The 16 ingredient swaps you can make without ruining dinner – and three you can’t

Invention in the kitchen is the key to less waste, and can even create dishes more delicious than the original

We’ve all been there. Halfway through making supper, you realise that the recipe calls for cream – and the tub has a worrisome whiff. The parmesan you need for your Caesar salad has mysteriously disappeared from the fridge, though, come to think of it, that cheese toastie the teenager was chomping on earlier smelt suspiciously… Italian. Now, to top it all, the casserole needs red wine, but you’ve only white open. 

Turns out we are pretty good at making swaps for ingredients we don’t have. In fact, to many of us that’s real cooking – adapting to what we have. A recent survey by Waitrose showed that four in five of us are happy to adjust a recipe when we need to, while one in 10 of us goes off-piste for more than three-quarters of our meals. 

So, are recipes the kind of rules that really are made to be broken? One of the questions most asked of chefs and food writers is, “Will it work if I use X instead of Y?” The answer is – it depends. There are two kinds of substitutions: small ones, where you won’t notice the difference, and big ones, where you’ll make something just as good, but different. Using salted butter instead of unsalted to fry some onions? No one will know (in fact, in most cases you could use olive oil, dripping or lard) – the point is that it’s fat. 

'Necessity is the root of many a new recipe,' says Xanthe Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

But add star anise instead of chilli in a casserole, or swap aubergine for chicken, and you’re making a different dish. I’m constantly swapping in ingredients, as living in a house full of young adults means that second-guessing the contents of the larder is a high-risk activity. It’s most successful when I ask myself what the ingredient is doing in the dish. 

Take eggs – are they helping a sponge cake rise? If so, banana may not be a good substitute. But if the eggs are there for moisture and richness, such as in a dense traybake, mashed banana might do the trick very well, although it won’t taste quite the same. 

If you are stuck for inspiration, the set text on cooking swaps is The Food Substitutions Bible by David Joachim, nearly 700 pages covering everything from abalone (use clams) to screw pine (me neither, but the best substitution is pandan powder, apparently). “Substitutions can solve many problems in the kitchen,” Joachim writes, “but they can’t work magic.” 

I’m not so sure: some great food has been made when we’ve been in a hole – that Caesar salad was made on the hoof with what the chef Caesar Cardini found in the fridge, after all. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s also the root of many a new recipe.

Butter = oil + water 

Butter is about 80 per cent fat, so when baking, replace each 100g butter with 80g (100ml) oil and 20g (20ml) water. You’ll miss out on flavour, so add a dash of vanilla extract or grated lemon zest, too.

Brown sugar = white sugar + black treacle   

Don’t have brown sugar? As a substitute, use 200g white sugar and 2 tbsp black treacle. For light brown, use just 1 tbsp treacle. Got dark brown sugar but no light brown? Mix dark brown sugar with an equal weight of white sugar to make light brown.

Liquid glucose = runny honey or golden syrup 

Liquid glucose is used in baking to keep cakes moist and biscuits crisp, and in sweet-making to stop sugar crystals forming. In ice cream, it makes for a softer scoop and smoother texture. Using honey or golden syrup instead works fine, bearing in mind that honey, in particular, will add flavour. Both are also up to twice as sweet as glucose, so you may want to adjust the regular sugar content.

Breadcrumbs = crushed crackers 

Meanwhile, if you don’t have dried breadcrumbs (a faff to make, especially if you favour bread with bits in), smash up some crackers in the food processor instead.

Celery = chopped parsley stalks 

No celery for your mirepoix, that chopped onion-carrot-celery mix that forms the base of a casserole or soup? Very finely chopped parsley stalks will work, too; they are the same family as celery. Failing that, a teaspoon of fennel seeds will give the right base notes.

Oil = dripping 

Out of olive oil? Those drippings left from the roast (even the fat on top of the gravy) will taste even better as a substitute. Don’t fret about the health implications: recent studies suggest that saturated fat isn’t the baddie we thought it was. Using lard instead of butter in pastry makes for the shortest, lightest pies, as granny knew well.

Shallot = onion 

Shallots are favoured by chefs for their sweet flavour, but these days, most of them use banana shallots, actually a cross between an onion and a shallot. For home cooks, onions will work just fine; add a pinch of sugar or a trickle of honey if you feel the dish needs it.  

Fresh herbs = frozen herbs 

Dried “soft” herbs such as parsley, chives and dill taste too different from fresh to really work as a substitute (“hard” herbs such as rosemary and thyme are another matter). Frozen ones, however, are surprisingly good, as long as you aren’t relying on the herbs for a leafy texture, as in a tabbouleh.

Parmesan = pangrattato 

Do as the Italians do and make “poor man’s parmesan” by frying a teacup full of breadcrumbs in 2 tbsp olive oil, with a pinch of both salt and chilli flakes, the grated zest of half a lemon and a crushed clove of garlic. When it’s golden and crisp, sprinkle over pasta or steamed vegetables.

Passata = tomato puree + water 

If a recipe calls for passata, mix 1 part tomato purée with 3 parts water instead. Same goes for tinned tomatoes, as long as they are being cooked down to a smooth sauce.

Cream = milk + butter 

Nancy Birtwhistle, Bake Off star turned household-tips queen, makes pouring cream by heating 180ml milk with 1 tsp icing sugar and 2 drops of vanilla extract to just below boiling, and then pouring it slowly into 70g melted unsalted butter, beating all the time. It will thicken as it cools.

Lime juice = lemon juice 

Although the flavour is different, with lime having that distinctive resinous note, for most recipes it won’t matter which juice you use. If you have saved some grated lime zest and dried it (a great no-waste tip), then add a bit of that with the lemon juice, to give that lime fragrance.

Self-raising flour = plain flour plus baking powder 

Simply mix 1 tsp baking powder with every 100g plain flour to make self-raising.

Wine in cooking = wine vinegar + water + sugar 

Don’t want to open a bottle when a casserole needs a glassful of wine? Use 50ml wine vinegar (red or white; cider vinegar works, too) mixed with 50ml water and ½ tsp sugar.

Red wine vinegar = white wine vinegar = cider vinegar 

Sure, they have different flavours (red wine vinegar is richer, white wine vinegar more delicate, and cider vinegar more fruity), but in the small quantities that we generally use them, they can easily be swapped; just be aware that red wine vinegar will add colour to a dish. Rice wine vinegar is more subtle, so dilute two parts white wine vinegar or cider vinegar with one part water for an approximation. Balsamic vinegar is sweeter, so add a trickle of honey to red wine vinegar for a similar effect.

Butter = margarine 

For most baking, margarine will do just fine instead of butter; in fact, you may well get a better rise on your sponge cake (Mary Berry used to recommend marge). Don’t use low-fat spreads, though, and add extra flavour, such as spices, lemon zest or vanilla, to make up for the lack of butteriness.

What doesn’t work

Beer in place of broth 

A suggestion that some Waitrose readers revealed they use; but just because beer and chicken stock are the same colour doesn’t mean they’ll taste the same. The bitterness of beer risks ruining your casserole or soup.

Chia seed in place of egg 

This is an excellent replacement for vegans and people who are egg-intolerant, but simply swapping it into baking is high risk (it’s better for shallow bakes such as brownies than sponges, for example). Find a recipe to which chia seeds have been written in, instead.

Tinned salmon or tuna in place of fresh 

Tinned salmon is one of the Pacific species (sockeye, chinook, chum, pink or coho) and has a distinctly different flavour to our farmed Atlantic salmon. Plus, the tinned texture is drier than a gently grilled salmon fillet. Same goes for tinned tuna, which is generally albacore or skipjack in a tin, while on the fishmonger’s counter it’s usually yellow fin. So pick a recipe that’s designed for tinned fish (conversely, using fresh fish instead of tinned can be delicious).

Have you discovered any brilliant substitutes by way of trial and error? Or perhaps you’ve had a major mishap? Join the conversation below