20 Recipe Substitutions That Save Money and Prevent Food Waste
Some cooks hew to recipes like gospel — if it calls for a white yukon potato, a russet will never do. Then there are those people, like me, who see most recipes as a basic framework rather than an edict. It calls for carrots? Well, we have some broccoli stems. Will they do?
We can't argue that you cooks in the first category have more consistent and often more delicious results. However, we can argue that a flexible cook saves money in many ways — and that often you can't tell the difference in the finished product. (See also: Frugalize Any Recipe)
First of all, some ingredients are just more expensive than others. Pine nuts and salmon roe rarely make our shopping list, no matter what the recipe says. Second, even if you are replacing one ingredient with another of similar cost, if you can avoid a trip to the store for a special ingredient, you're saving time and avoiding the temptation to buy other stuff you don't need. Substitutions can also help us avoid that thing where you buy a container of an ingredient because a recipe needs one tablespoon, and then end up throwing it out five years later during spring cleaning.
That's not to say you can substitute willy-nilly, especially when baking. Baking blog Joy of Baking, which offers a long substitution table, warns, "using a different ingredient may change both the taste and texture of your baking, so it is a good idea before substituting to understand the role that ingredient plays in the recipe." Wherever possible, we've included in our list any cautions and advice we could find on how best to pull off the old switcheroo.
Here are the 20 best substitution ideas I've found.
1. Juice instead of wine — cranberry for red or apple for white, according to All You magazine. Even Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck is $2.99 these days, whereas you can get the equivalent amount of apple juice for $2.
2. Or, North Dakota State University [PDF] suggests you can replace a cup of wine in a recipe with 13 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon sugar.
4. Replace half the meat in a recipe with beans.
5. Use sunflower seeds for pine nuts when making pesto — this cook saved $27 per pound!
6. Or, use pumpkin seeds for pine nuts. Emily Paster, blogger at West of the Loop, recently made pesto using pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts, saying, "They're about half the price."
7. Swap tea for coffee. This might be too much of a sacrifice for the true-blue coffee lover, but if you could go either way, keep in mind that a cup of tea brewed at home can cost as little as four cents per cup, compared to 12-43 cents for less-than-fancy home-brewed coffee, according to Living Stingy. (We coffee fiends have found that it's less of a sacrifice to swap the second or third cup of the day — as long we're not expected to give up that first cup of joe, we're fine.)
8. Cottage cheese for ricotta. Our penny-pinching mom NEVER bought ricotta for her lasagna, so we are quite used to the cottage cheese version. Taste of Home has some good advice on when to swap these cheeses and when to be cautious.
9. Canola oil (or a similar oil) for butter. While you wouldn't pour it on your toast, you can get away with swapping canola oil for up to half the butter in a cake or other baked good recipe, according to Eating Well. Heck, there are lots of recipes out there that call for only oil and no butter.
10. Chocolate chips or candy bars for baking chocolate. It's hard to find a good sale or a coupon for those bars of baking chocolate, but we have found that you can get excellent deals on bags of chocolate chips (with coupons, around the holidays) and chocolate bars (immediately after holidays). Just reduce the sugar in your recipe to compensate for the sugar in the chocolate. This table from Joy of Baking advises on various chocolate swaps.
11. Pickle juice for vinegar in dressings and salads. It's not that vinegar is expensive, but throwing away that pickle juice when you've eaten the last kosher dill would be a crying shame.
12. Or, pickle juice for marinade. Waste not, want not.
13. Coffee for Kahlua, in cooking. Here are some instructions for swapping instant or leftover coffee in for the coffee-flavored liquor.
14. Come to think of it, swap lots of liquors in recipes with non-alcoholic substitutes. You're expecting the alcohol to cook off anyway, right? Rice vinegar for sake, cherry syrup for kirsch, and more are on this great list. This would work best when the alcohol is just called for as a flavoring. If you're expecting it to work some chemistry, like in fondue, things are more complicated.
15. Imitation crab meat for, well, real crab meat. Check out Myscha Theriault's recipes.
16. Cod for lobster. The secret is to cook the fish in a sugar/salt solution and to use plenty of butter. As a Scandinavian dish, this is known as torsk — we recently made it for our school's International Night.
17. Chicken thighs for chicken breasts. You can even buy thighs boneless and skinless nowadays, and since they contain a bit more fat, they may actually make the dish more flavorful than the breasts — for a lower cost.
18. Canned salmon for fresh or frozen. Canned salmon is usually labeled wild-caught, a desirable attribute for health reasons, and it costs much less than a frozen or fresh salmon fillet. You won't get away with serving shreds out of a can in place of a nice thick salmon steak, but there are lots of recipes, such as patties, chowders, and salads, that use canned salmon to advantage. More ideas for canned salmon have already appeared on Wise Bread.
19. Ground turkey for ground beef. Prices vary, and we don't always see ground turkey on sale for good prices, but the blog Because I'm Thrifty Like That found that ground turkey is regularly $1 per pound cheaper than ground beef. Plus, it's supposed to be healthier.
20. The fish that's on sale for the fish in your recipe. There are so many kinds of fish, and the fact that most of us can't tell the difference between varieties has grown into a restaurant industry scandal. But relax — our ignorance can be your savings if you use a table like this one to substitute one type of fish for another, based on cost. Just keep in mind that cost, texture, and taste are not the only things that differentiate fish varieties. There are also the thornier issues of sustainability and nutrients/toxins.
What are your favorite recipe substitutes?