recipe substitutions

Recipe Substitutions

One thing the supply chain problems has taught us, is that it’s important to be flexible, and understand how to substitute ingredients. There are new gaps in the supermarket shelves, and many standard ingredients are hard to find or ridiculously expensive. What do you do if a recipe calls for something you don’t have or can’t get as readily as usual?  It can also seem a bit daunting. Especially if you are new to cooking. What recipe substitutions can you make? And still have something delicious to eat?

It’s OK. You can substitute families of ingredients for each other. Yes, they may have slightly different flavors or cooking times, but you adjust that too.

 Recipe Substitutions: Alliums

Alliums include onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, leek, and chives.  The flavors aren’t exactly the same, but they are similar enough that you can swap one for the other.  So for example, if the recipe calls for spring onions and all you have is chives, it’s fine. No shallots? Use half yellow onion and half garlic instead. This stovetop coq au vin recipe originally called for shallots. I had none. I carried on anyway.  Red onion is milder than the yellow ones, but don’t sweat it if you don’t have one.

If you can’t get fresh onions or garlic, use 1/8 tsp garlic powder per clove and 1 1/2 to 2 tsp onion powder for a fresh medium-sized onion.

How to Swap Peppers

Likewise, if the recipe says Cubanelle or bell pepper, you can swap one for the other. Fresno and jalapeño are both milder “hot” peppers. Use them interchangeably. If you have Serrano, that’s a bit hotter.

Recipe Substitutions: Switching Your Spices


If the recipe says red pepper flakes, you can use ground cayenne. Replace chili garlic sauce with sriracha (and some extra fresh garlic). Hot sauce (like tabasco) is essentially cayenne pepper and vinegar. Use 3/4 tsp cayenne and 1 tsp vinegar to get the equivalent of a teaspoon of hot sauce.


Ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon can all be either sharp or warm depending on what you do with them.  Mix them up.  Try spice mixtures, like garam masala or chili powder.


Cumin, cardamom and coriander are bright and often citrusy. Mix them up and swap them. Also try lemon pepper for spark and flavor.

How to Substitute Vinegars

Rice vinegar can be used instead of white (or vice versa).  Balsamic is best with stronger flavors (I wouldn’t use a lot of it on an iceberg lettuce salad), but it pairs well with chicken, strawberries, and pork.

If you don’t have apple cider vinegar, use white vinegar and a little apple juice instead (about 3/4 vinegar, 1/4 juice).

Try sherry vinegar instead of balsamic.

Or use white vinegar instead of lemon juice (equal amounts)


Broken Supply Chain Grocery Shopping

If you don’t want to go out, or are frustrated trying to even get food at all, there are some options. And, you don’t have to fight crowds in the store, or try to outbid other people online in order to feed yourself. Check out this post with shopping solutions.

Bread Crumbs

When you’re out of bread crumbs, just about any other ‘bread-like’ food will do. You can use panko, cracker crumbs, croutons, or borrow my grandma’s method and crumble up a slice of fresh bread and soak it in some milk or water (this will also make your meatballs softer).

Baking Recipe Substitutions

Baking Powder

If you don’t have baking powder, use baking soda and cream of tarter. I/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp cream of tarter = 1 tsp baking powder


Use 3 T cocoa powder and 1 T oil for every ounce of unsweetened chocolate. If you are replacing semi sweet chocolate, 3T cocoa equals 2 ounces chocolate. Increase the fat by 1 T and the sugar by 3 T).


No honey? For the equivalent of one cup of honey, use 1 1/4 C of white sugar, plus 1/4 cup of whatever liquid the recipe uses (to get the right consistency)

Fresh and Canned Tomatoes

In a perfect world, plum and Roman tomatoes are best for sauce (more flesh, less juice), but if all you have is cherry or beefsteak it’s fine. Just cook it longer.  If a recipe calls for crushed tomatoes and you have a can of whole ones, just squeeze them (or pop them in a blender) to break them up.  Or blend diced tomatoes. If you’re making a tomato sauce, leave them as is and get a chunkier sauce.  No tomato sauce? Use pureed tomatoes and add some extra garlic, onion, oregano, and basil to your dish.  Try some pasta with tomato artichoke sauce or pasta puttanesca.

Leafy Greens

Swap bok choy, cabbage (any kind), kale or spinach interchangeably.   This works for coleslaw, soups, stir fries, or pasta dishes. Just cook the spinach for a shorter time than the cabbage. It only needs a minute or two. The original recipe I had for quick caldo verde soup called for kale. I used spinach. Cabbage would be fine too. Or, swap cabbage/bok choy interchangeably in some Chinese chicken noodle cabbage soup.

Dairy Recipe Substitutions

Don’t have sour cream? Use plain thick Greek yogurt. It’s a bit less heat-friendly, so take the pot off the flame before adding it. Use the yogurt (or sour cream) to make easy chicken curry.

Half and half (diluted a bit with water) will work instead of milk. And, in reverse, milk plus butter gets you cream: 2 T melted butter, plus 7/8 milk = cream or half and half.

No mayo? You can make your own with eggs and olive oil. Or, use sour cream or yogurt instead (equal amounts).


As a general rule, I tsp of dried herbs equals 1 T chopped fresh.


Sure the black beans will look different in your dish than the red ones, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all beans.  Use them interchangeably in black beans and rice, Brazilian chicken paprika stew, or tuna cannellini bean salad .  I bought cranberry (Roman) beans, because that’s what they had. And discovered I liked them quite a bit.  Sadly the color mostly disappears when you cook them, but I like the texture better than red kidney beans.


See beans.  Long grain tends to cook up lighter and fluffier. But if you only have short or medium grain rice, it’s fine.


Here it’s mostly a matter of shape. There are pasta “families”: long/skinny, tube shapes, flat noodles, and short shapes, You can use anything in the same family interchangeably (though the flat pasta will hold a sauce better than the skinny kind)

So if you need a long skinny pasta such as angel hair, and don’t have it, just use spaghetti instead. Or even linguine (even though that’s a bit flatter). Make yourself some linguine with garlic and olive oil  or  spaghetti with green olives and lemon panko.  Swap fettuccine for pappardelle.

Tube shapes are interchangeable too. If you have penne and the recipe calls for ziti, that’s fine.  Same with shorter, thick shapes like farfelle, fusilli, and bow ties.

As a general rule, skinny, long noodles are better for lighter sauces (like oil and garlic) . Flatter noodles like linguine and fettucine are ideal for sauces with a bit more heft, like a cream sauce. Tubular pasta, such as ziti and penne holds sauce well, and works with just about anything, whether it’s a soup, a pasta salad or a pasta dish.  Try those shapes in penne with feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes or good ol’ mac and cheese. Swap fusilli for bowties, or shells.  Chunky sauces (with meat or vegetables) work better with thicker shapes.