10 Most Common Food Substitutes

By: Chris Obenschain  | 

woman looking at recipe
Don't worry if you're missing an ingredient from a recipe. A lot of things can easily be swapped for something else that works equally as well. Jupiterimages/Getty Images

It's probably happened to you — you're in the middle of cooking a big dinner when you realize you're missing one of your recipe's ingredients. Well, don't get steamed. Many ingredients can be substituted for another and nobody will know the difference.

Simple substitutions can be a lifesaver when you're in a pinch, but there are a lot of other reasons you might want to swap one ingredient for another. You might be watching your weight or your sodium intake or you're trying a gluten-free diet. Or you might just want to make a treat slightly healthier than what the recipe calls for.

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You might even be surprised by what you can actually swap out. We'll show you how to use applesauce in place of butter and how to satisfy your sweet tooth without using tons of refined sugar.

10: Cinnamon for Allspice

cinnamon sticks
Allspice and nutmeg (both seen here with cinnamon sticks) are two of the most common replacements for cinnamon. Chris Rogers/Getty Images

Cinnamon adds a distinctive kick to many of our favorite foods, and it's a common ingredient in many dessert recipes. But it's also one that's easy to replace, which is good news if you've run out, or if you're cooking for someone who has a cinnamon allergy.

The most common substitute for cinnamon is allspice. Also known as Jamaica pepper or pimento, allspice is a common ingredient in many desserts and Jamaican dishes. Allspice has a taste akin to cinnamon mixed with cloves and nutmeg. In fact, the best substitute for allspice is cinnamon with — you guessed it — cloves and nutmeg.

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If you're out of cinnamon and don't have any allspice handy, try using cardamom (a spice closely related to ginger). Of course, cloves and nutmeg also work well.

9: Carob Over Chocolate

Carob powder
Carob powder is a suitable option to use for chocolate, especially if you want a healthier ingredient. CreatiVegan.net/Getty Images

For many people, chocolate is a hard ingredient to stay away from. Carob powder is the most popular alternative, and from a health standpoint, it's pretty similar to the real thing. Dark chocolate is, in many ways, a healthier option than both carob and regular chocolate. However, carob provides an excellent option for those who are allergic to chocolate, though many find the tastes to be dissimilar.

If you're craving a chocolate bar, try to satisfy the desire with something sweet. Fresh fruit will often do the trick, and if that doesn't work, remember that chocolate in moderation can be good for you. Just try not to get carried away.

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When substituting carob powder for chocolate in recipes, replace one square of unsweetened baking chocolate with 3 tablespoons each of carob powder and water [source: Joachim].

8: Better Options Than Butter

butter in bowl
Sometimes butter is the way to go, but it's not always the best choice. For those times, there are good alternatives that work well in baking and cooking. Tomekbudujedomek/Getty Images

Butter is high in fat and a known contributor to heart disease and high cholesterol. In fact, an entire industry has developed trying to provide butter substitutions and alternatives. Margarine is the most common butter substitute, and will work in a pinch, but there are better fill-ins if you're looking for a healthier choice, especially when you're baking cakes, muffins, cookies, brownies and quick breads.

You can use unsweetened applesauce to replace part of or all the butter in a recipe. You can swap it in equal amounts, (so if your recipe calls for 2 cups of butter, you can use 2 cups of applesauce instead) or just replace part of the butter. Mashed avocado also works well as a replacement for butter in baking. Like applesauce, it can be used in equal amounts for softened butter, and its flavor works particularly well with chocolate. Of course you can always use one of the latest vegan butter substitutes, too. Just be sure they're marked as suitable for baking.

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7: When You're Out of Wine

apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is a really good option for replacing wine, especially in soups and stews. It adds flavor, acid and sweetness. annick vanderschelden photograph/Getty Images

There are a lot of reasons why you might not be able to use wine in a recipe. Most likely, it's because you don't have any. Luckily, there are lots of good substitutes if you're in the midst of cooking and your recipe calls for white wine, and you realize you drank it all! Depending on how the dish calls for the wine, you could use white wine vinegar, although apple cider, apple juice or even chicken stock could work, especially if the wine is for deglazing your pan. If the wine is for adding acidity to the dish, a squeeze of lemon or lime — or even a tablespoon or two of tomato paste — will do the trick.

When substituting an ingredient like wine, it's important to consider the taste you're going for. If you'd prefer more of a bitter taste, use a substitute such as vinegar. If you're aiming for sweetness, go for something like apple cider.

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6: Anything Instead of Salt

fresh garlic
Salt has its place in both cooking and baking. But too much is never good, so if boosting flavor is your goal, try adding tons of fresh garlic. Rebeca Mello / Getty Images

Today, just about everything is loaded with sodium. Even many light, diet foods are saturated with salt to increase their flavor.

Two of the most common and effective salt substitutions are citrus and garlic. The acidic nature of citrus juice provides a powerful topping that is as flavorful as salt, but without all of the sodium. The strong taste of garlic also helps make bland foods more appealing. Garlic and citrus juices go well with just about anything, especially meats, potatoes and vegetables.

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Try different herbs and spices — think onion powder (not onion salt!), smoked paprika, nutritional yeast, sage or freshly ground black pepper — to see what you like best.

5: Sour Cream Substitutes

Greek yogurt
Greek yogurt is a tasty thickener for soups and sauces and can be dolloped on foods just like sour cream. ClarkandCompany/Getty Images

Ah, sour cream! This rich, fatty ingredient is cultured or acidified light cream that contains at least 18 percent milkfat. However, there are several low-fat and reduced calorie substitutions that work well in its place.

Greek yogurt is an excellent replacement for sour cream. Regular yogurt has a lot of liquid — or whey — but most of it's strained out of Greek yogurt, which makes it thicker and tangier, like sour cream. But it's lower in fat than sour cream. You can use equal parts of Greek yogurt for regular sour cream, even in baking recipes.

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For a lower-fat, higher-protein substitute, try cottage cheese. You'll need to add about 4 tablespoons of milk and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice to every cup of cottage cheese when using it in place of sour cream.

For a dairy-free substitute, try cashews. When soaked and blended with vinegar, lemon juice and sea salt, this substitute makes is a great thickener for soups and sides, but it's not an option for baking.

4: So Many Flours

almond flour
There are so many flour options available today, why not try a wheat-free flour like almond flour? Roberto Machado Noa/Getty Images

All-purpose flour is a common ingredient and is used to make everything from breads and buns to batter for frying chicken. There are a lot of different flour products out there, and many of them are interchangeable. But what if your recipe calls for self-rising flour, and you only have all-purpose? You can make self-rising in a pinch. Just add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon fine salt to 1 cup of all-purpose flour. Now you have self-rising.

Of course, what if your recipe calls for all-purpose and you don't have that? If you want to stick with wheat flours, you can use almost any kind, since all-purpose flour is designed to be used for anything; hence the name. Try cake flour; it's milled finer than all-purpose and has less gluten, but works fine in a pinch. Pastry flour also works; it's lower in protein than all-purpose flour, but can be substituted one-to-one by weight, as can regular whole wheat flour.

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If you're looking for non-wheat flour options, try almond flour, rice flour or even cassava flour. Just read the packaging; most will also give you their one-to-one ratio to wheat flour.

3: Oregano No-go

marjoram
Out of oregano? Try dried or fresh marjoram as a replacement herb. Kinga Krzeminska/Getty Images

Oregano — in fresh and dried form — imparts many Mexican, Mediterranean and Italian foods with an earthy, peppery flavor. It's so popular, you might not always have it in stock, so what then? You can easily swap it out for other herbs and achieve the same flavor profile. Marjoram is ideal, especially in Mexican dishes. The two herbs have similar flavor profiles, so it's an easy swap. Basil works best as a replacement herb in Italian and Mediterranean dishes. It can be used one-to-one for oregano, fresh or dried. Fresh parsley also makes a good substitute in tomato-based dishes. Finally, keep some Italian seasoning on hand. Oregano is the main ingredient, so it makes a good substitute in the right recipe.

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2: Switching Out Soy Sauce

tamari
Tamari is the closest thing you can get to soy sauce. The only difference between the two is soy sauce contains wheat and tamari doesn't. Enrique Díaz/7cero/Getty Images

Soy sauce is a fermented soybeans and wheat condiment that's aged for months in vats. Its origins are obscure, but it dates back to ancient China, and is still instrumental in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It comes in numerous varieties, including light, low-sodium and citrus, each of which is interchangeable with the other. But what if you don't have a drop of soy sauce in your house and your recipe calls for it?

Try swapping in tamari. The only difference between the two is soy sauce has soybeans and wheat, while tamari has only soybeans. That also makes tamari an ideal replacement for those looking for gluten-free options. You could also try liquid aminos; they're also gluten-free and full of umami flavor. But they're slightly sweeter than soy sauce. Fish sauce is also an option; it's salty like soy sauce, but it's fishy so the flavor profile it adds will be different.

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You can also try other condiments like teriyaki sauce or kecap manis (a thick Indonesian soy sauce).

1: Get Away From Granulated Sugar

honey
Honey is one of the best substitutes for white refined sugar. It's sweet, healthier and works well in baking and cooking. ESstock/Shutterstock

Refined white sugar comes from sugar cane that is processed. The method creates brown syrup with molasses that is then put through a centrifuge — this separates the molasses from the sugar crystals. What we end up with is refined white sugar.

Sugar is natural, but it's loaded with calories and doesn't have much nutritional value. So if you can swap it out with something better, go for it. Start with cane sugar, which is sugar that's much less refined. It will all work in recipes that call for white sugar. Honey can work, too, and in some recipes can be substituted for sugar one-to-one.

Maple syrup and molasses are two other options, as is unsweetened applesauce. Even replacing half of the sugar in your recipe with applesauce and can cut out a ton of calories. There are also sugar substitutes, you can use, like Stevia. You can swap many of these products for equal parts of sugar in most recipes. Just check the packaging.

Originally Published: Aug 11, 2009

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Adams, Mike. "Chocolate is Actually Good for You, if Used in Moderation, Says New Study." Natural News. April 7, 2009. (Aug. 1, 2009).http://www.naturalnews.com/006556.html
  • Blood Pressure Association. "Salt's Effects on Your Body." 2008. (Aug. 1, 2009). http://www.bpassoc.org.uk/microsites/salt/Home/Whysaltisbad/Saltseffects
  • Dunlop, Fuchsia. "The Rise (and Potential Fall) of Soy Sauce." Sept. 20, 2016. (Nov. 5, 2021) https://www.saveur.com/chinese-soy-sauce-history/
  • Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. "What is Sour Cream?" wiseGEEK. 2009. (Aug. 3, 2009). http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-sour-cream.htm
  • Food Network. "Baking with Sugar Alternatives." (Nov. 5, 2021) https://www.foodnetwork.com/holidays-and-parties/packages/holidays/holiday-central-how-tos/baking-with-sugar-alternatives
  • Gilbert, Linda. "Oregano...or is It Marjoram?" Sally's Place. 2009. (Aug. 3, 2009). http://www.sallybernstein.com/food/columns/gilbert/oregano.htm
  • GourmetSleuth. "Nonalcoholic Substitutes for Wines, Sprits and Liqueurs." 2008. (July 31, 2009). http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/alcoholsubstitutes.htm
  • Joachim, David. "The Food Substitutions Bible." 2005. Robert Rose, Toronto, Canada.
  • Kaminsky A. "What are Some Recipe Substitutions?" wiseGEEK. 2009. (Aug. 1, 2009) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-some-recipe-substitutions.htm
  • Pollick, Michael. "Can I Use Carob as a Substitute for Chocolate?" wiseGEEK. 2009. (Aug. 1, 2009). http://www.wisegeek.com/can-i-use-carob-as-a-substitute-for-chocolate.htm
  • Smith, S. E. "What is Kecap?" wiseGEEK. 2009. (Aug. 3, 2009). http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-kecap.htm
  • Streit, Lizzie. "18 Flavorful Salt Alternatives." Healthline. Sept. 17, 2020. (Nov. 5, 2021) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/salt-alternatives
  • Tanumihardja, Pat. "All About Kecap Manis, Indonesia's Sweet and Syrupy Soy Sauce." Sep. 20, 2019. (Nov. 5, 2021) https://www.seriouseats.com/guide-to-kecap-manis
  • Vitamix. "How to Use Applesauce as a Sugar Substitute." (Nov. 5, 2021) https://www.vitamix.com/us/en_us/How-to-Use-Applesauce-as-a-Sugar-Substitute

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