttermilk (it’s really just curdled milk) by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup of whole milk. Let it sit outside the fridge for about 30 minutes and BOOM! Buttermilk!

Go again? Okay. You need a cup of heavy cream. None to be found? Let’s substitute!

¾ cup whole milk and ½ stick (4 tablespoons) melted unsalted butter (this needs to be real butter, not margarine or an alternative butter product). Heat the butter in a small saucepan over low heat until just melted then slowly whisk in room-temperature milk. Whisk until smooth. It won’t be as creamy or smooth as heavy cream, but it will do the job in most recipes and hey, it is a substitute after all. You’re calling in the B Team.

Mascarpone (Cheese)

Here's another favorite of mine, especially because sometimes ingredients are hard to find.

You need mascarpone (cheese) for that amazing tiramisu recipe the chef graciously shared with you. Substitute with cream cheese and heavy cream. To every 8 ounces of cream cheese, stir in ¼ cup heavy cream until very creamy. This really works!

Want to make me work a little harder? Challenge accepted!

Dijon Mustard

What if you don’t have Dijon mustard? All you have is bright yellow, ballpark mustard. Easy enough.

First of all, you can sub yellow for Dijon 1:1, and it won’t affect the outcome of your recipe (too much), BUT if you take the yellow mustard and add white wine vinegar a little at a time, tasting as you go, you’ll get pretty darn close to the flavor of Dijon. Let’s face it, they’re both made with mustard seeds, so it just takes a little “doctoring,” as my mom used to say.


One more? How about you’re baking…I know, I know, I don’t bake (much) but I do understand that most/many people love it. So, you’re baking, and guess what? No baking powder. What do you do? This is actually an easy one because there are a lot of things that can be used as a baking powder sub. First, consider why you need baking powder. It adds “lift” to your baked goods, so they puff up or rise without using yeast. Muffins, pancakes, etc., use baking powder. So, what else can you use to get the same effect?

Many substitute suggestions require you to have baking soda on hand, so what do you do if you don’t have either one? You are not screwed, yet. If you only need a little rise, like for pancakes, sub in one or two whipped egg whites for that teaspoon or two of baking powder (one egg white = 1 teaspoon baking powder). The other subs use baking soda as a supporting cast member, like:

½ cup of plain yogurt + ¼ teaspoon baking soda = 1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon white vinegar + ¼ teaspoon baking soda = 1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon lemon juice + ¼ teaspoon baking soda = 1 teaspoon baking powder

Yes, I know. Sometimes we’re going to get into a bind. It’s life. You might just be cooking dinner for the family, having a small dinner party or even a big holiday dinner. You’re in the midst of it because you are absolutely positive, you have honey in the pantry but then you can’t find it, or the honey bear only has 1 teaspoon in the bottom because your kid or your husband didn’t tell you it was almost out.

Remember, there is almost always a way to substitute because after all, it’s just cooking, not rocket science.


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