Because the question comes up from time to time, I thought I’d answer some questions about making substitutions in my recipes, and swapping out or deleting ingredients.
The short answer is: Ingredients are added to recipes for a specific purpose and there is a reason that they are there. When you substitute or swap out ingredients, results will vary and won’t be the same as mine.
Some may work, and others won’t. And I can’t comment on results unless I’ve tried it myself. The most common request is folks who want to reduce the sugar or fat in a recipe, but in most instances, people are not happy with the final results. So unless you have health issues such as allergies and intolerances, it’s best to stick with the recipe.
One recent change that’s occurred in home baking is the proliferation of “premium” products, such as “European-style” butter, stronger flour (with more protein and gluten), high percentage chocolate, and instant yeast. Using products such as these can alter results and it’s simply not possible to write a recipe that includes variations for each kind of product that might be available in the diverse geographical regions of the world. So it’s up to you to use your best judgement and alter a recipe as necessary, to compensate for the variation in products. (You may wish to consult the manufacturer directly to get further directions on using their product.)
Realizing that people have various dislikes and dietary needs, here are some guidelines you might find useful when using my recipes on the site or in my Books. If you’re looking for more comprehensive information about baking ingredient substitutions, I’ve provided links at the end where you can find answers. Do remember that these are general guidelines and are not applicable to each and every recipe that exists. Home bakers are encouraged to experiment—especially those on restricted or special diets, because they’re often best educated on how to modify recipes to meet their particular dietary needs.
Spices are interchangeable in recipes. When I come up with spice amounts, they are to my personal taste and that which I think others will like. Reducing 2 teaspoons of cinnamon to 1 teaspoon won’t alter the way a cake or cookie turns out, but it won’t have the same oomph as the ones I did. However not everyone likes, say, cloves or other spices. So if you see a spice in a recipe you don’t like, you can omit it and perhaps dial up one of the other spices or flavors to compensate.
Gluten and Flours
In recipes that call for flour, I mean all-purpose flour. If I mean cake or bread flour, that will be noted. I’m not an expert on gluten-free baking and there are others who are so can’t advise about substitutions with specialty flours. King Arthur carries a gluten-free baking flour that they advise is a good swap for wheat flour. I haven’t used it so can’t confirm, but people who bake gluten-free likely have their own techniques for substituting wheat flour if you don’t wish to use a gluten-free flour mix, such as:
Wheat, of course, has gluten, which provides elasticity to baked goods and keeps cookies and cakes together. Flours like buckwheat, soy, corn flour, and chickpea flour don’t have gluten, so they can’t be substituted cup for cup for wheat flour except perhaps in places where gluten isn’t part of the nature of the recipe. You can read more at my post, Gluten-Free Baking and Substitutions.
When I bake, I try to use the lowest fat products available, such as whole milk instead of cream, or yogurt or buttermilk instead of sour cream. I have nothing against fat, but think it’s best used where it’s going to have the biggest impact. Same with butter. Because I go with the lowest amount of fat possible, while maintaining a good flavor, I strongly advise against reducing the amount of butter in a recipe or swapping out milk for cream.
I don’t use margarine simply because I don’t believe in it. However I realize that people have dietary needs that require the use of them, in place of butter. And in those places, you can use margarine. But do try to buy a good brand at a natural foods store, as the cheaper brands have dubious—and possible dubious, health benefits.
I urge you to use the same dairy ingredients with the fat content that I call for. If an ice cream recipe calls for heavy cream, if you use low-fat milk, your ice cream will be icy and unpleasant, and you won’t like it. Same with whole milk. I like whole milk, and using non-fat or low-fat milk in its place is not recommended. If you wish to do it, your results will be different and you probably won’t be happy.
For a variety of dietary reasons, people often ask about using non-dairy alternatives to traditional dairy products, like milk and cream. Much depends on the application. For ice cream, always choose the highest fat non-dairy alternative possible to substitute for the cream and milk. I haven’t used soy ‘cream’, but that’s a possibility. Another is soy ‘cream cheese’, which mimics the fat of heavy whipping cream. But making things a bit confusing, there are taste and texture differences between various brands of rice, soy, and nut milks. So it’s up to you to find a brand that you like.
If your recipe doesn’t call for it to be whipped, full fat coconut milk (sold in cans) is a good non-dairy substitute for heavy cream or even whole milk. It has a pretty strong flavor, so make sure it’s compatible with the other flavors. Rice, nut and soy milks are other options, but I don’t have a lot of experience using them so you’ll have to use your intuition if you wish to use those products. Generally speaking, if you wish to make vegan ice cream with them, just realize the ice cream will be less-rich and a bit icier than ice cream made with whole milk and cream. (Soy milk, for example, has about half the fat as whole cow’s milk.) Sherbet recipes that have dairy in them, like the ones in The Perfect Scoop, can be made with a non-dairy alternative.
Not being a fan of overly-sweet desserts, I don’t load things down with sugar. People often ask about reducing the amount of sugar in a recipe. Aside from sweetening, sugar provides moisture to cakes and cookies, if you reduce the sugar, your cakes and cookies will be drier. Also in doughs and batter, sugar helps to brown things, hence a pinch or teaspoon is often added to tart doughs and the like for that reason. But in those cases, if you wish to skip it, you can.
Using a liquid sweetener, such as honey in place of sugar, will obviously change not just the texture of things, but can cause other reactions. For example, honey is acidic and can ‘break’ cream and custards when heated. (So can brown sugar, which is acidic as well.) It’s also sweeter than sugar and has more liquid, so if you remember the health food store desserts of days past, you know that baked goods will be heavier. A general rule when using honey or another liquid sugar in place of granulated sugar is to reduce the amount of liquid sugar by 25% of the amount of granulated sugar. The liquid in the recipe can be reduced by 25% as well, to compensate for the additional moisture the honey provides.
For those of you without access to brown sugar, which is common in American baking, you can recreate light or dark sugar by stirring 1 or 2 tablespoons (respectively) molasses into one cup (200g) sugar. Turbinado, muscovado, or raw cane sugar are good substitutes as well. For more on the differences between sugars, see my post: French Sugars.
(I always use unsulphured molasses, sometimes called ‘light’ molasses. You can use dark or blackstrap molasses, but the flavor may be overpowering. If that’s all that’s available to you, cut it with rice or malt syrup, golden syrup, or mild honey.)
I choose nuts for inclusion in a recipe based on three things; flavor, texture, and freshness. So in various recipes, I’ll use pecans, walnuts, almonds, macadamias, cashews, and hazelnuts. Although not a nut, I use peanuts as well.
Nuts can be used interchangeably, except in certain recipes like candied nuts, where walnuts and pecans have nooks that promote the sugar crystallization, which might not occur on rounder nuts, like macadamia nuts. I try to offer a few varieties of nuts in each recipe. If only one is specified, you should try to use that nut since I had a reason to do so.
Nuts can usually be omitted from cakes and cookies with satisfactory results. I can’t say that’d be true for every recipe, but things like chocolate chip cookies and most cakes (unless used in a manner similar to flour, such as almond meal), they can be made without nuts.
Salted and Unsalted Butter
The prevailing wisdom over the years was to always use unsalted butter in baking. This was for two reasons: One was because salt preserves things and unsalted butter was believed to be fresher. The other was that it made specifying the exact amount of butter in a recipe easier.
I find many brands of salted butter are excellent and the salted butter in France, where I live, is especially outstanding. The rule of thumb is that one stick of salted butter (4 ounces, 115 g) has 1/4 teaspoon of salt added. (For exact amounts, read How much salt is in salted butter?) And although amounts do vary, that’s the proportion I use. To use salted butter in place of unsalted butter, reduce the amount of salt in the recipe by 1/4 teaspoon per each 4 ounce/115 g portion of butter you use.
In the past few years, salt has been getting a lot more attention and folks often express concern about what salt to use. Before I go on, I should explain that in most pastry-making, salt is used as a background flavor, to keep batters and doughs from tasting flat.
It’s impossible to standardize salt measurements because salt is a natural ingredient and isn’t made in a test tube. There’s even a wide variation between types of kosher salt, which Deb has unraveled in Not All Salts are Created Equal.
If following a recipe in a cookbook, check in the ingredients chapter to find out what kind of salt the author used or recommends. On the site, my recipes are made using coarse gray sea salt that I grind relatively fine if it looks like it won’t dissolve during cooking. This is similar in saltiness to kosher salt or flaky sea salt. I never use fine-grained table salt as I find it harsh and bitter.
Fine salt is very tiny granules that dissolve quickly. Coarse salt are recognizable crystals, roughly the size of fine breadcrumbs. (Some coarse salt can be as large as sesame seeds, but that’s too large for most baking applications.) Flaky sea salt are wispy crystals, irregularly shaped. Kosher salt is a good alternative.
For finishing I use fleur de sel, a pricey salt that is never cooked, but used to sprinkle on top. The best substitute is Maldon or another delicate sea salt. Specialty stores and well-stocked supermarkets usually carry it, and it’s available on Amazon.
In the past, there weren’t so many choices and now with all the various salts available. it can be confounding. However there’s no reason to get out the micrometer to measure the size of your salt crystals; just use your judgment and common sense. If the salt granules look too big, grind them down in your blender or food processor.
Vanilla Extract, Paste and Beans
A common questions is how to swap one out for the other. Thankfully, the precise amount of vanilla isn’t really worth getting your knickers in a knot about. Which is a good thing, because vanilla extract and beans can differ quite a bit in strength depending on brand, origin, and how the extract is made.
I use real Mexican and Bourbon (also known as Madagascar) vanilla almost exclusively. Tahitian vanilla has a more floral essence, but it’s not as strong as the others. There’s no need to add more or less if you do; it’s just a personal flavor preference.
Do not use inexpensive Mexican vanilla extract as it likely isn’t real vanilla, in spite of what it says on the label. Real Mexican vanilla is just as expensive as other vanillas, even in Mexico.
To use vanilla bean paste and extract and beans in place of the other, here’s some guidelines:
1 vanilla bean = 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or powder = 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sites with Information About Baking Ingredient Substitutions
Below are online guides to substitutions for baking ingredients. You will likely notice small discrepancies between some of them. For the most trusted sources, sites related to universities with agricultural extensions or food companies, which have home economists on their staff, usually have the most reliable information.