Substitution 101

Brian says:

I’m talking to all the guys in the room for this one.

I know there have been -and still are- times when you decide to go all out and make yourself something relatively good to eat. You break out the dusty knife set your parents bought for your new apartment and tie on your mental apron,  ready to get started.

The problem arises when you open your pantry to gather the right ingredients only to find that you’re missing a few things here and there like peanut butter but no jelly, or cereal but no milk. Fret not, good sir, for there are ways you can skirt around a missing ingredient or two simply by substituting it with something that plays a similar role.

Here are some examples:

– Can’t seem to find a slab of bacon in the fridge box?1 A half cup of your favorite artificial bacon topping is equivalent to about eight slices of the real stuff, crumbled or chopped. It contains the same amount of salt that you’re looking for. If you’d like a more authentic look, sauté the “bacon bits” in a tablespoon of olive oil for a couple of minutes to get a charred look.

– We all love salad dressing; ranch, Italian, Thousand Island, etc., they all have a special place in our hearts and if left to our own devices, we’d put it on everything. In the event that you find yourself without, just whip up a homemade version with Dijon mustard, lemon juice or vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Just remember the perfect vinaigrette ratio is 3 parts olive oil for every part lemon juice or vinegar, the mustard acts as the binder. Combine and whisk in a bowl for the perfect compliment to a salad, fish or other seafood.

– Can’t seem to scare up any lemons or limes for a dish? Just substitute a 1/2 teaspoon of white vinegar for every teaspoon of juice you would have used. Since two medium lemons yield about 1/4 cup of juice; you’d use about 7 teaspoons of vinegar. Don’t like the bite of vinegar? Use a very dry white wine in lieu.

-Only have cheddar, but the recipe calls for Monterey Jack? Swap away. When cheeses are used as a topping -on baked potatoes- or crumbled -into a salad-it’s almost always ok to swap for another variety as long as the  new flavor isn’t crazy -taste before adding the whole block. If you’re trying to make a cheese sauce be aware some cheeses like mozzarella and provolone get stringy when heated; others like ricotta and some fresh Mexican cheeses don’t melt at all.

In the future, I’ll be sure to bless you with many more equivalents and substitutions as I find them.

Remember: this is a learning experience for the both of us. If you have any substitutions that you’d like to broadcast, feel free to leave a comment or two.

I can also be reached at

1 This should never be an issue under any circumstances, but I do realize that people make mistakes at times.

Send household questions to


  1. margo on July 28, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Substitutions are so handy! So much better than the method of some of my college roommates. I would watch them decide to make a recipe and make a start. Then they would realize they did not have this ingredient, or that ingredient. Did that stop them? Not at all! They just made the recipe without any ingredients they happened to be missing. Made for some interesting dishes. Maybe that is why I insisted on cooking for myself all during those roommate years. Sometimes sharing is so overrated…. hee hee hee

  2. Stacy on July 28, 2010 at 4:32 am

    Thanks for the list–I love knowing what to substitute because I'm not a great planner (as in, go to the store with the recipe ingredient list and actually buy it intentionally and ahead of time…just doesn't happen). A few I've learned are these: 1. Heather told me you can substitute one tablespoon vinegar and fill the rest of a cup with milk to replace buttermilk in a pinch, 2. I substitute white whole wheat for half or all of the white flour called for in many recipes. It depends on how big of a deal I think it will be. One example is pizza crust–I use roughly half white whole wheat and half bread flour. 3. I recently learned that in recipes calling primarily for mayonnaise, a lot of mayo, you can substitute about 2/3 or more of that with plain yogurt, then use the mayo for the remaining 1/3–much better for you, and not really noticeable oftentimes.

  3. ThatBobbieGirl on July 28, 2010 at 3:27 am

    The vinegar sub for lemon juice is good, but I'd suggest white wine vinegar rather than distilled white vinegar for most purposes, simply because it tastes better. (It's what I use in my homemade mayo and in salad dressings, as well)

    If you want a creamy salad dressing, you can take some of that vinaigrette you described and mix it with some mayonnaise or sour cream.

  4. CarolinaDreamz on July 27, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Great post Brian. You are pushing the bacon bits. Please don't go all margarine on us, ok? *hugz*. ~Heidi

  5. Shelley on July 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    I have to say that from the moment I read in the Tightwad Gazette newsletter that I could substitute one green crunchy vegetable for another in a recipe, say chopped green pepper instead of chopped celery, I felt let out of recipe prison! My grocery bill dropped a lot and cooking was way more fun. I think cooking substitutions should be at least a chapter if not a full course in high school!

  6. Keter on July 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I taught my son to keep on hand at all times instant rice, instant mashed potatoes, pasta, frozen peas, frozen spinach, eggs, butter, canned chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, cream of celery soup, pepper, salt, mustard, soy sauce, sugar, ketchup, onion and red pepper flakes, dried basil, bottled lemon juice, grated Parmesan cheese, a box of dry milk powder, and a box of baking mix (like Bisquick). Most of things keep indefinitely, and a meal can always be made regardless of whatever else is (or isn't) around. He added to this list frozen pot pies, Spaghetti-Os, and Pop Tarts. Sometimes I think he was switched at birth. ;o)

    Sauteed artificial bacon bits = *shudder*

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