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. Maybe you have a favorite recipe you want to make. You realize you don’t have an ingredient, or the store is out of it. You … start to lose it.
It’s okay! I don’t blame you. We’re under so much stress lately with so little control that even the littlest thing can set us off. (And yes, I speak from personal experience.)
Here’s your pep talk: Take a deep breath. Know that not all is lost. You can do this.
“It’s hard,” acknowledges Lauren Chattman, the cookbook author behind one of my favorite baking reference books, “The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You’ll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You’ll Ever Ask.” Even she’s taken to rationing ingredients and trading with neighbors to scrape together what she needs.
Chattman encourages home bakers to be flexible — and patient — these days, too. “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.
I wrote a guide on eggs, so please make the virtual jump there. By way of a preview, 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.
Hop on over to my substitutions guide for how to work around times when you don’t have buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, heavy cream or half-and-half.
Butter: I also talk about butter there, but I want to mention a few baking-specific considerations. 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 percent fat, with no water, whereas butter is about 80 percent fat and 20 percent 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 or lard 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 percent 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.
Milk: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the proper percentage of milk that a recipe calls for. Parks says for most general baking, you can use what you have: “Milk is rarely a primary source of fat in a recipe, making the difference between whole and skim almost negligible in the face of heavy hitters like butter, chocolate, cream and egg yolks.” The exceptions would be recipes for desserts such as ice cream and custards that rely almost exclusively on milk fat. Likewise, in many baking recipes, it’s fine to swap in your nondairy milk of choice.
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering flours is understanding the protein content. I have specific numbers in the guide linked below. 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. Keep in mind that King Arthur Flour is a higher-protein all-purpose than other brands, such as Pillsbury and Gold Medal. 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. The website 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 (see below for an idea of how you can adjust).
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 percent 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. Here’s a guide I wrote that will help you figure it out.
Bread flour: If you’re making a bread recipe that calls for bread flour, Chattman says you can use all-purpose (especially King Arthur or other Northern brands with more protein) instead. Plan on 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose for every 1 cup of bread flour. Don’t be surprised if the result isn’t as chewy or crusty. And if you happen to have vital wheat gluten (basically pure wheat protein) on hand, you an add a few tablespoons to improve the elasticity and rise of your bread made with all-purpose flour.
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.
Unless you’ve already been dabbling in sourdough — or cultivating your own wild yeast — there’s no quick and easy replacement for commercial yeast. Another option, says Chattman, is to just use less yeast to stretch your supply, allowing your dough to rise much longer. This is where a good, clear dough-rising container is helpful, so you can easily track your progress. But you can use one type of yeast in place of the other, within reason. (For a good deep dive into the types of yeast, definitely give Parks’s primer a read.)
Active dry: You can substitute instant yeast for active dry. Use an equal amount, but add the instant yeast to the dry ingredients instead of dissolving in liquid. If you’re resourceful and check in with your local bakery, you may find yourself with cake (or fresh) yeast. Dry yeast is basically cake yeast that has been dried, so using cake yeast in a recipe that calls for dry yeast will give you the same result. Red Star says 2/3 ounce of cake yeast is the equivalent of 2 1/4 teaspoons (a 1/4-ounce envelope) dry yeast; see the full conversion chart here. Cake yeast can be added directly to the dry ingredients or dissolved in liquid.
Instant: You can substitute active dry yeast for instant, so long as you dissolve the yeast first in some of the liquid called for in the recipe (don’t add extra liquid), according to the package instructions. Similarly, cake yeast can be used here as well. Here’s an important point from Parks: Do not use yeast labeled as rapid rise in place of instant yeast in recipes that call for a long, slow rise and refrigeration — such as the English muffin recipe I shared from her recently. Rapid rise yeast doesn’t have the lasting power for an extended time period, as it has been formulated to work quickly. Similarly, Parks says bread machine yeast might work reasonably well in place of instant yeast, with somewhat less rise, particularly in refrigerated doughs.
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.
Superfine: Use your food processor to process slightly more than your recipe calls for until the grains are finer. Superfine is definitely helpful when you’re looking for it to dissolve particularly smoothly, as in meringues or angel food cake. Otherwise, when I see a recipe call for superfine — often in those of British origin, where it may be listed as caster sugar — I just use granulated.
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 soda, 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: According to vanilla brand Nielsen-Massey, 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract, 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste and 1 vanilla bean can be used to replace one another. Depending on your taste and the recipe, you can use other extracts in place of 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that baking powder should be used in a substitutions for Dutch process cocoa powder. It should be baking soda. This version has been updated.
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