Substituting ingredients

If you cook some or all of your food, you might have to substitute ingredients due to a variety of reasons. Lately, these reasons have been mainly bare supermarket shelves due to Covid or floods. This article explores the reasons and ways of substituting ingredients.

Reasons for substituting ingredients

There are many reasons why you would want or need to substitute a particular ingredient in a recipe. These include:

  1. You (or someone you are cooking for) don’t like it
  2. You don’t have it when you need it
  3. You have it in your fridge or pantry but it’s expired
  4. You went to the shops and couldn’t find it
  5. It’s too expensive
  6. It doesn’t fit your macros (if you count them)
  7. It doesn’t fit your dietary requirements
  8. You are not comfortable with cooking it due to lack of skills
  9. You don’t have the time to prepare or cook it
  10. You don’t have the equipment to prepare or cook it

Substituting ingredients

By processing level

This typically means buying a more processed ingredient as a shortcut to reduce preparation steps and time. For example, you might decide to buy a roasted chicken from the supermarket rather than buying a raw chicken and cook it yourself.

On the other hand, sometimes you might want to buy a less processed ingredient because you want to make it yourself. This could be because you want to choose better or less ingredients than the processed version or because you enjoy the process of making your own food. For example, you might decide to buy pork mince and spices to make your own chorizo instead of buying it ready-made.

Depending on your motivation, this kind of substitution can address reasons 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10.

By dietary modification

This is currently one of the most common modifications due to many people following dietary patterns such as vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, low FODMAP, low carb and keto. This kind of substitution may involve:

  • Removing an ingredient, e.g. if you are sensitive to FODMAPs you can omit onion and garlic from the recipe
  • Using an equivalent ingredient manufactured to meet a dietary requirement. Sometimes these ingredients are very similar (e.g. gluten-free vs regular soy sauce), sometimes they can have very different taste, texture and/or nutritional profiles (e.g. cow’s milk yoghurt vs coconut yoghurt).
  • Using a different ingredient that serves the same function in the dish (more on this in the next section). For example, you may use cauliflower “rice” instead of regular rice for a lower-carb version of the dish.
  • Using a different ingredient that fills the void, e.g. if you’re making a salad that contains anchovies but are vegetarian you may choose to add some nuts to fill the void even though they are not meeting the same function, don’t have the same texture nor nutritional value.

This type of substitution mainly addresses reasons 1 and 7.

By function

We touched on this type of substitution in the section above. Ingredients have functions in dishes, the function of one ingredient can vary depending on the dish and one ingredient can fulfill multiple functions in one dish.

Examples of these functions are:

  • Protein, e.g. chicken, meat, fish, legumes, eggs, cheese
  • Non-starchy veg, e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots
  • Starches, e.g. rice, potato mash, polenta, quinoa, pasta, sweet potato
  • Salad, e.g. lettuce, baby spinach, rocket, mixed leaves
  • Sauce, e.g. gravy, mayonnaise, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, tomato sauce, hot sauce, teriyaki sauce
  • Fat, e.g. olive oil, sesame oil, mayonnaise, avocado, sour cream, cream, bacon
  • Acid, e.g. vinegar, citrus juice, sour cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, pickle juice, pickled vegetables
  • Crunch, e.g. some raw vegetables (carrot, radishes, cucumbers, cabbage), nuts, seeds, croutons, crispy bacon, fried onions
  • Saltiness, e.g. salt, olives, olive brine, capers, soy sauce, fish sauce
  • Sweetness, e.g. honey, maple syrup, dried fruit, fresh fruit, tomato sauce
  • Garnish, e.g. fresh herbs, grated cheese, fresh chilli, chilli flakes, dry spices (e.g. paprika, sumac), citrus wedges, edible flowers, seeds

I’m sure there are more functions but you get the idea. In general, you can substitute ingredients that serve the same function if need be. For example, if you were planning to serve Beef Stroganoff with fettuccine but you couldn’t find any in the supermarket thanks to Covid or the floods, you can serve it with rice or mash.

It is important to note that function is not everything; you also need to pay attention to dietary requirements and flavour profile.

This type of substitution can address all the reasons listed above.

By flavour profile

This is the substitution that makes the most sense from the culinary point of view. Even though not 2 ingredients taste exactly the same, there are some substitutions you can make without impacting the end result too much. This category of substitution is easier for people who have exposure to more cuisines and/or cooking experience.

Examples include fresh vs dried herbs or different varieties of the same vegetable/fruit (e.g. butternut squash instead of Kent pumpkin or royal gala apple for pink lady).

This type of substitution mainly addresses reasons 2, 3, 4 and 6.

By food group

This is a broader category of substitution, which ultimately gives you more freedom and flexibility. It is similar to the substitution by function in a way, but less “strict” in a way. Food groups are:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Protein foods
  • Grains/cereals
  • Dairy foods and equivalent

This means that you can use canned tuna instead of beef mince because they are both protein foods. Keep in mind that more flexibility can lead to culinary fails 😉

Once again, this type of substitution can address all the reasons listed above.

By nutrient profile

This is by far the most important type of substitution for dietitians. This is particularly important when the substitution is not a one-off occurrence but based on a life-long dietary requirement or preference. This is, sadly, the type of substitution that most people get wrong.

Some bad examples of substitutions include:

  • plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk
  • mushrooms instead of meat
  • cos lettuce instead of broccoli

Better options include:

  • calcium-enriched soy milk instead of cow’s milk
  • fish, eggs or legumes instead of meat
  • cauliflower, broccolini, kale, bok choy or pak choy instead of broccoli

This category substitution doesn’t necessarily address any of the reasons listed above, but should be, in my opinion, one of the main criteria when deciding ingredient substitutions.

Final thoughts on substituting ingredients

There are many reasons why you might want to substitute ingredients in a recipe. There are many criteria that can guide you on how to substitute ingredients in a recipe. As a dietitian trained in commercial cooking, I think your best bet is to use a combination of nutrient profile, flavour profile and function substitutions.

Don’t be afraid of experimenting! The more you try things out the more you will discover things that work.

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