Ingredient substitution – how to make it work!

Written by Guest post on Wednesday, 08 March 2017.
Tagged: health, healthy cooking, healthy eating, nutrition, tips

Ingredient substitution – how to make it work!

When the urge to cook strikes or you need to get dinner on the table, there’s nothing more annoying than realising you don’t have the right ingredients on hand. All is not lost if you know how to substitute ingredients.

Long ingredient lists

With the growing popularity of celebrity chefs and gourmet cooking shows, more and more recipes now include long lists of ingredients, many of which aren’t the sort that you have on hand in the kitchen. What’s more, after tracking these ingredients down, often only a tiny amount is needed and the rest is left to wither away unused at the back of the fridge or pantry.

Missing ingredients

And then of course there’s the dreaded ‘missing ingredient’. Anyone who cooks knows the frustration of arriving home from the supermarket only to realise that you’ve forgotten that ONE key ingredient you need for tonight’s dinner. The options at this point can seem pretty grim: head back to the supermarket (which was painful enough the first time!), decide you’ll persevere regardless and risk completely ruining the dish, or give up and order take away.

The solution

Before you decide it’s all too hard, there is a solution which allows you to simplify recipes, avoid extra trips to the supermarket and put an end to all those wasted ingredients while still whipping up a home cooked meal. Enter the art of ingredient substitution.

While each ingredient undoubtedly plays a role in a recipe, in many cases ingredients can be substituted while still achieving a very similar end result (and perhaps an even better one!). But how exactly can you master this life-changing skill?

Firstly, identify the purpose of the missing ingredient

Why has it been included in the recipe? Identifying the role each ingredient plays will help you to decide whether it’s appropriate to substitute, and if so, what that substitution could be.

In most dishes, an ingredient will fulfill one, or more, of the following roles:

  • Bulking or base ingredient, e.g. rice, pasta or quinoa or lettuce or baby spinach leaves in a salad
  • Protein source, e.g. chicken, fish, red meat, tofu, legumes
  • Texture, e.g. crunchy foods such as nuts or seeds
  • Sweet or salty flavours, e.g. cheese, ham or anchovies, dried fruit or honey
  • Colour, e.g. brightly coloured fruit or vegetables
  • Acidity, e.g. vinegar, lemon juice

Secondly, identify a similar ingredient

If the role of the ingredient is to provide a crunchy texture (e.g. nuts), think about what other foods you have on hand which could fulfill this role, such as water chestnuts or raw apple or diced celery. If the ingredient’s role is to provide colour, use an ingredient of a similar colour instead. No red capsicum? Use cherry tomatoes instead.

A salad, for example, will often have a base or bulking ingredient, a protein, a texture ingredient, perhaps some contrasting colours, finished off with an acidic ingredient. You might have baby spinach as the base, chicken as the protein, almonds as the texture ingredients, pumpkin for contrasting colour and balsamic vinegar as the acidic ingredient. So, you could easily swap the base ingredient for rocket, the chicken for another protein such as canned salmon or chickpeas, the nuts for sunflower seeds, pumpkin for sweet potato or the balsamic vinegar for lemon juice.

Finally, use your judgement!

By all means be adventurous when considering potential substitutions, but go with your gut. If it just doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Even if you’re not the world’s best cook, you’re still an expert on what tastes good! And remember, sometimes there really isn’t a suitable alternative. An egg, for example, is often used as a binding agent, which is crucial to the overall dish, and is difficult to successfully substitute.

At the end of the day, cooking is all about experimenting, and the only way to find out what works is to be bold and give it a go. The more confidence you can gain by free styling a little, the less you’ll be a slave to recipes and the more freedom you’ll have in the kitchen. While it may seem a little scary at first, rest assured that total disasters are fairly unlikely and if they do happen, a) it’s not the end of the world, and b) it’s the best way to learn. Some substitutions will work, and others won’t, but there’s only one way to find out.

Easy ingredient swaps

Don’t have this? Try this:
Spinach leaves Rocket – a great substitute in salads
Mixed salad leaves
Silverbeet or kale - a good alternative for hot dishes
Green spring onions aka shallots Onion, white spring onion, leek, chives
Lime juice Lemon juice
Buttermilk Natural yoghurt
Milk + lemon juice (1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon lemon juice)
Self-raising flour Plain flour + baking powder (1 cup flour + 2 teaspoons baking powder)
Red wine Beef stock
Fresh herbs Dried herbs
(1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried)
Rice Quinoa
Crème fraiche Sour cream
Mayonnaise Sour cream Thick natural yoghurt e.g. Greek-style
A healthier alternative for dressings and dips which is just as delicious

Thank you to dietitian Skye Swaney for these creative, healthy substitution ideas. You can read more of Skye’s thoughts on food and nutrition at Shift Nutrition.