Making Do: The Logic of Substitution

I’ve been doing a lot of improvisionational baking lately – see here, here, and here – and so I have been thinking about what makes a recipe work and how to make do when you’re missing a tool, an ingredient, or both. How do you make a pie without butter? What if you don’t have a rolling pin? What if you can’t find the measuring spoons? What do you do when you’re halfway through a muffin recipe and realize you’re out of milk?

I think the key here is to zero in on the function of the missing tool and ingredient and then try to find something else that fulfills that function. The substitute doesn’t have to look or taste exactly the same, it just needs to do the same job.

For example, if you want to make a pie crust but don’t have butter, think about what the butter’s job is in the context of pie making. It’s there to help the flour stick together and to make the pastry taste and feel flaky at the end. Peanut butter will probably do the trick. It won’t produce exactly the same texture, but it will do a pretty good job of holding the flour together.  It will also add a nice peanut buttery flavor to the crust, and I think that’s a good thing. Fruit pies are basically jam and preserves in a crust, and we all know that peanut butter and jam is a pretty classic combination. Ditto for chocolate pies – adding peanut butter to the crust just makes it taste a little more like a peanut butter cup.

If you’re out of milk and you want to make pancakes or muffins, think about the milk’s job. It’s there to add liquid, of course, but that’s not the only job it has – there’s a reason the recipe doesn’t call for water. The milk is also there to add a bit of body and flavor. So you want to add in things that provide flavor and liquid. Yogurt is a pretty good bet – it’s in the dairy family, so the flavor should be about right if you’re looking for a milk substitute. You might need to thin it down to get the right amount of liquid – I’d add a bit of water or orange juice or apple cider until you get the right consistency. Adding a bit of juice also introduces a new flavor to your recipe, which is a good thing – just make sure that it’s compatible with the rest of your ingredients. If you’re making plain or fruit-flavored pancakes or muffins, you really can’t go wrong with yogurt and fruit juices – a little orange juice makes almost any baked good taste better. You could also use coconut milk, if you’re looking for a creative vegan substitute, or soy/almond/rice milk if you have that on hand.

If you’re missing a tool – say a measuring spoon or a rolling pan, the same principle applies: think about the tool’s job, and then find some other object that can do the same thing. One of the regular, small spoons in your silverware drawer will hold about a teaspoon, and a soup spoon will hold about a tablespoon. If you visualize your missing measuring cup, you can pour a mound of flour of approximately the same size into a mixing bowl. If you don’t have a mixing bowl, you can use a pot or a big tupperware container. If you don’t have a rolling pin, you can use a flat-sided wine bottle or just smash the dough out with your hands.

If you’re missing something or other, there’s almost always a way to work around it. Never let a missing ingredient stand in your way.

7 Responses to Making Do: The Logic of Substitution

  1. I’m really bad about starting recipes without reading all the way through them first, so I regularly exercise my substitution muscle. These are great tips! I’d never thought to use orange juice in muffins, but it makes sense.

  2. Kathleen says:

    As a no eggs and limited dairy girl I’m always caught off guard when baking or, say, making mac and cheese (yummy with yogurt). These were really great tips! I’m excited to try coconut milk as a milk substitute, or maybe a portion of a butter substitute.

  3. I just tried greek yogurt in Annie’s boxed mac & cheese a few nights ago and I loved it! I totally thought of you, Carolyn, when I added it in.

  4. localizing says:

    I hadn’t thought about yogurt in mac & cheese, but it sounds totally awesome now that you mention it.

    What do you guys do for egg substitutes?

  5. Kathleen says:

    I have yet to find a solid egg substitute, but the general rule is more fat and more leavening. Things where a dense texture is ok, like brownies, some cakes, etc., this works better than things that are more delicate. If vegan crepes exist, I never want to taste one.

  6. I’ve had great experience using applesauce for eggs in baking. That’s almost always what I use, though I’ve also tried and had varying success with Ener-G Egg, mashed bananas, and agar agar.

    And I agree with Kathleen on the vegan crepes. No go.

  7. […] Regularly Exercise My Substitution Muscle I’ve been thinking about the logic of substitution, and it’s not just about food. A well exercised substitution muscle greatly increases our […]

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