Chef Vicky Bhogal is known for her quirks: whenever she goes to dinner, she takes her own ground masala or flavored oil. Most of her dishes were inspired by her family, who valued instinct over measuring, and memory over written recipes.
As unconventional as this may sound for a professional, Ms. Bhogal believes fervently in a skill, above all, that helps chefs succeed: improvisation. It’s something many chefs, especially personal and private chefs, may tout in theory, but one she practices daily:
“A real [chef] is someone who will be able to cook something with any ingredients. Endlessly adaptable.”
Being adaptable no doubt is a skill that’s essential to any chef’s success. Whether it is the wrong product received, unexpected expiration dates, kitchen errors or sheer forgetfulness, all chefs run out of ingredients from time to time.
But using the wrong substitutes, or trying to do too much can also be disastrous. Whether a chef is purposefully using substitutions for nutritional concerns for a client, or doing so out of sheer need, it’s essential to understand what works, and what doesn’t. Here’s a look at the most common go-to’s when you’re in a pinch.
Three Types of Substitutions
According to food blogger Mark Vogel, substitutions for recipes fall under three broad categories: substitutions that will not change the texture, flavor, or overall appeal of the recipe in a noticeable way; ones that will “augment” flavors, and ones that will simply not work.
The problem is: how do you know which is which?
Rudimentary ingredient substitution involves things that are very similar in both flavor and function: an example Vogel gives is olive oil vs canola oil in a savory dish. While the flavor is slightly different, it is a very muted difference, and the substitution serves the same purpose and will likely be close to non-detectable (olive oil in a dessert, of course, is a different matter).
In the second instance, Vogel explains, the flavor profile is altered, though not in a way that changes the overall vision or integrity of a dish. Swapping one white fish for another, one nut butter for another, or one root vegetable for another are all examples. That is, the substitution is within the same family of ingredients, but with a slightly different flavor. Here, we notice the difference, but it has the same purpose.
The devastating substitutions occur when the purpose of the original ingredient is compromised. For instance, especially in baked goods, subbing out eggs with something that will not help the dough rise, or taking out the fat from a recipe without substituting something to retain moisture and texture. If you’re shopping out of a completely different family, especially in sensitive desserts, you run a high risk of a disaster. These types of substitutions are where you need to adhere to either the normal ingredients, or follow accepted substitutions that have been tried and tested for years (decades).
Baking 101: Substitutes that Actually Work
Even though baking is a very delicate art, there are effective substiutions. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Baking Soda vs Baking Powder: While both act as leaveners, there is a difference: baking soda is three to four times as strong as powder, and acts as a base, while baking powder is a mixture of baking soda, cornstarch, and cream of tartar.
Use: ¼ tsp baking soda for every tsp of baking powder. Baking soda will make for a slightly more bitter taste, so adding a touch of citrus or extra sweetener is advised for cookies or cake. Taste test, and know that bigger amount exchanged, the more you may have to keep this in mind.
Eggs: Replacing eggs can be tricky, but doable. Like baking powder and baking soda, eggs are acting as leavening agents but also add moisture.
Use for every one egg: (not advised for recipes with over three eggs): ¼ cup applesauce + ½ tsp baking powder or 1Tble ground flaxseeds+ 3 Tble water, dissolved or ¼ cup pureed silken tofu (Safest Bet: Egg Replacers, which can be purchased in stores).
Buttermilk: No, you can’t just use milk. Buttermilk adds flavor, makes gluten more pliable, and affects texture and moisture. Luckily, this swap is very simple.
Use: 1 Tble White Vinegar or 1 Tble freshly squeezed lemon juice, or + 15/16 of milk . Let stand for five minutes.
Baker’s Chocolate: Out of baker’s chocolate or semi sweet morsels? Need cocoa baking powder? Look at this link for many different tried and true substitutions
Heavy Cream: If you’re looking to keep the same fat content, swapping is simple. Melt ⅓ cup of butter and combine with ¾ cup cold milk.
For chefs looking for baking and basic swaps, there are endless options. See this link for an extensive list, and check again soon when we dive into swaps for healthier cooking.