The Substitution Game

My partner is very skilled at looking up random recipes and asking me to make them. I don’t mind and in fact, I enjoy the challenge mostly because I know that it is a rare request when I have every ingredient the recipe calls for. Now, does this send me off and running to the grocery store? No, in fact, the opposite. I pivot and play the substitution game.

This is where I adapt the recipe to everything I happen to have on hand. For example, my partner recently found a slow cooker recipe that I knew I could use for some sausages I had in the freezer. It contained mushrooms and red potatoes and I had neither in my pantry. I also did not have bratwursts per say. I had those sausages which ironically enough, had Portuguese and Hawaiian flavoring. Undeterred, I calmly told my partner that I had everything I needed and indeed I did. I had the carrots and red onions and I even had that well known package of dry onion soup mix that the recipe called for. I simply swapped the sausages for the bratwurst, Idaho potatoes for the red spuds and I hunted down a can of mushroom soup for the mushrooms. Now in this recipe, I knew I could use more liquid than it called for and used the soup to simply give the dish the savory note the mushrooms were intended to provide. Easy.

Of course it was such a hit that my partner asked that I never change a thing about the dish and make it again exactly the way I did that night.

Fat chance. I rely heavily on what I have in the pantry and tend to ignore these sorts of requests though I did put onion soup mix on my grocery list. Just in case.

So, what can you do to keep trips to the grocery store at an absolute minimum? Don’t go. But in not going, be sure you have a well stocked pantry at all times, this will enable you to swap out ingredients all the time and not spend time and money you don’t need to spend. Some must-have substitution ingredients:

  1. Potatoes. You can pretty much swap out regular old Idaho for pretty much any potato a recipe calls for.
  2. Onions. I usually have both yellow and red on hand but have never had an issue swapping out one for another.
  3. Carrots. I have doubled up on carrots when out of celery quite often. Usually works fine.
  4. Green and leafy. I have romaine and swiss chard growing in my garden right now so I use them for everything I need in salads and more. The swiss chard was a great substitution for spinach dip. And while I am not personally a fan of kale (feels like I am chewing a weed), kale is a great option for green and leafy needs because it lasts so long.
  5. Butter. I have margarine but butter is best for baking about 90 percent of the time. I swap it out for margarine a lot unless the recipe specifically says not to do so.
  6. Sour cream. This can sub in for yogurt, cream cheese and other tangy dairy needs. You may need to adjust for the thickness if you are using it in place of cream cheese but generally speaking, I can usually make it work. If you have yogurt just be aware that it separates when heat is applied whereas heavy cream and sour cream hold up better under fire.
  7. Broccoli vs. cauliflower vs. Brussel sprouts. One can generally be used in place of another. I’ve used Brussel sprouts and broccoli to make a slaw when I didn’t have cabbage and it worked fine.
  8. Liquid vs. solid fats. Once when my partner was craving fried chicken I discovered mid dredge that I did not have an oil on hand with a high enough smoke point. Olive oil would burn and I knew it. Instead, I pulled out the solid shortening and it fried up the bird perfectly. Southern cooks are nodding in approval right now, I can sense y’all. Anyway, you can’t swap out a solid fat for a salad dressing but you can fry up a lot of things in shortening in a pinch. I keep a small amount of lard in my freezer for making tamales but would not hesitate to swap out shortening in a pinch. Do not judge.
  9. Vinegar. I keep white and apple cider on hand and that takes care of my vinegar needs. I never worry about having champagne vinegar or other specialty flavored varieties. If I was making a recipe that called for, say, lemon flavored vinegar I would simply add a splash of lemon juice and some lemon zest to make the taste profile match.
  10. Canned soups. I keep cream of mushroom and chicken around for quick meals. Anything else I might need I would hunt through my vegetable crisper first. Tt is the flavor profile of mushroom and chicken that I use the canned versions for most often.
  11. Cheese. I confess I have lots of cheeses but most often I reach for the discount bagged mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack. Parmesan is a close second and while I love a good cheese, I also know that these two take care of about 90 percent of my cheese needs for dishes.
  12. Bottled lemon juice. I use it all the time instead of vinegar in a homemade salad dressing and for a citrus punch in everything from baked goods to steamed vegetables. I reach for the lemon juice every time I need to make sure something does not oxidize and turn brown.
  13. Cottage cheese. Generally, I like it for lunch with a side of fruit or smeared on toast sprinkled with cinnamon but cottage cheese also works great instead of ricotta and, when blended up in a food processor, it can sub in for sour cream in a lot of dip recipes, it is just milder in taste so you will have to adjust seasonings.
  14. Nuts. I’ve swapped out walnuts for almonds, hazelnuts for cashews, peanuts for pistachios…all sorts of nuts can take the place of another. I keep mine in the freezer so they last a very long time.
  15. Nut butters. I use peanut butter for most recipes that call for something fancier such as almond or cashew butter, both are much more expensive than ordinary peanut butter. This works really well in a lot of baked recipes. I do keep tahini (sesame) in my fridge to make hummus but I always wait until it goes on sale. Meanwhile, peanut butter is cheap, nutritious and can swap in for all sorts of fancier and costly nut butters.
  16. Soy sauce. This works very well in place of other savory flavorings including that iconic bottle of Worcestershire sauce you still think you have in your fridge. Soy is very salty so I usually skip the sodium when I use it.
  17. Beans. I keep a good selection in my freezer but black beans work well instead of pinto beans, white beans instead of another. Whatever you have on hand will generally work for another.
  18. Grains. Generally speaking rice can serve for nearly any grain unless you are making risotto, then you will need Arborio rice. That being the case, I keep wheat bulgur and quinoa and mix and match them all the time, depending on what I feel like using.
  19. Pasta. One shape works as well as another most of the time. I use what I have though short forms of pasta bake up in casserole better than long thin strands do.
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