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8 Rules for Altering Baking Recipes

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Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich will be going rogue on Food52 -- with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.

Today: Go rogue the right way with Alice's tips for changing up baking recipes.

Altering recipes is a fantastic way to invent whole new dishes, but tinkering with cakes and cookies is not as straightforward as playing with soups and stews! Here are my tips to help you experiment and create more successfully.

Start smart! Don’t try to turn a cake recipe into a cookie or vice versa: start with a recipe that you already know and like, then have your way with it.

Focus on flavors and inclusions rather than messing with structural ingredients: Extracts, liqueurs, herbs, spices, grated citrus zests, and such can be exchanged for one another, as can inclusions like chopped nuts or dried fruit or chocolate pieces -- all without changing the ingredients that provide the structure and texture of the recipe. Inclusions can be added to most cookies, scones, biscuits, etc., but they may sink to the bottom of cakes. For a sure thing, start with a cake recipe that already has inclusions and substitute some new ones. Otherwise, you may be inventing a new upside-down cake. (Psst, pretend it was intentional.)

Rhubarb Scones on Food52

To make significant changes in a recipe that may affect structure and texture (such as those that follow) -- make just one change at a time and take it slow: If the recipe does not turn out well, you want to know which change caused the problem. And, if the change is gradual, you will learn how much change you can get away with before the recipe is destroyed.

To reduce sugar or fat: Start by cutting by just 10 or 15 percent of the sugar or fat. If you like the results, you can try cutting a little more the next time.

Rhubarb Scones on Food52

To add whole grain flours: Start by replacing just 10 or 15 percent of the flour in the recipe with an equal amount of a whole grain flour. If you like the results, you can replace a little more the next time.

To replace butter with a non-dairy fat: Substitute another fat that is plastic (not liquid) at room temperature, such as coconut oil, or a non-dairy spread such as margarine -- the latter should be labeled "suitable for baking", otherwise it may contain too much water.

To replace dairy milk: Substitute unsweetened non-dairy milk such as soy, almond, rice, hemp, oat, or coconut. Lite or lowfat coconut milk is a better substitute for an equal amount of whole milk than is regular coconut milk; it also has more coconutty flavor. Often you can replace dairy milk with water!

Chocolate Potato Cake on Food52

The following substitutions are more complicated, likely to change or ruin the structure or texture of baked goods, affect browning, or react with leavings. Don't try them without further research.
- Substituting liquid fats for butter
- Substituting liquid sweeteners for sugar
- Substituting (or adding) acidic ingredients such as buttermilk or lemon juice for milk or water (or vice versa)
- Substituting (other than in small amounts as above) gluten-free flours for wheat flour

More: Get more tips on converting recipes to gluten-free from Shauna Ahern.

Alice's new book Seriously Bitter Sweet is a complete revision of her IACP award-winning Bittersweet, updated for the 54%, 61%, and 72% (and beyond) bars available today. It's packed with tricks, techniques, and answers to every chocolate question, plus 150 seriously delicious recipes -- both savory and sweet. 



Photos by James Ransom

Tags: baking, how-to & diy, substitutions, adapting recipes, gluten-free, whole grains, cakes, cookies

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Comments (25)


about 1 month ago Dee

I am looking for the best substitute for double cream as I can not find it here in the U.S.


about 1 month ago Christine Mohn

A couple
Don't dos that I have done and worked well: used almond flour in pineapple upside down cake. Came out amazing! And I sub veggie oil for butter/ lard in pie crust .... Light and flaky!


about 1 year ago JammiO

I've got a muffin recipe that I want to add a substantial amount of pureed strawberries and chia seeds. Is there a way to figure if I need more flour, and if so, about how much, dependent upon my additions? I don't want them too dense and gooey, but I also don't want to screw them all up, either.


about 1 year ago Bree

When subbing "alternative" flours for part of the flour called for in the recipe, is it best to sub according to the measurement (cups) or the weight (grams) if the recipe gives both?


about 1 year ago Hold the mayo

Where is the recipe for that rhubarb cake in the picture?


about 1 year ago maya

I had the same question -- it looks delicious! Click on the picture and it takes you to the recipe. :)


about 1 year ago Donna

a tbl. of flax seed ground finely mix in three tbl.of water mix a vegan substitute for egg whites


about 1 year ago Denise Redeker

Love all of these substitutions! Has anyone found a good sub for sodium in baked goods? I know there are sodium free versions of both baking powder and soda, but in my opinion both leave a flat, almost metallic taste to the finished product.


about 1 year ago Laura415

Oh I forgot to add that if you want to add things like nuts, dried fruits etc to cakes and want to avoid them sinking one way is to try coating them with dry flour by shaking them in a bag with a little bit of flour. This slows them down and even stops them from sinking as the cake bakes.
Whole grain flours should almost always be mixed in along with non whole grain flours unless you like the heavy texture. In bread baking I always autolyse the dough for 20 minutes to allow the heavier whole grain flour to soak up the liquid. The reason to do this is to avoid adding more liquid because the dough looks dry and accidentally adding too much liquid. The effect isn't as obvious in cakes because they often use more liquid ingredients, but with whole grains they usually can use more time in contact with the liquids before more liquid is added.


about 1 year ago Laura415

I'm and experienced baker and now a GF baker as well and wish these tips had included more of the reasons why you do or don't want to substitute structural ingredients in baking recipes. My advice for recipe tinkerers is to get a copy of Harold McGee's book The Science of cooking and read about individual ingredients before you substitute. Once cooks understand the what ingredients do in a recipe the more likely they can substitute successfully.
Fats: creates tenderness and/or flakiness (sp) in baked goods. Fats that solidify at room temp create a different texture so subbing with liquid oils can work in something like a cake because the cake will not harden up like it would if you used butter. Some cakes work best with butter tho. If the recipe calls for oil don't automatically sub butter or other hard fat.
Acids: can be flavoring or used as a catalyst for rising via baking soda. My favorite way to add more acid flavor to a recipe without adding more liquid (lemon juice etc) is to add a small amount of granulated citric acid. Great stuff to have around.
Eggs: Emulsifiers, fats and create air and rising in baking. I don't know enough about eggless baking to advise but for GF baking whipping egg whites separately and folding into the average cake recipe is a good strategy for getting GF cakes to rise better without the Gluten. McGee's chapter or Michael Rhulman's book about eggs are great reads.
Sugar: Sugar draws water so creates moisture and tenderness in baked goods. Reduce the sugar by too much and you may find it tough and dry. Experiment wisely. Again McGee is great to read about sugar and how it works.
Flours: Gluten free flours work best in baking when the item doesn't need a lot of structure like cakes, quick breads, biscuits, cookies. GF makes a more tender product as well. Regular yeast breads, pie crusts, pizza dough are all harder to make with GF flours. Adjust expectations but continue to experiment. Happy baking:)


about 1 year ago Amelia Saltsman

Brilliant and timely as usual, Alice! Good reminders as I rework old family cake recipes for my new book--many thanks.


about 1 year ago Scribbles

Thanks for these great tips and reminders. I love baked goods and have found out I am not the best baker so all assistance is appreciated!


about 1 year ago pearly

Love the photos and food on this site and the approach to the subject matter is really nice also. When I need to substitute fats, margarine is not an option. There is a lot of information on the unhealthy benefits in using it. Additionally, oils should be used with caution a/c so many of them are not GMO-free.


about 1 year ago Samantha Ackland

I love all the above tips and i regularly change recipes the way suggested, the only thing i have to disagree with is that the following is a bad idea- Substituting (other than in small amounts as above) gluten-free flours for wheat flour. because 20 years now i have used gluten free flour in place of any flour in any recipe, ive never used a GF recipe i use normal recipes and have for 20 years but i change the flour and no one has ever said yuk, well not to my face anyway ;-)


about 1 year ago Detrishious

I am constantly seeking good/best quality cocoa powders. Any recommendations?


about 1 year ago Samantha Ackland

How about Green & Blacks Cocoa powder or Charbonnel Walker , its called drinking choc but it doesn have added suger etc so its real cocoa powder


about 1 year ago Ralph

Valrhona is amazing


about 1 year ago Count Mockula

Honestly? It's not gourmet, but the Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder makes everything just a little better.


about 1 year ago Arthur in the Garden!

Great tips!


about 1 year ago Judith Rae

For high altitudes, the following adjustments:
Increase baking temperature by 15 to 25 degrees
Reduce baking powder and baking soda by half
Reduce sugar by 1 to 3 tbsp per cup
Increase liquid. For each cup add 3 to 4 tbsp
Sometimes reduce fat by 1 to 2 tbsp for eac cup


28 days ago Yasmeen

The high altitude adjustment advice I read didn't say anything about reducing sugar but did call for a little additional flour as well as reducing baking powder/soda and increasing oven temps.


about 1 year ago Alice Gardner

THANK YOU! One of my biggest pet peeves is when people sub butter in for oil in baked goods because 'butter tastes better' (and it agree that it does, but that isn't the point). ATK explained why it messes up the texture: Butter is solid at room temp while most oils are liquid at room temp. When you make a cake with all butter the butter hardens after it cools and it is not moist as it would be had it been made with a liquid fat. Butter helps with structure in this way, like when you cream butter and sugar together, or when making a pie crust. All of the 'oil recipe' crusts i have had have been tough and not at all flaky.


about 1 year ago suzi

wish i knew a good sub for egg whites for vegan dishes....


about 1 year ago JP

a friend of mine uses flax seeds soaked with a little water.


about 1 year ago OliveandPearl's

You can also try chia seed gel. I use that a lot of the time in my recipes.