How-To & Diy

8 Rules for Altering Baking Recipes

June  9, 2014

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.

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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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Christine Mohn
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Mary December 12, 2016
If I change from muffins to a single loaf what is the cooking time change?
Leslie V. October 1, 2016
Yes reduce the sugar is in every HA cookbook I own or read.
One enjoyable Cook Book First published in 1903 "Rocky Mountain Cook Book" by Caroline Trask Norton. For High Altitude Cooking.
Baking and all other cooking.
Laura D. October 1, 2016
I always substitute dairy milk, even buttermilk, with almond milk and so far it's all gone a-okay. I also use gluten free baking blends in place of AP flour all the time. Again with great results. I don't think baking is as finicky as people always think.
Leslie V. October 1, 2016
My best advisor in baking in Higher altitudes is The Unv of Colorado Ext office cookbooks & webpage. I was raised a sea level and only moved to 4000' the past 9 years. Judith Rae's comment here are a start, but with each 1000' feet the equations change.
Baking is a science. Correct Measurements are important for success. I certainly had many failures until I learned to ask, experiment and make loads of notes.
Food Preservation is another aspect that needs to be extremely researched and followed for safety.
Great article.. It took me several years to find the 'best' IMHO banana bread.. and yes I use ripe but NOT overripe bananas...and rum. Have a great Oct 1st all.
Dee July 14, 2015
I am looking for the best substitute for double cream as I can not find it here in the U.S.
Christine M. July 14, 2015
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!
JammiO June 16, 2014
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.
Bree June 16, 2014
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?
Hold T. June 16, 2014
Where is the recipe for that rhubarb cake in the picture?
maya June 16, 2014
I had the same question -- it looks delicious! Click on the picture and it takes you to the recipe. :)
Donna June 15, 2014
a tbl. of flax seed ground finely mix in three tbl.of water mix a vegan substitute for egg whites
Denise R. June 15, 2014
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.
Laura415 June 15, 2014
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.
Laura415 June 15, 2014
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:)
Amelia S. June 15, 2014
Brilliant and timely as usual, Alice! Good reminders as I rework old family cake recipes for my new book--many thanks.
Scribbles June 15, 2014
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!
pearly June 15, 2014
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.
Samantha A. June 15, 2014
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 ;-)
Detrishious June 15, 2014
I am constantly seeking good/best quality cocoa powders. Any recommendations?
Samantha A. June 15, 2014
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
Ralph June 15, 2014
Valrhona is amazing
Count M. June 15, 2014
Honestly? It's not gourmet, but the Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder makes everything just a little better.
Arthur I. June 15, 2014
Great tips!
Judith R. June 15, 2014
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
Yasmeen August 5, 2015
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.