10 Alternatives to Expensive Ingredients

Finding an inexpensive substitution for a pricy ingredient will put a smile on any chef's face.
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Does your everyday vocabulary include the phrase sous vide? Have you spent hours attempting your own version of molecular gastronomy? If so, then you're probably a foodie.

Ever since Julia Child brought French cooking to mainstream America, foodie culture has thrived in our society. Popular cable TV shows about cooking have gotten more people on the fine food bandwagon, meaning there are more foodies experimenting with gourmet cooking at home. But with fine cooking comes the need for high-end ingredients, which can put a serious dent in your wallet. From expensive spices to fungi with a price tag in the triple digits, being a fan of home gourmet can be an expensive proposition.


However, sometimes you can make affordable ingredient substitutions that won't hurt the integrity of your dishes. Read on to find out how to make your gourmet cooking a little more affordable.

10: Red and White Wine

Many fine recipes call for wine as an ingredient. However, vino can be expensive, and it's often hard to find a bottle for less than $10 or so. That might not sound like much, but if your recipe only calls for half a cup of wine, most of what you paid for will be wasted.

Cooking wine can be used as an easy and inexpensive substitute. You can find it in the same aisle as cooking oils. It comes in smaller bottles and won't cost nearly as much.


Other alternatives for wine involve non-alcoholic options. Try using chicken broth for white wine or cranberry juice for red wine to help your dishes achieve a similar consistency and flavor.

9: Truffles

Foodies know that truffles can add complexity to a dish, but at up to $1,400 a pound, they're too pricy for the average person's budget. But don't worry. Truffle oil -- made by infusing olive oil or sunflower oil with truffle aroma -- costs a fraction of the price, and when it's used as a finishing oil it can deliver similar flavors.

Mushrooms also make fitting substitutes for truffles. Try using porcini mushrooms, which have a nice pungent flavor and are great in many of the dishes that call for the more expensive fungi.


8: Saffron

Saffron is expensive because it's difficult to harvest. It's a process that can only be done by hand.
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Known as the world's most expensive spice, the sweet but bitter flavor of saffron is difficult to reproduce. It comes from the dried stigmas of the crocus flower, which must be picked by hand. It can take as many as 250,000 stigmas to make just over a pound of saffron.

Not surprisingly, because saffron is so labor intensive to produce, it's really expensive. At more than $300 an ounce, you may not want to splurge on the spice anytime soon. Try combining paprika and turmeric, as they're much more affordable and will work as a substitute in almost any recipe.


7: Cardamom

Cardamom is one of the most expensive spices in the world.
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Cardamom is a spice used in Scandinavian, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, but since it's one of the world's most expensive spices, many of us simply can't afford to buy it. Luckily, you can substitute ground cinnamon or a combination of equal parts cinnamon and nutmeg to get a similar warm, spicy flavor.


6: Vanilla Beans

Vanilla extract is an acceptable substitute for vanilla beans.
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Vanilla is another one of the world's most expensive spices, and in this case, the price is directly related to the amount of time it takes to bring the spice to market. It can take anywhere from 18 to 36 months for the beans (which are really seed pods) of the vanilla plant to appear after planting, and they must stay on the vine for at least nine months. Then the beans are stored for around three months after they're harvested to build aroma and flavor. That's up to 48 months just to produce a few beans! Add the fact that Madagascar -- the world's leading producer of vanilla -- suffered a series of devastating setbacks to its vanilla crops after several cyclones hit the country in 2007 and 2009, and it's easy to see why vanilla beans are so pricy. Although it doesn't offer the exact same flavor, you can substitute vanilla extract for the real deal in your recipes.


5: Balsamic Vinegar

Traditional artisanal Italian balsamic vinegar can be expensive -- to the tune of more than $100 a bottle -- because it's aged in wooden barrels for many years. The standard variety balsamic vinegar in the grocery store isn't nearly as expensive, but it also contains wine vinegar and added colors.

Other types of vinegar make decent substitutes for the balsamic variety, including brown rice vinegar, Chinese black vinegar, red wine vinegar combined with sugar or honey, sherry vinegar or fruit vinegar.


4: Beluga Caviar

No matter how much you pay for caviar, it's still fish eggs.
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The word caviar evokes a luxurious and unattainable ingredient. Beluga caviar is particularly expensive because the beluga sturgeon is a threatened species due to overfishing. In fact, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service banned the importation of beluga meat, including caviar, in 2005, as the fish is on the U.S. Endangered Species List.

So, needless to say, if the recipe calls for beluga caviar, you're going to need to find a substitute, even if you can afford the real thing. It might not taste exactly the same, but in this instance, we suggest replacing it with a cheaper caviar, such as hackleback, keluga, ossetra or sevruga caviar. American-farmed caviar is another option. If you're worried about the dish having a lesser flavor because of the substitution, spruce it up with a little lemon juice.


3: Veal

Veal is a tasty delicacy, but it's one of the more expensive meats at the butcher shop. Wiener schnitzel, a fried veal cutlet, is a popular dish, but it can cost a lot to make at home. Pork is a more reasonably priced substitute that doesn't taste all that different. Chicken is another option to serve instead of veal.


2: Kobe Beef

Kobe beef has a unique marbled texture that's hard to duplicate.
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Kobe is a prized Japanese beef is known for its rich texture, exquisite marbling and price tag. It's also not possible to procure outside of Japan, due to the country's strict exportation laws. However, Wagyu -- the breed of Japanese cattle that Kobe comes from -- has been imported to the United States, and ranchers here are producing their own version of the premium beef, complete with high prices.

Savvy cooks can get around the price tag by substituting USDA Prime beef. If that's still too pricy (most prime cuts are given to hotels and restaurants, and it can be expensive), pick up a choice-graded cut of beef from your local supermarket. Look for a cut with lots of marbling, as that's what gives the meat its desired texture.


1: Expensive Fish

Eating seafood regularly is good for you, but it's not so good for some species of fish. Increased seafood consumption has led to the overfishing of many species. If you can even find some of these fish at the grocery store or farmer's market, you'll probably be asked to pay out the nose for them.

Luckily, substituting one kind of fish for another is fairly easy, as many species have similar flavors. This also means, of course, that you can use less expensive fish in place of pricy, hard-to-find species. Try pole-caught yellowfin tuna instead of the overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna. Alaskan sablefish is a more reasonably priced option than Chilean sea bass. Pacific cod has the same flaky, dense flesh as Atlantic cod and is another simple swap you can make without sacrificing flavor.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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