A Quick Guide To Common Ingredient Substitutions For Cooking

Finding the right substitutions for cooking your recipe and its ingredients can be of great help. There have always been those of us with the culinary calling and skills to whip up a great meal seemingly out of random ingredients. It’s a mix of instinct, experience, skills, and adaptability. And that’s where the magic happens.

Adaptability is an important skill – in life and in the kitchen. For the kitchen, it could very well make or break the dish. Chefs and cooks are adept at this skill, and it shows up in a very natural way. Getting the gravy to the right taste, working with inherent variables of food, and a lot more come to mind.

Another factor where adaptability becomes important is when you find that you’re missing an ingredient or don’t have the right ingredient for a recipe. That’s where playing substitutions for cooking comes in. 

Every ingredient is unique and important in its own right. But as these ingredients come together to form a recipe, you can alter some aspects and still manage to hit the right taste notes. Much like cooking, this isn’t an exact science. 

It is a way to manage the flavors of your food, sometimes by instinct and often by having knowledge of relevant substitutions. Consider aspects like flavor, texture, and cooking time when choosing a substitution.

Flavor plays a key role here, as usual; we don’t want our recipe to stray far away with a substitution. Texture has a similar role since the mouthfeel and appearance of the food matter as much as the taste. 

Cooking time and conditions come into play as another marker for the suitability of a substitute. Not all ingredients can handle the same properties and requirements of cooking. As an example, canola oil is a favorite for deep frying. You cannot replace it with olive oil because it can’t handle the temperature required for deep frying.

Now that we understand what we want out of substitutions let’s see what the substitution options are for some common food ingredients.

10 Useful Common Ingredient Substitutions

When working with common substitutions for cooking, please keep in mind that the list isn’t exhaustive, and the choices aren’t absolute. The listed alternatives or substitutions may not work for every recipe. Consider aspects like texture, taste, and cooking time when picking an alternative. 

Remember that not all ingredients behave the same. So while something might work as an alternative in cooking or frying, it may not behave the same way when used for baking. 

Egg Substitute

Eggs are a key ingredient for countless recipes, cuisines, and cooking styles. From cooking to baking, they form a key element for several recipes. Eggs are a very versatile ingredient and have earned their keep in the culinary world. 

So, when you need to replace eggs, you’ll have to consider the cooking method, cuisine, and texture. So whether it’s a change in diet that you replaced eggs, or if you simply can’t find any at home, the substitutes listed here should help.

  • Pureed fruit – Mashed bananas, pumpkin, or avocado are excellent choices. Using a banana will add some mild flavor, while the other two are more on the neutral side. About a quarter cup of pureed fruit can replace one egg. Works best with baking!
  • Applesauce – Unsweetened and unflavored applesauce works best. Applesauce can work as a baking fat substitute for many ingredients. Use it well! You can replace ¼ cup of applesauce with an egg.
  • Silken Tofu – A common vegan replacement for eggs in baking. It can make the food denser and heavy.
  • Ground Flaxseeds or Chia Seeds – Mix the finely ground seeds with thrice the amount of water to form a paste and let it sit for 20 minutes.
  • Vinegar + Baking Soda – Works wonderfully as a leavening agent and binder. The mix reduces the sharper flavors of vinegar. Using white vinegar or apple cider vinegar is a good idea.
  • Yogurt and Buttermilk – Either can work as a substitute for baking. Remember to use unsweetened and unflavored options.
  • Aquafaba – Excellent substitute for egg whites.
  • Nut butter – Good for baking, but it will affect flavor. Use creamy butter, not crunchy ones.
  • Soy lecithin – Excellent substitute for egg yolks.
  • Commercial replacements – Use commercially available egg replacements.

Buttermilk Substitute

Conventionally, buttermilk was a by-product of manufacturing butter. However, modern buttermilk is made by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk and allowing fermentation. This results in a consistency that’s thicker than milk and a tangy flavor. 

The ingredient is suitable for baking and in recipes like pancakes and waffles. Buttermilk gives food light and moist texture. That’s exactly what we expect from its substitutes!

  • Milk + More – Mix milk with an acidic ingredient like lemon juice, white vinegar, or cream of tartar (choose only one). Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, they’ll work as a good buttermilk substitute. You might have to use a whisk to mix cream of tartar to avoid clumping.
  • Yogurt + Milk – Remember to use plain yogurt and mix thoroughly. Using only yogurt can work too, but it’s better to reduce its consistency with milk.
  • Sour cream + Water – Sour cream has a tangy flavor similar to buttermilk but with higher consistency. Use water or milk to manage the consistency to create a suitable alternative.
  • Milk Alternatives + Acid – If you prefer a vegan option, you can use milk alternatives like soy milk, coconut milk, or cashew milk. Add some cream of tartar, lemon juice, or vinegar as the acid. Mix thoroughly and perhaps use a whisk to avoid clumping.
  • Silken Tofu + Water + Lemon Juice – Put all the ingredients together and use a blender to mix them thoroughly.

Cornstarch Substitute

Cornstarch is a popular option and is used in countless kitchens. It has a neutral flavor, is gluten-free, and works wonders as a binding and thickening agent. Here are a few starches, flours, and thickening agents that can do the same job.

  • Arrowroot – Arrowroot Starch (also known as Arrowroot powder or flour) is a good choice. It has relatively higher fiber content, neutral flavor, and forms a clear gel. So, it doesn’t affect the flavor or the color of a recipe.
  • Wheat or Rice Flour – Easily available and excellent thickening agents.
  • Tapioca Flour – Excellent starch that works very similar to arrowroot or cornstarch.
  • Potato Starch – As a thickening agent, it absorbs a lot more water than cornstarch. However, it can’t withstand high cooking temperatures for long.
  • Psyllium husk and Glucomannan – You can use either of these. They are relatively rare but are fiber-rich and work great as thickeners.

Sour Cream Substitute

Sour cream is a popular ingredient in several baking recipes. It brings in a nice flavor and a good amount of fat and gives the food a lovely moist texture. Should you find yourself short of this ingredient, here are a few options to consider.

  • Yogurt – Use either plain yogurt or Greek yogurt. The latter has a thicker consistency and can work better.
  • Mayonnaise 
  • Buttermilk
  • Cream Cheese + Milk – Cream cheese alone is a good substitute. However, blending it with a couple of spoons of milk gives it a better consistency.
  • Coconut Milk is – Good dairy-free option.
  1. Rice Vinegar Substitute

Rice vinegar is a popular ingredient used in several recipes, especially in Asian cuisine. It is mild and has a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. For substitutes, we’ll prefer those with a mild flavor and some acidity.

  • Apple Cider Vinegar – The most easily available option with a relatively mild flavor.
  • White Wine Vinegar
  • Champagne Vinegar – A very delicate and mild vinegar that works wonderfully.
  • Sherry Vinegar
  • Lemon or Lime Juice – Quick and easily available substitutes that can match the acidity of the vinegar. However, they have a strong, distinctive flavor which might affect the recipe.

Oyster Sauce Substitute

This sweet and salty condiment has a flavor somewhere between soy sauce and fish sauce. It has a thick, syrupy consistency and is dark brown in color. The right choice of texture, color, and flavor matters a great deal when choosing a substitute for this condiment.

  • Soy Sauce – Usually, this is a bit thinner and saltier than oyster sauce. Dissolving a bit of sugar in it should make it a better substitute.
  • Fish Sauce – Though not an ideal substitute, it can be a good choice for specific recipes. It has a noticeably fishy taste, so its substitution can work with fish-based recipes.
  • Hoisin Sauce
  • Teriyaki Sauce
  • Black Beans Sauce – Matches the salty taste and umami notes of oyster sauce, though the taste is different. 
  • Worcestershire Sauce + Soy Sauce + Sugar – A quick fix to use in small amounts, this combo hits the right umami notes and fits the texture just right.

Tomato Paste Substitute

Tomato paste packs a powerful flavor punch and forms a key building block for several recipes. Its strong, concentrated tomato flavor sets it apart, so substitutes are scarce and need careful use.

  • Tomato Sauce or Puree – If your recipe calls for one spoon of paste, pick the amount of tomato puree or sauce thrice. Cook them over low or medium flame to reduce the sauce/puree for a better consistency or flavor.
  • Tomato Ketchup – It is sweeter than tomato paste and has other ingredients. However, it can be reduced the same way as tomato sauce.
  • Canned Tomatoes – Strain out the juice, then use twice the amount of canned tomatoes. They don’t have the same strong flavor, so consider reducing them over a flame.
  • Fresh Tomatoes – Chopped, fresh tomatoes can be reduced over a flame to get a similar consistency and flavor.

Vegetable Oil Substitute

Vegetable oil is a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point. It can withstand temperatures up to 450 F and is good for several cooking applications, including baking, deep-frying, stir-frying, and searing. While baking substitutes for vegetable oil don’t need to be so concerned about temperature, cooking and frying substitutes must absolutely keep note of the smoke point.

  • Neutral High-heat Oils For High-Temperature Cooking And Frying – Canola oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, and peanut oil. You can choose between refined or unrefined oils. Refined oils usually have a higher smoke point.
  • Oils For Baking – Try coconut oil and olive oil when baking. The previously mentioned oils used for frying can work too.
  • Butter – Use unsalted, melted butter for baking.
  • Applesauce – This is a quick fix, fat substitute for most baking requirements.

Worcestershire Sauce Substitute

The wonderfully complex flavors and ingredients of Worcestershire sauce work wonders with countless recipes. Thankfully, there are quite a few options to use should you need a replacement.

  • Soy Sauce Mixes – Soy sauce provides the color and umami touch. To better match, the flavor, mix it with other ingredients. Depending on availability or your choice of flavors, you can pick these options.
    • Soy sauce, Hoisin sauce, and apple cider vinegar.
    • Soy sauce, ketchup, and white wine vinegar.
    • Some sugar is mixed in soy sauce.
    • Soy sauce with apple juice for a flavorful and sweeter touch.
    • Soy sauce mixed with apple cider vinegar and red pepper flakes.
    • Hot sauce with soy sauce, lemon juice, and sugar.
    • Fish sauce, soy sauce, with a bit of brown sugar.
  • Coconut Aminos – Flavorful option with an umami touch. Suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
  • Barbecue Sauce
  • A1 Steak Sauce
  • Oyster Sauce
  • Anchovy Paste With Water

Heavy Cream Substitute

Heavy cream finds use in making soups, sauces, ice cream, and even as a topping. It can contain somewhere between 36% to 40% milkfat. It’s higher in fat than other cream varieties.

Here’s what you can use to substitute this ingredient:

  • Cream Cheese
  • Coconut Cream
  • Cottage Cheese + Milk – Cottage cheese alone is a suitable option too. But adding milk and blending the mix in a processor gives it a texture to better match heavy cream.
  • Evaporated Milk
  • Greek yogurt + Milk – Greek yogurt is thicker than heavy cream. Adding milk gives it a similar consistency.
  • Butter + Milk – Mixing milk with butter gives it a higher fat content to match heavy cream. This combination will work for baking and cooking. It will not work as whipping heavy cream does.
  • Milk Alternative + Silken Tofu – This is an excellent vegan alternative to heavy cream. Blend equal amounts of soy milk (or another milk alternative). This combination works for most uses of heavy cream, including whipped cream.
  • Half-and-Half + Butter – When blended, this combo has similar fat content as heavy cream. It can work for most options, including whipped cream.

Making The Most Of Common Ingredient Substitutions

The love of cooking often needs you to have a fully stocked pantry. Yet, there can be recipes with ingredients that catch you off-guard or the odd circumstance where you find that an ingredient is missing. 

Use this guide to common ingredient substitutions to get a quick replacement for your cooking needs. An understanding of the general idea of substitutions could also help cooks find good substitution options based on instinct. After all, experimenting is integral to cooking.

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