10 Most Common Food Product Substitutes

By: Chris Obenschain

What's worse than realizing you're missing a key ingredient when you're whipping up a special dish?
What's worse than realizing you're missing a key ingredient when you're whipping up a special dish?
Stockbyte/Getty Images

It's happened to all of us -- you're in the middle of cooking a big dinner only to realize that you're missing one of the recipe's (supposedly) critical ingredients. Well, don't get steamed. Take control of your kitchen by learning how to substitute even the most standard ingredients. Substitutions are great when you're in a pinch or for people who are watching their weight, want to reduce their sodium intake or are simply trying to make a healthier meal than what the recipe calls for.

You'll be surprised with what you can get away with replacing. In fact, sometimes switching out the right ingredient can make a meal taste better.


Over the next few pages, we'll show you how to make your own soy sauce, satisfy your sweet tooth without chocolate and find that perfect sugar substitute. So click over to the next page to learn how to make sweet rolls without the cinnamon.

10: Trading Cinnamon for Allspice

Cinnamon is a common ingredient in many recipes. This flavorful spice adds a distinctive kick to many of our favorite foods, but it's also one that's very easy to replace.

Probably the best, 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 [source: Joachim].


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

One swap for chocolate is carob.
One swap for chocolate is carob.
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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.


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: Butter or Margarine?

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 many brands try to stand out by offering various benefits to consumers, such as being trans-fat free, dairy-free or, in the case of certain spray-bottle margarines, fat-, cholesterol-, sodium- and calorie-free.

Although these products may sound fantastic -- after all, who doesn't want a calorie-free butter substitute -- the reality is that they are, in many ways, worse for you than butter. Butter is natural and made from milk and salt, whereas margarines are typically loaded with hydrogenated oils, preservatives and chemicals. So although margarine will work as a substitute in a pinch, it's better for most of us to simply use smaller quantities of the real thing.


7: Vinegar for Wine

It's not exactly merlot, but vinegar can stand in for wine.
It's not exactly merlot, but vinegar can stand in for wine.
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Wine is a frequently called for ingredient in recipes. However, many people, including recovering alcoholics, are understandably leery about adding wine to their meals. Luckily, there are a multitude of potential substitutions out there. The most common is vinegar, although apple cider or apple juice also work. Lemon, tomato and, of course, grape juice are all popular options that may alter the taste of the dish a bit but will get the job done.

When substituting an ingredient like wine, it's important to remember to think about 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 grape juice or apple cider.


6: Citrus or Garlic Instead of Salt

Today, just about everything is loaded with sodium. Even many light, diet foods are saturated with salt to increase their flavor. Unfortunately, too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, clogged arteries -- or even a heart attack or stroke.

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 much better for you. 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.


You could also try a combination of various herbs and spices if you'd rather avoid citrus and garlic. Another alternative is to simply add more pepper. This works especially well if the pepper is freshly ground.

5: Sour Cream Substitutes

Is that a dollop of yogurt or sour cream? Your taste buds might not discern the difference, either.
Is that a dollop of yogurt or sour cream? Your taste buds might not discern the difference, either.
Eising/Getty Images

Ah, sour cream! This rich, fatty ingredient is a critical element in everything from waffles to cheesecakes. Sour cream typically contains anywhere from 18 to 20 percent butterfat, so it's not exactly great for those of us on a diet [source: Joachim]. However, there are several low-fat and reduced calorie substitutions that work well in its place.

Even though it doesn't have the same sweet tang, yogurt holds its own when standing in for sour cream. Whole-milk yogurt still has less fat than regular sour cream, and its active cultures help aid digestion. Yogurt is thick and holds up well during baking, though you may find the final product to be a bit drier than you would with sour cream. When you substitute yogurt or milk for sour cream, be sure to add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice for every cup.


If you're out of sour cream and don't have any yogurt in the fridge, you can also use a combination of fat-free evaporated milk and lemon juice.

4: Replacing All-purpose Flour

All-purpose flour is an extremely common ingredient and is used to make everything from breads and cakes to fried chicken. The best and most common substitution for all-purpose flour is regular flour. There are a lot of different flour products out there, and many of them are interchangeable. For example, the only difference between bleached and unbleached flour is that the latter is darker and has a higher concentration of vitamin E. Sifted and unsifted flour are the same thing, just in a slightly different form, so if you have a sifter, it's an easy problem to solve. Rice flour and sifted oat flour can also be used interchangeably with all-purpose flour. Even cake flour can be subbed, although it produces a lighter texture, so it's not so great if you plan on baking cookies and breads [source: Joachim].


3: Oregano No-go

If you're going to Scarborough Fair, add oregano to your list of must-buy herbs.
If you're going to Scarborough Fair, add oregano to your list of must-buy herbs.
Tom Grill/Getty Images

Oregano is known around the world as the pizza herb. Its distinctive fragrance is an important part of what gives pizza its unique, delicious smell, but oregano is also a popular ingredient on its own merits. It frequently appears in Mexican and Mediterranean recipes, though, like most herbs, it can be used to boost the flavor of just about any meal.

Despite its sweet smell and pungent flavor, oregano is easily substituted. Marjoram (an herb that oregano is often mistaken for) is ideal, as their tastes are very similar. However, if you're out of marjoram, sage, parsley, basil or thyme will also do the trick.


2: Switching Out Soy Sauce

While most Americans know soy sauce as a salty topping that accompanies Asian foods, in many parts of the world, it's a central ingredient of virtually every meal. It comes in numerous varieties, including light, low-sodium and citrus, each of which is interchangeable with the other. However, if there isn't a drop of soy sauce to be found in your home, there are several substitutions you can make to create a similar taste and feel.

Soy sauce has one of the highest sodium contents of any condiment, so if you need some in a pinch, just use salt. To get the most authentic taste, mix 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, and dissolve the combination in 1 tablespoon hot water. The flavor won't be as complex (and it won't look the same), but it will certainly do the trick [source: Joachim].


If you don't feel like pouring liquid salt onto your food, try using teriyaki sauce or kecap (a thick Indonesian soy sauce).

1: Getting Away from Granulated Sugar

Just about everyone loves sugar. These sweet little crystals come primarily from sugarcane, though they're sometimes extracted from sugar beets. Sugar can be difficult to get away from if you have a sweet tooth, as most desserts and baked goods include it to some extent.

Of course, if you're out of granulated sugar, there are other options. Like flour, there are many different varieties of sugar, and some of them are interchangeable. Date, castor and turbinado sugar will all work in recipes that call for granulated sugar, though the end product might be altered slightly in color, moisture and sweetness.

Sugar substitutes, such as Splenda, can replace sugar in recipes, but your final product will have a distinctive aftertaste and browning will not occur. If you want a more natural-looking product with an authentic taste, try using half sugar and half sugar substitute -- you'll still cut calories and maintain good flavor.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Blood Pressure Association. "Salt's Effects on Your Body." 2008. (Aug. 1, 2009).http://www.bpassoc.org.uk/microsites/salt/Home/Whysaltisbad/Saltseffects
  • Ellis-Christensen, Tricia. "What is Sour Cream?" wiseGEEK. 2009. (Aug. 3, 2009).http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-sour-cream.htm
  • 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
  • I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (Spray). "Nutrition Facts." Unilever, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • 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