These are trying times, to be sure. Many of us are turning to the kitchen not only for sustenance, but for comfort — especially in the form of baking. But sometimes you have a favorite recipe you want to make, and you realize you don’t have an ingredient, or the store is out of it.
Lauren Chattman, author of The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You’ll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You’ll Ever Ask, encourages home bakers to be flexible — and patient. “Just don’t be wedded to the idea of making a specific recipe,” she says. If you can, look at what you have on hand and then pick a recipe that works.
Still, there are plenty of smart substitutions you can make, as long as you are realistic about the fact that the result might not be exactly the same. Here are some ideas broken, down by category.
There are a wide variety of options depending on what you’re making and what you have. Possibilities include flax, aquafaba (the liquid from canned chickpeas), yogurt and applesauce.
Butter: If you’re able and willing to consider shortening (many brands have eliminated trans fat from their formulations) as a substitute, keep in mind that shortening is 100% fat, with no water, whereas butter is about 80% fat and 20% water. You’re more likely to notice that difference in something like cookies (they will spread less with shortening) or pie crusts than cake. The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst suggests using 7/8 cup (14 tablespoons) of shortening to replace 1 cup (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks) of butter. In Keys to Good Cooking, Harold McGee says that shortening can help cakes rise more and keep longer.
Coconut oil, which is also 100% fat and helpful for lengthening the shelf life of baked goods, is another popular butter replacement. Stella Parks of Serious Eats notes that if you use it in its solid form to replace butter, you may find it helpful to chill your dough (scones, cookies) before cutting or slicing, because it liquefies at a lower temperature. Melted coconut oil can replace liquid oil in baking recipes, too, she says. Likewise, Chattman recommends it in place of melted butter, such as in some chocolate chip cookie recipes.
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering flours is understanding the protein content. The gist is that lower-protein flours (cake, pastry) are more suited to tender baked goods, such as some cakes, cookies and pie crusts. Higher-protein flours (bread, high-gluten) are important when structure and chew are desired, most importantly in bread.
All-purpose sits right in the middle, which is why it is, in fact, all-purpose, and suitable in many baking applications. Higher-protein flours (bread, whole-wheat) absorb more than lower-protein varieties, so you may need to increase or decrease the liquid to achieve the proper consistency, which is easier with recipes you’re already familiar with.
All-purpose: If you’re making a bread recipe that calls for all-purpose, go ahead and use bread flour if you have it. You may even like the crustier, chewier result better. For scones, muffins or cookies, where a more tender crumb is okay, cake flour might do the trick. Joy of Baking says to increase the amount of flour by 2 tablespoons per cup if using cake flour in place of all-purpose.
Chattman says she has seen plenty of self-rising flour at her supermarket, which she says could work in muffins and scones. Like cake flour, it’s lower in protein, though you also need to account for the fact that it includes salt and leavener.
Unless you’re very familiar with adjusting recipes, it’s best not to replace more than a third of all-purpose with whole-wheat flour, at least the first time around. White whole-wheat is more forgiving. You might be able to get away with a 100% swap in heartier cookies, muffins, scones and quick breads, especially when there are flavors you’re relying on that won’t make the more pronounced wheat flavor feel out of place, King Arthur Flour says.
Gluten-Free blends Are Another Option
Cake flour: For cakes that call for cake flour, all-purpose, especially a lower-protein brand, can be used. Parks says the oft-suggested DIY approach that calls for some cornstarch in lieu of a portion of the flour can result in dense, gummy cakes.
Self-rising flour: To replace self-rising flour, you can add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of all-purpose flour.
Whole-wheat: Regular whole-wheat and white whole-wheat are interchangeable in recipes. If you don’t have whole-wheat flour, you might be able to get away with all-purpose flour, depending on the recipe; you may want to hold back on some of the liquid, because all-purpose won’t absorb as much as whole wheat. Adding some wheat germ to your all-purpose flour can also help replicate the hearty, nutty texture and flavor of whole-wheat.
Brown sugar: To make dark brown sugar, add 1 tablespoon molasses to 1 cup granulated sugar, and for light, add 1 1/2 teaspoons molasses to 1 cup granulated, says Chattman. Light and dark brown sugars can replace each other in recipes calling for less than 1/4 cup, Cook’s Illustrated says. Chattman says you can also use granulated to replace brown, although the end result might taste bland. Brown sugar will also lend more moisture to baked goods.
Confectioners’ sugar: Cook’s Illustrated recommends whirring 1 teaspoon of cornstarch and 1 cup of granulated sugar in a blender to approximate 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar.
Granulated sugar: Chattman says brown sugar can be substituted in equal amounts for white, although you may taste the molasses flavor come through (not necessarily a bad thing!). The New Food Lover’s Companion says 1 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar can replace 1 cup of granulated. To use honey, Chattman advises using 7/8 cup honey to replace 1 cup of sugar and then reducing the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons.
Honey: You may use 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar for every 1 cup of honey, according to Chattman, adding 1/4 cup of liquid to the recipe as well.
Baking powder: Use 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar per 1 teaspoon baking powder, according to Chattman. She says it’s important to get your dough or batter in the oven as quickly as possible using this substitution, as it will begin to work as soon as it is moistened, unlike commercial double-acting baking powder, which is activated by moisture and then again by the heat of the oven.
Chocolate: Use 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate and 1 tablespoon sugar for 1 ounce bittersweet, and 1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate at 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar for 1 ounce semisweet, says Chattman. Chocolate chips contain stabilizers that mean they aren’t a great swap in a recipe that calls for a lot of melted chocolate.
Cocoa powder: For 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened, swap in 1 tablespoon unsweetened chocolate and reduce the fat in the recipe by 1 tablespoon, Chattman recommends. For 3 tablespoons Dutch process cocoa powder, use 3 tablespoons natural unsweetened cocoa powder plus 1/8 teaspoon baking powder, or use 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda and reduce the recipe fat by 1 tablespoon.
Unsweetened chocolate: Use 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil or melted butter to replace 1 ounce of baking chocolate.
Vanilla: Almond makes a suitable replacement. Food52 suggests using half as much almond extract when replacing vanilla, or using up to twice as much when using something like dark rum or bourbon.