How to Substitute Ingredients in a Recipe Like a Pro
It happens to the best of us. We gather what we need to make a meal, only to find we’re missing one ingredient. Or we shop for a particular recipe but find that the 1 teaspoon we need of X ingredient only comes in a large, costly container.
Don’t change your dinner plans just yet. Most recipe rules are bendy, if not downright breakable. You might panic at the thought of straying from the written word, fearing the dish will fail, but in most cases, that won’t happen.
While there are plenty of online lists for how to replace a specific ingredient, I sometimes find that I don’t even have whatever the new ingredient is. Instead, I use what I do have and don’t stress about what I don’t. Chances are, you probably make little no-brainer substitutions all the time: replacing green bell peppers with orange in fajitas, fettuccine with linguine in alfredo, red kidney beans with cannellini in chili, colby Jack with Cheddar on tacos, etc. See? It’s simple, really.
It also helps if you embrace adventure and have a bold willingness to alter the finished dish. At the risk of stating the obvious, you need to understand that a recipe was designed to be cooked as written (and for the nutritional information given); expect that any substitutions are going to result in a different dish. For example, something that started out with an Italian profile could easily end up leaning toward Mexican. Likewise, substitutions have to make sense—I wouldn’t use herbs de Provence in place of turmeric, for instance.
Substitutions in cooking can be pretty straightforward, if you consider what function the missing ingredient performs in the recipe. (Baking’s rules are a little more rigid.) Is the ingredient there for moisture? Structure? Flavor? Texture? Garnish? Once you identify it role, you’ll better be able to replace it.
If liquid is being added to a dish, why is it there?
If you’re adding broth to a hot pan to help make a sauce or to loosen up browned bits from the bottom of the skillet, wine, beer, apple cider, or even just water will do the trick. Same goes if you’re cooking meat, vegetables, or grain in the liquid. For example, you can cook mussels in beer, wine, stock, water, or even tomato sauce. Cook grains or dishes like risotto in stock, water, wine, or a combination.
If you’re thinning out a dip or a sauce, water should be your go-to, but if you’re making quiche or bread pudding or something else that requires a creamy liquid, you can safely make many dishes with any type of dairy or nondairy milk you have (unless a higher fat content is necessary, such as for whipped cream). Heck, you could even substitute, in many cases, buttermilk or well-stirred plain yogurt. Embrace the unknown!
Structure is essentially what the recipe is about. Consider “breaded chicken breasts with roasted broccoli, pesto, and farro.” Any of those main components are changeable.
For example, if chicken breasts aren’t on sale, but boneless pork chops are, use ‘em instead. If the recipe calls for seasoned Italian breadcrumbs and you have an open box of crackers, go for breading gold. If you have half a head of cauliflower sitting in the crisper, use that. If you need farro and have no idea what to do with the rest of the box, use brown rice (or quinoa, or millet, or couscous, or even small-shaped pasta). For the pesto, you can use literally any nut and green you have. You get the idea.
Your only rule here is to swap like with like. Exchange tender cuts of meat or harder vegetables for similar ones. After all, you wouldn’t put a lean pork tenderloin into a 6-hour braise meant for a tough beef round, but you could use that tenderloin in place of a sirloin steak in a fajita recipe. And you wouldn’t replace brussels sprouts with delicate snow peas to roast for 30 minutes or add tough cubes of parsnip to a quick-cooking stir-fry in place of zucchini. When you substitute, pay particular attention to the doneness indicators in the recipe, using the cook times as just a guide.
But even here, the rules are flexible. For example, if you were planning to make stuffed shells, but you find you have only elbow macaroni, deconstruct the recipe: mix the pasta with the filling and top with the sauce, and you just saved yourself a whole lot of stuffn’ time. You just might come up with a new family favorite.
This one’s a little tricky because recipe developers typically have a particular flavor profile in mind when they create the recipe. For example, if the recipe is for balsamic-glazed pork, you need balsamic vinegar for the dish to turn out as intended. Ingredients play with the five main tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, but there are some things you can do:
- Herbs and spices: If you don’t want to spend the money on fresh herbs that are going IN a cooked dish, you can easily substitute them with their dried equivalents, in a 3 to 1 ratio (3 tsp fresh herb = 1 tsp dried). If you don’t have the dried form or can’t find the fresh one you need, the principle of swapping “like with like” applies here as well.
- Sweeteners: It’s not often you need to add sugar to a dish, but go ahead and substitute brown sugar for white or maple syrup or even orange juice for honey.
- Heat: Many elements that add heat (chili paste, chipotle peppers, gochujang, kimchi, hot curry powder or paste, etc.) bring their own specific flavoring to the party. For example, you can always vary the level of heat by swapping out one type of chile pepper for another, but you won’t get the same smokey flavor if you swap a jalapeno for a chipotle.
- Sour: Added vinegar or citrus juice/zest typically adds brightness to cut through a heavier dish. In most cases, you can substitute any citrus in place of another and many vinegars in place of another—you can also swap vinegar for citrus.
- Flavor layers (umami): When an ingredient list is relatively long, it’s usually to develop a depth of flavor. On a well-stocked fridge day, you should use ingredients such as Worcestershire sauce, anchovy paste, smoked paprika, tamari, hoisin sauce, tomato paste, sundried tomatoes, fish sauce, dried porcini mushrooms, miso, capers, pickles, or a Parmesan cheese rind. That long ingredient list does give you permission to skip one or more of these add-ins, if their amount is small (or consult an online substitution guide).
A polished recipe plays with texture. Think of a creamy smooth soup that has a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds on it, a fluffy grain salad with crisp-tender vegetables in it, or even oatmeal with crunchy chopped apples stirred in. Contrasting textures keep food interesting and aid in satiety—and they’re generally pretty easy to swap (or skip).
- Crunch: If a recipe calls for a type of nut, most often you can use another. If you’re breading something, a variety of crushed crunchy products will work: any type of breadcrumb, many snacks (crackers, pretzels, rice cakes, cheesy snacks), “healthy” cereal, cornmeal and other small grains like millet, crushed nuts.
- Toothsome: This is the “meaty” quality of a food, somewhere between crunchy and soft. It’s the grapes added to a crisp salad, for instance.
When well used, garnishes are more than just fetching eye candy. A garnish adds that final taste or texture, maybe even a bit of balance: a little vibrant hint of citrus from lemon zest, a floral note from a sprinkle of fresh cilantro, a balanced bit of heat with a grind of fresh black pepper, or a notable crunch from a sprinkle of sesame seeds. A good recipe should be able to stand alone; it shouldn’t be made or broken by the garnish. Consider what role it plays in the recipe. If it’s added for moisture, structure, flavor, or texture, follow the bendy rules here. If not, skip it.