How to make substitutions for spices, herbs, dairy and meat in your everyday cooking

Becky Krystal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Shopping and cooking these days is requiring a lot more creativity. Whether you’re staring at picked-over grocery store shelves, making the best of what your food delivery brought you or trying to cook with just what’s in your pantry, odds are you may not have every ingredient a recipe calls for.

Learning to adapt to and accept that will not only serve you well during the challenging times we’re faced with right now, but also any other time you step into the kitchen.

“You do have to be open right away to changing, and I think people are these days,” said cookbook author David Joachim, who literally wrote the book on food substitutions, The Food Substitutions.

Joachim suggests a three-step process to think about making substitutions.

1. Assess the situation. What ingredients are you missing? What family does that live in? Do you have anything similar? If for example, it’s milk, do you have other dairy products? Plant-based milks?

For situations where you want wide noodles or sheets, cookbook author David Joachim suggests egg roll or wonton wrappers like in muffin tin lasagnas. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

2. Think about the function of the ingredient. Is it there for flavour or garnish? Is it a main ingredient, or a supporting player? Will not having it affect texture or structure?

3. Make a choice. Decide what will work best (best doesn’t always mean exactly the same or perfect) – and don’t necessarily look back. “Some people think that substitutes are magical and that one ingredient equals another,” Joachim said. “The results will be a little different.”

Here are some categories to consider:


Swapping different types of dried pasta is almost always fair game. Joachim recommends replacing short shapes with short shapes and long with long, but otherwise, use whatever you can find. Think of pasta as what it is, too: grains. If you’re making a sauce and can’t get pasta, what else can you put it on? Barley and farro are both good possibilities, as they cook up well as individual grains.

Another option would be to try a different type of noodle. No linguine? Maybe you can use soba or Chinese egg noodles, or even pivot to rice noodles or vermicelli. For situations where you want wide noodles or sheets, Joachim suggests egg roll or wonton wrappers. He said empanada wrappers are another option. Family-style lasagna made with flour or corn tortillas? Sure.


Here, Joachim said, the main function is flavour. The success of a dish does not necessarily hinge on which one you choose as long as you like the way it tastes. “You can do flavour jockeying all day long,” he said. Substitute a spice for a spice or an herb for an herb, or go real crazy and use an herb instead of a spice or vice versa.

Spices are pretty interchangeable, especially in baking. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, cloves and even pumpkin pie spice can be swapped in for one another. The result won’t be the same, of course, but if you’re okay with changing the genre, spice blends can take the place of each other. Think garam masala, Chinese five spice, Cajun seasoning, za’atar and ras el hanout. This works especially well with simply roasted vegetables or chicken.

“Though no herb is a direct substitute for any other there are many situations in which you’re not necessarily looking for a specific flavour but rather the freshness that herbs provide,” wrote Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything. “In these cases you can substitute parsley for basil, cilantro for mint, and so on. Just don’t expect the end product to taste the same.” Some swaps are easier than others. Better Homes & Gardens offers this handy chart. Among the tips: using oregano, basil and thyme in place for each other; basil, marjoram or rosemary for mint; and savoury, marjoram or rosemary for sage. While the flavour is markedly different, parsley and cilantro can replace each other in many instances. Now is also the time to recognise the utility of dried herbs. When using dried, add a quarter to half the amount of fresh the recipe calls for – or as much as you think tastes good.


Many recipes that call for milk can be just as easily made with plant-based options made from soy, almond or coconut. Sour cream and yogurt make fine one-for-one swaps for each other. Like Stella Parks over at Serious Eats, I’ve never been a fan of the lemon juice or vinegar and milk substitute for buttermilk. Instead, she gives high marks to kefir and a pretty decent grade to yogurt.

The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst endorses ricotta for cottage cheese, as well as three-quarter cup ice-cold evaporated milk (for whipping) or three-quarter cup whole milk plus one-third of cup melted butter (for baking and cooking) for one cup heavy cream.


Here’s another category where you can mostly relax and feel free to experiment as you work with what’s in your pantry. Like spices, these types of ingredients are there for flavour. Your salad dressing will not fall apart with the wrong kind of oil or vinegar.

Oils are rather interchangeable with a few exceptions. First, be aware of smoke points. Some oils cannot tolerate high temperatures as well as others, which is most relevant in frying. Peanut oil for canola oil? Sure. Walnut oil? Not so much. Joachim said it can help to think about which oils are generally near each other on the grocery store shelves – your typical vegetable oils all function similarly.

Sometimes you need to think creatively within the same flavour category. Maybe your recipe calls for tahini and you don’t have it. If you still want the sesame flavour, try sesame oil or sesame seeds. In some recipes, peanut butter can stand in for tahini, and vice versa. Spice and heat work the same way. If you don’t have gochujang or chili paste, perhaps you have sriracha. Red chile flakes, a pantry basic, are always in play.

While the flavours won’t be identical, you shouldn’t hesitate to play around with soy sauce, fish sauce and liquid aminos in place of one another. I also swear by a vegan fish sauce from America’s Test Kitchen made with water, salt, soy sauce and dried shiitakes if you happen to have those items around instead of the real stuff.


Joachim said he’s heard reports of people having problems finding ground beef, and in situations like that, or any other, it helps to “take the 30,000-foot view”.

What does ground beef do? Mainly, it’s a filling. Ground turkey and chicken can work just as well in your favourite lasagna or tacos. Or since so many of us have stocked up on beans anyway, try lentils. Now could also be the time to try the wave of new plant-based products, if you’re so inclined. Ditto finely chopped mushrooms. There’s even good ol’ tofu. Joachim said that to better mimic the texture of ground meat, you should drain, wrap, freeze and thaw the tofu before turning it into crumbles in the food processor or by hand. You might lose some umami, that not-so-mysterious savoury flavour but you can make up for it by adding any number of other ingredients, including tomato paste, soy sauce and anchovies.

Dishes that call for shredded meat are also quite flexible. Stir-fries allow for plenty of improvising for whatever you have on hand. Chicken is a simple replacement in these types of situations.


In some cases, the best answer is to not substitute and simply move on to another dish. And that’s okay. “You have to let go sometimes and just let a disaster happen and be open to other possibilities,” Joachim said.