How to Substitute Recipe Ingredients

Let’s just start with a couple of basic facts: I have a well-stocked pantry and I like to avoid buying new staples just to satisfy one specific recipe. Not only does this help me keep my pantry size in check, it also saves me a good bit of money at the grocery store.

So needless to say, I make a lot of substitutions in recipes. While every substitute will change the flavor of a recipe slightly, it’s never really made a recipe turn out badly for me.

Green Peas Duet from the Gatheredtable Recipe Library
Green Peas Duet from the Gatheredtable Recipe Library

My rules of thumb for substitutions: Do the ingredients look similar? Do they have a similar name? Do they cook similarly? If yes, then it’s probably a good substitute. Experiment, have fun, and trust yourself. Use what you have or what’s on sale. Don’t have something good to substitute? Just leave it out.

Read on for my favorite substitutions that enable me to use my pantry and what’s on sale…


Vegetables

In my mind these are the easiest and most fun to substitute.

  • Any leafy green vegetable (kale, chard, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, bok choy etc.) can be substituted pretty much 1-1 for any other one. Only exception is lettuce in most cooked dishes.
  • Root vegetables? The same. Sweet potato, potato, blue potato, beet, parsnip, turnip – they all have a slightly different flavor but cook very similarly.
  • Green beans, asparagus, and snow peas are all interchangeable in my mind.

Fish

Fish is a surprisingly easy place to make substitutions – halibut, cod, tilapia, and mahi mahi can be used almost interchangeably. Halibut is usually thicker than the others so reduce cooking time for those thinner cuts of fish if substituting for halibut.


Oils and Cooking Fats

  • For sautéing you can easily use a 1-1 substitution for butter, olive oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil.
  • For frying you can still use pretty much any oil, but some stand up to high heats better for frying. If using high heat you can still make substitutions but for best results stick with safflower, peanut, sesame or avocado oil.

Dairy

I have quite a few tricks here:

  • My favorite food hack? Milk and vinegar for buttermilk! Just add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice per 1 cup of milk and let stand for about 10 minutes before using.
  • I’ll admit to using Greek yogurt (a personal pantry staple) to substitute for pretty much all dairy – heavy cream, ricotta, crème fraiche, milk, sour cream, mayonnaise, you name it and I’ve probably used Greek yogurt as a substitute. Sometimes I thin it with a little milk but all you really need to do is remember to heat it more slowly than other things so it doesn’t separate.
  • For heavy cream specifically, milk with a little butter works just as well. Just melt 1/3 cup of butter and mix into 3/4 cup of milk to substitute 1 cup of heavy cream. However, don’t attempt this substitute if you’re whipping the cream!

Vinegar

I personally keep white, balsamic, apple cider, and red wine vinegar on hand – but that’s mostly because I make a lot of salad dressing and like to switch it up.

  • For everyday cooking you can easily substitute white vinegar 1-1 with lemon juice, or double the amount and use white wine instead. For Asian vinegars like rice vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or Shaoxing wine I almost always use lemon juice or white wine unless I want a very authentic Asian flavor.
  • Alternately you can use 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of water to equal 2 teaspoons of wine.

Spices and Herbs

  • While all fresh herbs have distinctly different flavors I am notorious for just using whichever fresh ones I have in place of others. Particularly if a recipe just calls for one it’s very easy to use what you have on hand. Substitute dill with the fronds from fennel. Basil and thai basil are very interchangeable. Basil, oregano, rosemary and tarragon too. I don’t like parsley so never buy it, but I do like the fresh herb flavor and always substitute whatever fresh herb I have on hand for parsley. I don’t tend to substitute in mint when cooking because I personally don’t like it cooked.
  • When it comes to dry herbs I have a row of “green herbs,” “orange and red spices,” and “warming/baking spices.” I have a lot, probably too many dried herbs and spices, I’ll admit. If you tend to just keep an Italian herb mix on hand, you can use it for most anything! Just add up the amount of dried green herbs in a recipe and sub in the Italian seasoning – this works particularly well for basil, oregano, and parsley. In my opinion, more care needs to be taken with “orange and red” or “warming/baking” spices since the flavors tend to be more distinct. You can still easily substitute, just use small amounts and taste as you go.

Happy cooking,
Emily


This is part of a series called “Kitchen Stories” where we share stories from our team and our customers about how they use Gatheredtable (and tips for the kitchen in general). Have a story to share? Send us a note at humans@gatheredtable.com.

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