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Chocolate brownie recipe with salted butter cream cheese swirl

Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions about substituting ingredients in recipes. Other times, people want to reduce quantities of ingredients. The main questions I get about substitutions are:

  1. Can I reduce the sugar in a recipe?
  2. How can I make a recipe gluten-free?
  3. Can I make this with a different kind of nut, or make it nut-free?
  4. What can I use in place of corn syrup in a recipe?
  5. What can I do if I want to use a different pan size?

Because these questions come up frequently, I thought I’d answer them.

The short answer to all is 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.

I test recipes thoroughly and when I use a certain quantity of sugar or add something like corn syrup, I use the minimum quantity that I can without sacrificing flavor or taste. I bake to my taste (I don’t like things overly sweet), and if you want to use less, you may not be happy with the result. That said, if you want to try it, you may be fine with the result.

If you’re looking for more comprehensive information about baking ingredients and substitutions, I’ve provided links at the end of this post 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; people who are gluten-free or have other dietary needs are often best educated on how to modify recipes to meet their particular circumstances.


Spices are interchangeable in recipes. When I come up with spice amounts, they are to my personal taste and are at the level 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 baked up. However not everyone likes, say, cloves or other spices. So if you see a spice in a recipe that you don’t like, you can omit it and perhaps dial up some of the other spices or flavors to compensate.

french flour farine

Gluten and Flours

In recipes that call for flour, I mean all-purpose flour. If the recipe calls for cake, self-rising, or bread flour, that will be noted in the ingredient list. I’m not an expert on gluten-free baking so can’t advise about substitutions with specialty flours. King Arthur Flour carries a gluten-free baking flour that they advise is a good swap for wheat flour. Here are some gluten-free flours that readers noted they have success with:

King Arthur Gluten-Free Flour

Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour, also available on Amazon

Wheat contains 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 equally 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.

Corn Starch

In almost every case, corn starch can be replaced by potato starch. There are several brands of non-GMO corn starch, such as Bob’s Red Mill and Rapunzel. Most natural food stores carry non-GMO brands as well.


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. However I realize that people have dietary needs that require the use of something else in place of butter. And in those places, you can use margarine. Try to find a good brand. Cheaper brands have possible dubious health benefits. Earth Balance is a good brand. I don’t have experience using coconut oil but most say you can use it 1:1 in place of butter.

I urge you to use dairy ingredients with the same fat content that I call for. In an ice cream recipe that calls for heavy cream, if you use low-fat milk (or reduce the sugar), your ice cream will be icy and unpleasant, and you won’t like it. Same with whole milk; 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.

Non-Dairy Alternatives

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 milk (now called “drinks.”) 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 whole milk. It has a pretty strong flavor, so make sure it’s compatible with the other flavors. Rice, nut and soy milk 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. 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. A good book on low-sugar desserts is Baking with Less Sugar. The head baker at King Arthur Flour did an excellent post on How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins, which provides some formulations and calculations you can use to reduce sugar in muffins, which may apply to other baked goods, especially cakes.

For making ice creams and sorbets, sugar helps keep the ice cream from freezing too hard. Reducing the amount of sugar (or fat) will make it less-creamy and firmer.

For making jams and jellies, sugar acts as a thickener and preserving agent. Reducing the amount of sugar will decrease the life of the jam or jelly and it will also not thicken the same.

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.)

Two excellent baking books that feature low-sugar recipes are The Sweet Spot by Bill Yosses and Baking with Less Sugar by Joanne Chang.

For complete information on corn syrup, check out my post: Why and When to Use (or Not Use) Corn Syrup.

Pan forte Italian Christmas Cake


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 technically 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 butter for Sable Breton cookies

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.

Fleur de sel


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 but note that Diamond Crystal kosher salt is not the same as Morton kosher salt. My friend Deb at Smitten Kitchen has written about that here.

For finishing a dish, 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.

salt & vanilla

Vanilla Extract, Paste and Beans

A common question 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 the 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 are some guidelines:

1 vanilla bean = 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or powder = 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

(Sources: Nielsen Massey and

Pan Sizes

Square and round pans are not necessarily interchangeable. A 9-inch round cake pan holds less than a 9-inch square cake pan, so a cake baked in the square pan will the thinner and may take less time to bake. Here are some good places to calculate the differences.

How to Make Your Baking Recipe Fit Your Pan Size (Alice Medrich at Food 52)

Substitutions for Baking Pan Sizes (The Almanac)

How to Measure a Cake Pan and Baking Pan Sizes (The Baking Pan)

Note that glass baking dishes may bake things faster than metal. Some say when baking in glass to reduce the baking temperature by 25ºF. Because all ovens are different, and there are even differences between various types of metal, it’s always best to rely on visual baking clues (i.e.: “Bake until the top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean”) rather than strictly adhering to baking times.

Related Posts

Cocoa Powder FAQs

Why and When to Use (and Not use) Corn Syrup

Chocolate FAQs

French Sugars

Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies


Why You Should Use Aluminum-Free Baking Powder

How to Find Foods and Other Items Mentioned on the Website

American Baking Ingredients in Paris
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.


Joy of Baking

North Dakota State University

Gluten-Free Goddess

University of Illinois

The Cook’s Thesaurus

Wikibooks Vegan

Quaker Oats

University of Nebraska

Diana’s Desserts

Bob’s Red Mill

King Arthur Flour

High Altitude Baking


    • Jenn

    Such a great and useful post! I often only have a handful of ingredients of whatever I want to make so am using substitutions all over the place!
    Deglutenizing a recipe can indeed be a challenge – I’ve found GF mixes aren’t always 100% reliable depending on what one is making and which brand is used. The great thing is many sauces, pancakes, and some goods with a batter are *generally* easy to sub, it’s working with dough that makes things really tricky. Oh boy have I had many many failures trying to convert recipes to GF…

    • Sharon

    When I first moved to Germany (before the internet and cheap phone calls to the US) I was so disappointed and frustrated that my recipes from the US didn’t work – AT ALL. It took a while to figure it all out. I tried all the flours available here and finally found the one(s) that would work. Of course, there was the baking soda and baking powder problem and vanilla was (still is) vanilla flavor in sugar.

    Now I bring back the things I cannot find a good substitute for (like grits! and baking powder and vanilla extract). It was a relief to find out how to do brown sugar with white sugar and molasses – that stuff weighed me down!

    • alice

    One note about using coconut milk in place of heavy cream when it comes to ice cream. I make vegan ice cream for my daughter because she’s allergic to dairy and I discovered all canned coconut milk is not the same. For creamy ice cream, it’s best to check the label and make sure it has a high fat content. I bought a can recently of a brand I normally don’t use because it was on sale. Although the can was not labeled “light”, the ice cream was icy and not very pleasant. When I checked the back of the label for fat content, I discovered it was slightly less than the “light version” I normally buy for soups.

    • David

    alice: One of the problems with the large variety of products out there nowadays (such as ‘premium’ or ‘European-style’ flours, butters, salts) is that they’re inconsistent or behave differently in recipes. So as you discovered, it’s important to read labels carefully and stick with the same products that you’re familiar with.

    I’m surprised that coconut milk wasn’t labeled as ‘light’ but on a recent trip to the states, I saw supermarkets selling ‘coconut water‘ (the liquid inside the young coconut) which is different than coconut milk, which is made from the meat of the coconut. I can imagine someone using that in place of coconut milk and not having good results.

    • Sharon

    PS – But I am happy to have a bi-lingual kitchen so I can indulge creating all the wonderful German cakes and pastries as well!

    • steven

    in Holland it’s not easy (near impossible) to find vanilla extract — easy to find the beans, but instead of extract they sell “aroma” which is not pleasant at all … the stuff isn’t even brown!

    So i’ve taken to making my own extract from beans and vodka or rum — if you’ve got the patience, it’s worth doing.

    • David

    steven: Yes, American-style vanilla extract isn’t available in France either. (Except in stores that cater to expats.) I wonder if it has something to do with EU rules or something because it has alcohol in it? I bring back bottles from the states, which I buy by the quart.

    The liquid vanilla ‘aroma’ we get here isn’t good either, and has sugar and is often pumped up with artificial flavors. I think it’s because people and chefs here use vanilla beans rather than extract, or those packets of ‘vanilla sugar’—which I’m not a fan of because I like to know how much vanilla I’m adding, plus some are made with vanillin, not real vanilla.

    • amusette

    This is perfect, thanks, there’s some enlightening info here and in all your links … especially the french sugar article. As someone who’s always swapping, baking without some classic ingredients like wheat, butter, eggs and sugar is a challenge ! lol. I’m now starting to crack some French recipes and figuring out the baking powder/soda issue. The recipes in the book I’m using for cookies & gateaux all call for ‘levure’ which I’m assuming they mean baking powder. But there’s no baking soda involved, which I think most American cookies and some quick breads with an acid ingredient are made with. I just read somewhere that if you don’t add baking soda, your cookies will come out like a rock because they won’t spread. Should they maybe be called ‘rochers’ instead ? ;-) Another experiment in the kitchen!

    • amusette

    oh yeah, and thanks for the info that vanilla extract is actually available. I don’t remember seeing it at the BonMarche food hall, but I’ll be taking a closer look everywhere now … the Carrefour here now has Hellmann’s mayo, so you never know :)

    • clotilde

    “The question [of ingredient substitution] comes up from time to time” has to be the biggest understatement in the history of the food blog. ;)

    • Cajun Chef Ryan

    David, not only do ingredients vary between brands, but in some instances the same brand product will vary slightly between production batches. Though the variation is slight, there are times when producers obtain base ingredients from alternate sources, and that can ultimately alter the finished product ever so slightly.

    • Sasha @ Global Table Adventure

    I’m glad to know I’m not committing a sin when I use salted butter in baking. I always felt sort of dangerous when I did… now I’ll carry on without fear. :)


    • Sunny

    I started making my own vanilla extract, too. Three beans, split and scraped into a flask-sized bottle of cheap vodka, then capped tightly. Shake it every day for three weeks, then it’s ready to use. You can strain it off into another bottle, then use the beans to flavor coffee beans or sugar (there’s plenty of flavor left) or leave the extract on the beans, and it will keep getting more and more vanilla-ey (that’s a word, because I said so.)

    Thanks for this update– with your help, I’ve become the go-to girl (not of my own doing)– in our circle of friends, all of whom have been here far longer than I. My baked goods come out “right” every time, because of your tutorials on flour, sugar, etc….so I pass along the information to everyone who asks. (If you’ve noticed a strong aroma of American baking- brownies, chocolate-chip cookies, even PEANUT BUTTER cookies– wafting from my region, it’s probably my fault, as everyone now knows to use T65 instead of T45….)

    • Catherine

    David, Thank you for this great post! I think it’s important to make people aware that if they make substitutions, they will not get the same results as if they had followed the recipe the way it was written. When I am baking for others, I follow recipes precisely to achieve the results that the writer of the recipe intended. I am lactose intollerant, so when I bake something that I will be eating too, I use “cultured” unsalted butter, lactose free sour cream and lactose free milk when butter, sour cream or milk is called for. I have not found a lactose free substitution for cream, so for myself, I simply make other recipe choices that don’t have cream in them, rather than try to replace cream with something that will not give me the best results.

    • Alexis

    I am guilty as charged :-) I do make substitutions in baking all the time, (to lower fat or sugar or simply because I don’t have the ingredient in the house) but do realize that I have only myself to blame if things go horribly wrong! I love to experiment with recipes (probably because I loved chemistry as a kid and see baking as an extension of that) – but my general rule is that if I am having guests, I follow the recipe exactly, but I am not so kind to my spouse and kids. I have had some disasters with my experiments (but have also followed recipes to the letter and had them fail as well…)

    Thanks for the primer on substitutions – I did not know that sugar adds moisture to baked goods.

    BTW – I made your zucchini nut cake on the weekend, and it was excellent!

    • Tamsin

    Thanks David for a very useful and informative post. I am often surprised when people make subs and then complain about the results. It’s taken years of experimenting and the odd disaster for me to gain the confidence/knowledge to make subs when cooking. I happily adapt recipes to suit my tastes/diet but would never expect them to turn out the same as the original. If it’s for a special occasion I don’t tamper!

    I find it interesting that people in other EU countries can’t get hold of vanilla extract, in the UK Nielsen Massey’s vanilla extract is readily available. It is distributed in Europe from their international base in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands.

    • David

    Alexis, Catherine and Tamsin: I think it’s great when people experiment, but you’re right that they can’t expect results to be the same. But because people have various diets and what-have-you, they often have to. It’s just sometimes frustrating when people say they made a recipe and they didn’t like it. But instead of butter, they used grape juice or something : ~ /

    In recipes on the site, I realize not everything I use is available elsewhere, so I try to provide alternatives, but I don’t always know what is available where. So folks sometimes have to do a little experimenting.

    (And Tamsin, it is interesting what items available widely in the UK, such as Green & Black’s chocolate too, cannot be found in France. Same with Italian chocolate, which you can’t get here, but you can find it in many stores in New York and London.)

    amusette: I have an American friend that lives in Paris part-time and she always brings back Hellman’s mayonnaise when she comes this way. I don’t use a lot of mayonnaise, but I’ve bought the brand available here (Bénédicta) and it’s really pretty good. In fact, I like it better than Hellman’s, I think because it’s fortified with a dose of strong Dijon mustard!

    • Erin

    Thank you for this informative post! It’s so helpful to know the ‘why’s’ of ingredients and how they come together in cooking.

    • JB in San Diego

    Continuing the vanilla discussion, have you ever tried Mexican vanilla? When we use it to make cookies, a guest always asks if there is cinnamon in the recipe. It seems stronger and more complex than the off-the-shelf vanilla in the states, though I have no idea why that would be. We love it, and will always try to grab some when we road trip down south.

    • DessertForTwo

    Thanks for this post! It was reassuring to hear you say that you use the least amount of fat and the lowest fat dairy product possible in your recipes. This puts my urge to tinker with things to a rest!

    I don’t mean to be annoying here, but I wanted to tell you that I made a small substitution in the non-Philidelphia style chocolate ice cream recipe in Perfect Scoop…I used 1% milk instead of whole. I did, however, use the heavy cream. And the ice cream was perfectly rich and wonderful. I feel like my palatte is adapated to a lighter tasting ice cream so I didn’t notice the difference, but for those that regularly eat full-fat versions of store-bought ice cream *might* notice the difference. But most likely not.

    Thanks again for this post :)

    • JB in San Diego

    Yikes, I missed that paragraph the first time. Forgive me… but now I wonder if I’m buying real Mexican vanilla or extract? Hm.

    • Hillary

    Excellent post — thank you! I was especially interested in the part about substituting liquid sweetener for sugar, as I frequently do that but didn’t know that I should use 25% less (I had sort of figured out through trial and error about reducing the overall amount of liquid, at least, but it’s good to have that clarified as well).

    • Caroline

    Like Alexis, I am a self-confessed recipe tweaker. I also made your zucchini cake recently and reduced the amount of sugar called for from 1 3/4 cups to just 1 cup. It turned out great and, for my tastes, was plenty sweet enough. ( I also omitted the glaze.) In fact, the cake was was one of the best I’ve ever made, earning the highest accolade the English can bestow on a cake… “lovely and moist”. The credit goes to you, however; not to me and my sugar meanness.

    • Stephanie

    What a great post. This is definitely one of those I’ll bookmark and refer back to. The recipes that I have made of your’s have been so amazing I wouldn’t dare change a thing. :)

    • Laura

    My rule of thumb when trying a new recipe is to follow it exactly as directly the first time, even if I have to search for a specific brand that has been suggested. I also believe in using quality ingredients, and like to experiment with different butters, vanillas and chocolate.

    My issue is this…..I personally do not like salt, and will most likely reduce the amount of salt called for in a recipe to 1/2 the amount (or more in some cases). I’ve been baking salt-free for my own family for about 20 years now so I find that the first thing I taste when offered someone else’s baked goods is salt! My mother and I have argued about this for the entire 20 years, therefore when I bake for other people, I will (grudgingy) use 1/2 the amount called for in the recipe.

    Dont get me wrong – I like a salty potato chip, and that finely ground sea salt on my roasted sweet potato fries, but i just dont see why I need to add salt to the whipped frosting for my cupcakes. Eh! Such a big deal over such a tiny ingredient!

    • John Mellby

    This great post bring up a question I’ve had for awhile.
    I occasionally try to substitute liquor for water in recipes.
    Usually baked goods, cakes, etc. adding rum or cognac
    in place of the water. But I wonder, given the liquor can more
    easily boil off, if I’m affecting the final product.

    Any suggestions?

    • David

    John: Liquor does boil off but doughs, like cookies and cakes and other baked goods, don’t get hot enough in the oven for this to happen in, say, a cake batter. (Although the oven may be at 350ºF, the internal temperature doesn’t reach that high.) So it shoud not be a problem in instances like that.

    JB: I love real Mexican vanilla and I’ve rarely seen it in Mexico (perhaps because of the price.) So do take precautions if you go there and buy it as the fake stuff has coumarin, which is hazardous to consume. I buy mine from

    Laura: There are people who are salt-sensitive, but I’m not one of them. I think because I’ve spent a majority of my life working in restaurants, I’m used to salty foods because restaurants cooks on the savory side use a fairly hefty amount of salt.

    • margie

    It’s great to have all this information stored in one place (I always forget about salted butter content and, since I salt my own butter, just have to sprinkle, mix, and taste until it seems right).

    I don’t know that I agree about dairy substitutions, though as long as one knows what one wants. I agree that someone blithely swapping the cream & whole milk for 1% milk because it will be “healthier” will be unhappy, but the different texture/firmness/flavor/fat content/etc. of different kinds of dairy can make a completely different result. For example, I adapted your White Chocolate ice cream recipe to make Caramelized White Chocolate Gelato, and I intentionally lowered the cream level and increased the whole milk level to make a lower-fat custard that must be served at a higher temperature in order to have proper texture. I think as long as a tinkerer (like me) has an idea of what he/she is trying to produce, those changes can result in a completely different – but equally delicious – result.

    • Emily

    My holy grail, as always, is a good nut/nut flour substitute. I quite happily use all the fats and sugars required in a recipe, but being allergic to nuts puts a kibosh on a lot of French pastry recipes I would like to try.

    • Joy

    Thanks for the tips. I alway wondered how some things could be subbed.

    • Anne

    When I couldn’t find vanilla in my Parisian supermarket, I headed to Goumanyot and then G. DeTou and paid a small fortune for two small bottles of brown liquid that I thought were vanilla extract, The labels say “extrait de vanille” but the ingredients are vanilla and sugar syrup, no alcohol. I’m just an everyday baker, not too often and not too fancy so my recipes seem okay. Did I go wrong? Should I ask my next visitors from the States to bring me vanilla?

    • Yun

    David, thanks for the great post. I love your writing style and enjoy your adventure stories as much as you enjoyed them yourself; however this type of postings are priceless to me who learned most of baking, chocolate making and now ice cream making on my own. You’re a great teacher!

    I sometimes read your older postings and see you were in Austin before. I sure hope to see you again here when you visit next time!

    • Miriam Cristina RAkssa

    Dear David, coconut water in Brazil is very common because we have a lot of coconut trees.The coconut water is used only to drink, never to cook. For cakes we always use coconut milk.

    • amusette

    Oh, thanks so much for the mayo tip. I’m making note of it. I’m not much of a mayo user either, but one day I just had a hankering for some coleslaw and a hot dog :) It seemed silly to be buying an American brand but not knowing which one to go for, I decided to play it safe. And you know it’s wierd but it doesn’t taste the same as the one in the states. The addition of dijon in your brand sounds just right… !


    • Susan

    As a comment reader on all of the blog sites I visit, I see readers asking about subs so often I grit my teeth as often for the blogger as for myself. (even though I’ve asked on occasion, bad!) You should sell the rights to this post to others so they can add it as a FAQ on their recipes. It covers most of the questions I’ve seen asked and is so helpful.

    • Skippy

    Here’s my question: I don’t have a food processor (so yes, recipes that give only food processor directions really annoy me, but that’s another story) which means that I can’t make recipes that call for ground nuts. However, I have seen almond flour or almond meal in stores. If I have a recipe that calls for ground almonds, can I sub evenly swap almond flour/meal or does that have something else in it (I don’t know, flour? cornstarch?) that would make it not work correctly? Thanks!

    • kayenne

    coconut milk is actually a diluted(with regular water) form of coconut cream and contains no coconut water. coconut cream is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts(at least 45 days old)-like when you put a carrot through a juice extractor. coconut water is the liquid from young coconuts, which is sweeter.

    fresh home-extracted coconut cream is like the first extraction for olive oils. coconut milk is the 2nd extract, with the addition of a bit of hot water to aid in extraction.

    traditionally, coconut oil is made from fresh coconut cream that is cooked until the water content evaporates and leaves the oil and coconut solids(like browned butter bits). the oil is then strained for use. the coconut solids are very fragrant bits and used to garnish native rice cakes.

    Thanks! I edited my previous comment.. -dl

    • Gavrielle

    Really interesting stuff! I’m surprised some people don’t have brown sugar – I thought that was a staple everywhere. And I’m very grateful for the advice on vanilla paste – the paste I bought remains unopened as I didn’t know how to do the substitution. I know you can always look it up, but when you’re in the middle of baking it’s easier just to reach for the extract.

    I must admit that when it comes to swapping whole milk for skim I’m a serial offender, just because I never have any whole milk in the house. Luckily, it hasn’t ruined anything so far. Even ice cream: I mostly use a simple non-custard recipe with half cream and half milk, and the skim milk, rather than ruining the texture, actually gives it a clean taste I really like. I’ve also been known on many an occasion to sub yoghurt for cream in savoury dishes: the god of cooking must be smiling benevolently down on me as it’s never split. I take the point about substitutions in general, however, and know I only have myself to blame!

    • shelleyorama

    Re gluten free substitution, there is definitely a steep learning curve associated.

    Struggling gf’ers: David has linked to an absolutely stellar page of “gluten free goddess” (karina allrich’s blog). This page instantly improved my gf baking, as did another page of the same site (link partway down the original page), which has great info about adding humectants like honey. Just in case anyone missed it:

    A similarly stellar page is found@ “gluten free girl and the chef” (shauna + danny ahern), whom David has mentioned elsewhere I think:

    Adding starch into the mix, so to speak, makes a difference that’s like night and day (moisture retention). Good commercial blends incorporate starches, but if you find them expensive . . . Following Shauna + Danny’s recommendation of 60% starches / 40% flours has effectively disaster-proofed my own gf substitutions.

    Another of Shauna’s recommendations: measuring gf flours by weight rather than capacity. Differences in flour densities make capacity-based substitution risky at best (as in the case of that early batch of gf muffins I now use as doorstops — lightbulb moment). I’m just a kitchen scale away from trying it, but I already believe. Just think! NO substitution woes AND all those European recipes in grams you wanted to try.

    Shauna also says all of David’s recipes convert perfectly. ; )

    Here’s just one more helpful web source: Amy Green’s 4 part gf flour series. Links are found in the middle column of her homepage, just scroll down from her photo:

    Somewhere or other Amy also recommends stirring in an acid (like lemon juice) at the very end of mixing to boost the leavening agents, and then quickly get in the oven. This really helps with heavier flours.

    Wow, this is a long comment. Sorry!

    • Cristina

    As someone allergic to dairy, I really appreciated the suggestions that you gave. When I substitute dairy in your ice cream recipes, I add a bit of carrageenan to help with the texture and prevent the icy element that you mentioned!

    • Laura

    Thank you for the excellent refresher course on substitutions when baking. Mexican vanilla is a challenge and it can be difficult to find a good quality one. I get some of my spices and extracts from Penzy’s and they don’t offer Mexican vanilla online but you can find it in their store fronts (if you are lucky enough to live close to one) and their reason for this is they would sell out online. I am still on a search for a consistent source or brand that I can rely on outside of those seriously fun trips to Mexico. Any suggestions?

    I thought coconut milk was extract from the white meat of a coconut, the cream is the thick stuff that floats to the top and coconut water is the liquid from the center portion of the coconut (cocount water fresh is unbelievably fabulous, canned and what we get in US is not comparable), Am I wrong?

    • Earl Lee

    David, it is poor word usage to label something as having a “negative health benefit.” Benefits, by nature, are advantages. :)

    Great post though! Definitely will bookmark and possibly print out.

    • Scarlet

    What a neat list! Thankyou.

    I just wanted to add that Bourbon vanilla isn’t necessarily from Madagascar. Under the ‘Bourbon’ label, it can be grown in Madagascar, Mauritius, the Comoros islands or in la Réunion (where I live). Vanilla production is an important part of the local history and culture here, and it deserves recognition alongside our Malgache neighbours.

    • David
    David Lebovitz

    Scarlet: That’s true; but for the sake of discussion, I kept it simple. But you’re lucky to live so close to all that vanilla!

    • CopyKat Recipes

    Thank you for your post. I sometimes wonder about substitutions, and their real impact on a recipe. I often offer suggestions to people, but I loved that you stated if you use something different than me, your results won’t be the same as mine. I don’t understand why someone would make a recipe and then want to swap about 3 of the 6 ingredients in a recipe and wonder why it won’t turn out.

    • Nanette Harris

    Recently I bought your latest book and I am thrilled with the non fat ginger cookies. They are just what I want in a ginger cookie. I want to try the cup cakes with cream cheese filling next.
    Now to the question of cream cheese: why is it that it makes a lumpy frosting? The kind that I use has no thickeners (Gina Marie is the brand). Do I have to use a grocery store standard like Philadelphia to get good results?

    • David
    David Lebovitz

    Nanette: Ingredients vary from brand to brand, and I only call for a specific brand if I truly believe it makes the recipe better or is vital to the results. Different cream cheese have various gums to make them smooth. I’m unfamiliar with the brand you are using but I suspect that may be why. You can press it through a mesh colander or sieve to break up any lumps, before using it.

    (Glad you like those cookies too; they’re one of my favorite recipes in the book!)

    • Lindsay

    Good post. Bookmarking it in my reference folder as this has a lot of things I am constantly trying to remember.

    • Jennifer from Heilala Vanilla in New Zealand

    David, great to see Heilala Vanilla all the way from New Zealand on your blog!! We are based in NZ, with our Vanilla Plantation in Vava’u Tonga in the South Pacific. From our base in NZ we create a range of Vanilla Products, all 100% Pure. Natasha MacAller would have based these sample bottles to you!

    For those interested visit our website,

    Thanks Jennifer

    • Karina

    Forgive me for arriving late to the party. I just (finally!) discovered this informative post. And your generous link to my gluten-free blog. Thank you, David, for bringing up the sticky topic of substitutions. It’s an art — not a science. Important ingredient? A sense of humor. ;-)

    Wishing you a lovely, delicious New Year! xox Karina


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