A Very Handy Guide to Common Ingredient Substitutions

Worcestershire sauce, heavy cream, molasses, maple syrup, you name it.

April  9, 2020
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.

What and how how we're cooking these days looks a lot different than it did just a month ago. As COVID-19 spreads in the United States, certain ingredients—from yeast and flour to heavy cream and eggs—can be difficult to find, whether you're making limited runs to the grocery store or trying to get supplies delivered to your door. Which means we've been making substitutions left and right, using what we've already got stocked in our pantries, fridges, and freezers.

If, in recent weeks, you've found yourself wondering what you can swap in for molasses, cornstarch, and so many other ingredients, check out these 19 commonly asked ingredient substitutions—and what you can replace them with—below.

19 Common Ingredient Substitutions

1. Worcestershire Sauce

You can find Worcestershire sauce on the ingredients list for any numbers of recipes—from steak sauce to classic meatloaf. Luckily, if you don't have this punchy pantry staple stocked, there are 34 substitutes you can swap in, like fish sauce, soy sauce, or sherry vinegar.

2. Shortening

Ultra-flaky pie crust, classic cornbread, oatmeal cookies—if you're baking something, there's a good chance you're going to need shortening. If you don't have any, there are more than a few substitutes that'll work nicely. Think: coconut oil, butter, and margarine, to name a few.

3. Evaporated Milk

Raise your hand if this is happened to you before: You've got all the ingredients assembled for, say, [tangy tres leches cake], when you realize you're missing the evaporated milk the recipe calls for. Don't sweat it. There are at least 5 workable substitutes, from non-dairy milk to half-and-half.

4. Buttermilk

Few things are worse than waking up in the mood for pancakes or waffles, only to discover you don't have any buttermilk in the fridge. On the flip side: Few things are better than realizing you can make a simple swap with just milk plus lemon juice or vinegar.

5. Molasses

A syrupy byproduct of sugar processing, molasses can be substituted for a couple of ingredients you might already have on hand—you'll just want to keep in mind that the flavor will shift toward the ingredient you swap in. For example, honey is lighter in color and milder in flavor.

6. Maple Syrup

Speaking of syrupy things, maple syrup is another ingredient that can feel sorely missed when you really need it (like at breakfast, for example). Good news: You can make a substitute in a pinch with brown sugar, water, lemon juice, and cinnamon.

7. Cornstarch

Cornstarch gets used dozens of ways in cooking and baking (think: a thickener for fruit pie filling and a slurry for soups, for starters). The best swap depends on what you're making, which gets broken down here:

8. Vanilla Extract

Did you know the best substitute for vanilla extract could very well be sitting right in your bar cart right now? Yep, that's right.

9. Soy Sauce

"Soy sauce adds a salty, fermented, umami boost to whatever it’s seasoning," writes Food Editor Emma Laperruque. You don't need to miss out on that extra burst of flavor just because you don't have it—there are eight very good substitutes you can use, tamari and liquid aminos.

10. Eggs

It might seem impossible to swap out eggs in a recipe, be it savory or sweet, but it's not. Here are nine different options to get started:

11. Thyme

There are a handful of thyme substitutes that take no time at all—as a matter of fact, many of them are most likely in your pantry right this second. Looking at you, oregano.

12. Heavy Cream

Just because you don't have any heavy cream doesn't meany creamy pastas, desserts, and the like are out of reach. Take a look and see if you've got one of these replacements handy:

13. Self-Rising & Cake Flour

We've seen lots of questions about flour substitutes pop up on the community Hotline in the last few weeks. Thankfully, when it comes to making a substitute for cake flour or self-rising flour, the whole thing is a cinch:

14. Broth

A flavorful broth brings together soups, pastas, and many other dishes like no other—but there are plenty of equally satisfying swaps you can use without sacrificing taste, from dried mushrooms to wine.

15. Parmesan Cheese

If you think a flurry of grated Parm is essential to finishing off any pasta dish, but find yourself out of stock (the horror!), try this handy substitute:

16. Fish Sauce

While fish sauce may not be typically hard to find online or at grocery stores, vegetarians and vegans avoid it for obvious reasons. Whether you're having trouble sourcing it or don't eat it, we've got you covered:

17. Bread Crumbs

Maybe you're out of bread crumbs or don't have what you need to make 'em from scratch. But fear not—there are nine things you can replace them with, from crushed chips to nuts and seeds.

18. Lemon Zest

The zest is where you get all those wonderful citrus aromas from, and finding a decent substitute can be a challenge. But it is possible—yes, you can!—here's how:

19. Simple Syrup

You'll see simple syrup pop up in all sorts of cocktail recipes—its sweetness balances out the boozy zing of spirits. But if you've got agave in the pantry, then you've got an A+ substitute.

What are your go-to ingredient substitutions? Tell us in the comments below!

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Erin Alexander is the Brand Partnerships Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.

1 Comment

Lizzie G. April 9, 2020
What about lemongrass! It’s sold out everywhere around me!