A lifetime ago, N and I worked and lived on boats. We worked on fancy boats and not-so-fancy boats and were often at sea for days or even weeks at a time, traveling from southern Florida to the Caribbean, or across the Atlantic to make quick landfall in the Azores before an intense Mediterranean charter season. Being at sea meant no quick runs to the store, no online grocery delivery, and so I grew adept at using the ingredients I had on hand and figuring out what substitutions I could make.
It turns out that this skill comes in handy in our new world, too. Americans are cooking and baking more than ever – which is fantastic! – and more often than not, we’re doing so with a limited selection of ingredients, thanks to supply-chain bottlenecks and unnecessary hoarding and other factors. So it might be useful to learn some simple kitchen substitutions, which will make you a better cook and a better baker both during quarantine and once things return to “normal,” whatever that might mean.
Fun fact: tartaric acid, or cream of tartar, is a byproduct of the winemaking industry.
A recent trip to our local grocery store thankfully offered plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and disturbingly empty shelves elsewhere. Baking ingredients were almost completely cleaned out, including yeast and baking powder. If you need baking powder and can’t purchase it, make your own with baking soda and cream of tartar: use one part baking soda to two parts cream of tartar and whisk well. Don’t make much more than you need, however, as it doesn’t keep indefinitely. An added advantage to making your own is that you avoid the sodium aluminum sulfate added to most commercial baking powders. (Also, please note that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable in recipes as they each have their own distinct purpose.)
You can spoil your own milk by choice! How magical!
Many baking recipes call for buttermilk, usually because its acidity is needed to activate the leavening agents and produce a light, fluffy texture. Rather than buy expensive bottles of buttermilk that languish in the back of the fridge and are eventually thrown out, just make your own. Add a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to a scant cup of milk, stir well, and let sit at room temperature for ten minutes. The acid sours the milk and creates a de facto buttermilk, perfect for baking. And if you need milk for a recipe but don’t have any on hand, thin out your plain whole-milk yogurt with a little water until you have the quantity you need. (Another pro tip: milk freezes beautifully. Pour a fresh gallon into small airtight containers, leaving room for expansion, and thaw as needed.)
Acids! So necessary, and yet so underused!
Acidity is a key component of balanced flavor and can be found in a variety of different ingredients. When it comes to savory dishes, acidity might be the difference between a compelling, intriguing meal and one that’s simply uninteresting. Acidic fruit juices, like lemon and lime, are used in the same way vinegar is, to add a bracing note to a dish. Keep in mind that certain acids, such balsamic vinegar, will add sweetness more than acidity – but this might be ideal in a slow-cooked Bolognese, for example. Rice vinegar is light and delicate, perfect for salad dressing, and softer acids, like orange juice, are terrific in stir-fries and baked goods. If you’ve got an open bottle of white wine, you can use that too. The next time you cook something that tastes a little flat, add a splash of acidity and see if it doesn’t improve the situation – and don’t be shy about subbing one acid for another.
The room temperature consistency of cooking fats shows you how to substitute.
When it comes to cooking fats, the easiest rule of thumb is to think about their consistency at room temperature and switch like for like. For example, butter, lard (of which I am a huge fan), hydrogenated vegetable shortening (of which I am most definitely not a fan) and coconut oil are all solid at room temperature, meaning they can be exchanged with ease, with the acknowledgement that flavor profiles will change. Canola, olive and other cooking oils are clearly liquid at room temperature, so they’ll behave differently in pastries and so on. Butter and coconut oil can obviously be melted to achieve a liquid state (common in muffins and quick breads) but their natural state is solid; in the chemistry of pie crust, for example, cold fat is essential and liquid oils must never be substituted. (Know, too, that cooking fats have various smoke points, which may also affect how they’re used.)
Please do not make a chia-flax omelette and then send us your complaints.
Our grocery store is limiting egg purchases to two dozen per person, but since we have laying hens (and plenty of neighbors with chickens, too) this doesn’t impact us. If you need an egg for baking and are fresh out, you can always make a chia or flax egg, which have become popular in recent years as vegan alternatives in baking. To make a one-egg equivalent, combine one tablespoon of ground chia or flax seeds with three tablespoons of water and let sit until thickened and gel-like. Some recipes leave the chia seeds whole, but I find that grinding the seeds in a coffee grinder offers a much better texture in the final product. Note that this egg substitute isn’t perfect in all recipes – please don’t use for quiche! – but offers a decent facsimile in muffins, quick breads and other baked goods.
Why buy fancy cake flour or self-raising flour when you can make your own?
You may see recipes calling for cake flour or self-raising (also self-rising) flour. These flours are simply lower-protein (also known as softer wheat) flours with other ingredients added, and you can easily make your own.
-To make cake flour, measure out one cup of all-purpose flour (spoon flour into a measuring cup and use a knife to level the top). Remove two tablespoons of flour and add two tablespoons of cornstarch. Whisk together well before blending with other ingredients.
-To make self-raising flour (commonly seen in English and American Southern recipes), add two teaspoons of baking powder for each cup of all-purpose flour. (You don’t remove flour as you do with cake flour, above.) Note that some self-raising flours also include salt; check your recipe to ensure it has the required salt before adding more.
-If a recipe calls for bread flour and you only have all-purpose, please proceed anyway. You most likely won’t notice the difference. Bread flour is a higher-protein (hard winter wheat) flour, but for most home bread baking, all-purpose will do just fine.
Be cautious when substituting sweeteners.
If you’re just adding a balancing dash of sweetness to a tomato sauce or a salad dressing, you can use any sweetener you have on hand. If you’re baking, however, be wary of switching up your sweeteners. Moisture content is very important in baking, and honey and agave and maple syrup and molasses and other liquid sweeteners have a great deal more moisture than granulated sugars. Although these can be used in certain situations (muffin recipes often call for liquid sweeteners depending on the other ingredients) make sure you know the possible implications before substituting, and know that flavor will likely change, too. Also, be especially cautious with “alternative sugars,” like coconut or stevia or sucralose or other mysterious chemical sweeteners. These rarely work in baking and you may end up with unpleasant metallic flavors and/or wasting a lot of valuable ingredients.
Remember, cooking well isn’t about slavishly following recipes, but about understanding how foods and flavors work together to create the end result you’re after. And substituting ingredients often results in a wonderful final product! Hopefully this strange time we’re in will create a new generation of talented improvisational cooks who work with what they have, rather than longing for something different.
What other kitchen substitutions do you want to know about? Stay home and stay healthy, friends, and let us know what you’re cooking and baking these days.
P.S. Thanks to Malcolm for indirectly suggesting this post, and we hope your sweet potato pie turned out amazing!