Substitution questions have become the bane of many a food writer’s existence.
Some prominent bloggers have decided categorically that they simply can not answer individual substitution questions. Don’t judge! I certainly don’t. It can easily feel like a fool’s errand to try.
Following a Recipe
After the substitutions often come the accusing questions: I made your recipe, and it didn’t work!! You made me waste ingredients! What happened?? Every reader is certain she “followed the recipe to a T.” But make no mistake. That’s almost never the case. But there’ll be no finger-pointing here. It’s just human nature. Even friends who make my recipes make changes, and then wonder why the recipe didn’t turn out.
We all have habits in the kitchen. Some avoid dairy, so automatically translate “butter” as an ingredient in a recipe for “margarine” without a second thought. But in baking, everything matters. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
But it all matters.
Know what else matters? That my recipes are all pretty exhaustively tested. For each recipe I post, on average I have failed twice before succeeding. And then a success must be repeated at least once before I can share the recipe with you. That’s a lot of recipe-testing. So if the recipe is made as written, it will work. If you change things around, it might not work. And that’s a fact, Jack.
I know you understand that I can’t possibly test every substitution. I’m but one lady. A one-woman band. If I had a team, then maybe. An intern! I need an intern!
For now, it’s just me, doing my very best.
I’ve Got Good News, And Bad News
Here’s the good news about baking substitutions: there are tons more super fabulous substitutions for things than ever before. Then there’s the bad news. It still matters. But (more good news!) sometimes not a whole lot.
Sometimes A Substitute Just Won’t Do
But sometimes it matters so much that it’ll just break your heart. Like Puff Pastry. Gluten-free or otherwise, puff pastry simply cannot be made well without butter. Shortening is missing two important things: flavor, and sufficient water content. Margarine? Too high a water content. It will leak all over your oven.
Then there are those ingredients that may seem pretty easy to switcharoo, but really? You can’t. Like Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa powder and natural unsweetened cocoa powder.
Dutch-process is the process by which the natural acidity of the cacao beans that are used to make the cocoa powder is first neutralized. Natural cocoa powder is simply pulverized roasted cacao beans, which have retained their natural acidity. Natural cocoa powder is what is widely available in the U.S., making it much more affordable. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is harder to find (most U.S. grocery stores don’t carry it), and is much more expensive.
I won’t go into all the boring details about how I balance the acidity in natural cocoa powder (usually with baking soda), but suffice to say that when a recipe calls for one over the other, do as it says or use another recipe.
Sometimes, It Will
Then there are other ingredients that are relatively easy to replace. Like ghee or clarified butter.
I use ghee in my recipe for Naan bread. Ghee combines a relatively high smoke point (the point where the oil burns) with an amazing depth of flavor. It’s one of my very favorite culinary fats (what? you don’t have favorite culinary fats?). But it’s easy to swap out. And since most fats have 14 grams/tablespoon, it’s easy to make the switcharoo to butter, if that’s what you have. Or even to olive oil, although you give up the high smoke point when you do that. No biggie.
A word about salt.
Salt is crucial to both cooking and baking. Used properly, it both reveals and enhances the other flavors in the food we cook and bake. Even the sweetest recipes, like frosting, need a pinch. But use the wrong salt and you could ruin a whole recipe.
What you see above is finely flaked sea salt. Sea salt is kind of a funny thing to name a salt, if you ask me. All salt is from the sea. But not all varieties of salt are equal. For baking, I generally use finely flaked sea salt and kosher salt interchangeably since they have a similarly-sized grain. And I know that some will disagree, but I maintain that table salt is not an okay substitute for kosher salt or finely flaked sea salt.
Table salt has such a fine grain that a teaspoon of it will be much “saltier” than the same volume of a coarser grain salt. Similarly, regular sea salt has a much coarser grain than kosher salt or finely flaked sea salt, which not only changes the overall salt content, but it very likely won’t dissolve completely in whatever you are baking. Which means you might hear it *crunch* while you’re eating. I know. Ew, right?
Room For Growth
Another difficult substitution question – perhaps the hardest one of all – is eggs.
I use eggs in all of my gluten-free breads. Like this Japanese Milk Bread baked in a proofing basket, or brotform. Often, all I need are the whites, but they really help provide structure by replacing some of the protein content that gluten provided.
Many of you have asked me to try to develop some more egg-free recipes. But I love eggs! And I know it can’t be easy for those of you who are egg-free. So I will try. For you. Out of l-o-v-e.
There is a lot of great information out there on the wild, wild web. Here are some noteworthy examples:
- The Baking Ingredient Substitution Table from Joy of Baking is a good guide. I haven’t tried every substitution on there, but I have referred to it from time to time, mostly when readers have asked can-I-use-this-for-that.
- I also really like this Baking Ingredients and Substitutions post by David Lebovitz.
- Karina Allrich wrote at least one long post about ingredient substitutions. She does a lot of egg-free and dairy-free baking. Check it out.
- And, please, for the love of Mike. Whenever possible, substitute by weight, not by volume. So you need to use a digital kitchen scale. Use it!
- Heidi of Adventures of a Gluten Free Mom does a ton of allergy-free baking. And she’s got a lot of the science behind living gluten-free covered, too. Bonus!
- Go Dairy Free is a great source for, well, dairy-free recipes. And for my money, dairy-free is harder than gluten-free. We did it for a while, and it was, well, hard.
- Finally, go surfing! There are plenty more resources, waiting to be found. Then report back! Sharing is caring.
P.S. Those of you who have bought My Cookbook, thank you for helping to sustain this blog! I really appreciate your support. If you haven’t, check it out! You’re gonna love it. For that, there is no substitute. ;)