When I am planning a meal, I rarely check if we have everything I need in stock as I am confident (over confident some might say) that I will be able to wing it if times get tough. I have a lot of other lovely people in my life, however, who start to break out in a cold sweat if they are faced with making a recipe only to find they are missing a crucial ingredient.
Adding a few ingredient hacks to your cooking arsenal can be really empowering. Knowing which herbs can be swapped for another with similar results means you can play around with flavours. Knowing egg substitutes (and there are several) can be useful when you find yourself without, or are catering for vegans. And when you need a hit of tartness and lemons are out of season, there are some easy substitutes hiding in your pantry.
Let's get into it, then.
Traditional buttermilk is the liquid leftover after whole milk has been churned into butter. These days buttermilk is made by adding lactic-acid-producing bacteria cultures to milk, increasing the acidity. Buttermilk is used a lot in baking and there are many pancake and waffle recipes that insist on its addition to the batter. Why you may ask? When you add the buttermilk (which contains an acid) with baking powder or baking soda (usually included in cakes, fluffy pancakes and waffles) something magic happens. Well, something science happens actually. The acid in the buttermilk mixes with the bicarbonate soda (which is in baking powder and what baking soda is made of) causing a chemical reaction – basically, it starts fizzing. Why this fizzing is so good for cakes and those delectable buttermilk pancakes is that it creates air in the batter, making the end result light and fluffy. Of course you can buy buttermilk, but rarely does it all get used, leading to unnecessary waste. Instead take your regular milk and add either lemon juice or vinegar for the same result.
How to make it:
Combine 1 cup of full cream milk with one tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar and stir. Let it stand at room temperature for 10 minutes. When the time is up, you will see curdled bits in your milk, which is what you want. Proceed with your baking, adding your milk mixture to your batter.
When you are making a quiche or an omelette or maybe some mayonnaise it is very hard to replace eggs. You can try, and many better cooks than I have, but you are definitely going to know the difference. There are some instances though where you can do some sneaky substitutions when no eggs are at hand. For things when you are using an egg to bind ingredients then you can usually substitute with a "chia egg". To make it, simply add one tablespoon of chia seeds with two tablespoons of water and let it sit for about 20 mins until the water has been absorbed and the chia seeds have expanded and softened. This "chia egg" works wonderfully for binding meatballs or burger patties. If you are doing some baking on the other hand, you could turn to trusty old cornflour and water. Make a slurry by combining one tablespoon of cornflour with two tablespoons of water. Use the mixture in the place of eggs in cakes, slices and muffins.
Not everyone knows it but there is a hidden gem in every can of chickpeas that is a game changer in the kitchen. The brine that you usually just tip down the sink is known as aquafaba and it is magic stuff. The starchy liquid can be whipped in a stand mixer, much like you would with egg whites, and used in their place. Try folding aquafaba through cake and muffin mixes in place of egg whites. Aquafaba can also be whipped with sugar and vanilla and baked into a vegan meringue.
How to make it: To get the best result and the foamiest foam combine the liquid from one can of chickpeas (just the liquid, save the chickpeas for your next salad) and ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar (this helps it thicken) and whip in a stand mixture until stiff peaks form.
Balsamic vinegar is made from the sweet juice of freshly pressed grapes (also known as grape must) which is then boiled to a concentrate, fermented and acidified. Balsamic adds wonderful depth of flavour with its mixture of sweetness, acidity and that highly coveted umami. Balsamic can be expensive though, and it can go a bit rancid if left for too long so, in a pinch, you can mix up a few pantry staples to replicate it. Combine equal parts soy sauce, molasses, and lemon/lime juice. Taste to check your creation and add more sweetness if that is what you need. You can also use brown sugar or muscovado sugar if you don't have molasses but it won't be as rich.
It is impossible to replicate the taste of fresh lemon juice if that flavour is at the heart of the dish, but there are many occasions when you can substitute a little. In salad dressings use white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, either of these will also work well in savoury sauces if you are looking for that tang. In addition, if you need lemon juice for acidity to aid in aerating your mixture then regular distilled while vinegar will work just as well. For any lemon juice = vinegar swaps, simply replace with an equal measure of your vinegar of choice.
Basil (fresh or dried)
I am the sort of cook who will force my dish to work with whatever I have on hand, but if that doesn't work for you then these herbs will work well, either alone or in combination, if you don't have basil on hand. In savoury sauces, especially casseroles or pasta dishes any of the following herbs will add the flavour you are looking for: oregano, marjoram, parsley, thyme, rosemary. If you are adding rosemary, add just a smidge, it is strong stuff, one good idea is to add a sprig to olive oil in the pan, let it simmer for a few minutes and then remove the sprig, you will be left with very yummy oil.
Everything from curries to Texan-style spice rubs will call for ground cumin or cumin seeds. If you are being asked to add cumin seeds to any dish you can roughly replicate it with caraway seeds, coriander seeds, or a mixture of both. These spices will also add good flavour in ground form.
My mum taught me this substitution when I was little. If she ever found herself without a beef stock cube when she needed a meaty, salty hit she would toss in a heaped spoonful of Vegemite. For Marmite lovers, rest assured, your favourite spread will work just as well. Try adding it pasta sauces, stews, even soups.
In a similar way to buttermilk, sour cream adds a lightness to baking, but it also works really well in popular savoury dishes like stroganoff and Swedish meatballs. As it perishes fairly quickly, it is unlikely that many of us have usable sour cream sitting in our fridge at this current moment, but a lot of us will have yoghurt, and I can make that work. Spoon a cup of your favourite plain, unsweetened yoghurt into a bowl (The Collective Company Greek would be great here), add a teaspoon of baking soda and give it a good stir. Then keep on cooking with your new "not sour cream" creation.
Tarragon (fresh and dried)
The wonderful fragrant and slightly aniseed flavoured herb known as tarragon is hugely popular in French cuisine. A star of classic bearnaise sauce, tarragon is also a good friend to chicken, salmon and artichokes. If you are being asked for fresh tarragon but you can't find any you can try substituting sage leaves or, if it is a slower-cooked dish, try a bay leaf or two. To omit dried tarragon but still get that flavour you can use fennel seeds (a personal favourite and a must for every spice collection) or a star anise. The fennel seeds you can add as you would any other flavourful seed, while the star anise should go in whole and then be removed before stirring.
I believe red wine should be drunk, so it goes against my natural urges to start pouring it into my dinner. Instead, I like to add a good glug of red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar to any dish that asks for red wine. I mean, if you are doing a red wine reduction this might not pass the quality test, but if you are simply deglazing a plan then try this out next time.
A lot of recipes call for the addition of anchovies as those tiny little fishies add wonderful salt and umami depth. A lot of people are not fans though, in fact they are repulsed by even the thought of them. I am not one of those people, but I get it and there is an easy swap. Instead, add two teaspoons of fish sauce and a teaspoon of soy sauce. Don't worry, even if it is not an Asian dish the soy sauce will work here, adding that salty goodness you are looking for.
A colleague of mine suggested this one and we then debated whether it was common knowledge or not. We were unsure, so thought it should be on the list just to make sure. If you have a recipe asking for self-raising flour you can make your own by combining plain flour and baking powder. Too easy!
How to make it: Combine one cup of plain flour and 2 teaspoons of baking powder in a glass bowl and mix together. So, if your recipe calls for two and a half cups that would be 2.5 cups of plain flour and five teaspoons of baking soda. You get it.