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.

3. Use flour or cornstarch in place of arrowroot.

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?

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Guest's picture

I usually buy the huge screw-top jugs of wine for cooking. They're about the same price as juice, and they don't go bad, so that means I don't have to keep buying them whenever my recipe calls for wine.

Guest's picture

I happen to love ricotta cheese but hated spending so much money on it every time I went to the store. I noticed that cottage cheese was much cheaper a few months ago and have made the swap! Best decision ever!

Guest's picture

Canola Oil for Butter is a good one, I have also replaced oils and butters with a tablespoon of coconut oil in the past and it works like a charm (will change whatever you are cooking to have a sweet coconut flavor, but I'm not complaining!). I disagree with juice or water with sugar for wine though, I feel like the flavor it adds is always great and unique. The way I would do that is just add a cheap wine instead of a nice one, Whole Foods always has an organic wine on sale for $2.99 that is delicious and works like a charm.

Guest's picture

"As a Scandinavian dish, this is known as torsk" (tip no. 16) - well, not really: "torsk" is the name of the fish, not the name of a dish. i.e. cod=torsk.

Guest's picture

0% [non-fat] Greek Yogurt instead of sour cream. There's almost no difference and it's worlds healthier!

Guest's picture

One question I had asked my fans a few months back is what they did with their pickle juice. We are frugal in our household and stick to a grocery budget every month the best we can so we hate to waste anything if we don't have to. One suggestion was to use if to make dressings and I have done that whenever I get a chance since I like lemon and lime based dressing. I add in a bit of pickle juice and it's perfect. Great post and tips! Mr.CBB

Guest's picture
Angie unduplicated

Ground turnip and hot pepper for prepared horseradish. Ginger ale for white wine. Applesauce (or homemade pear sauce) for half the fat in a cake recipe. Green onion tops for fresh chives, though frankly, they're not quite as good. Crushed Vitamin C pills for Fruit Fresh. Sunflower seeds and a dash of Chinese sesame oil for tahini in hummus. Orange juice for vinegar in salad dressing.

Guest's picture

There's a place in Memphis famous for their hamburgers. Apparently during the depression they started cleaning the grills with pickle juice. That's what gives the burgers their distinctive flavour. (They're amazing, BTW.)

Most recipes that call for ground beef, I add a little rice into the beef mix. Grating carrots into spaghetti sauce is also good. Many other recipes I add a handful of oats in as filler.

Good article!

Guest's picture

A definite no for me on #19. Ground turkey doesn't taste like ground beef no matter how I spice it. Also, I've compared labels - most ground turkey I've found in the store is 7%-9% fat, the ground beef I buy is 4% fat. Since I buy the 4% ground beef in 2 pound chubs when it's on sale, it's about the same price as the ground turkey, sometimes about $.20 per pound less.

I also can't do the ricotta/cottage cheese swap. Growing up in an Italian household we had both, and the two are NOT the same. I can definitely taste the difference in flavor and texture - cottage cheese tastes sour to me, ricotta does not, cottage cheese is lumpy and ricotta is smooth. Since I buy ricotta in 4 pound containers, the price is usually close to cottage cheese anyway, and worth the few extra cents per pound.

I have to expand my horizons - I do a lot of baking but I've not come across a recipe that calls for arrowroot. :-)

Guest's picture
Jessica Y

I use cottage cheese because I can use it for more than just lasagna, unlike ricotta. Less chance of waste this way. Since my husband likes ricotta better, I blend it with my stick blender and he can't tell the difference.

Guest's picture

I love cottage cheese so I already have it in my fridge at all times. The bonus? It can be substituted for a lot more than just Ricotta. It can be used in place of sour cream, cream cheese and even mayonnaise. I absolutely love it's versatility.

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